What happens when your career is stuck?

stuck spiderman

Recently, a friend of mine quit her job. She had been in the same position for 4 years without any prospect of moving into a new role. She had tapped her manager and her internal network for years, but nothing came. In her mid-thirties, she knew she needed to take action before she became truly stuck.

Unfortunately, my friend’s case is not unique. Especially in the 30’s / post-grad school level, I’m seeing quite a few talented, young business professionals getting stuck. They are stuck because 40 and 50 year-old’s in the next level are also stuck, creating what is being coined “the grey ceiling” and backing up the talent pipeline along the way. They are stuck because the company doesn’t get rid of under-performers but simply “repositions” them.

As a result, the following scenarios usually play out when young professionals are stuck:

1. You work longer and harder. To vie for that one promotion (because someone finally retired!), you compete with at least 10 smart, capable, driven co-workers for that golden spot. As a result, you try to get an edge by gluing yourself to the office. If you do end up getting the promotion, then the question is will you have to go through this all over again?

2. You keep moving laterally. You squeak long and often enough to your manager, your manager’s manager, and anyone who’s willing to listen. As a result, the powers-that-may-be answered your prayers for a new position, but it turns out that it’s not up but sideways. The good thing is that at least you get a holistic perspective trying out different job roles. The bad thing is that years later you still find yourself moving in a crab-like fashion.

3. You’re bored. This is the worst scenario because you’re young, good looking, and ready to do something meaningful. At this point, you’ve invested a boatload of money and time into your education, so the worst thing that can happen is that you waste all that potential by sitting idle at your desk, pretending to work while surfing Facebook / Instagram / Twitter. 20 years later, you find yourself still sitting idling but at a desk in the basement with the same job title (and stapler).

4. You’re bored but enterprising. This is basically Scenario #3 but instead of surfing social media sites, you end up using that idle time and potential to start your own gig. Another friend of mine has been doing this for months. He wakes up early every morning, goes to work to fulfill the minimum requirements, and focuses his energy on his start-up. He’s about to quit his corporate job and launch his start-up full-time. Good for my friend, but not so good for his company.

5. You quit. Sometimes, you gotta get out to go up. As much as you may like your company, if there’s limited upward mobility, then sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is to look elsewhere. Another friend of mine did just that. He went from years of being individual contributor to a job at another company that was willing to give him people and a budget to manage. The company and your manager may have the best intentions to help you progress, but sometimes you have to be very keen about what is possible and what is probable.


Can you clearly articulate your career goals?


Several months ago, a senior leader suddenly asked to have a quick coffee chat with me. First thoughts that crossed my mind: Am I getting fired? Did someone in the office catch me on Facebook? Is my skirt too short?

Instead, the senior leader asked about my career plans. “Where do you see yourself in the next 2 to 3 and 5 to 10 years?” After my job interviews, I pretty much stopped thinking about my career plans. As dread was overcoming me, I gave the most eloquent answer I could muster up: “I…um…*cough*…I think…I like…um…marketing??” More chunks of verbal vomit spewed out of my mouth as I completely soiled myself in front of someone who has great influence over my career success.

However, I’m not alone.

It turns out that many of my peers, who some are highly intelligent and articulate, transform into the same babbling idiot when confronted with career conversations. We talk in vague terms without being able to succinctly sum up: what do I want to achieve in the next X years? This wonderful Fast Company article confirms the pattern. My generation of professionals not only have a poor career vocabulary but we also feel uncomfortable articulating our career goals. (Think preaching abstinence in rural mid-America in front of pregnant teenagers.)

The consequences of not being prepared and / or having these conversations can be quite serious. As shown in my instance, the senior leader may not recommend me for a position I would be excited about because (1) I sounded like a fool, and (2) I couldn’t communicate my career goals. For many of my peers, it means going into “limbo” jobs. These are positions that they are not excited about but that keep their options open. However, if you spend many years in “limbo” jobs without figuring out your career objectives, choices will be made for you. Naturally as you get more experience in one area, other doors will be closed. Therefore, if you don’t figure out what you want in the first place, then you’ll naturally just get stuck.

After this embarrassing experience, I decided to have the “career talk” with myself and people that know me the best, figuring out the following questions.

  1. Where do I want to be in 10 years? Why?
  2. What am I currently good at? Do I want to continue to hone these skills? How do these skills fit into my long-term objectives?
  3. What other skills and / or experiences do I need to achieve my career objectives?
  4. What are types of positions would enable me to gain these skills and experiences?

Dejavu. This past week, the same senior leader asked me the same question, and I was more than prepared. I painted a clear long-term career vision and proposed specific next steps to get there. At the end of our conversation, the senior leader offered to look for opportunities that matched my interests and that fit into my objectives. REDEMPTION!!!

And here you go, a small but true example of how a career talks could really help.


Does the perfect job exist?


A few weeks back over pancakes, a friend was telling me about her career switching ambitions. She wanted a job in a different industry and function, but with similar pay, status, prestige, and geography as well as an opportunity for a significant leadership role within 5 years. Already with almost 10 years of work experience in the same industry under her belt, she felt tremendous pressure that her next career move had to be the right one.

That begs the question…does the perfect job exist?

Setting Priorities

I think the answer rests on the expectations and priorities we set for ourselves. Like a letter to Santa, we may want a huge list of items in our dream job – high visibility, senior exec, direct reports, a trillion-dollar budget, big pay check, high impact, and great work life balance, exciting industry, etc. However, what is truly important?

When I was looking for my next job in business school, I had a long list as well, but what was really helpful was distinguishing the “must have’s” from the “nice to have’s”. This classification, of course, will vary as your interests and life evolves, and I think it is important to revisit these priorities periodically.

In my situation, I wanted a job that gave me the opportunity to learn more about agriculture (an industry I find fascinating), to have a more operational role (as I was in consulting beforehand), and to make an impact to poor communities in the developing world. Other items, such as work hours, travel requirements, and even pay, were more flexible for me.

Are there aspects of my job that I dislike? Of course! I think it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be on clouds all the time. The important questions are: Are there aspects of my job that I love and how important are those to me? Do they outweigh what I dislike about the job? If the answer continues to be “Yes”, then I think I will stay. However, if your priorities shift, then it’s important to identify those and ask the same questions. If the answer is “No”, then perhaps it’s time to move on.

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