Every career-stall story has its own particularities. Its mitigating factors; its extraordinary circumstances.
But generally speaking, careers only stall for a few reasons, which we’re going to run through here before getting to the action steps that we believe might turn your situation around.
First, careers can stall when your company does not have a position for you to grow into. There’s a “blocker” above you – usually your boss – who’s doing a fine job and has no plans to retire, change industries, or move to Toledo. Your boss may even have a blocker above him or herself. Such a situation can be absolutely maddening, but it happens all the time in business. The main culprit is lack of growth; your company, industry, or the economy overall is in a hard place, standing still or even contracting. In such situations, opportunities for upward mobility are necessarily hard to come by. But blocking is also endemic to family companies, where the top jobs are often filled by “pre-ordained” individuals.
If you’re in a blocker situation, you really only have one choice, and it’s to decide how long you’re willing to endure stasis, and we mean, decide. Put an expiration date on your patience. “If something doesn’t change within a year, I’m putting out feelers, and within two years, I’m out of here,” you might conclude.
In this assessment, you also need to consider your own standing within the company. If a promotion becomes available, are you likely to get it? Have you been getting A-plus performance reviews or only in the B range? Do you have an embedded reputation that might be hard to shake? Is your boss known for promoting his or her best people or sitting on their careers while they reap the benefits? Every piece of such data is critical in determining the terms of the “perseverance contract” you write with yourself.
Importantly, there is no rule on the right amount of time to wait out a blockage. All that matters is that you explicitly pick a timeframe based on your values, standing, circumstances, and constraints, as well as your company’s future. In doing so, your stall won’t end, but with a clear horizon and potential exit plan, your daily angst will surely ebb.
Another general reason that careers stall is because of wrong-headed notions about the importance of multi-functional expertise. We see this phenomenon all the time. Mary is a terrific financial analyst. Jeff is a star in marketing. Back in business school, both Mary and Jeff were repeatedly assured that the fastest, smartest, most time-tested way to senior management is by successively seeking out and landing stints in every function. “You need two to three years in each function, plus some time in international,” they were told. “You need to build a well-rounded portfolio of competencies.”
How cockamamie. Yes, there are some companies that like to parade their high-potentials through the fairgrounds, stopping at every ride. But far more often, companies promote people who are known to be really, really good at what they do, and they promote them right up the ladder, all the way to the top. The facts are, if you’re a finance guru, you don’t need two years in marketing to understand the function’s importance to results. You know it in your bones, or through astute observation. Nor does a wildly creative type in marketing need to slog through a couple years in operations to know that quality matters. Please. Yet, because of the received wisdom about “rounding yourself out,” we’ve seen too many terrific functional experts jump out of their areas, only to vanish into the organizational ether.
Look, if you’re really talented at something and you intentionally up and move yourself to an area where you’re not so talented, it’s like an ice hockey star quitting to join the NBA. (Or like Michael Jordan deciding to become a professional baseball player; we all remember where that went.) Our point is, don’t wear skates to a basketball game. It’s a surefire way to stall a career. And if you’re finding that out for yourself right now, the fix is clear. Get back where you belong. You’ll be back in the game and your career will be too.
Then there are careers that stall because of an attitude problem. Okay, that’s being polite. We’re talking about boss-haters. You know, the people who play by the rules outwardly, while inwardly they ooze disdain and disgust for the organization and its leaders.
The thing about boss-haters, we’ve realized after writing and talking about them for more than a decade, is that they rarely know they’re boss-haters. They are not the problem, in their opinion. The company is the problem. The people in charge are fools and incompetents. They only care about money; they don’t understand a thing about the customer or the products. And frankly, most of their co-workers aren’t much better. They all suck-up to the bigs and don’t know anything useful.
As we said, we don’t expect boss-haters to self-identify. But on the off chance these sentiments ring a bell, welcome to understanding why your career has stalled. And welcome, too, to accepting that, without a serious change in mindset, you are truly stuck. Because even if you’re smart and capable – and boss-haters tend to be – no higher-up is ever going to give a leg up to someone who scorns them. It’s not happening.
But enough about boss-haters. Luckily, they’re relatively few in number. Let’s turn finally to the most common reason that careers stall. Performance.
Or more precisely, under-performance.
Now, under-performance doesn’t mean you’re not trying hard at work. You might very well be giving it your all. But the last place effort counted more than results was in elementary school. This is real life.
Here’s the problem, though. In real life, too many under-performers don’t know that they’re under-performing. The reason is that too many managers out there don’t tell their people where they stand. They’re too busy. Or they think people should figure it out on their own. Or they’re too “kind” for straight-up candor, or so they claim.
None of these reasons make sense. In fact, as we said earlier, we’d argue that obfuscation around performance is cruel and unfair. People deserve to know how they’re doing at something they’re doing eight or ten hours a day. Come on.
But, sadly, that’s the way it is. If you’re in purgatory, and you’re not being blocked, you’re not wearing ice skates to a basketball game, and you’re not a boss-hater, you can assume that in the eyes of the powers-that-be, you’re just not good enough to be promoted.
You’re not big enough.
Now, we’re not talking about big enough in terms of personality. In fact, sometimes having a big personality can hurt you as you try to ascend the ladder. People can read your extroversion as arrogance, or take you as a know-it-all or blow-hard. People with big personalities can make very big targets of themselves.
No, we’re talking about big enough in terms of having the breadth and depth to handle the next job.
Breadth and depth.
Regardless of the specifics of your job, that combination is what your bosses are waiting to see.
You, only much better.
You, a changed person.
Jack is Executive Chairman of the Jack Welch Management Institute. Through its online MBA program, the Jack Welch Management Institute transforms the lives of its students by providing them with the tools to become better leaders, build great teams, and help their organizations win. He is co-author, with Suzy Welch, of the new book, The Real-Life MBA — Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing Your Career, which debuted as a #1 Wall Street Journal and Washington Post best-seller.