How to Save a Stagnant Career

Dear David,

What should I do if I believe I have reached my “peak” in my company and professional growth is stagnant? I posed this question to HR and managers only to receive dull feedback, which makes me feel they have no ideas or suggestions. I suggested I earn another bachelor’s degree in a field we need, but the tuition assistance program only permits me to take classes directly related to my current position. I have my letter of resignation ready to go and am simply waiting for the job market to improve, but I hate to start over again and prefer to avoid it if possible. What should I do?

Needing Growth

Dear Needing Growth,

Thanks for your question. Many people are in your position—often without even knowing it. Their careers have stagnated and their jobs may even be at risk. This is a tough situation, but there are actions anyone can take to regain control of a stalled career.

We studied this question while writing our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. We went into organizations and asked people: “If you were facing a really tough problem at work, and had time to get input from someone in your work group, who would you go to for the best, most trustworthy advice? You can name up to three people.” We found there was a lot of consensus on who these people were. We got what statisticians call a “power curve.” Half the people weren’t named by any of their peers; however, about ten percent were named by nearly half of their peers and were recognized by everyone as the “go to” people. Not surprisingly, managers also named them as the most promotable.

When we look closely at these highly valued individuals—across a wide range of organizations—we learn they share the same three characteristics:

1.  Know Your Stuff. These promotable people are top performers at their current jobs, and put in regular effort to stay on top. If they are software developers then they are among the most skilled at writing code. If they are salespeople then they are among the most skilled at closing sales. They work hard to keep current and hone their craft.

2. Focus on the Right Stuff. Top performers seek out the problems that have the greatest strategic importance to their team, their manager, and their organization—and find ways to contribute in these areas. How do they get to these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding their teams’, managers’, and organizations’ priorities, and the challenges these priorities entail. Second, they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to addressing these challenges. They work on themselves, their skill set, and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a Reputation for Being Helpful. Top performers are networkers. But their networks aren’t just a collection of business cards and friends. These promotable people use their expertise and time to develop a reputation for being helpful. They become widely known and respected by others because they help others solve their problems.

With this as a backdrop, consider what you can do to position yourself for career growth inside your organization, or potentially in a different organization. Begin with an honest, steely-eyed assessment of where you stand on the three characteristics of highly valued employees. Do you have a reputation for knowing your stuff, focusing on the right stuff, and being helpful?

Second, work to improve your reputation in these areas. Begin by asking some questions that are a bit different from “what are my career opportunities here?” Instead, get some informal time with the leaders and peers you respect most, and ask them about the most important priorities they see, the most critical challenges they face, and the best way you can help them achieve their goals. There is nothing wrong with asking about career opportunities, but those questions haven’t yielded the results you want. So, try asking questions that will help you build your reputation.

As you discover key priorities and challenges, you may learn you need to skill up, but it’s doubtful you need another bachelor’s degree. It’s more likely a few classes, a certification, or a volunteer assignment will get you the skills and experience you need. For example, if you are trying to get into a project management or supervisory role, can you find a well-known nonprofit organization in the community that would have a specific short-term project you could assist them with in the evenings or on the weekends? You could then add these classes, training certifications, and experiences to your resume and include the people you worked for as references.

These suggestions require that you don’t allow yourself to be limited to what your organization is willing to sponsor. Instead, you may need to invest your own resources and time outside of work in the short-term to achieve your long-term goals. I also want to emphasize the importance of maintaining strong relationships with HR and your management team. You don’t want to have the reputation of a dissatisfied employee—a complainer. That would undercut the very reputation you are trying to build.