Getting Off the Career Plateau

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The signs can vary: Perhaps you haven’t been promoted in years, or the projects you’ve been assigned aren’t on the cutting edge. Maybe your boss never seems to make time for you, or you don’t hear much from recruiters anymore.

Feeling as if your once-shining career has dulled is disconcerting; and despite what some people might think, it can happen to anyone. Pulling yourself out of the doldrums requires you to look at the realities you face in your company, industry and the tech world at large, and to determine the best course of action for addressing them.

What’s the Reality?

Any number of things can lead to a career leveling off. Changes in technology can impact the demand for your skill set; your company might have shifted priorities away from your business unit; or your boss might have decided that other people possess more promising talent. While all of these can be hard to swallow, your first order of business is to determine which reality you confront.

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To do that, get both professional and personal feedback by talking to your boss, your peers and even people outside your company, suggested Julie Cohen, a Philadelphia-area executive coach and CEO of WorkLifeLeader.com. While you undoubtedly have ideas about what’s going on in your organization, others can help you see things you may have missed—or that might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize and address.

This leads to doing what Philadelphia-based certified career coach Rita Friedman calls “some soul-searching.” Try to identify how long you’ve felt off-track, and whether you’ve felt this way in previous jobs, too. Some people, as Friedman points out, have a ticking clock that leads them to get bored after a certain amount of time in one role.

The overarching thing is to step back and get a sense of what you like about your work, what you dislike, and what you might do to improve the situation. Also, Cohen added, ask yourself what might have changed in your company, your job, or even with yourself. Sometimes understanding what’s different can go a long way toward identifying the issue’s core.

Assessing yourself in this way gives you the opportunity to look at both your current situation and your overall career. “Everyone at some point feels like they hit a plateau,” Friedman noted. “Sometimes you need to level off so you can step back and reassess. It’s useful to step back and see how you want to engineer your career.”

Decision Time

In some cases, jump-starting your work might be as simple as volunteering for a new project as a way to show off your enthusiasm and regain some visibility. Other times, however, you may have fewer options. For example, if you’re working at a small company with limited growth potential, you may never find the opportunities you’re looking for without kicking off an active job search.

Whatever the situation, it’s important to have a clear view of what aspects are under your control, Cohen said. For example, a recent reorganization may be sapping your enthusiasm. Obviously, you can’t unwind a corporate move; on the other hand, the reorg may offer new opportunities to people who have a particular set of skills. If that’s the case, are you interested in learning the technology necessary to prosper in the new environment?

Career plateaus aren’t necessarily bad things. Sometimes sticking with the same role for several years and honing your skills can pay off when the time comes to look for your next position. A quiet routine allows you to focus on outside concerns, such as family matters or school. “Every person has a unique relationship with their work,” Cohen said. “Sometimes a plateau can be a really peaceful place to be, while other people want to keep climbing. You need to understand the career path of your role in the organization so you can put it into context. You need to know how the progression works, and you should have that conversation early.”

Indeed, you can avoid unwanted quiet times by actively managing your career. One way to do that is to have regular discussions with your boss about your performance and your progression along your career path. “Don’t wait for the boss to bring it to you,” Cohen added. “Having the conversation shows your interest.”

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