Illustration: R.O. Blechman
Over the years, I've heard many unusual "How I Found My Career" stories, from the hairdresser who became a millionaire with an invention that came to her in a dream to the stay-at-home mom who catapulted to CEO of an Internet company five years after going back to work. But none surprised me more than the account offered by a 45-ish finance manager I once sat next to on a plane. "I started with my company right out of grad school," she told me, when we got to chatting about work, "and it's been a steady climb from there. A promotion every four to five years. Very linear."
She could see the astonishment on my face. I had literally never heard a career narrative, especially one covering 20 years in duration, that didn't include a period of lull—a stall—or some measure of disappointment along the way.
"I know I'm kind of unusual," she said, reading my reaction.
How about extremely?
Don't get me wrong; not all career stalls are bad. You might hit a plateau as you wait (patiently or not) for a promotion to open up at your company. Or your career may stall if your company hits a tough economic stretch. A classmate of mine from business school has held the same middle management job in the automotive industry for the past seven years. At a reunion not long ago, she described herself as "stuck in the breakdown lane" but noted, "it's better than the scrap heap."
Sometimes women will design plateaus into their careers for personal reasons. When my kids were toddlers and I was a management consultant, I curtailed my travel and cut back on my client load for several years, telling my boss, "I don't expect a promotion and I don't want one, if that's okay." Fortunately, it was, and after a few years, when my kids were in school for longer hours, I was able to crank up my performance again, and my career trajectory (eventually) followed.
But most stalls aren't normal or intentional. Instead, they tend to creep up on you like a bad cold. At first you may notice you're not being included in meetings the way you used to be, a realization that comes on like a dull headache. Then you may begin to sense that your boss and teammates aren't talking to you as often. That gives you the shakes. Finally, you may not be able to avoid the fact that pay raises and promotions are passing you by, at which point you're overcome with the dizzying, stomach-churning insight, "Oh my God, I'm dead in the water around here."