Going Nowhere Fast? How to Get Ahead at Work
The final common reason for career stall is something I call embedded reputation, a dynamic that ultimately blocks you from moving up in an organization because the powers that be will always see you as the lowly executive assistant they hired right out of college. Unfortunately, it's a rare organization that dares to break someone out of its own typecasting.
Other embedded reputations come not from your past job but from your past errors. I once worked with an editor who got stuck in a career rut because our company's executives could not forget how emotionally fraught she'd been during the year of her divorce. "Too fragile," they said every time her name came up for a promotion, even if it was just to run a small team. Another journalist I know was never moved into management, despite his strong desire, because he was so closely associated with an online start-up project that had failed. "Every time people look at Carl," a colleague told me, "they see the big L stamped on his forehead."
Which brings me back to the trucking logistics supervisor in Chicago. She was bored. She was performing poorly. And, having more than once complained about her stagnation, she had an embedded reputation as a whiner. So what did I tell her? I gave her the same advice I'd give almost anyone with a stalled career.
Get out. Start over.
Again, not callousness—reality. Sure, it's possible to pull out of a stall. But it requires nothing short of a personal reinvention. You must take full responsibility for what has happened to your career, relieving all others of blame. And at the same time, you must push your performance to new heights, delivering outsize results with an unrelenting, upbeat attitude.
Sound hard? It is, and it's made harder by the fact that the organization will likely not support you. Your teammates won't want to be associated with a person whose star is falling. And given the competitive pressures of work today, few bosses have the time or energy to work on an employee's boredom or underperformance. Even fewer have the political capital to change an employee's embedded reputation.
So leave you must, difficult as that surely sounds, especially since you've probably worked at your company for years. But just as I have never met a person who didn't initially deny her career had come to a standstill, I have yet to meet one who didn't eventually come to wonder why she didn't get out sooner. An old colleague of mine, who toiled in a career plateau at our Miami newspaper for six years, later said to me, "I see that time now as if I were in a velvet coffin. I was so comfortable, I didn't realize I was dead."
Although she started out at a lower level, a new job in New York totally re-energized her, and within two years she was promoted to a key role as an editor. Two years after that, she was part of a team that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I saw her picture in the paper; she was smiling with a look of optimism and self-confidence I did not recognize. She had moved on indeed.
And so will you, if you recognize your career stall, for whatever reason it is happening, and take action. Once you plant your feet in new territory, with time you'll fly high again.
Suzy Welch, a contributing editor at O, is the co-author of Winning (HarperBusiness).