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."
Yet the first reaction to a career stall, I've observed, is usually denial. Once, in Chicago, when I was giving a speech about career management, a woman in the audience asked me why newer employees in her company kept moving up the ladder before she'd had her turn. It wasn't fair, she lamented—after all, she'd been working in the same position, as a logistics supervisor at a trucking company, for five years. "Are they passing me by because new hires are cheaper for the company?" she wanted to know. I told her it was possible but unlikely. "Given how companies usually work," I said, "it's probably because their performance is better."
She winced, and I cringed. My intention had not been to hurt her feelings but to snap her into reality, because the longer you deny a career stall, the more likely it will turn into a nosedive. Later, when we spoke after my speech, I began to explain as much, but she cut me off to say that, deep in her gut, she already knew she was in trouble.
As we started talking about why, it turned out that this woman's story embodied all three of the most common reasons careers stall. First of all, she was dying of boredom. Her job, coordinating the movement of her company's Midwestern fleet of 200 trucks, had become rote and lost any meaning it once held for her. "I loved it when I started," she said. "I made mistakes. I was learning something. But now I could do it in my sleep."
Her disillusionment reminded me of a letter I'd just received from a woman who worked at a national child welfare agency. "I passed up a six-figure offer at a consulting firm to take this job because I believed I would help change the world," she wrote. Instead, over time, she found herself paralyzed within an organization riddled with bureaucracy and internecine warfare, her days spent deflecting memos and preparing reports no one would read. She could barely drag herself to work every day. "Nothing I do makes a difference," she wrote. "And I've lost all interest in trying."
Such disengagement often leads to the second common reason for a career stall, which is underperformance. Who shines on the job when she's bored? But boredom isn't the only reason performance suffers. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from an architect who was practically in despair, describing how hard her job had become. "Count me among the old dogs who cannot learn new tricks," she said. "But here I am at a certain age, unable to keep up with the pace that one advancement in technology after another has brought to my profession." Another woman I know, a medical researcher, started to stall when a new boss in her department at a Boston hospital tried to impress his new bosses by demanding more reports in shorter time frames. "My former boss thought I walked on water," she told me. The new boss exposed her professional weaknesses. "I work slowly, especially if it has to do with writing," she said. "I've missed more deadlines in the past six months than in my entire career. I probably won't be fired, but I certainly won't be sent to the usual medical conferences this year."
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).