The complete guide to overcoming a career plateau

Career Plateau

Many tales of strength and perseverance draw on man’s encounters with nature’s landscapes. Mighty stories are written about climbing tall mountains to achieve great dreams—the Bible talks of challenges crossing a vast desert enduring the elements to reach a far-off land. Movies like Life of Pi depict an ocean journey and struggle to survive through seemingly insurmountable odds.

Mountains. Deserts. The Ocean. And a Plateau?

Plateau in nature, per Oxford Languages, is “an area of relatively high ground.”

It is not the landscape background for harrowing stories or movies. 

But in your career? Hitting that plateau can feel just as dramatic as a good bedtime story. 

Oxford Languages has a second definition that perfectly captures a Career Plateau: a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress.

For many women, that state of minor or no change can drum up an array of feelings—everything from boredom to insecurity to conquest.

The good news? You don’t have to stay there forever.

Let’s look at the three-step process for assessing your situation and breaking out of the rut.

Step 1: Determine if you have hit a plateau

There are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to assess if you have indeed hit a plateau:

1. Is this a quiet period or a flat line? 

Some activities and thus some roles a cyclical. The best example of this can be seasonal work – take Miss Accountant as an example. She is hair-on-fire starting from the beginning of the calendar year until at least April 15th.  (let’s hope we all know what happens then) Come May, Miss Accountant’s work has tapered off significantly, and in June, she has no conflict with going on vacation. She enjoys her quiet period, knowing things will pick up again with the next cycle. If you don’t see a trend of ups and downs and have been feeling blah in your role, you might have plateaued.

2. Am I driven for growth?

Not everyone is looking to grow. If you are here reading, there’s a good chance that probably doesn’t describe you.  But it is essential to know that when you reach the maximum level you wish to achieve in your career, you may get to a happy place. Some people enjoy finding that place and switching from active driving to cruise control. Neither one represents a better path. It is a personal decision about where you want to go with your career.

3. Is this impatience or stagnation?

Sometimes jobs are hard. Sometimes they aren’t that exciting. But even jobs that are less than perfect can provide excellent opportunities to develop and grow. Unfortunately, it is common for clients to want to rush through these uncomfortable experiences. Instead, challenge yourself with an honest assessment of where you are at – are you wanting to run away from something hard, or has your time to learn and grow in the role come to an end?

4. Is it possible this is burnout vs. a plateau?

A career plateau is a part of your journey.  Burnout is a state of mind that you can encounter at any time along your career journey. Burnout is more likely to come from inside of you than from outside circumstances. According to the Mayo Clinic, Job burnout is a particular type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.  Burnout is more likely to come from inside of you than from outside circumstances. The most effective strategies for moving through the emotional state of burnout will be different from for a plateau. We’ll tackle burnout in a future blog post.

If you’ve thought about each of these questions and don’t relate, you may have hit a career plateau. 

Time to move on to Step 2!

Step 2: Reflect on where You came from

You may have known the moment you stopped climbing and took the first step onto the flat land that is your plateau. Or, maybe you’ve been traveling along on the flat ground for a bit, but you’ve just realized how long it has been since any meaningful change has happened. Either way, a flat point in your career is a great time to reflect on your experience. This reflection also serves as a good starting point for looking ahead. So ask yourself these key questions:

· How long have you been in the role?

· What skills have you gained in the role?

· What did you like about the role?

· What has been the most challenging aspect of the role?

Give yourself twenty uninterrupted minutes to write your reflections.

Hold off the urge to do any analysis or deep dive into your observations during the writing time.

Instead, once you have answered all of the questions, look back through your writing.

Take the time to go deeper on topics or thoughts that warrant more contemplation. This exercise will help provide a foundation for looking ahead.

Step 3: Make a Plan

With a clean look at where you are coming from, it’s time to look ahead. If you have a career vision or plan, now is the time to pull it out! But, first, update your experience map with the reflections from the previous section on “looking back.”

You are ready to look ahead. Where do you want to go from here? 

· Type of role: Have you spent the last five years working with internal customers and want experience serving external customers? Maybe you had a very technical role, but you want to experience a more collaborative role. Write down the types of roles that are gaps in your experience.

· Skills to develop: Is there something you are interested in but haven’t had the opportunity to improve? Have you worked on an assignment or project in the past that just scratched the surface on a new skill that you’d like to develop further? Have you outlined skill gaps P.P.Scal to achieving your career goals in previous conversations with your leader or a mentor? If you want your next role to help develop skills, spend some time gaining clarity on those skills.

· Growth trajectory: May corporate H.R. departments publish guidance on recommended experience and skills for Senior and Executive level roles. How do your career aspirations align with the career paths promoted by your company? This exercise can be an excellent way to narrow down the next position that would build out your portfolio of experience.

· Location & Team: Do you want to move to a specific location? Or join a large team? Maybe you’ve worked on a team with early career professionals, and you’d like your next move to be on a more seasoned and experienced team that offers meaningful mentoring prospects. Take notes on anything relevant to location and team.

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.” 


Where to go next…

Armed with this reflection and vision for your next step, you can head into the job search prepared for the next opportunity.

Your career won’t be linear. There will be ups and downs, and sometimes periods where you are in a role longer than necessary. However, examining where you are, reflecting on key takeaways from your current position, and writing down your intentions for the next role is key to happily moving on.

P.S. Want insights delivered directly to your inbox? Subscribe to the weekly newsletter!

P.P.S. Have you been in a career plateau before? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

Photo credit: Graham Willis on Unsplash

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