Every career has its highs and lows, its peaks and its valleys. But what often gets overlooked are the plateaus, the long pauses in between where you're not quite falling behind but you also don't seem to be moving forward. It's the plateaus where skills can slowly erode and ambition slips away. But if actively managed, every plateau has the possibility of leading to a new high.

One of the defining characteristics of the career plateau is the very low likelihood of promotion. This could be due to external circumstances, such as a bad economy, or internal ones – the organisation has limited upper management positions. With promotion unlikely, the incentive for innovation and creativity is minimal. Some professionals may stop seeking professional development opportunities under these conditions. Others may become entrenched by habit, upholding the status quo as progress and change seems futile.

The best way to survive the plateau is to actively manage career opportunities regardless of the limitations. If promotion is impossible, a lateral move to a different department within the same company is a good option. Growing industry knowledge through exposure to all facets of the business is valuable and demonstrates a commitment to learning. Lateral moves can also lead to new experiences which require the sharpening of existing skills and the development of new ones. Developing a diverse network within the company also has its benefits. Most importantly, a lateral move can lead to a change in culture and environment. This shift alone forces the realignment of expectations, ambition, and priorities.

Career plateaus can be hard to identify especially if the limiting factors are not external but personal. Lack of skills or complacency can lead many professionals into career stall. If management does not offer programs to upgrade technical skills or provide thoughtful performance reviews and feedback, some professionals may miss the career stall warning signs. A mentor can counter these effects by providing objective guidance and act as a reality gatekeeper. Having someone on the outside who can openly and honestly discuss work issues adds a new perspective and wards off myopia.

In addition to checking-in with a mentor, checking-in with the self is another way to fight career stall. The establishment a six-month check-in schedule to take stock of skill development, job satisfaction and performance, future opportunities, risks taken, and innovations implemented will provide a career progression overview. By gaining insights into what's working, what needs improvement, and where career stall may creep in, the career plateau can be predicted and therefore prevented or mitigated.

Recognising the factors behind career plateaus and knowing how to manage a career through one is the best defence against a career stall. And just like every other career triumph or challenge, active engagement is the foundation upon which goals are achieved and success found.    


Career Conversation is a column authored by Alumni Relations providing career development advice and insights. Fighting Career Stall was researched and written by Gabrielle Naglieri, Alumni Communications Coordinator.