First of all, what is 'plateauing'? To me, it occurs when a person's career levels off for no apparent reason. We all know people who, having reached a certain point in their careers, seem to have lost their will to continue climbing higher, even though they could. Why do they stop? Why don’t they continue on, revelling in the additional power, prestige, fame and fortune afforded to them along the way? They don’t for one reason: Fear.
When we first start our corporate careers, we have great aspirations of climbing to the top of the corporate hierarchy, becoming the most valuable person in the company - the president, the CEO, the Chairman. We are crammed full of ability and overflowing with ambition, itching to start the climb.
Do you remember those thoughts? Did you achieve your aspirations? Are you going to? Probably not. Why not? What went wrong?
In the first years of our careers, we typically ascend quickly and easily. Whenever we hit an impasse or our path starts to peter out, we quickly switch to another company offering us more climbing routes, starting us at a slightly higher elevation; and we pressed onward and upward.
But as the years advance, the number of paths diminishes, the obstacles seem bigger, and there are much fewer companies offering more. Our breathing becomes more laboured and the route to the next resting spot looks trickier. And when we look up at the next resting spot, low and behold, there’s someone else already sitting there, with apparently no intention of vacating it anytime soon. Rats! A plateauer!
Why is he just sitting there? “Keep moving buddy because I’m right below you, and there are even more people coming up behind me.” But he won’t budge. He won’t budge because he’s paralyzed by his fear of losing his prestige, his power, his fame. His lack of self confidence has frozen him to this spot. The sureness of gain has been overrun by the fear of loss.
Once we lose our confidence, we start contemplating what else we could lose. “What if I get fired or laid off? What if they conclude I’m not up to the task? Am I a prime example of the Peter Principal? If so, would I be able to get another job at this level? What if I'm relegated to a desk job - that corporate graveyard of the living-dead?” Our old fear meter starts to catch up to our stress meter and 'org-chart acrophobia' sets in.
When we allow our minds to get to this state, we are done. We may stew on it for a while but invariably we start to take defensive actions. “Well, I may not make it to the top, but I'm comfortable at this level. Why should I even risk what I have now? No, I'll just keep my head down and not rock the boat.” Welcome to your plateau.
We see these people everywhere, at every level, in almost every organization: people, frozen in fear, clinging to their own little ledges, with their bosses just above them clinging to theirs. The numbers are incredible. Not only do they freeze their own careers, they significantly delay the careers of others. Rising stars usually have to wait until the person retires, or is transferred, or is mercifully shown the door. If nothing is done, rising stars will leave the company, resulting in a loss of great talent, not to mention the significant investment the company has already made in their development.
So how do we get them to move? This is not easy because, in many cases, the person at the top is also frozen. And if you ask him to ‘fix it’, he knows he too will be impacted, and usually not to his benefit.
So what's a plateauer to do to get over this? My advice is to get a good mentor. Get one just to talk to about this. Get someone who has climbed past many potential plateauing stages. Good mentors are in abundant supply now, as many boomers who have climbed very similar mountain paths have acquired incredible experience and wisdom; and are ready, willing and able to help. For the same reason top athletes have personal coaches, we should too. Mentors can help us get our fears under control. They listen, they are objective, and they usually give very sound advice. Instead of us having to put on our happy-face each day and tell others how great our jobs are, with a mentor, we can truthfully discuss how our careers are going, or not going.
The other thing we can do is just be aware of this. Watch our behaviour and thought processes. Check to see if you are becoming a little too comfortable in your current position. Remember, it’s only a resting stop, not a home.
Inherently, we all want to test our mettle. We want to see what we are made of. Do we have the 'right stuff'? How are you doing? Are you there yet? Have you emptied your tank yet? If there’s any left, keep burning it!
A good way to keep yourself moving forward is to have as an objective the goal to work yourself out of your present job by a certain date. Yes, make yourself dispensable. Always be grooming at least one person to replace you. If you are, congratulations on still being plateau-free!