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5 reasons why your career is stalled—and how to get unstuck

Even the best leaders can plateau. This executive coach has some advice on how to mount a resurgence.

5 reasons why your career is stalled—and how to get unstuck
[Source photo: Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images]

It’s not uncommon for leaders who were once on top of their industry to stall out, professionally speaking.

Oftentimes, when a leader gets stuck, Human Resources begins hosting conversations on how to revive their talent and will turn to leadership development coaches, like myself, for assistance in staging a comeback.

When I meet these individuals, they’re typically excited to have a thought partner who can help them “break the code” and advance to the next level.  During our first few calls, it’s clear they’ve never been given the right feedback to level up and it’s my job to help them understand what skills and behaviors they need to develop, as well as how to develop them as quickly as possible.

The good news is most careers can be resurrected. Is it easy? No. Does it require focus and effort? Yes.


Throughout my work with professionals, I’ve realized there are five common reasons that prevent professionals from advancing. These insights have provided successful resurgences for my clients, and I want to share them to help conscientious leaders (like yourself—since you are reading this article) take the initiative to avoid these situations or use them to help mentor a colleague, direct report, or friend.

Here are five things you need to know:


Reason 1: You’re not adding “real” value. My first job out of the Marine Corps was in pharmaceutical sales. I learned selling skills, developed my product knowledge, and how to look/act/feel more corporate. During one of my first sales calls, I was paired with a pro. She excelled in sales and was able to hold consultative conversations with doctors about their practice.  After one particular sales call, I couldn’t help but ask how she knew how to help doctors grow their business. She shared there comes a time in your career when “doing your job” isn’t enough to get by. To advance, you need to do more than take notes, create lists, and put checks in boxes. Your job needs to transition to be less about “doing” and more about “thinking.” You need to develop your business perspective, so you know how to drive greater results for your organization and the organizations you partner with. You need to be a valued partner who delivers value—economic and otherwise. That was a critical lesson for me to learn that I’ve since imparted to so many others.

What You Can Do: Think about how value is created for your organization, and for the clients and customers you partner with. In other words, how do they make money and how can you use your talents, skills, and abilities to help them generate more revenue for the organization?


Reason 2: You’re passive in your career development. There are far too many professionals who’ve relied on their businesses to help them develop their careers. This is a huge oversight. While most large companies have pretty robust career development processes, they’re not all-inclusive. And for the smaller to midsize businesses? They may offer professional development experiences, but often not comprehensive learning and development opportunities to position individuals for next-level success.  Active career development means: building your network continuously, developing your job-related skills, learning leadership competencies commensurate with your role and responsibilities, and seeking outside experiences—like board service—to round off your executive-level skills.  There are countless ways to develop your career through your own initiative—it just takes the right intention and action.

What You Can Do: Think about what skills are highly valued in your industry. Is there something you can read to build this skill? Is there a professional development experience that could facilitate this learning? Is there a professional association that could provide more networking opportunities? Look for opportunities to build relationships with colleagues and other professionals who are excelling and ask them how they got there. Insight on how to get ahead is literally within your reach.


Reason 3: You’re working “in” the business . . . not on the business.  Many leaders rise to a level where they’re able to manage teams, develop goals, and drive an agenda. The next leap—managing managers—is a tough one and requires that you learn how to lead at a strategic level, which includes skills like developing culture, leading change, and broadening your business perspective. You need to be interdependent—seeing success with your colleagues and their teams, versus relying only on your direct team to deliver results. Far too many leaders arrive at this role uncertain about how to apply this mindset—they’re so used to being “in” the business that they can’t pull themselves out  to work “on” the business. While it’s a behavioral shift, the faster it’s, made the easier it will be to develop habits around leading at a strategic level.

What You Can Do: Look across your team and delegate tasks that are unnecessary for you to manage. Set a daily/weekly/monthly block of uninterrupted time on your calendar to actively focus on strategy and a higher-level look at the business. Create goals and measure your progress toward them during these meetings with yourself.


Reason 4: You’ve neglected your peer relationships. Our peers in business are our greatest collaborators and competitors. They’re the ones we need to lean on when things get challenging. When it’s time to divide resources, they’re the ones we’re often negotiating with. It should make sense that we invest in building these relationships. Oftentimes, though, many leaders get so busy on their teams, that they don’t pay attention to their peers. We need our peer relationships to be as healthy as possible, so that if we’re absent from a room, they still advocate for us and our teams, and remain on our side.

What You Can Do: Think about how you can nurture your relationships.  Achieving positive peer relationships can be as simple as ensuring you invite them to lunch on a routine basis or making time to check in. Team building inside and outside of work can also create better understanding across teams and help avoid work culture silos.


Reason 5: You’ve failed to stay relevant. The working world is constantly changing—new technology, DEI initiatives, new generations entering the workforce, and new ways of working are ever evolving. As a leader, you must remain open, flexible, and agile as you learn to stay relevant. It’s a big mistake to get too comfortable, rigid, or set in a routine without looking up.

What You Can Do: Make learning an ongoing activity and even invite reverse mentoring relationships into your life—i.e., seek out a group of younger professionals and spend time learning from them. Make sure you are tuned into industry news, technology integrations, and what is happening with your competitors. There is value in listening to other perspectives—because if you aren’t, someone else will and you may be left behind.

No one has to be stuck in their career. “Un-sticking” yourself also doesn’t require a coach, or even an HR intervention. An open mind, continuous learning, and networking are constant keys to ensuring you remain competitive in your career for many years to come.

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Angie Morgan Witkowski is a New York Times bestselling author, leadership and life coach, and keynote speaker. Her most recent book, Bet on You: How to Win with Risk, examines how to enact risk in meaningful ways. More

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