Three Things You Need To Do To Avoid Hitting A Career Plateau

Without a corporate ladder to climb, how do you make sure you don’t get stuck at the same level forever?

Three Things You Need To Do To Avoid Hitting A Career Plateau
[Photo: Flickr user Ewen Roberts]

Climbing the corporate ladder used to be a good metaphor for success, but promotions no longer come rung by rung. That’s because the business world has fundamentally shifted in gradual but profound ways, and the path to career advancement takes new skills, says Richard Jolly, adjunct professor at London Business School.


“The way you once became successful was by becoming a specialist–a great engineer, marketer, or auditor, for example,” he says. “Next, you supervise people who don’t know that stuff. You got into management through human capital, by knowing more stuff than others.”

But today what got you here won’t get you there, and if you don’t make the shift, you’re headed for a career plateau, says Jolly. Instead of getting derailed, do these three things:

Be Willing To Adapt

People assume they’ve been promoted because they did a good job, and they should continue along that track, but that’s not enough to move you forward. Today, you need to be open minded, self aware, and willing to admit that you don’t have all of the answers, says Jolly.

“A promotion is always a leap of faith–a hope that you’ll adapt to be successful at next job–but that next job will be different,” he says. “Failure to realize there are different phases in a career will derail you. You may not get fired, but you’ll stop getting promoted at some point due to your failure to adapt and to influence others.”

Don’t just carry on doing the thing you know you can do, adds Jolly. “Becoming indispensable can be a major obstacle to progression,” he says. “Try something that’s a little new and different, building on your existing skillset.”

Focus On Social Capital

CEOs used to set the company strategy and ensure that employees were doing what they wanted them to do. “This approach has been around since the second industrial revolution,” says Jolly. “It’s command and control.”


The assumption behind this business model, however, is that people at the top know more and that they have to supervise the people below them. And this approach no longer works. “One person is doing all of the thinking,” says Jolly. “In a great organization there is not one genius. This approach creates an environment where people are disengaged.”

Human capital can become outdated and irrelevant quickly in today’s marketplace. As a result, success is now less about what you know and more about your ability to get things done through others.

“The world of work is at a fascinating juncture,” says Jolly. “We are seeing tectonic plates shifting in a rather increasingly dramatic way. It’s becoming more about social capital; not what you know, but your ability to get things done through other people.”

For example, the CEO of a computer games company may have no idea the games kids want nor the technology it takes to build them. His or her job is to know the company and where it’s going, and create an environment where people across the firm can drive change.

“The best ideas often happen furthest away from the CEO’s office, because that’s where people are more comfortable to take risks and experiment, away from the inevitable politics of the boardroom,” says Jolly.

Develop Good Communication Skills

Senior managers also need to be good communicators, but this can be challenging. A famous study out of Harvard Business School found that 95% of employees don’t know or understand their company’s strategy, says Jolly. “When you report this back to the leader, they become irritated, saying, ‘I’ve done my job. What’s wrong with these people?'” says Jolly.


How you communicate is crucially important. Instead of focusing on what you transmit, make sure the message is received. Know what other people are hearing when you communicate by asking for feedback.

“You still see town hall meetings where senior managers have a PowerPoint deck and talk at people,” he says. “There needs to be a different sense of how communication works. The world of social capital is much more collaborative. It’s about building relationships and two-way communication.”