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Up Against The Wall

Sometimes the best thing you can do when you hit a career roadblock is nothing. At least at first.

Finally, your career is on cruise control. You've managed to find the sweet spot—that one-armed handstand balance of job satisfaction, security, and advancement potential. And then you hit a wall.

The wall is that career-slowing, satisfaction-eroding, anxiety-inducing roadblock for which many of us are unprepared. It comes in several guises and is not, therefore, always instantly recognizable. But there is no mistaking the pain in your recoil after you crash against it.

Sometimes that roadblock is perfectly plain to see, because it carries the threat of a guillotine. Two partners at a Philadelphia law firm received a heads up from the executive committee: "We've reviewed your client base and we're not sure we see a place for you long term with the firm."

Other walls are purely internal, visible only to the self-aware. A mid-career creative director spotted his wall when he heard himself describe his work as "golden handcuffs." "Right there," he said, "I admitted that my job was still great pay but not a good life."

Sometimes the world plants walls in your path. "I was doing an amazing job developing an entirely new market sector when my CEO was replaced. The new guy wanted his own people. One day I got a call basically informing me that my job was given to someone else. I was told: 'Report to him; take it or leave it.'"

Walls loom, but still you might miss their outlines in the distance. "I made the classic small-business mistake of relying too heavily on one client," said an arts consultant who became highly professionally identified with one terrific regional theater. "When the board lost funding, I was devastated."

A client cuts a budget, a merger occurs, the market shifts, your new manager relates only to golfers, or the job is stable but you quite frankly just don't care anymore. In whatever form it occurs, you hit the wall. Now what?

Here's the first best thing to do: Nothing. Assuming that you were not fired on the spot, you've got some time. And time is required to plot a strategy.

Pause long enough to get past your immediate fear or outrage or to identify whatever reactive depression you might be experiencing. You might need to rant for a week or take to your bed in tears. Then, with or without some help, you need to get back up and make a rational plan.

Basically, when you are up against the wall, you can choose to tread water, press forward, or turn left. Any of these might be a successful strategy depending upon your specific situation and on the spirit you bring to work and life.

Treading water means accepting where you find yourself and appreciating the hiatus. Some see this response as the path of least resistance, but it might be the path that gets you where you want to go. A 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical hierarchy offered this: "You might find your way out of a professional hole eventually, but you can't always force your way out immediately. I finally learned to ease up and take advantage of professional hard times. When I've been riding the career crest, it's great success, but I'm working 24/7. When the track slows, I enjoy leaving at five for a while. I also use the time to learn about another part of the business, build relationships, and help out other people. That's led to professional opportunities I never would have had."

By contrast, you might spot the roadblock, swallow hard, and press forward with intention. "When I was forced to report to someone with five years less seniority and 50 points less IQ, I wanted to quit on the spot," said an industrial engineer. "But, big picture, the job really worked for me. My wife was employed nearby; the school system was great. I couldn't walk away. So I made this guy my new best friend. I gave him total support. When he got the promotion I helped him work for, I stepped into his job."

Pressing forward sometimes means remarketing yourself to your own company. Some successfully strategize that if the company doesn't want to promote or celebrate them, they'll have to morph into someone the company does want. You could, for example, use your annual review to express concerns about your professional plateau and have your manager outline specific steps to get you over the wall. "Don't be afraid to ask for what you want," advised a member of the acquisitions team of an international energy corporation. "I'm a global thinker who got stuck at the domestic head office for five years. It took an all-out sales campaign—with a smile on my face—to get the company to see me differently."

Finally, when you hit a wall, you might have to force yourself to make a left-hand turn and go in a fundamentally different direction—difficult, of course, because you have to cut across all that mental traffic. But walking away from the wall is sometimes the best way to go.

It took the arts consultant a year with a career counselor to clarify her new direction. "I had little germs of ideas, but I needed help thinking those through and seeing what stuck."

Some of us work all three strategies. Whichever one moves you forward, remember that few career paths go straight up. They are more likely S curves, hairpin turns, and long, flat stretches.

What counts in the end is smart steering and taking time to check out the scenery. Walls force you to find a more interesting view. — Judith Sills, Ph.D.

Hints for Hard Times

Not if but when you hit your roadblock, use these hard-earned nuggets to ease your path forward:

  • Keep your big picture in mind. A wall that looms large in the specific situation may be less troublesome in the context of your whole life.
  • Figure out what you do best and find a way to do more of it. That will point your thinking in a productive direction.
  • Don't focus on your company; focus on your skill set. That's what you are expanding, revitalizing, and ultimately marketing, whether inside your company or across the street.
  • The wall's the time to look sideways. Say yes to every opportunity. Raise your hand often. Build bridges across departments and across your profession.
  • When you're up against the wall, lean hard on your supports. We get through hard times by drawing strength from friends, family, sports, art, culture—all resources necessary to recharge your thinking.