Breaking Career Plateaus

Top Talent Cries Foul from a Career Plateau: What Must You Do to Help Them Break It Artfully

Everything can look like a failure in the middle.

– Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business, Harvard Business School
Rotten apple, narcissist, arrogant, bored, passive-aggressive, drama queen/king, slacker, hot mess, explosive, perpetual victim.

An assortment of personality traits the top talent at your organization may exhibit, or is exhibiting, when they feel their careers have hit a plateau.

In the course of their careers, it is not uncommon for top-performing, talented employees to hit roadblocks. Once this happens, they struggle to find their way forward. Affected by the lack of momentum that impedes their career paths, they lose interest and, over time, reveal certain behavioral patterns.

The key is to identify when your top talent hits a blind spot. It is equally important to help them navigate through it. Organizations and leaders need to address the challenge on time—you wouldn’t want to lose your best employees and inherit the baggage that comes with it.

Exotic assortments come at a cost

According to an article published in February 2023 by PeopleKeep, a US-based developer of employee health benefits administration software, frequent voluntary employee turnover hurts organizations badly.
Disgruntled behavior percolates. Workplace culture takes a beating like no other. Morale sags. Employees wonder and rumor mills do the round.

You bleed talent. When individuals realize or believe that their career has stalled at an organization, it will not take them long to jump ships.

To fill up the gap, you need to hire. This means high recruitment and onboarding costs.
It also means high training cost. Higher the profile, greater the resources required to scale up as per the requirement.

Productivity takes a severe hit. So, does the quality and on-time delivery of work. These are your top talent we are talking about, not the average performers.

With the exit of your top talent and key performers, you lose institutional knowledge, which is skill set and experience combined.

Props to push through the career plateau: What steps the leader can take?

Symptoms manifest – be vigilant. Observe keenly to diagnose the malaise. Frustration because of feeling stagnated in career expresses itself in certain ways. Leaders need to watch out for these behaviors.

  • Increasing lack of interest in work
  • Irritable behavior, impatience with peers or juniors
  • Frequent transgressions in the form of mocking the management
  • Showing disregard for work protocols
  • Delay in project delivery and decline in work efficiency
  • Slip to passive-aggressive behavior from being vocal
  • Decline in performance
  • Playing the blame game; holding every other person responsible, especially bosses or reporting managers, for ineffective direction and guidance

All heroes have an Achilles Heel. Identify it. Why is the top talent feeling stuck? What is stalling their performance?

Is it due to:

  • Imbalance between hard and soft skills: Technical skills play an important role in gaining a foothold in an organization. When we start our career, technical expertise plays a key role in excelling within the domain. But as we grow through the ranks of an organization to managerial positions, technical expertise is just one half of the game.

Soft skills, such as people skills, are a must. But do they have it?

Absence of soft skills creates an impediment in functioning efficiently. It could come in the way of growth. Unable to handle responsibilities, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and stuck.

Watch how they deal with their juniors, or reportees. Are they considerate or abrasive? Are they inclusive or favor a few? Can they rally their teams behind? How are they in delegating responsibilities?

Do they gel with their peers? Do they share a good rapport? Are they effective in working in teams, or do they work better individually?

While an organization may have all types of performers, teamwork and team-building are crucial. Especially those who aspire to scale up, collaboration and coordination are critical. Responsible management is a lot about sharing, giving direction, and recognizing efforts.

Assess if the absence of soft skills is the cause of frustration.

  • Resistance to gain skills: Top performers and high achievers could be too convinced about their own abilities and the skills they bring to the table. So much so that it becomes an impediment to growth.

Arrogance about the skills they bring or lack of foresight to see beyond the existing requirements could deter them from acquiring new skills. If growth in the organization is contingent on gaining expertise, this would put a cap on career progression.

Inability to learn from situations or by observing their seniors, resistance to any kind of feedback—let alone incorporating it—hampers growth. Today, leadership is all about being agile; open to learning, irrespective of the source, including juniors; and accommodating varied interests.

A myopic vision of individual contribution is antithetical to growth. Inability to understand their own weakness could leave an individual exhausted and wondering.

  • Slaves to rigidity? Many top performers and talented people are hooked into one-lane thinking. They lack the foresight to approach a topic strategically. This restricts them to doing only routine technical projects. They fail in assignments involving strategic thinking, or executing strategic thinking for doing day-to-day projects.

In the absence of a multi-pronged approach, they cannot come up with insights, foresee opportunities, avoid costly mistakes and take incisive decisions.

When these things are amiss, results are not up to anyones’ expectations. The end-result is frustration, loss of interest and lack of meaning in work.

  • Takes two hands to clap? Is the individual to take all the blame, or the organization? A leader must be neutral to take a balanced view.

It could be a combination of both factors. Top talent may suffer because of their own misconceived notions,but there could be an organizational failure too.

Is the company providing enough growth opportunities? Or are these mere optics? What could be the stumbling blocks? Access to opportunities? Availability of resources for growth? Absence of an inclusive growth environment? Lack of support from leaders?

There could be multiple reasons the organization too may not be meeting the expectations of its top employees. This would naturally dent the morale and the top performers would lose their sense of purpose.

  • Reset the button. Strategize to address the issue from both aspects.

(I) Where the organization is concerned, see what changes you can implement to make it more promising. This would include structural changes, including reporting changes. You may build a more progressive and forward-looking work culture. Break up the silos if they are hampering the development of an integrated workplace.

Do the due diligence on how to make the workplace more engaging. A culture where employees thrive, not just survive.

(ii) Consider involving experts like Vantedge Search. Given the significance of the matter, the ideal solution is to hire the services of a talent acquisition expert. This will help especially in scaling up top talent with leadership potential and aspirations. You could also leverage our services for developing aspiring candidates for succession planning.

We specialize in talent advisory services, including mentoring and coaching, and new talent and leadership needs. We use proprietary tools and techniques to provide incisive insights and valuable solutions. Vantedge Search captures deep insights into the competencies and personality traits, backed by in-depth market knowledge and references.

Using our experience in building inclusive leadership teams, safe and supportive workplace environments and cultures, you can build a sound DEI/ESG framework in your organization. You can also create and implement comprehensive sustainable DEI strategies to acquire and develop top talent.

(iii) Talk to the concerned employees to understand their thought process. How do they see their future? Is the current work culture aligned with their expectations?

Draw career paths in consultation with them. Involving them in career progression planning will stimulate their interest.

Understand their learning tilt. What aspects interest them? Which courses they would like to avail off? Ideate how to make the resources available to them.

If it is a behavioral issue, it can be addressed through incisive people and talent development training and mentoring. These sessions will help them see the reality. Train them in soft skills, such as people management, conflict management, team-building, etc. This will break their mental barriers and train them to understand the significance of learning.

Set clear goals. Be transparent about expectations. Have it integrated in their performance metrics. Take a scientific approach. Measurability induces accountability.

Ask for questions and feedback. Make them feel heard. Valuing their opinion will earn their goodwill. This could prompt them to re-process their approach.

Once you’ve solicited feedback, incorporate it. Communicate this to them. Also, if someone has a good suggestion, recognize them.

Offer relevant perks and benefits to the extent you can. Incentives also have a way of eliciting action.

To conclude

Career growth is intrinsic to aspirations. For an ambitious individual, the bearing is even stronger. The top talent normally falls into this category—individuals with a powerful drive to grow.
So, when they don’t foresee growth in an organization, or feel stuck in the absence of visibility on career progression, they feel stalled.

Now a lot of this could be their own doing. They may be prisoners of their own perceptions or have an archaic and rigid approach that stops them from growing. They could be their own stumbling blocks.
At other times, it could be the organization that is stalling their progress.

For a leader, it is imperative to figure out what is ailing their top talent. Only you can help them find the right key to the vexing issue – through mentoring or by providing the needed structural and operational support. Because one thing you cannot afford is to lose them.

A stumbling block can become a stepping stone through efforts in the right direction.