Workplace dilemmas: I’m worried my career is stalling

Our agony uncle offers advice on your problems. This time, what to do when you feel your career has lost momentum

Dear Tim,

If you’d have met me 10 years ago, I think you’d have been impressed. I was in my twenties and held a senior position in my industry as a director of marketing and communications for a charity. It wasn’t the world’s best-paid job, but I was responsible for a team of a dozen people and had decision-making authority. I was a direct report to the chief executive, which felt pretty good.

    ...people had me pegged as “one to watch”. I was well networked and trusted to speak on behalf of the wider industry.  

The sector I work in is quite small, and people had me pegged as “one to watch”. I was well networked and trusted to speak on behalf of the wider industry. People came from other organisations to ask my advice and I regularly spoke at conferences.

About six years ago, I was offered a job with another charity that some of my colleagues said was a sideways move, if not a demotion. I took it because it suited my lifestyle better: it was closer to home with the possibility of remote working. With young kids and a very busy home life, I decided it would be a smart move and reasoned that it couldn’t do my career any harm in the long term. I was one to watch, after all.

Sadly, the charity I moved to ended up folding. I managed to secure a new job before being made redundant, thereby saving my employer from paying me off. But it necessitated moving into a more junior role in a much larger commercial organisation. The pay is similar, but I’m one among many so-called “communications managers”.

For the first time in years, I don’t have a team to manage and have very little decision-making power. I’m struggling to find my feet in a larger organisation, where people of my grade are expected to work with next to no autonomy.

The big problem is that I don’t feel as if I’m taken seriously, either by my new managers or by the people in my old sector. The former don’t value my professional experience to date, and certainly have no sense that I’m a promising talent for the future. Meanwhile, my former colleagues think I bottled it when I moved all those years ago, and other bright young things have emerged to fill my boots.

I don’t feel like I’m old, although I’m fast approaching 40. But I am becoming increasingly worried that I’ve missed my opportunity. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my working life as a middle manager, with very little responsibility for anything, even if the money’s okay and the working conditions fairly flexible. But the more I hark on about my previous experience, the less seriously I feel like I’m taken in my new role.

Tim says:

There are all sorts of dynamics at work in your situation, many of which are by no means unique to you.

For a start, you’re coming to an age where you start to doubt the decisions you’ve made and wonder if you should be living a different sort of life. It’s one of the many symptoms of middle age, so you should feel free to cut yourself some slack. There are things going on physiologically, psychologically and emotionally that cause you to question yourself. Your identity is being reshaped, and it may be that the things you valued a few years ago seem different now.

That said, it sounds like you made a smart decision when you traded seniority and career potential for lifestyle all those years ago. It’s a hackneyed old cliché but no less true for being repeated: your kids won’t remember you by the hours you spent at work or by a fancy job title. They’ll recall the time you spent with them, being a father and shaping their future.

So even if your career has run out of steam (and I doubt it has), you need to consider things in the round. Would you trade the last few years of personal satisfaction for a more high profile career?

    Your identity is being reshaped, and it may be that the things you valued a few years ago seem different now.  

One of the things about being a young buck with lots of potential is that it can be counterproductive. Many professionals time their run and grow into positions of seniority as they get older. Who’s to say you would now be at the top of your profession had you stayed in that original job? You may be just as frustrated as you are now.

It strikes me that you’re being harsh on yourself. If you’re still relatively new to your current role, you probably need to spend time settling in and establishing yourself. For the first time in a number of years, you’re an unknown quantity. You need to earn credibility. Resist the urge to be defensive or too pushy. Just do your job as well as possible. You won’t have lost your potential. It just needs to be recognised in a new context.

Of course, all of that is to assume you actually want to develop your career with your current employer. It may be that your feelings of frustration speak of a deeper desire to try something new. If that’s the case, consider how your skills could be used in another context, or look into retraining for a job you really like the sound of.

You may not feel like it, but you’re a young man with many years ahead of you in the workplace. Keep doing what you do and a stimulating opportunity will come your way. You’ve told me you have a good wage and a decent amount of flexibility. Enjoy that, and let the rest fall into place over time.

Published: 19 August 2019

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

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