New York-to-Paris automobile race: [Automobile stuck in snow]

Top Reasons Why Your Resume Says “Career stalled”

Forrest ChristianCoaching, Underachievers 7 Comments

Have you ever considered that your career path is a lot like a movie? Film scholar Chris Simmons, a colleague of mine, lectured once on the massive blockbuster, Titanic. He showed how everything in its visual language spoonfed what the director wanted you to see, know and feel. The director made deliberate choices to make it easy for us as the audience to come along with his storytelling. Blockbusters have to do this, Chris told us, because the mass audience just isn’t capable of handling weird new ways of storytelling. Occasionally indie films like Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run) use creative storytelling techniques and it connects with a larger audience. Telling this type of non-sequential story is extremely hard. Even breakout hits like The Matrix are at their core very conservative in the visual language they use.

They have to or no one will understand what is going on because few of us want to work hard at the movies.

Your career story is much the same. Knowing how to tell your career story is a fundamental skill that can make or break hidden high potentials because your careers are so odd.

You have to make it understandable.

Researchers tell us that recruiters spend less than 10 seconds looking at your resume, assuming you are lucky enough to have gotten past the computer filters. They are making snap evaluations, and it’s more or less “does this person look like the template I have in my mind?”

If you have had multiple jobs, how do you make it things look clear to the career gatekeepers?

Paul Hemp asked this very question on the HBR Editors’ Blog (“Do You Really Want to Be a Leader?“) in a comment:

1) How do you avoid the appearance – in the eyes of others and even yourself – that your career has stalled?

Phil Myers [in a comment to Paul’s post] points out how widespread is the expectation that, if you’re any good, you’ll continue to climb the corporate ladder. (He uses the metaphor of lemmings racing off a cliff; you might also think of it as being pressured into making a summit ascent without having adequately assessed your equipment and physical condition.) Given this expectation, what can you do to remain a real player in your organization — and continue to feel good about yourself — if you choose not to follow a managerial path? One tactic I’ve seen people employ is to become the expert in some area or activity that is both indispensable to the organization and high profile enough that their expertise is noted and valued.

Lots of the people I’m working with right now, and many of the commenters, are in this situation. For a variety of reasons, their careers look stalled.

Although perhaps “stillborn” is a better term.

The solution is certainly not to “become an expert”: there are only a handful of experts who are considered equal to managers. And even they are suspect. I mean, Larry Wall invented Perl, the language that built the initial interactivity into the web. Whole teams of people have built competing languages off of the ideas that he came up with in Perl. He’s arguably one of the most important people in the history of computing and I’m pretty sure that few of you would accord him the same respect that you would a minor executive at Microsoft worth millions.

Being an expert is actually the problem.

Part of the problem has to do with how often people who are high-potentials can switch careers if they don’t get “tapped” as the Next Big Thing in their twenties. They do this because they follow the advice to become an expert. Instead of ten years, they get the field in two. Then they start getting bored and want to move on. The “real” experts complain that they have no depth (which is true: they don’t) but the high-potentials have a feeling that in order to really run things you need to know how to do everything. So they learn it all.

Or they just get so darned bored that they can’t help themselves.

Even some pretty famous folks are like this. Bob Metcalfe — co-inventor of ethernet, founder of 3Com, computer industry publisher and pundit… — seemed to invent himself anew at the decade. And it’s not just the Information Age, Creative Class folks. Ulysses Grant moved through a variety of careers, including army officer, salesman, tanner, commander of the US Army, investor, President of the United States, bankrupt failure and bestselling and critically acclaimed author.

High-potential people tend to have multiple careers. And many of them are horrible failures (e.g., see Grant).

It’s not the jumping around that is killing you, making your career look stalled. Or like roadkill. It’s that you are dedicated to remaining a specialist and failed to make the big leap from that to the next, more general level, whether in business as a manager or in a discipline as designing it. Both are a movement from “doing work” to “designing work”. Lots of specialists devalue both sets of work (and people within a discipline have a legitimate beef against organizational managers) but the work is necessary and vital.

You see, if you are one of these people who were potential high-flyers who didn’t, you must lead or your career will stall and fall from the sky.

Leadership is hard. You’ve got to pick up the mantle of leadership. And you can’t lead what you don’t care about.

Which leads me back to something important my brother told me a few years ago, after he had a particularly spectacular crash-and-burn: “You can only do what you don’t want to for just so long before your subconscious rises up and bites you in the ass.” Coarse truth.

What do you care about? Because it’s there that you can lead, not where people say you should. And it might not be quite what you think it is. You certainly aren’t going to find success by being a lemming and trying to “climb the corporate ladder” if you didn’t get tapped in your 20s as the Next Big Thing. It just doesn’t happen. And unless you worked for a really great company that understood these principles of natural management and organization (even just intuitively), it probably would have still failed. Many of you just aren’t Organization Men or Organization Women. Or even a Discipline Person. You cut across too many disciplines and thinking patterns for that to have worked.

But lead you must.

Because you are the killer app, my friends.

Image Credit: New York-to-Paris automobile race: [Automobile stuck in snow]. Photo by Spooner and Wells, Inc. Via Library of Congress collection, #2004670703.

Comments 7

  1. This rings true to my experience. My own career dead end has been tied to the size of organizations that I’ve worked in. With a small company there is a limit to the possibility for leadership, but a massive potential for expertise and variety. I’ve been seen as a “go to guy” with enough autonomy and variety to keep constantly busy at the task level. Changing my life every 9 years hasn’t helped.

  2. Forrest, this is one of the best articles you’ve ever written. Insightful. Accurate. Thought-provoking. Thanks, as usual, for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

    Like the previous commentator, there is a lot in the article that rings true for me. I studied economics in school, fell into a role as an IT Business Analyst and then switched into HR. I have struggled with getting onto my potential capability curve because I haven’t accumulated the right work experience according to the market in order to take on a managerial position.

    I have started looking into ways to access the hidden job market in the hope that it might allow me to step onto a career path with a steeper trajectory.


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    procustes, you’re describing a pretty typical career pattern of people I call “hidden high potentials”, especially those who tend toward expertise rather than management. There’s actually a clear reason why people like yourself create a new persona, as it were, every few years and others don’t have to.

    mittalak, the hidden job market could work, if you can get in front of someone with the high enough perspective (worklevel).

  4. Forrest, do you know how Bioss maps out career development for people who are not on their potential capability curve? Do you know if a gradual or a big bang approach is preferrable? Is there any risk of a big bang approach not being sustainable (suddenly moving up multiple levels at once)? Does this lend any direction to individuals who are trying to get onto their curves on their own?

  5. So what bread crumbs do I follow out of this dead end? How do I tell if I’m hidden high potential or just under performing and distracted at the task level?

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    That’s a pretty good sign in and of itself.

    Looking at these things is something that I do in my coaching sessions and hope to cover in the upcoming book. (It’s been forthcoming for a long time; it keeps getting knocked back.) Once we get an idea of what’s been going on in your life, we talk about the options that you have. I’m guessing that for you it involves moving from Technical Expertise to either a meta-expert (the guy the experts call when they have questions) or into management. But it depends on your situation.

    Take a look at the Underachiever or Hidden High Potential threads here. That may tell you more.

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