Finding fulfilment when your career plateaus

Making it to the top of the corporate ladder isn’t the only way to have a rewarding career.
Finding fulfilment when your career plateaus

There may come a time in an accounting and finance professional’s career that feels like a plateau; you’ve seemingly reached the top of your ladder but still have a long career left. “In large service firms like Deloitte and KPMG, people often achieve the landmark goal of making partner in their early 30s, with another 30 years to go in the workforce,” said Theresa Smith-Ruig, senior lecturer at the University of New England Business School in Australia. “Where do they go from there?”

In other words, how do you find professional opportunity and growth when your title may not change again?

Your experience of a career plateau is closely interlinked with your definition of success, and how important the traditional climb up the corporate ladder is to you. Not everyone finds the career plateau problematic; some are happy to stay where they are, not wanting the added responsibility that comes with promotion. But for many, it’s a serious challenge to their ability to stay motivated and committed.

Not all plateaus are the same. Smith-Ruig has identified three types, representing a mix of objective and subjective factors. “There’s the classic structural plateau, where there’s nowhere further to go hierarchically in the organisation,” she said. “Then there’s the content plateau, where one knows the job too well and no longer finds it challenging and engaging.” Lastly, there’s a life plateau, where one’s needs or circumstances have changed in such a way that the job no longer allows the desired work/life balance, according to Smith-Ruig.

A plateau can also result from choices made earlier in your career. You might pass up an opportunity to relocate or take on a special assignment only to realise later that it may have been a path to advancement. And professionals who take time off for family reasons may eventually find themselves hampered when it comes to advancement.

People respond to career plateaus in various ways, and research has clarified what is likely to work, what may work, and what doesn’t work. “The barrier posed by a career plateau is a source of stress, and people who deal with it through problem-focused strategies tend to fare better,” said Denise Rotondo, dean of the Wehle School of Business at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. “The ones who fare worse are the ones who wait for the company to address their problem. Organisations are generally not focused on the issue, so expecting their help only breeds dissatisfaction and a sense of inequity.”

Here are some tips to enriching your career when you feel you have hit a plateau.

Assess your values. Take some time to think about what you want out of your career and how that interacts with your values and life commitments. “The accounting and finance professionals I surveyed in my research said they found the interview process very useful, and a couple actually used the word cathartic,” said Smith-Ruig. “This reflective process can be quite powerful, but sometimes you can’t do it on your own.” An external coach (usually a paid professional) or a mentor (usually a volunteer) can help provide direction and emotional support.

Stretch yourself. Seek out opportunities in your organisation for more novel, complex assignments. Even though you’re not moving up in terms of responsibility and the budgets you manage, you’re engaged in work that allows a greater use of your skills and brings opportunities for personal development. This could be anything from leading a special project team to taking on an international assignment. “Making your intentions known is the first step here,” Rotondo said, adding that you should let your “employer know that you’re looking for other ways to interact and add value”.

Broaden your experiences. Consider seeking work in a different functional area of the company. Some find growth and development in this way, but there’s a cautionary note: The lateral transfer requires a level of cooperation from the organisation that may not be forthcoming.

Mentor younger employees. This can be a rewarding experience — with the caveat that it can engender resentment if mentors think they are coaching their own replacement. Sharing your knowledge externally by teaching a class at a college or university is another good way to find challenge and fulfilment. “There’s always a need for people with practice-based experience in the classroom,” Rotondo said, “people who can help others to prepare for and survive the complexity that is the business world they will encounter.” Similar opportunities can be found through professional organisations, including serving on committees and boards.

Be proactive. Take charge of your own professional development by taking a course or two. Earning additional certification can open up unexpected avenues of growth within the company. Developing one’s “emotional intelligence” and ability to work with others can help too. Leadership training can help here, if one engages in it with commitment.

Your career is yours to own. Build and nurture your network, and make the most of LinkedIn and other social platforms.

“Remember that today we don’t think about career ladders as much as career lattices,” said Rotondo. “It could be a step sideways or diagonally that gets you someplace else that ultimately gets you to where you want to go.”

John Lehmann-Haupt is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at