One of my favorite shows growing up was Man vs. Wild with Bear Grylls - to this day, I still don't know why. A couple of weeks back, while discussing career progression with a colleague, I remembered an episode where Bear was Free Climbing out of a canyon, effortlessly talking his viewers through some of the potential dangers mountain climbers face. The most shocking situation for me at the time was the concept of being Rim Rocked, or "stuck". Even though you climb up to a point, if you aren't careful you can find yourself unable to progress in any direction, including down.
In that moment, the conversation shifted to how mountain climbing resembles a career journey. We often compare careers to a ladder - steadily climbing up each rung towards some ultimate and singular goal. I think that's wrong.
Ladders are linear, utilitarian, and predetermined. Ladders haven't changed since they were invented over 10,000 years ago. Rock climbing is more nuanced, adaptable, dynamic, and unpredictable. Climbing rocks requires tools, specialized knowledge, and intentional planning. Progress up the career rock towards the summit is not found blindly scaling a perfectly straight line, but in the exhilarating, unscripted dance of seeking out hidden handholds, traversing cliff edges, and finding companions to reach the summit with.
Just as climbers occasionally find themselves Rim Rocked - unable to move up, down, left, or right - the modern knowledge worker is regularly similarly affected through a variety of circumstances. Some are firmly in our control (responding poorly to a major change in leadership), some are our fault entirely (continuing down a path we know is wrong to save face), and others surprise us and are beyond our control completely (macro-events, financial crises, COVID, etc.). These situations make our goal of reaching the summit even more dangerous or impossible. Even the best rock climbers can't be successful in the midst of a once-in-a-generation snow storm. Similarly, even the most effective leader who is 10x better than her colleagues, would have faced a major career setback working at Lehman Brothers during 2008 - another once-in-a-generation storm.
The gnawing sensation of career stagnation feels like a perpetual game of Chutes and Ladders on the way up the mountain. Ladders, anchors, and ropes transform into jarring slides down the mountain - undoing hard-won progress and sometimes putting us in unrecoverable situations, ultimately ending our climb and forcing us to find a new hill.
If you're feeling stuck in your career, planning a significant professional move, or know someone who is, this post is for you. Hopefully it can serve as a "via ferrata" since other climbers have gone on before us and anchored rungs to assist us in our journey. Let's explore some common and uncommon reasons careers become Rim Rocked, what to do if we find ourselves stuck on the side of the proverbial mountain, and how to avoid getting Rim Rocked altogether.
What Are Common Reasons We Find Ourselves Rim Rocked?
- Strengths turned into weaknesses – As Marshall Goldsmith, one of my favorite authors, points out in What Got You Here Won't Get You There, "It's not enough to work hard and be smart; we must also recognize and overcome the behaviors that hold us back." Behaviors that once served you well (e.g., always having the right answer) may now be holding you back.
- Skill stagnation – Over time, our jobs require a progression of skills to keep up. If we aren't developing fast enough or our skills become obsolete, we risk entering a negative spiral.
- Limited network – Relationships are crucial to success, but relationship capital decays over time. Allowing relationship entropy to set in may cause us to wake up one day with nobody in our corner.
- Resistance to change – Fighting against the current of organizational change distracts you from your goals, signals to others that you're not "on board with the strategic direction of the organization," and potentially puts you at odds with the very people who could help you reach the next level.
- Ineffective communication and delegation – An inability to communicate priorities, status, and risks to others creates confusion. Coupled with ineffective delegation of work, you end up with senior-level people doing junior-level work – not a recipe for success.
- Lack of self-awareness and personal development – Small idiosyncrasies and blind spots can hinder growth. Continually working on self-improvement and seeking feedback are essential for personal and professional growth.
- External forces – Limited advancement opportunities, economic factors, obsolete skills, poor job fit, and organizational politics can contribute to career stagnation. Identifying and mitigating these factors (to the degree possible) will help protect us from potential setbacks.
How Can We Avoid Getting Rim Rocked?
Even though there are several contributing factors to career stagnation, too many to name in a single post, the behaviors to protect ourselves from the worst aspects of getting Rim Rocked are straightforward in principle but require intentionality and effort. It's similar to knowing we should all exercise and floss our teeth to maximize health, yet we struggle to do it consistently. The following three suggestions will give you the most value when trying to avoid career stagnation:
- Continuous learning and skill development – Continually developing your Talent Stack is critical over the course of your career. I've seen too many examples of someone with 15 years of experience facing severe career stagnation right when they should be on a compounding exponential curve upward. The problem? Many of us have several years of the same experience – we're doing a job for over a decade but not actually growing our skills. This is a silent career killer. Action: Build a career development plan to intentionally develop skills that are useful to the world and interesting to you. Communicate this plan broadly and share your growth over time. The beautiful thing about Talent Stacks is that it doesn't really matter what skills you build; it's the unique combination of those skills that will bring you outsized rewards. Don't be afraid to invest dollars here if you can afford it.
- Active networking and relationship building – You must develop and maintain a strong network throughout your career. As you continue to take on more responsibility, your dependency on those around you increases exponentially. As individual contributors, we can get by just putting our heads down and getting work done. As we progress, our success is tightly coupled to the relationships we have (or don't have). Action: Build intentionality into your relationships. Keep track of who is in your network, how often you interact with them, and key information about them. Don't limit these relationships to professional contacts. Exceptional relationships are the lifeblood of any career; don't let yours atrophy.
- Avoid detracting behaviors – Sometimes the best (and easiest) thing to do to get ahead is nothing. It's stopping the behaviors that are likely to get us stuck on the cliff. Nothing can be challenging to do, especially if you have strong opinions about a topic or if you've been rewarded in your career for acting a certain way, but your current role doesn't require that same set of behaviors. Action: Identify what behaviors are holding you back (or have the potential to hold you back) and make adjustments as necessary. Read What Got You Here Won't Get You There if you aren't sure where to get started. Also, you can always send me an email and I'll help you for free.
I tell people that change is a simple equation: Stop the annoying behavior and you’ll stop being perceived as an annoyance. It’s so easy, I’m amazed I get paid to teach it. -Marshall Goldsmith
What Can We Do When We Find Ourselves Professionally Rim Rocked?
Even with the best preparation, intentions, and actions, we can still find ourselves in the middle of a negative outcome – an unfortunate law of nature. If you find yourself Rim Rocked along the mountain of your career, try some of the following tactics to get unstuck:
- Reflect and re-evaluate - Take a step back and assess your current situation, goals, and priorities. Check your calendar over the last several months and ask if where you are spending your time is in-line with those priorities. Create hypotheses on why your career is stagnating and put a plan in place to address them. Adjust as you learn whether or not you are on the right track. Action: Block time on your calendar for the Deep Work of self-reflection, spend that time reviewing your recent contributions and feedback. Make a plan, make adjustments, and move forward.
- Consider a lateral or backward move – A change of scenery can work wonders. I experienced significant career stagnation at my last job and decided to make a move, taking a substantial pay cut to join my current company. It didn't feel comfortable at the time, but I saw that the environment was much better and the opportunities for growth were plentiful. It can be difficult to give up title, money, comfort, or current perks, but sometimes retracing your path is necessary to find a new zone of growth. Action: Take a hard look at your current situation and ask yourself if a new role within the organization or a move to a new company makes sense. Even if you decide to stay, it will be because you intentionally chose to, not because you feel like you have to.
- Get a coach – We often need those closest to us to provide the tough love required to move forward. We are frequently blind to our own shortcomings and can benefit from regular discussions with friends, colleagues, mentors, or paid coaches to help us analyze our situation objectively and chart a path forward. I'm surprised how reluctant people are to seek others' opinions and feedback, but I get it – facing uncomfortable truths about yourself is never easy. Action: Find someone (or a group of people) who is willing and able to give you tough feedback on your performance and help you think through ways to improve over time.
As we continue to traverse the unscripted climb of our career journey, it's crucial to remember that our paths are as unique and dynamic as two climbers ascending the same cliff face. To maintain sustained career success and progress forward, we must be adaptable, resourceful, and tenacious in avoiding career setbacks, doubly so when we find ourselves Rim Rocked.
"Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement." - Matt Biondi
The time to start is today. Assess your current position, invest in your Talent Stack, nurture relationships, and embrace the spirit of continuous learning. Forge a path up the mountain that truly reflects your passions, strengths, and aspirations. This transformation will shape you into a climber who not only overcomes the challenges of the mountain but also inspires and supports others in their own journey towards the summit.
Together, we can redefine what it means to build a successful and fulfilling career – one that reimagines success and prioritizes human connection, realized potential, and striving for wellbeing, instead of competing for the same rung of the same ladder in a finite game with a fixed pie. The climb may be tough, but the view from the top is always worth it.