The view from life's plateau could be cleaner

October 02, 1991|By Bob Cox | Bob Cox,Knight-Ridder News Service

You've reached 30- or 40-something. You've got a pretty good job, but by now it's clear that you're not going to get rich or $$ become president of the company.

Or, if those opportunities still exist, they may be years away.

A degree of discontent exists. Malaise. Is this all there is?

Welcome to real life, the career plateau.

Time to change jobs? To start a new career?

Maybe. But before you start sending out resumes, contact an executive search firm or plunge into the help-wanted pages, it might be wise to take a long, hard look at yourself.

What do you want out of life? What do you want out of your job? What do you value? What motivates you? Where do you want to go from here?

First, face up to the issue.

BTC "Look it straight in the eye and say, 'Yep, I've plateaued,' " says Gordon Funk, who, as director of organization advancement for Prairie View, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Wichita, counsels plenty of mid-career people.

A career plateau is not bad. It's one of those life transitions that most people face at one time or another. It may be solved by a job or career change. Then again, it may not.

It may mean giving up old goals and ambitions and working out new ones.

For many people, long programmed to believe they can accomplish any goal, no matter how lofty, the idea that they've reached the pinnacle of their profession is hard to accept.

"First, you've got to admit it, then you can do something about it," Mr. Funk says.

Doing something requires sorting through values, expectations, desires and skills. That examination has to be critical and realistic.

"The most difficult of tasks is self-examination; the second is self-admission," says Galen McPherson, president of LeaderSystems, a Wichita company that provides management training programs.

Too many people, he says, fear growth and choose instead to stay in a familiar rut.

The key to both satisfaction and motivation is examining one's values. What is most important in your life: Family stability? Fame? Achievement? Power? Money?

As a result of that examination, you may decide you're not cut out to be president of the company. Either you lack some of the necessary skills, or the fire of ambition simply does not burn hot enough.

Whatever the answers, it's important not to judge your worth by them, counselors say.

"It's not good, it's not bad, it's just the way it is," says Mr. McPherson.

Typically, says Mr. Funk, people reach the career plateau not only when they realize their limits but also when they find their positions no longer fulfill them.

"Then they look around and say, 'Am I going to stay on for another 20 years until I retire?' " he says.

With the "baby-boom" generation reaching mid-life, the number of corporations shrinking and others cutting back their managerial and executive ranks, increasing numbers of workers will find their once-lofty career aspirations frustrated or stalled.

"If you look at work force demographics, there's an awful lot of us looking at spending another 15 to 20 years on that plateau," Mr. Funk says.

If ambition still burns bright, a job or career change might be in order. That may require training in a new field, or a more advanced college degree.

Or maybe all that is needed is a new set of goals to reach.

For Mr. McPherson, an energetic and enthusiastic individual, the time for reflection came a couple of years ago when he realized he could not achieve his goals as a manager at Boeing Wichita. He was not making the money he felt he was worth, nor did he have the independence he desired.

"I could have stayed on out there at Boeing and, by many people's definition, been successful," he says.

In time, financial rewards and independence might have come, "but you advance on their timetable, not yours."

The only way to achieve his goals, Mr. McPherson says, was to go into business for himself.

One of the first things LeaderSystems provides for the executives and managers who enroll in its programs is a test that measures personality traits and skills. With the benefit of that insight, they can set realistic goals and plan how to achieve them.

But if the competitive fire is no longer hot, or financial or family considerations preclude job changes or the risk of starting your own business, other steps are in order.

The key to long-term career survival is avoiding psychological burnout, says Mr. Funk. You do that by "not putting all your eggs in the 'my work is everything' basket."

Look at those values again, he suggests, and find other avenues that will enrich your life. Go back to school and get a master's degree, get involved in the community, find other outlets for your energy that provide satisfaction.

"It may not mean that you will teach history, but you will be enriched," says Mr. Funk.

Some corporations, mostly large ones, offer career evaluation and counseling programs.

Although it's not specifically aimed at the person who has hit the career plateau, the Boeing Co. offers many of its lower and mid-level managers a two-day self-examination and evaluation program known as Managing Personal Growth.

Paul Carroll, a management development specialist at Boeing Wichita, says that the course helps employees evaluate their current job, what gives them job satisfaction and what they want to do in the future.

"A more productive, more goal-oriented worker will be better for Boeing and will be a happier employee," Mr. Carroll says.

On the other hand, he says, "We've had some people take this class and figure out Boeing wasn't the place for them."

But most companies don't offer such courses. So how do you do it on your own?

You can start by heading for the self-help section of the bookstore or library.

"What Color Is Your Parachute?" by Richard N. Bolles is considered the standard in the field of personal and career development. It is updated each year.

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