It’s the elephant in the room during every meeting with your boss. It’s the point of tension whenever the topic of work comes up with your spouse. Most of all, it’s the lead weight that drags your confidence and fuels negative thoughts and doubt.
Why did you stay so long in the same position?
Sometimes people get stuck due to circumstances beyond their control, like a restructuring. Sometimes life demands come into the picture, and it’s all you can do to maintain some stability. Or perhaps the work used to feel rewarding—but for whatever reason, the job titles didn’t keep up pace or other circumstances changed. Budget cuts, an acquisition, and new management can all delay your progress.
Regardless of your reason for re-entering the job market, the same problem remains: If you don’t tell this story carefully, outside hiring managers are going to think you spent too long spinning wheels in the same role. And that’s really going to hurt your prospects.
Here are ways to advocate for yourself and turn the tide.
How to Explain a Plateau in Your Career
1. Separate one position into multiple sections on your resume.
Let’s say your role involved aspects of defining business strategy, a strong financial management component, and an operations background (improving processes, getting global teams on the same page, etc.). Why not split up the role into three sections on the page and dive into each category with more details about your impact?
Here’s an idea of what that would look like:
- Established a 3-year plan designed to turn around flagging retail product line sales, aggressively expand on R&D, and coalesce a global network of partners and business stakeholders around a clear vision forward. End result: a 65% total gain in profitability within first 2 years of implementation, a successfully commercialized potential “market maker” within the IoT space, and an enhanced competitive edge within the consumer durables space.
- Partnered with CEO in strengthening underlying financial framework and risk management practices during a period of rapid organic growth…[Insert more details tied to quantitative metrics when possible].
- Led end-to-end lean improvement initiatives within the Philippines, China, and Vietnam manufacturing facilities…[Insert more details tied to quantitative metrics when possible].
Using an approach like this will maximize the amount of material you get out of the role—especially if you feel like you’re doing the equivalent of two or more jobs at the company.
2. Provide an explanation during the interview.
This is the real question any potential employer wants to ask. Why did you do it? Why stick around doing the same job when the average raise is only about 3% per year (less if you adjust for inflation)? Most people earn between 10%-20% more money by going into a new position, even if it’s a lateral move.
If you ignore this question, the recruiter or hiring manager will assume the sacrifice wasn’t worth it—or worse, you didn’t have the qualifications to excel in another role.
My recommendation is to own the narrative, and, if necessary, broach the topic during the very first interview.
Here’s a structure that works well:
- Conversation Segue: “I never thought I’d stay in one role so long. If you look at my history, it’s outside the norm.”
- Explanation: “But we were right in the thick of fighting for our survival, and I felt that I owed it to my team to make sure the battle finished successfully. Our main challenge was [insert example]. We responded by taking [action 1, action 2, and action 3]. And we knew the worst was over when [key turning point/result].”
- Conclusion: “I really want to expand on what I learned from [pain point mentioned in previous section], and this time, do it in a manner that has an upward trajectory, not a static one. Does that make sense?”
3. Leverage your connections.
Your connections can help you in one of two major ways during a job search. They can give you the inside track for an emerging opportunity, which is basically a position that has yet to make it to a public job posting. Or, depending on their network, they may be able to introduce you to someone critical, like a CEO, hiring manager, or internal recruiter.
At the executive level, these are the main pathways to securing an offer. So once you polish your resume, LinkedIn, and branding materials, use your connections! Jump on the phone with them to catch up and fill them in on what’s been going on. Let others help you—I think you’ll be amazed at how many people will offer their assistance. With a reference, you’ll have far less scrutiny over sticking points in your professional history. Instead, the focus will be on what you can offer an employer today—and in that area, you’ll shine!
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