One of the most unsettling phenomenons I witness, sadly all too frequently, is the executive who is stuck in his or her career.  The reasons are varied but there is one common theme to their stories — they do not know they need help or they can’t find it in themselves to ask. At stake is their career.

They are not that hard to spot if you know what to look for.  After more than 20 years in the practice of executive search and career advisory support, it is really not that difficult. The executives act as though their “stuckness” is their invisible secret, but for those of us who recognize the signs, it really isn’t.  In interviews they stick out like a sore thumb and not being up to date on job market expectations doesn’t help.   Typically, other than the obvious issues with their resumes, what gives them away is what they do not say in an interview. There is an absence of detail and accountability. Their interview responses can be described as best effort, not an inspired, engaging Q&A session.

There are many reasons people get and stay stuck. Pride, the deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance, and pride’s first cousin, stubbornness. From my standpoint these are the primary reasons.

There are some very capable leaders who are stuck, for example, because they do not want to let go of a career dream which, roughly translated, is to make a financial killing by building a new hospital management company even though that boat has sailed. The heyday for this business model ran from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s.  There are others who have allowed themselves to get trapped by career atrophy, a long, slow, painful goodbye into early retirement, something akin to a lobster who is dropped into warm water and, before you know it, he is the main course.  Executives in this category simply have not invested in career development and now aren’t perceived by potential employers as having the relevant skill sets or emotional intelligence and/or physical energy to be successful.  There is another group that are trapped inside a dysfunctional personality/leadership style that explodes into termination every five to seven years.  Many in this category are brilliant, they have produced splendid operating results but they just cannot seem to overcome the inertia of not seeing or believing they need to make a  leadership style course correction.  There is always more than just a little stubbornness in this mix.  

So why change?  Why go through the emotional discomfort of having to admit you might be in a career ditch or that your combative leadership style is responsible for side tracking your work life?  Actually, there is a very important reason to make the effort to look into the mirror and have that conversation with yourself.

There is, at some management levels, a real shortage of people who can get things done, who can clean up someone else’s mess, and who can save businesses and jobs.  There are plenty of executives looking for work but the number of people who can step in and right a sinking ship are few and far between. 

So, what to do? There are ample resources in the market of career management, leadership, and behavioral advisory business who can help you right your Ox cart and pull it from the ditch, but there are caveats:  

  • First,  you have to be willing to listen even when what you are being told makes you uncomfortable or angry. Being told you can be a four-plus jerk and that your employees do not like you tends to make people angry even when there is evidence that the assessment is frequently true.  
  • Second, you must be willing to make a real effort to change, to get unstuck. You have to admit that you have to change.  In my career I have found that for every one jerk that you are happy to see retire, there are nine managers and executives who still have something valuable to offer.

Go ahead.  Look into the mirror.  Make the call.

Editor’s Note: If you have a questions about this or other posts, you can reach job at CareerTransitions@JohnGSelf.Com.