Professional career plateaux
By J.A.A.S. Ranasinghe, Human Resources and Administrative Manager, Colombo Dockyard Limited
Many of the professionals employed both in the public and private sectors reach what we call in management parlance a "career plateau" in their occupational careers within a few years of achieving what is termed a "pinnacle" in their careers.

Career issues at mid-life are bound up with a host of personal issues and many executives who do not adopt correct remedial measures to overcome this professional malady often leave their employment blaming the organisations which they have served.

On the other hand, organisations which allow their executive staff to reach such a negative state of mind should take the major portion of the blame for not diagnosing the symptoms and arresting early the frustration of the executives who are considered to be the cream of their organisation.

Natural cause
A career plateau is defined as the point where the likelihood of additional hierarchical promotions are very remote. This results in 'career doldrums', which could easily be identified by a host of symptoms such as loss of enthusiasm, tension, boredom, frustration, lack of team effort and lack of commitment and innovation.

Many fail to accept the reality that career plateaux are a natural consequence of the way organisations are structured. Most of the organisations have a pyramidal structural hierarchy in that there are fewer positions than aspirants at each higher layer of the organisational ladder compelling them to stagnate in their careers, as their upward mobility is restricted.

A model for managerial careers has been developed taking into consideration the likelihood of future promotions and performances of an executive in his or her present position.

"Solid Citizens" - They have little chance of career advancement as the majority of the executives fall into this category. Solid citizens are the executives who perform the bulk of the work and their performance is rated satisfactory to outstanding. Since most organisations have pyramidal structures they cannot accommodate all the solid citizens in the few slots at the higher grades.

The training and development programmes conducted by the organisations do not pay serious attention in grooming this segment.

Their productivity and contribution to the survival of the company are relatively low.

"Stars"- Executives whose performance is excellent. They have high potential for future grooming and advancement. Although they are small in number, this group can be readily identified.

Hence, organisations do not hesitate to put them on "fast track" career paths and groom them over a period of time in order to give them weighty responsibilities in their new assignments on higher positions. They receive special attention in training and management development programmes.

"Deadwood" - Executives with little potential for career advancement due to poor performances and negative attitudes. In every organisation there is a small group of executives who are branded as mediocre and is earmarked by the management either for dismissal or rehabilitation.

"Learners"- Executives with high potential for career advancement but whose present performances are below the expected standard. New recruits such as Management Trainees and those who have been promoted from lower ranks to executive positions are the obvious examples.

Management commitment to develop their managerial skills is quite strong. A majority of corporate CEOs in Sri Lanka started their professional career as trainees.

From the model below we can get a clear understanding of the identification of plateaux. The executives on the left-hand side of the model, namely the "Solid Citizens" and the "Deadwood" are the plateaued managers. While the solid citizens become effective plateaux due to organisational and personal issues, the deadwood may become ineffective managers due to their sheer incompetence and negative attitudes.

Role of the HR practitioner
Organisations will have to take adequate measures to ensure that solid citizens do not slip into the deadwood category. Unfortunately, our experience has been that most organisations have failed to give due recognition to the plateaued executives. If the causes that lead to the career plateauing are not properly tackled by the organisations, then the consequences arising out of the failure of the organisation would be enormous.

Sources of 'plateauing'
1.1. A majority of the executives employed in public and private sector organisations have become organisationally 'plateaued' because of non-availability of vacancies in the higher grades. It is impossible for the structure to accommodate all the executives in the lower ranks compelling some executives to invariably stagnate in their existing grades and positions.

1.2 Age - Apart from the lack of cadre vacancies in the higher grades, the age of the executives may become a vital factor in not considering them for higher positions. Many organisations prefer to recruit younger executives and place them on a rigid training programme so that their services can be obtained for a longer period.

1.3 Competition for a particular post can be another source of organisational 'plateauing'. With the growth and the expansion of the industry, there can be situations where organisations may be compelled to recruit executives from external sources, as there are less qualified people within the company.

1.4 Organisational needs would have to be given more preference in the selection of employees. A particular executive may be seen as too valuable in his position to be spared for other work. In such a situation, management can have recourse to external recruitment thus disturbing the promotional prospects of the officers concerned.

Personally 'plateauing' sources
2.1 Executives also become personally 'plateaued' because of their inability and incompetence to discharge responsibilities in the higher grades in the hierarchy.

Experience and empirical studies have shown that some executives are compelled not to aspire to heavy responsibilities in the promotional grades due to a host of reasons. Monetary and other lucrative benefits attached to the existing post, esteem and recognition factors in the present job, lack of sufficient time available for rest and family commitments in the higher jobs, and exposure of managerial weaknesses in higher positions would be some of the reasons for executives not accepting promotional opportunities.

2.2 Dearth of technical and managerial competencies within the existing executive cadre may compel the management to hire from outside. Skill deficiencies within the organisation could arise from lack of aptitude on the part of executives to gain expertise or their unwillingness to shoulder heavy responsibilities or the non-implementation of the training and development opportunities for the executives. The inability of executives to respond to changing job situations and technological changes may be other reasons.

2.3 Lack of career skills is another reason. Some executives are organisationally naive and lack adequate understanding of the complexity of the organisational realities. Other executives may tend to stay within a limited definition of their present job failing to take progressive steps to expand their knowledge and skills in order to consolidate their career paths.

2.4 Lack of sufficient desire on the part of executives to take over higher responsibilities or to transfer to another branch or a location of the same company or a subsidiary could be a reason for their failure to receive promotional opportunities.

Some executives tend to send ambiguous signals or place constraints when a proposal for a promotion or transfer is made.

Development of "Solid Citizens"
It is a matter for regret that solid citizens have not received their due place in most of the organisations although they constitute a major group of the entire management staff. The organisation should not forget the fact that solid citizens are the backbone of the organisations when it comes to day-to-day operational activities and it is they who interact with the customers at the grassroots level, maintain stability and the competitive edge over rivals and provide value-added products and services to their clientele by attracting and retaining their customers.

Managing the plateau
1. The best remedial action is the preventing of plateaux from becoming ineffective plateauees. When the ineffective plateauee's performance declines, it could definitely make a disastrous impact on the whole organisation and its stakeholders, especially customers.

Many HR managers fail to understand why executives in their companies have become so ineffective and indifferent towards the management and even resort to disciplinary action to arrest this trend.

But this is unpleasant and detrimental to the well-being of the organisation. It could send wrong signals to other effective plateauees.

HR practitioners in such situations should investigate the problem and advise the top management of the seriousness of the issue with an action plan.

Instead of suggesting severe disciplinary action against the ineffective plateauees, what they should do is to inform the management that the organisation has played a major role in making their executives ineffective.

HR practitioners should not have recourse to the dismissal route but mitigate the seriousness of the poor performances of their executives by giving due consideration to their past service, age, family background and social status.

2. Middle managers are the worst affected plateaued group in any organisation due to lack of promotional prospects. When their frustration and dissatisfaction loom, owing to non-availability of sufficient promotional avenues and loss of career aspirations with advancing age, it is inevitable for them to collectively organise themselves and form trade unions in the form of so called "associations". It is my candid opinion that many associations have seen their birth not because of the fear of retaliation by the management over disciplinary issues but owing to the inability of the management to design acceptable career development opportunities.

3. It is therefore incumbent upon the management to avoid HR management practices that could lead to ineffective plateauing so that 'deadwood' could be reduced to a very greater extent.

However, it is unduly cynical for organisations to assume that all plateaued executives are incompetent according to Thomas P. Ferrence, A.F. Stoner and E. Kirby Warren who have done a study on the subject of Management of Career Plateau to the Academy of Management Review. A more reasonable assumption according to them is that the managers can plateau while still effective and are capable of performing well and adjusting to their career situations.

Early identification of plateauees is the best form of arresting this professional malady syndrome. Organisations should be able to identify such plateaueed executives through their sophisticated Performance Appraisal Schemes and Succession Planning Schemes.

The importance of a career succession plan to link the executive's potential to a particular position cannot be over-emphasised. A sound Career Succession Plan, if implemented well, should be able to attack most of the issues referred to above. The succession plans will become a powerful tool in the identification of pleatuees.

Common solutions and techniques recommended in dealing with the frustrated plateauees are listed below.

* Seek Career Counselling - Career Counselling can provide meaningful insights to the affected plateauees.

In Sri Lanka, career counselling of plateaueed employees is still in its infancy. The Institute of Personnel Management of Sri Lanka has a number of experienced HR practitioners in its membership who are capable of handling counselling on matters in relation to plateaueed executives and it may be possible for the affected plateauees to seek professional counselling from the Institute.

The most important thing that comes out from the counselling process is the restoration of self-esteem and confidence.

* Career Move - A career move generally involves one of the following choices. It could mean a simple change within the organisation or a radical shifting to an altogether different organisation.

1. Moving Up - One option open to the plateaueed executives may be to seek a position with greater responsibility in the same organisation in which he is employed. If this is not possible, then leaving the organisation after securing suitable employment may be the last option. Here the danger is even if you do succeed in moving up throughout your career, you may reach a destination other than what you expected. As Joseph Campbell once said, "You may get to the top of the ladder only to find that it's up against a wrong wall".

2. Moving Sideways - Another option is to move sideways or make a lateral move into some position about the same degree of responsibility and benefits that you enjoy now. The new environment offers you new excitement and challenge.

3. Downshifting - Changing to a job with less responsibility is a major possibility for plateaueed executives, because today's business organisations are more flexible and malleable than they used to be. Although conventional wisdom advises against taking demotion, sometimes this type of move can be a catalyst for career advancement (Dahle 1998). Moreover, this will be an ideal opportunity for someone who has a host of other priorities in his life such as family commitments, leisure, volunteer work, social and political agendas, and children's education to seek a downshifting in the same organisation.

A leading career expert, Beverly Kaye, has a favourite phrase "Up is not the only way". Downshifting is getting more from less - more life from less career absorption. It may be possible for you to find a job, which entails fewer responsibilities in your organisation, probably with a smaller salary.

4. Changing Careers - A complete change of careers may be the only option but it will lead to greater satisfaction. I know of an instance where the Secretary of a Ministry left the public service ignoring all the perks and prestige in order to take a teaching appointment in a leading school in Kandy. Here, extra care has to be exercised.

5. Develop outside interests - Many executives cope with career doldrums by finding fulfilment in interests outside their jobs.

6. Starting your own business - Another way is to consider creating your own business. Mid-life is an opportune time for the professional executives to establish their own business by becoming entrepreneurs. Many of us stay for too long on our treadmills until we burnout or get pushed out.

7. Enriching the status quo - Adaptation in a current career situation is also an option. Although similar in nature to making a lateral move, in this instance, an individual stays in the same position without changing much and just lives differently with what he has.

8. Happenstance Theory- Planned happenstance is a theory that helps individuals to develop skills to recognise, create and use chance in career opportunities.

This theory requires individuals to exercise curiosity to explore new learning opportunities, to persist despite setbacks, to meet changing attitudes and circumstances with flexibility, to optimistically view new opportunities as possible and attainable and to take risks by being proactive in the face of uncertain outcomes. (Mitchell, Levin and Krumblotz 1999).

Although career plateau is a professional malady, recent researches have proved that it can be healthy for professionals, particularly to those who have just accomplished a breakthrough in their careers, according to Kreuter Eric. A plateau can be a highly valuable and stable interval of rest and security that provides an opportunity to regain perspective and digest new ideas.

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