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You’re stagnating at work. Why is that?

WARNING: This article is sponsored by Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and draws attention to the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative. ICYMI, you can check out our previous collaborations with them covering tech job myths and the story of a catering executive who taught himself how to code.

If you even clicked into this post, chances are you feel trapped at work.

Maybe your last increment – a real one, not the 3% they pay you to keep up with inflation – was three years ago. Perhaps you’ve been doing the same job scope for years, and the switch in portfolio that has been promised to you seems like a pipe dream.

The (well, not really) good news is that you’re not alone.

Monthly, we receive dozens of DMs on Instagram from people who feel like they’ve hit a wall in their career. Career stagnation has reached epidemic levels – no one is immune. Not even fresh grads.

What I’ve observed is that people often gravitate to two extremes. They either:

1) blame themselves entirely, resulting in absolutely crushing self-esteem issues

2) blame their company, completely absolving themselves of any accountability

While both are certainly possible, what I found is that it’s far better to run a little diagnostic test instead of wildly jumping to conclusions. Here are five questions to keep in mind before you do either.

Question 1: Is getting promoted the answer for you right now? 

Most people can climb the lower tiers of the corporate world simply via the passage of time.

This leads to the unhealthy expectation that everyone will be promoted indefinitely.

Indeed, it’s wishful thinking to assume career progression is guaranteed, especially once you get into management level.

The journey from junior executive to a regular exec is smooth. You get better at your daily tasks, and that’s it.

Any climb beyond that is far harder? Just ask the number of people who get into middle management.

On top of being good at your core skills, you’ll also need to learn management and leadership – completely different skills in their own right.

As someone who’s struggled in the past with this, here are some areas I think are worth a look at if you’re having difficulty with progression.

Bigger picture thinking. You should have a clear idea of how the work that you do impacts other facets of the business and vice versa.

Your positivity and professionalism. If you are constantly complaining and negative about work, it’s harder to justify a promotion for you.

Initiative. Learning to pre-empt decisions made by management and/or planning ahead to avoid problems/improve performance.

Interpersonal skills. Being able to keep morale up, manage stakeholders/clients, or even communicate or ‘sell’ necessary but unpopular ideas.

Consistency and reliability. All other things created equal, companies will generally favour people who can deliver a constant good-enough output, over occasional bursts of genius.

Problem solving skills. You have the skills and abilities to solve organisational problems and implement new solutions, and you’re not comfortable being a cog in the wheel.

Question 2: Is the company sinking or rising?

 

COVID-19 has caused creative destruction in many industries, but the rise and fall of companies has always been happening.

Being in a company that adapts (or even better, innovates) well gives you an advantage. They can pay you more and give you more opportunities to grow.

This is unlikely if the organisation hasn’t pivoted as quickly – after all, if the company is not making profits or scoring new deals, how can they afford to pay their staff more?

As the saying goes, the spirit might be willing, but the flesh is weak. In such scenarios, it would be unrealistic for you to expect a salary increment.

A common mistake – especially amongst Singaporeans – is also to view established slow-to-innovate corporations as safe havens for your career because they will never fail. ‘Iron rice bowls’, they call them.

On paper, these companies might look stable and safe.

But without adaptation, they will surely enter a long and painful decline – while offering their employees little or no growth.

Both salary and progression wise.

Question 3: Are the rules for progression in your favour?

 

No one will disagree that companies ought to reward employees’ hard work, skills and productivity.

In practice, however they might place similar or greater importance on other qualities that are more questionable.

Maybe they prioritise tenure over ability. Maybe they favour blood relations. Or those who tend to be a yes man.

We know that this can be frustrating, especially if you don’t come with the above-mentioned qualities.

Whether we agree with them or not, these are what many of us see or face in the workplace.

As employees, you can and should pick (or even create) the best environment where your qualities are valued. Read the room and pick your battles. Life is hard enough already.

It is unlikely for a traditional family business to hand over the keys to an outsider.

It is equally unlikely for you to advance through the ranks, if those ranks are currently occupied by someone else who won’t be going anywhere soon.

Question 4: Are you in a bubble?

 

Sometimes, it can seem like you’re getting nowhere in your career, when in fact, you just need a change of perspective.

Allow me to explain:

When you work too long in one single company, or industry, it’s very easy to get tunnel vision.

When I was in an advertising agency, I met a significant number of people who could only see themselves as working for an agency.

Self-worth was often tied to winning industry awards that had little relevance outside the industry. Very naturally, when someone did not win an award, people felt that they were stagnating.

Their view was that working as an in-house content creator would have been considered career suicide. People on the ‘client side’ were seen as less capable and creative.

However, what we were doing was actually closing ourselves off to a whole bunch of alternative paths to progression – especially if you’re experiencing career stagnation.

After all, there’s a very real possibility that your skills can be valued in different organisations.

In my case, I used my skills in writing and content strategy to help create real estate content for an online property platform after I left the ad agency job.

It worked out great for me.

The lesson: Don’t close doors before they open.

Question 5: What are you willing to learn to move forward?

Let’s talk about how I got into real estate/property industry.

At the start of 2018, I knew relatively little about real estate.

Somewhere along the way, I became obsessed with the idea of buying my own condo because I thought I was throwing money away by renting a room.

Because of that, I consumed real estate content voraciously to make sure I was not making a bad decision.

I learnt about URA master plans, plot ratios, developer breakeven costs, and the possible fears people had about the local real estate market.

Sometime later, a recruiter from the real estate/property industry approached me, as they were looking for someone to help them create content. I made the leap.

In addition to the above lesson (don’t close doors before they open), this experience taught me three things:

Limit what you learn by your degree, job title and/or your current experience, and you will limit your opportunities in life. We previously wrote about this here.

Don’t underestimate what you can learn. I’m not saying you can be an expert overnight – especially when it comes to more technical and qualification-intense fields such as medicine, and law.

Some roles will require years and years of experience. But often, you just need to know enough – and skills can be picked up on the job.

This is particularly true for roles in tech. (We previously wrote about a catering executive who became a senior developer by learning on the job.)

Right now, there’s a shortage of tech talent in Singapore, which means that these tech workers are raking in dollars now.

Every industry is finding ways to integrate tech:

  • In the fin-tech space, banks like DBS are experimenting with blockchain technology to verify trade transactions, prevent duplicate financing and improve risk management processes.
  • In the property space, tech is used to reduce paperwork as well as make transactions quicker, more efficient, and more secure.
  • In the martech space, there are things like AI copywriting and AI logo design tools that are moving the needle for what a traditional copywriter and designer’s role looks like.

The list is long and possibly non-exhaustive = just google (your industry + tech).

Not willing to learn will mean you’ll lose out to others who do.

Don’t overestimate the barrier to entry. Many people, when faced with the prospect of learning something beyond their expertise, will crumble. That is why we eventually stagnate.

I was not an ‘expert*’ on personal finance when I started this blog. But I’ve kept learning for the past 2 years, and will be learning for the foreseeable future.

There’s nothing shameful about career stagnation

Look, we know how hard it is to talk about career stagnation. When you tie your entire self-worth to your job title, or your salary, this tends to happen.

But here’s some food for thought: Many people imagine their career growth to be linear.

That’s extremely unlikely. Instead, in a best-case scenario, I imagine it to look something like this:

The truth is, everyone stagnates and plateaus at some point. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.

Chances are, the people you look up to also spent significant amounts of time in the dumps, second-guessing themselves. It’s a rite of passage in any personal growth story.

So yes, you should not be too impatient and frustrated with yourself.

At the same time though – if career advancement is indeed something you desire – it’s important to think about how to move forward.

The people you admire? They were probably also thinking of ways to engineer their own breakthroughs and formulating catalysts for their career.

Yes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

But as James Clear points out in his book Atomic Habits, they were probably laying the bricks every hour.

Stay woke, salaryman.

Looking to move forward in your career? Consider the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative

Stagnation may feel like the end of your career, but it may merely just be a temporary drought if you play your cards right. If you’re at a crossroads and not sure how to move forward, why not consider how picking up in-demand tech skills can help you progress in your career, get out of a (mental) rut, or move into the growing tech industry?

Tech roles are in high demand, but in low supply, and there are tons of resources available such as the TeSA initiative, which provides support for course fees or on-the-job training allowances for Singaporeans to pick up tech skills.

They have programmes that can help you, depending on your circumstances.

The Company-Led Training programme helps fresh to mid-level professionals accelerate professional development in a tech role through structured training at a list of partner companies. Fields include: 5G, Internet of Things, Cloud Computing and Enterprise Software as A Service (SaaS), and core tech capabilities including Software Engineering, Cybersecurity and Data Analytics.

TeSA Mid-Career Advance is for Singaporeans aged 40 and above. Interested applicants can apply to a list of partner companies, get employed, and receive training while holding a tech-related job in areas such as Data Analytics and Software Engineering.

Tech Immersion and Placement Programme is for non-tech professionals looking to switch to a new career in tech. Eligible trainees go through intensive tech training courses, and then are required to find placements in tech job roles, or join or build a tech startup.

Critical Infocomm Technology Resource Programme Plus helps tech professionals upgrade and maintain skills relevancy. Eligible candidates will be able to enjoy course and/or certification fee support in areas such as Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Security and Data Analytics.

Open new doors with tech, and upskill with TeSA. Find out more about the TeSA initiative here.

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