This is an fantastic article and so true. In my career I have interviewed many. It’s those that were honest, upbeat, and able to see how they contribute that got my attention. Remember, it’s not about the economy…it’s about YOU.
HBR Blog Network
How to Explain a Career That Looks Stalled
by John Lees | 11:00 AM July 11, 2014
People hold on to jobs too long for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s loyalty to co-workers at a company you’ve outgrown, or maybe you spent a long time thinking you were just about to get promoted… but never got the call. Or perhaps you simply had a lot going on in your personal life and your somewhat dull job felt steadying. During the downturn, many people decided to stay in whatever job they had, figuring that any job was better than no job.
Whatever the reason, if you’ve stayed in a role long after your growth and learning in that role plateaued you need a plan for presenting your experience to recruiters and hiring managers. If this is the flavor of your resume – if your last decade sounds like the same year repeated 10 times — you’ll face tough questions as you look for a new job. When asked about your learning, your challenges, and your career plan, your answer cannot be a variant on “I played it safe.”
How can you show you’ve grown?
There are ways of making even timid choices sound less passive or defeatist. For example, you can focus on the benefits of continuity, and the things you learned by sticking with projects over the long term. Unpack for an interviewer the way your role changed, even if your title didn’t. Plenty of companies in the recession laid off some people and redistributed their work to the survivors without promoting them; if this applies to you, talk about the additional responsibilities you took on (without trashing your current employer, of course).
Dig deeper for good narratives showing skill development – just because evidence is hard to find doesn’t mean it’s hidden beyond reach. Many roles today involve digital skills they didn’t even just a few years ago. Have you had to learn new technical skills or software?
If you’ve been underemployed for a while, take steps now to push your personal learning agenda. Seek secondments, new training opportunities, and informational interviews to bring your industry knowledge up to date. Review what you’ve done to bring out all those points when you pushed back or took control.
Present events as a conscious choice (“I decided it would be better to remain in the role and see how I could develop it…’” or “That setback was actually fortunate, as it meant I had to find a work-around”).
If you have managed to achieve results in a declining market with diminishing resources, say so – but make sure you also present stories which show you can manage growth.
If you’ve been under-challenged for the last year or two you’ll need to work hard on evidence of recent achievement. Make the most of recent projects and successes, and show how you’ve kept your skills and industry knowledge up to date.
Prepare a convincing, short, upbeat answer to the question, “Why haven’t you moved on earlier?” Discuss valid reasons such as wanting to see a project to its conclusion, team loyalty, picking the best time to make a career change. Show your career is in your control, not steered by events.
Above all else, if your career has been on hold, don’t blame the economy. Everyone’s doing it, and it communicates a failure to make the best of difficulty. Emerging organizations are leaner, flatter, and require people to use a mix of lateral thinking and assertiveness to move forward on thin resources. If your career strategy to date suggests that you duck and hide when you hit setbacks, an employer will assume that’s your normal working style.
More blog posts by John Lees
More on: Career planning
John Lees is a UK-based career strategist. He is the author of, among other titles, How to Get a Job You’ll Love and The Interview Expert, and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job.