A helpful guide to all of the ways your career has stalled

Figuring out why you are stalled is the first step toward getting moving again.
Figuring out why you are stalled is the first step toward getting moving again.
Image: Reuters/John Sibley
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There’s an old joke told at the Air Force Academy, where units are called squadrons and groups of squadrons are called wings. When people ask of certain officers, “What kind of wing commander is he?” the answer is, “He’s the best squadron commander I’ve ever met.”

This backhanded compliment should surface a question for leaders of any organization. Will what worked to make you a great leader at one phase in your career be enough to help you succeed at the next level?

In our experience as executives of public and private companies, consultants, board members, teachers and students of leadership, we’ve seen hundreds of rising leaders ably guide their organizations to new levels of growth and performance only to hit a stall when the job gets bigger. Many leaders try to address the problem with managerial processes: Change reporting lines, divide up work differently, or run more analytics. In extreme cases, they may outsource, or call in consultants to rethink the strategy, organization structure, supply chain, or products.

These common approaches, which are about the complexity of the business, don’t get at the core problem, which is usually that you as a leader have not developed the new mindset and behaviors needed to master your changed situation as a leader. You’ve been focused on the technical mastery of your field and your business acumen instead of looking inward at yourself and thinking like a sophisticated leader. You have probably done so little of this inward thinking that you don’t even realize you’ve stalled in your career.

When we work with leaders, we ask them a list of questions that can help identify which categories might apply to them.  If you answer mostly “yes” to these questions, it might be time to troubleshoot some options to work through the stall, expand your skill set, and reinvent yourself as a leader.

Purpose stall: Failing to engage people in your organization’s purpose

  • Can your people express the vision or mission of the company clearly?
  • Do you sense low motivation or inspiration?
  • Do your colleagues seem like soldiers fighting a tired battle?
  •  Allowing your team and their teams to flounder and splinter

Teamwork stall: Are you seeing more clashes than collaboration happening?

  • Does it seem like no one can agree?
  • Are you uncomfortable delegating tasks to your team?

Stakeholder stall: Neglecting to manage and influence your most important stakeholders

  • Does your network feel like it’s full of people who can’t do anything for you?
  • Do you avoid people you don’t like if they are critical to your success?
  • Are you “too busy” to engage with stakeholders?

Leading change stall: Stumbling in delivering your messages during transitions

  • Does it seem like people don’t understand what you’re saying?
  • Do direct reports seem disrupted by any change?
  • Do you blame your people for not understanding, not getting excited or behaving differently?

Authority stall: Commanding follower-ship by being an authentic leader through trustworthiness, empathy, breadth and balance

  • Do you feel like your technical expertise and smarts don’t win you followers anymore?
  • Do people resist your direction and act uninspired around you?
  • Are you getting passed over for promotions?

Focus stall: Burning out because you’ve lost focus on where to invest your time and energy

  • Do you feel overworked and exhausted with no passion or sense of impact in your work?
  • Are your meetings time wasters?
  • Are you having trouble enjoying work—and maybe even life? Does your work/life balance seem out of whack?

Development stall: Failing to develop your own leaders, the people who most depend on you

  • Do you tend to hire outside the organization for talent?
  • Do you consider coaching or training a job for the HR department?
  • Do you think your team isn’t performing as an “A-team”?

As your organization grows, you need to define and communicate purpose; engage and influence disparate stakeholders; invest your own time and energy in the right places; develop the leaders below you in order to achieve results through them; and lead change with passion and meaning. For most people, doing these things requires reinvention of yourself as a leader, not merely restructuring your organization and processes.

The first step for all of us is to realize that we need to start learning again—and learn new things as a leader. To enhance your leadership brand, to increase your authority, you can’t externalize the solution. You must internalize it and reinvent yourself and your capabilities as a leader. Only then will you avoid being a squadron commander in a wing commander’s uniform.

John Hillen is a leadership and strategy professor in the School of Business at George Mason University and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state. Mark Nevins is president of Nevins Consulting. They are the co-authors of What Happens Now: Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.