Taking Control of Your Career: Moving Past Your Plateau

October 4, 2019


Does it seem you’re facing an uphill battle? Let’s consider how assistants can reach career plateaus – and indicators that you may have reached one in your job. Once you’ve rested on such a plateau long enough, how do you begin to move forward again? That may depend on the reason you’re perched where you are.


You may work in an organization where there are limited opportunities, and you may have decided that, for a myriad of personal and financial reasons, you need to stay put. That may be the case. Are there other possibilities, though? Can you continue to work in this role, and undertake studies to add to your qualifications and employment prospects?

I have a friend who enjoys working with a great boss, excels in her role, and is among the fortunate group of people who contributes to a solidly performing pension plan. To top it off, she has a ridiculously short commute. Sounds wonderful, right? It is, except that she knows she’s capable of greater challenges, has hit the top of the pay scale, and has a good 15+ years remaining in her career, if she chooses to work that long. The status quo does not appeal for the long run.

This astute Assistant conducted her own environmental scan and concluded that she could open quite a few more doors within her own organization if she secured project management credentials. Rather than stagnating due to barriers, she’s negotiated professional development (PD) funding and committed to acquiring such credentials over a specific time period. She drives almost five hours from her town to the city and university where compressed course offerings are available; stays in a hotel while undertaking coursework before returning to home and incorporating principles learned into her work life. The education isn’t inexpensive, and so budgets dictates that the process will easily take two to three years. Along the way, though, this exceptional person is already enriching her current experience while building her portfolio and making herself increasingly valuable to her organization.

It’s Become Routine; I Can Do this in My Sleep

Take the initiative. Approach your manager about potential to take on increased responsibilities. Mentor someone else. Think about it; many of us have had the benefit of some sage advice along the way but, if you’re not one of that fortunate group, wouldn’t you have appreciated it if someone had taken the time to offer you the benefit of their experience?

Offer to help coordinate a “lunch and learn” session at your workplace, or a similar after-hours network of your peers. Offer to join or help form a workplace committee, be its purpose business or social.

Check if your employer has a mentorship program or is willing to support some form of knowledge exchange; the business case for this is that such a partnership can support the employer’s succession planning. While you may be helping a younger or more junior person who’d love to move up, you’ll probably also find this is good for you; it’ll either rejuvenate you or inspire you to undertake further professional development (PD) yourself.

If you decide you’d like to be the mentee, approach someone whose work you admire and ask him/her to mentor you. If you’re fortunate enough to secure such an arrangement, develop guidelines that place responsibility on your shoulders as well as those of your mentor.

The Workload is Ridiculous; I Haven’t Taken a Break in Weeks

Set some boundaries. This is sometimes easier said than done, and I’m one of the guilty parties here. This was brought home at a conference I attended with a number of other busy, busy EAs and C-Suite Coordinators and Managers; most of us spent breaks checking our smartphones for messages from home and the office, and putting out fires. Catching up together for lunch, a few of us were discussing how to achieve work-life balance, and one of the more experienced among us looked at us as though we were crazy.

Her words? “Why on earth would you work into the middle of the night? … When you move on to another job, or eventually retire, do you honestly think anyone will ever remember, or care, that you did this?”  We were advised, in no uncertain terms, to leave our offices for lunch, and to take breaks. This fit, healthy EA drove the point home by asking if any of us thought for one second that, whenever we chose to move on, our successors would be willing – or expected – to sacrifice themselves to the job.

Ask yourself: Has your boss asked or expected you to work through your breaks, or to be available by smartphone all hours of the day and night? In some cases, the answer is a resounding yes, and then you have one type of decision to make. If the answer is, well, no; I just need to get everything done … well, then, check whether you’ve been your own worst enemy. Common sense suggests that people who physically remove themselves from their work environments for a break return better able to focus on tasks at hand, and are more productive – and likely healthier.

Assess the workload; make the business case to your manager for assistance, or for some reallocation of workload. The key here is to identify and present not only the concern that you’re overworked, but also one or more potential solutions.

Approaching Burnout

We spend much of our time taking care of others’ needs. We may leave the office on Tuesday with our Wednesday fully mapped out, and our priorities neatly lined up, knowing all too well that Wednesday morning will bring its own distractions or new priorities. Separate the necessary from the “nice to have”; ask questions to assess the degree of urgency of a task.

Practice negotiating; if people understand that you’ll do your best to accommodate needs, you may well find that they have more flexibility than it sometimes appears. Learn to say “no” where appropriate, and not just for the novelty of watching someone’s jaw drop.

Are you productive in the office, or simply busy? Have a look at your time management skills, how you manage or limit interruptions, and where you’re investing your efforts on a daily or weekly basis. Finally, realize that there’s no shame in not being able to do everything, all the time.

Find some separation. Carve out time for a 10- or 15-minute walk twice a day; take that lunch break.

I Realize I’m Becoming a Negative Presence in the Office

If you’re becoming a negative presence around your colleagues, you may be doing yourself – and your reputation – more harm than good by continuing to stay put. It’s not uncommon to find people around you picking up on your negativity before you even realise you’re emanating it. If you find you’re carrying negativity to or from work with you each day, that’s a heavy load – and one you’d do well to adjust. Ask yourself whether it’s time for a change in jobs, be it with the same employer or a new one.

If a move isn`t pragmatic for you, invest some time and effort in identifying and then conscientiously taking small steps to turn things around. Search out and read a book (more on that another day) or blog to help you recharge; identify the problem you’re encountering and ask what you can change to resolve the situation. Change – be it a new job, an attitude adjustment, or the gradual but steady development of new habits – can be difficult for many, but it can also be rejuvenating, and just what you need to begin moving forward again.

Try for some new perspective, and remember that this is your job, rather than your entire life. Are you investing too much of your sense of self in your work?

Above all, strive to remain professional. and constructive. Albert Camus wrote, “Life is the sum of all your choices.” Choose to make the workplace element of your life as positive as you can.

crop.donnelly.jpg.thumbnail.150x150.jpegAbout the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant.   

This article first appeared in Exceptional EA, a globally respected professional development resource for administrative professionals. Visit to find out more and tell her we sent you.

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