Leadership Series Ep 6: Being Stuck in a Career Rut – Recognition & Solutions

By Published On: October 19, 2022

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Host: Chris Gaffney

Co-Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In this Episode:

We discuss career advancement tactics used to avoid career gridlock. Can you recognize when work might seem stale, your energy level seems to be dropping, or you’ve stopped learning? Then, what can you do about it? Your primary focus should be staying at your company, whether you are improving your current position or looking to move up or across to another position. The last resort is looking externally. Learn how to go through the process of honest self-reflection, followed by the counseling of trusted advisors, then possibly your own boss and team. You’ll learn how to deal with the typically uncomfortable, direct, honest conversation about how you or your staff is feeling about work. Learn how, as a leader, to create an environment that encourages this process to build stronger individuals and teams.

What is the Supply Chain Careers Leadership Series?

The Supply Chain Careers Leadership series expands its previous content format into a more in-depth focus on leadership development. This program is a series of 10+ episodes that are hosted by our very own supply chain executive, Chris Gaffney. These episodes explore subject matter and topics that relate to excelling as a leader in the business world, much of which Chris has gleaned as VP of Supply Chain at Coca-Cola. Familiar faces and fellow supply chain leaders, Rodney Apple and Mike Ogle chime in with their experience and knowledge, all of which can be used by supply chain leaders to develop and advance their careers.

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[00:01:00] Rodney Apple: Welcome back to the Supply Chain Leadership Podcast. This is your leadership series featuring Chris Gaffney with co-host Mike Ogle and myself, Rodney Apple. Chris, you wanna get us started today on the topic that we’re gonna cover for the leadership.

[00:01:16] Chris Gaffney: Absolutely. And I always encourage folks, if you have not listened to the other episodes, go back and grab one or more of them.

We’ve covered avoiding the regrettable move in your career. We’ve covered work life balance. we’ve covered the concept of blind spots and how to be aware and overcome them. We’ve talked about personal productivity and we’ve talked about the value of being an exceptional collaborator. So today we’re going to switch gears. And a topic that one of my mentees brought up, and it’s this whole concept of getting into a rut in a given role. I’m just blah. And then what do I do about that? So that’s where we’re gonna go today.

[00:02:03] Mike Ogle: Excellent. And Chris, how does being stuck in a rut fit into the leadership series coming in at this point?

[00:02:09] Chris Gaffney: Yep. So I’ll remind folks that we were dividing the overall series into four buckets, and those buckets are, number one, how to work effectively and create the time and space for development. Number two, how to differentiate and separate yourself from the crowd in the workplace. Number three, how do I actually grow? And number four, where am I headed in building a career path? So I feel like that this is another topic that touches on a couple of the chapters. I definitely think it’s about growth. This is a growth situation cuz this will occur at more than more than one point in your career. So, I think it’s primarily focused in that how do I grow? But it’s also a little bit in that, where am I headed?  topic. So hopefully we’ll be able to check off a couple of those boxes.

So, here’s the setting and as I said, I had a mentee bring this up and we’ve talked through it. But I definitely recall that situation where you find yourself, where you’ve been in a role, or at a company and you feel like you’re getting stale, maybe you feel like the learning aspect of the job has diminished.

You may feel like you are not advancing as fast as others who you consider to be your peers. You may not have the energy that you historically had coming, coming into the role in the office every day. Or in this day and age, the virtual world and your overall engagement as a team member and an employee, maybe faltering a bit.

So, I think that’s the place that we want to talk about today. And how could you A), be self-aware if you have it internalized or externalize it, and then how do you dig into that, validate it, and figure out what to do to make productive steps and not steps that you’ll regret.

[00:04:19] Rodney Apple: Hey Chris, does this include situations where, all of a sudden you have a new boss? You don’t get along with that new boss, all of a sudden, your company gets acquired, it’s sold. You had no idea. You don’t like the new ownership, or you don’t like the new culture, things like that as well.

[00:04:38] Chris Gaffney: Absolutely Rodney. I think it can be triggered by things internal to the work, external to work, internal to the job, external to the job. So, I think all of those types of things are fair game. If you find yourself in this place, it could be triggered by all kinds of things.

[00:04:56] Mike Ogle: Well, I’ve definitely felt this multiple times over the years. You know, when you do recognize it, it doesn’t of course mean that you need to go into a job switch. It’s not an automatic, but I found it really does require some heavy reflection time regarding what matters. We’ve talked about the fundamentals of what do you like to do, what you don’t like to do. What do you think that you do best? But most of the time it really required a lot of investigation on my part. Rethinking how to support the organization’s objectives. How to serve your customers maybe in a different way, because they may be feeling the same thing and people on your own team may be having the same thoughts, but they don’t wanna talk about it.

So, especially if you’re a leader, it seems like you need to make a point of reassessing. So in my case, I often solve this by making new connections in the industry, going to new events, having strategic discussions with stakeholders. Really expanding my network and the things that I was doing. It often led to new projects and some renewed motivation overall. But if that fails, then maybe you’re thinking about a new job if you weren’t going to get motivated or grow where you were. Those are the feelings that I’d had at that point. And in a particular case, I had a great position as a VP at a supply chain trade association, but about the 15-year mark, it really began to feel stale, like the same old cycle year after year. And it particularly hit me at the end of one of our annual meetings. And about that same time, I was approached about the possibility of going to UNC Charlotte to return to academia in systems engineering. And for a while that had not even been remotely in my mind, but it suddenly hit a tipping point. It excited me and I made the switch. I’ve been through a couple of more transitions since then, back to the association world, then back to academia where I’m now full time at Appalachian State in a business school. I love doing that. I’m excited about bringing new supply chain ideas and developments into the classroom.

Plus now of course we’ve got our work with SCM Talent Group and working in supply chain careers content development, like this podcast series. So, I never would’ve planned to be where I am now, but I’m happy to be in this position. And so, I think you have to constantly keep that reassessment and evolving and connecting with others. Find out what’s possible, and then figure out, am I going to have to leap to a new situation? So that was my experience.

[00:07:39] Rodney Apple: Yeah, and from my vantage point I’ve got a few examples. I think anyone that’s worked 20 plus years, you’re gonna have the situation where you have a horrible boss. So check, I’ve had that before, or where it’s the job itself. Or you don’t seem to be moving up at the speed or pace that you were hoping. There’s that. I’ve had the acquisition that I just mentioned, has happened and big company came in, bought a small company and didn’t sit well with quite a few folks.

I’m gonna bring up one though, and it’s a place I worked for several years. I’ll leave the name of the company out, and this just sometimes you gotta evaluate the workload. You know, we’ve covered work life balance, came into a situation where there were three of us on a team recruiting for the supply chain function and one person left and there’s two, and then the other person left and it was me. So it turned into a team of, me, myself, and I. And that was the team. And the work never changed. The workload was constant busy and it wasn’t a one-person job. I take a lot of pride in what I do and I wanna satisfy my customers. I don’t want them having to reach out to me and asking for updates. But what it turned into was the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and I found myself working late hours, and I found myself responding and reacting versus being proactive and barely getting the job done and no one wants to be in that situation. So I didn’t wanna leave and I did everything I possibly could to build a case to justify, we need more resources. And took that around and shopped it around. And sadly, and unfortunately it didn’t go anywhere. And at that point you have to decide, Okay, I’ve, I’ve done all I can. Clearly they want to do more with less, and I’m outta here. And I wanted to get out and bow out while I still had a great reputation with my internal customers and so forth. And that’s exactly what I did.

I’m sure people are facing that these days in supply chain with all the disruption leading to a lot of work. And there’s constant shift in talent moves. There’s talent shortages and so don’t make an immediate decision. I certainly did. I could have easily walked away and probably got a job within a few weeks. but I chose to stay. I wanted to stay, but sometimes you have to know when to exit and I exited. I look back as they hopefully learned a lesson and as I do look back, the company ended up building a team. They didn’t have one resource that it’s now back to a few people. So that’s my story.

[00:010:33] Mike Ogle: And so, Chris, what approach do you suggest when people find themselves in this situation, regardless of what the trigger turned out to be?

[00:010:41] Chris Gaffney: That’s really what we wanna put a fine tooth comb on today. And I think in all honesty, we’ve done the episode where you look to move on, and so my bias in this one is we’re really gonna dig into the diligence to make sure that you try to make it work in a good way in your current situation. And then the final outcome at the end of the episode will be when all else fails. So we’re gonna approach this on the premise that there’s a reason for you to continue in this situation. So, I think we go back initially to the question that Rodney commented on. What’s the source of this feeling or belief. And I think there is a bit of self-discovery and then maybe some assisted discovery that’s part of that. You’ve gotta figure out, is it the work, is it the team, is it the boss, is it the stakeholders you deal with? Is it the work environment? Are there other things that are out there?

And I think in our steps I will preach a couple of points that we’ve made that I think this is something methodical. I think this is something you get down on paper or in digital form so you force yourself to process a bit and I think we’re gonna again, use another common theme, which is use an external network to help you validate what you’re finding. So to me, that’s the first thing is an objective self-assessment of your current performance and progress in the role, whether you’ve been there a year or five years, or wherever. Go through that honest review, and whether you’ve had annual performance reviews in the past, or you’ve gotten feedback on your performance that led to development actions, how have you responded to that and how have you delivered and how are you perceived in the workspace? And then objectively, what are the things you know you need to continue to grow and develop on that are opportunities in the role. And so, I think if you can get that on paper, then I very much would say, you need to tap into your external network. I think we’re gonna get to the point where you talk to your boss about it. But I think early on you want to go to that trusted network. And I don’t think it’s one voice, it’s multiple voice. If you’re in a relationship, I think you talk to your partner about this. But beyond that, the one, two, or more people who can give you that honest, objective view and say, based on what you’re telling me I think you’re on target or I think you’ve got this a bit out of out of proportion with what appears to actually be going so that that external voice, I think helps you parse your own feelings.

Then I think you take two steps and look at the things that are in there and say, what can I control in one axis and what can others control in another axis? And I think that helps you then start to move towards the path of action in terms of now what am I gonna go do? So let’s first assess the landscape, get your own view, have others validate it for you, and then put it into a couple different tracks that move us towards action.

[00:13:58] Rodney Apple: Chris, I think that’s a well thought out process. You do need to self-reflect and, and really assess what’s going on and run it by your confidants and your network and understand what’s in my control, what’s not in my control. I look back at the example I just gave a few minutes ago where the job went from three people to me, and, I did exactly that and I probably even gave it additional effort because I really didn’t wanna leave. But at some point when you’ve talked to the powers that be and there’s just no interest in resolving what was basically a work life balance issue, then at some point you just have to decide maybe it’s time to make an exit. So, I think that’s a great process that everybody should do and reflect upon whenever they feel like they’re stuck in a rut.

[00:14:54] Mike Ogle: And I think in my particular situation, there were receptive leadership, at times. And then towards the end not as receptive, but while they were receptive, being able to have those conversations about here’s some new things that I’d like to be able to do that I think support the industry for instance, support the company and the people that we serve, things that we haven’t been involved in before that we should and I think I’m the best person to be able to do that. And having that conversation and talking with people who were over in those areas first to make sure that I solidified that side of the network and talked with them and had a plan that I could bring to either my peers, my team, my management, and have that conversation. They’d go, Hey, that’s a great idea. Why don’t you get started on that? But then you’ve gotta do the capacity assessment.  goes back to a little bit what Rodney was talking about, that if you find yourself, Oh, wait a minute, how am I gonna take that on with the other things that I’m doing well, is there something that somebody else could do? Is there a different way that we could organize this? do we need to bring in somebody else that could take this on either as a new position or a partial shift where somebody else may want to do that piece of what you were doing anyway. You know how to add, how to subtract, how to adjust is, is important. So, you have to be very wary of the capacity, not just the interest of course.

[BREAK at 16:26] [00:16:50] Rodney Apple: That’s a great point. Chris, we’ve talked about this self-reflection or self-assessment exercise. And I think that’s critical without making any rash decisions like a lot of people do, well, screw that, I’m outta here, and then they end up regretting that decision, or they may have burned a bridge or both. What are some of the specific actions you recommend once you have self-assessment, you’ve got a little bit of clarity on something needs to happen. What’s that process that you recommend, as a go forward?

[00:17:22] Chris Gaffney: Yeah, so I said there are two axes for the action. The first is what are the things that you can control? And then we’ll talk about, how do you deal with the things that others can control? So, I think when it comes to yourself my view is if you’re listening to these podcast episodes, you have a commitment to development because you’re trying to think about how do I advance in my own world, in my career? So that’s the first thing. I’d go back to my development plan and I’d be objective around the feedback that I have received and my own observation around the areas that I need to continue to develop. And it may be a technical depth that’s part of this job or adjacent to the job one step up or down, but dealing with my clients, my inbound supplier, and my internal external customer where I can still develop within the job in my subject matter areas and or my house, how I interact and rededicate myself to some development inside of the job. And I think later on we’ll talk about some specific tactics for that. But we always talk about the vast majority of development occurs on the job. We used to say 70% of that development really occurs on the job. So rededicate yourself and think about how you can be conscious in your work that you are actually developing. And that may give you a bit more motivation while you’re going through the mechanics and the day to day work of the role.

I do think focus on delivery of results, right? If you’re in the right organization and you were methodical using the steps that we’ve talked about prior and you’re in a good organization and you’re in a good team, then it may come back to how do I reconnect the impact of my work to the greater good of both my team and the larger organization and make sure that I’ve really sharpened my focus and sharpen the saw on my ability to impact results. Because frankly, that typically leads to satisfaction. If I can see my effort translating into results that support a greater good, that is definitely something that I think the folks in the world of the science of work and development say is important.

I also say focus on positive interactions. We’re dealing with people in most of these supply chain jobs and really be a bit more intentional in making sure that your interactions one on one and in team settings are positive. You want to overtly be part of the solution. You wanna bring energy and you wanna bring that idea that we’re all working against a common good so that when people walk away from those interactions with you, they feel like you’re helping them up their game, and I think that has a positive impact on you as an individual as well as those around you.

I do think you can continue to reflect on where you want to go after this role and make sure you are aware of the things that will be important for you in targeted roles, and you’re trying to leverage this role to gain some of those experiences that you might need for that next role.

And then I think the last two things are more of that external piece of it is make sure you’ve got work in the proper perspective relative to the larger things that are going on in your world. Okay. In many cases we get into this trap and we’ve lost a bit of the perspective around where work really should be in our priorities. And I think then it connects to the focus on the balance in your life. This situation can occur when you’ve got some of these other things outta balance. Okay, so are you taking good care of yourself? Are you taking care of your relationships? Are you in balance? And so, we go back to our, our work life balance episode and make sure you’ve checked that box. So I think those are the things that in most cases, I would say you should focus on to the extent that you can control these things.

[00:21:26] Mike Ogle: So Chris, a lot of people will feel uncomfortable having this discussion with a manager or if you’re the manager and you think somebody may be in this situation themselves or somebody on the team that you work with. So what do you advise people to do in that situation?

[00:21:44] Chris Gaffney: Yeah, I think this is a critical skill, that depending on where you are in your career, may be less developed, but I would tell you, even after 30 years in the professional world, I felt uncomfortable having some of these conversations. So I think there’s some human nature there, but I think in a situation where you are comfortable or are not, a lot of the pre-work is the same. And I think from a psychological standpoint, you as an individual, if you’ve gotten to this place and your other out is to leave, then you should feel more comfortable taking what you perceive to be a little bit of a risk and having what might be a bit of a challenging conversation or an unexpected conversation with someone on a topic like this.

So what I would say is all the steps that we’ve already talked about, self-reflecting, taking ownership first of the things that you control. So be accountable and stewarding that and coming into that conversation and say, and it can be part of a planned interaction, or it can be an ad hoc, I need to get some time with you to talk about something. And I think being honest about it and being organized in your thoughts and being objective about it, I think is the way to come about it. Say, listen, I really enjoy the role. I came here for a reason, but I’m in a place now where I feel like I’m at sea. I’ve done some self-reflection about this. I’ve taken ownership. There’s some things that I’m going to do, but there’s some other things that I can’t control that I think are part of why I am where I am and I need your help. And I think, that to me is a non-threatening way to do it. You’ve taken ownership. It may not get you the outcome you want, but I think that’s the best setup to do it.

The only thing I would say, and it depends on your organization, is before going directly to that challenging stakeholder, be it a boss or a peer or someone else in your circle. In an organization, if you have access to a human resources support resource to play that out, I definitely would take advantage of that. In smaller organizations that may not be the case, but barring all those things, then I would set myself up to, to dive in and, and initiate that conversation with the person who can control some of the issues at play.

[00:24:16] Rodney Apple: I gotta say, Chris, I think that’s a perfect way to do it. And leveraging the HR resource is always a great idea, especially if it’s a boss issue, you really need to do that. And if you can’t, then I would almost recommend having some plan B because those conversations with a hostile boss don’t always go that well. It could go 50-50 either way sometimes, but I do agree a hundred percent. That is what you just described, is the proper way to do it.

[00:24:50] Chris Gaffney: Yeah. Our objective is to have an honest discussion that leads to shared action. Right. That’s our aspiration, and I think we’ve talked about it. I can’t tell you what the odds are. I’ve had good ones, great outcomes as a result of this, and I’ve had ones that didn’t go the way I want. But in the first case, you get the action you need, and in the second case, you get information that may help you with where you need to go anyway. And if I think about conversations I’ve had like this either on my own behalf or when I’ve listened to an employee who’s come into the same thing, the best case is they’ve been thoughtful about it. You know, they’ve said, listen, I’ve been in the role for this period of time. These were the expectations that we mutually agreed upon at the outset of the role. Here’s what’s playing out that may look different than that. You know, this is where I’ve learned, and this is where I’ve grown. This is where I’ve taken on more responsibility, but I feel like I can do more. You know, I think that that framing is your best shot.

[00:25:58] Rodney Apple: Agreed. A hundred percent. So let’s say you’ve taken those steps, Chris, and you’ve gone through the A to Z checklist to try to make an improvement and get yourself out of that rut, and you’re still not making the progress that you had hoped to see. What do you recommend as a next step from there?

[00:26:20] Chris Gaffney: Yep, when we talk about managing your career, particularly in these situations, you always say emotion is in play. And the reality beyond your own aspirations. Our audience, the vast majority of folks need to work. So your own personal situation and your need to play a role in supporting your family, those things are very real. So, I think continuing to be methodical. And be diligent. Get things down on paper. If you go back to your external network a second time and said, I’ve taken all the steps we’ve talked about, I took your coaching. Now what? And in this case with a mentee, it’s probably been a six to nine-month exercise in discovery. That may be what this takes, right? And so, in all honesty, we’re preaching you don’t knee jerk here. But that means it may not be five years, but it might take five to six months to be thoughtful about it, have had the discussion. Done what you can do. Then I think you’ve reached that point between growing and getting stuck and you know, it may be time for you to move on.

I would say this though, a role is always part of the foundation you’re building for your career, and as we always look at people for roles, either for advancement within an organization or new, we’re always looking at their track record. And one of the things that I recall a manager of mine saying, I always wanna see someone having a consistent path of taking on more responsibility. And then still being able to deliver results. So I think when you’re at this point, you want to be honest about saying if ideally, there are three phases of my life in a role, a first third where I’m really learning and the organization is investing in me on a bet that I could take on a role, maybe a middle third where I’m on the step and I’m delivering what the role asks, and then a final step where I’m beyond competent, and I’m actually accelerating and delivering results above what the role expects and maybe helping advance what the role is capable of to prepare the next person. If I’ve hit all three of those and I can be confident that when I put this role on my resume that it looks like a positive stair step for me. Then I think it’s time to take on what we covered in episode one and begin that methodical process in looking for the next role. Because you’ve done what we asked you to do. You’re not knee jerking, you’re not acting out of emotion. You have validated, you’ve done what you can do and, and now it’s time to consider what’s next for you and your family.

[00:29:20] Mike Ogle: And so, Chris, if you’re a manager in this situation, what are your suggestions?

[00:29:26] Chris Gaffney: Yep. And I think the good news is for, for all of us who’ve led people, you’ve been on both sides of this coin, and you can have empathy for the employee in this situation. So, I think ideally as a manager, you’ve got a very good productive and ongoing performance and development discussion with your employees. So, you’ve established expectations when someone came in, and then over the course of the years, not once a year, but you’ve got an ongoing interaction with employees. Gold Stars, a once a month structured interaction with employees, at minimum quarterly where you’ve got an ongoing two-way dialogue where you and the employee can check in and both of you talk about how things are going, feedback in both direction, and you don’t let things get outta whack with an employee like this. And cuz there’s always a window for them to say, I feel like I’ve covered everything. Can I do more? What more is there? You’ve heard those early signals of this and you’ve created an environment where the employee’s comfortable bringing things to you. Okay. So that’s your ideal step. So this is part of your performance and development discussion. You have set expectations, which may also include, listen, a normal cycle for this role is three years. So well before someone got into the role, they understood they shouldn’t be chomping at the bid after a year in a job.

So if you’ve done those things, those are my great starting points. But I think the reality is it’s going to happen, particularly if you’ve got folks who have high aspirations, they are gonna be chomping at the bit. They may be looking at other friends, internal or external who are advancing more rapidly and they may come to you.

I think ideally the first thing is you want to validate that employee’s concern and emotion, so you don’t wanna put ’em back on the defensive. You know, this indicates an employee who cares about their performance, their development. So you wanna validate that. And then you want to engage in that discussion. So you want to literally want to go through an interrogatory that say, tell me more about how you feel. What got you to this place? What do you think is at the root of it? And go through the piece of, okay, I want to take on the things that I, as your manager can help with, it might be that capacity, it might be a challenging stakeholder. It might be something’s changed since we originally got it. But I think you then wanna also say to the employee, What part of this is yours? Okay. And have you honestly taken on the steps that you can take? You as a manager might say those are great, but there’s one more I have and if you can walk out of there with a list that says, listen, I think you got another year in the role. Here are the things we’re gonna do to position you for that. Here are the things I need you to commit to and let’s make sure when we talk again next month, next quarter, that we’re tracking against it. To me that as an employee, that’s what I would love to hear and that tells me my manager cares about me as a person as well as a professional. That again, would be ideal state.

[00:32:40] Mike Ogle: And it seems like one of the things we’d love to be able to have, maybe not show our own, but if everybody wore one of these meh meters on their head, that helped us understand how that works. We struggle at it in being able to interpret others, especially when we’re really busy, but we have to develop a better awareness of how to understand what’s going on.

[00:33:03] Chris Gaffney: Well, Mike, that’s a great one. And one of my good friends and peers, that’s exactly what he did with his employees at his quick checks every week. He just had a little he had a shared document. They put their key items for the week on, and one of the things was where’s my energy level? So that’s a great additional idea, Mike.

[00:33:21] Rodney Apple: Writing that one down for my own purpose, the Mike meh meter. Well, this has been great. another great session, Chris, would love to know where we’re taking it next with episode seven coming up.

[00:33:33] Chris Gaffney: Yep. Rodney, and you know, I’m excited. We’ve got so many more of these in the tank and some of them are topical. And one that I’ve actually heard about a lot in my running pursuits is a concept called the imposter syndrome. And so it gets into the whole area of confidence. And so, the topic for our next pod will be about confidence. How do you build confidence, over the course of your life in and outside of work. And as happens to many when, for one reason or another, that confidence erodes what do you do to get back on track? Because it’s so important to your energy and your ability to stretch yourself and, and reach out and continue to deliver exceptional results.

[00:34:22] Rodney Apple: Excellent. Chris. Thanks again and thanks to our audience for listening. Please give us a rating on your favorite podcast platform. And if you can think of anyone that could benefit from these valuable lessons that Chris and the team here are offering, please forward them a copy of the episode or refer them back to


Who is Chris Gaffney?

  • Principal at ECG providing Supply Chain Services to the CPG Industry
  • 25 Years w/ Coca-Cola holding Supply Chain leadership roles:
    • VP of Global Strategic Supply Chain
    • President of Global Supply
    • SVP of Product Supply Systems
    • VP of Logistics for North America