Ask Annie

Stuck in middle management? Five ways out.

May 4, 2012: 9:36 AM ET

In your mid-30s to late 40s and feel like you'll never get promoted? You're far from alone, but you can take steps to jump-start your career.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I hope this doesn't sound whiny, given the real economic hardships faced by people who don't have jobs at all, but I am so frustrated I could scream. I joined my current employer eight years ago, at age 27, with a fantastic track record as a salesperson, and did so well in my first two years here that I was promoted into middle management (regional sales manager, in charge of a 300-person team in 12 states).

And here I sit. Even though I've increased my group's revenues by double digits for each of the past five years (despite the recession) and all my performance reviews have been great, I don't expect to be promoted again anytime soon, if ever. Why not? Because my boss is only about 50 and she's probably never leaving; and her boss is 59 and has said many times that he's not retiring until he's 70. So I seem to have two choices: Quit a company I really like working for, in order to move up somewhere else; or just accept the fact that there's no room at the top and stick it out here. Your thoughts, please? — Just Marking Time

Dear J.M.T.: Ah. You, my friend, have run smack into what is sometimes called in HR circles the "gray ceiling" -- a vast crowd of Baby Boomers who are occupying millions of plum senior-level jobs. Almost 80 million strong, this generation was supposed to be retiring in droves right about now, opening up lots of opportunities for Gen X up-and-comers like yourself.

Unfortunately for you (and the roughly 50 million other Gen Xers in the U.S.), that isn't happening. Blame the recession, at least in part: The downturn, including the collapse of real estate values, rocked Boomers' sense of financial security, causing some to delay retirement for at least a few more years and others to put it off indefinitely.

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The main problem with the Boomers, though, is that there are just so darn many of them; and they had a head start over you, nabbing all those corner offices while you were still earning your stripes. As if that weren't enough to clog the pathways to corporate advancement, their children (Gen Y, or the "echo Baby Boom") are nipping at Gen Xers' heels as well. Even if your 50-year-old boss did decide to take a juicy job offer elsewhere, how do you know some tech-savvy 29-year-old hotshot wouldn't leapfrog over you into her position? It's been known to happen.

Curtis Odom feels your pain. Founder and chief of Boston-based consulting firm Prescient Talent Strategists, he wrote a book called Stuck in the Middle: A Generation X View of Talent Management that spells out some real-world tactics for moving your career forward.

It's based partly on his own experience. A couple of years ago, in his late 30s, Odom joined Comcast (CMCSA) as a vice president. "I had spent the previous 10 years building a resume, getting graduate degrees, and working hard at being the perfect candidate. I wanted to be a v.p. by age 40, and I got there early," he says. "Then I looked around and did the math."

What he realized was that all his fellow vice presidents were in their 40s, and "senior management was made up of people in their 50s," Odom says. "There were 805 Gen X v.p.'s -- all waiting in line for 155 senior-level jobs that were probably not going to open up for at least 10 years." Sound familiar?

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Odom's solution was to leave and start his own company, drawing his first clients from among the contacts he had made in previous management jobs. That's one way to go, of course, but it clearly isn't a practical option for every frustrated Gen X'er. Here are five alternative paths to getting your career unstuck:

1. Go where the growth is. The gray ceiling is hard to bypass in slow-growth industries. To get a bigger job, think about jumping to an industry that's creating lots of them.

2. Pack your passport. Overseas experience is a must for advancement in many companies now, so getting some could qualify you for a higher rank than you hold now.

3. Think small. Startups and other small enterprises tend to have less rigid hierarchies than big companies do, and they care far less (if at all) about seniority.

4. Get a mentor. Whether you stay in your current company or go elsewhere, you need someone higher up who will coach you on the political subtleties of the organization, and maybe even talk up your achievements to the people who have the power to promote you.

5. Find a mess you can fix. Being willing to solve a thorny problem -- preferably one that is keeping your boss awake at night, and that no one else wants to tackle -- is a proven way to become visible, and promote-able.

Good luck.

Talkback: Do you feel stuck in middle management? Do you have a strategy for making an end run around the roadblocks to advancement? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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