How do you tell if you're in a dead-end job? If you can figure out now what makes for dead-endedness, you won't make the same mistake next time.
Here are three classic examples and what to do about them:
1) A dead-end job by its nature is a staff job whose primary focus is apart from the organization's focus. For instance, working in the art department of an accounting firm might be a dead-end job. One way to break out is to look on the job as an opportunity and a challenge -- not as a dead-end. Do more than is expected, get yourself noticed and let management know that you want to be a part of the organization's main goals. Recognize that you need to demonstrate a combination of personality, judgment, and the ability to carve another niche at the same time. Or else build that as another career by adding to your own art portfolio or your ability to advise art collectors.
2) A dead-end boss whose own poor disposition and dim vision makes it difficult for the department to thrive or for anyone, namely you, to be promoted. Many organizations keep these bosses in their positions for several reasons: 1) they are too cowardly to fire them, 2) the old boys' network frowns on getting rid of a brother, and 3) they don't want to rock the boat, particularly if one of the rowers has the goods on them.
Getting out, once you're locked in, requires cleverness because dim-visioned bosses aren't necessarily dim-witted. Your boss isn't going to like your trying to move up in the company to leave and expose him. Therefore, you must make the most of casual chances in hallways, elevators, during walks to the parking lot and by participating in outside associations in which top managers engage.
But never complain about your boss -- instead, enthusiastically relate what you are doing and how it can relate to other departments. Following up any conversation with a note or clipping helps. So does finding a sympathetic, powerful manager who might be your sponsor or mentor. And if the two roles coincide in one person, you're in luck.
However, if none of this works, then be brave enough to look for another job outside the company. Don't wait long or you'll be linked with your boss who may be safe inside the company but could not get a comparable job outside.
3) It's you who is depressed and putting on blinders. It happens when you do one job over and over in the same way. Most of us desperately need change to grow. The cure, obviously, lies in taking on a new challenge within the job before going outside.
Salesmen who tire of the road but not of the product or organization often make fine sales managers, even at a cut in pay. Teachers, bookkeepers, therapists, mechanics all need to add their own interests to the job. Teachers might start seminars for parents and students on choosing colleges or in setting up summer jobs along with corporate representatives; in so doing they not only feel the surge of new blood but also can discover a second, complementary career. Bookkeepers might invent a file system for their clients that just might be catchy enough for their company to publish or even sell directly to a publisher.
The sky's the limit even in bad times, but you do have to call up enthusiasm to start considering what's not only possible, but desirable. To start, talk to people. Read success stories, dream, and then start. The biggest step is from zero to one, the beginning step.
Make your luck happen!
Author of Skills for Success and Launch Your Career in College