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The Gray Ceiling

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Back before the last recession, many conversations with clients involved succession planning and “building a bench” of leaders that can take over when the anticipated waves of older workers retired. Some industries were particularly at risk with an aging workforce. Large sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, transportation, energy and the trades were facing a cliff with no easy solutions. Many Baby Boomers were tracking towards retiring as soon as possible, sometime in their late 50’s and early sixties depending on pensions and their retirement planning.

Then the economy collapsed, and with it, the stock market and their 401k accounts.

While their retirement accounts might have rebounded, the shock right before retirement has made many workers rethink their retirement plans, opting to stay in the workforce much longer than anticipated. The retirement wave was more of an ongoing trickle.

For many Gen-Xers and Millennials, the climb up the corporate ladder has been stymied by the logjam at the top. This phenomenon is called the “Gray Ceiling.” As the corporate pyramid narrows, there are less promotional opportunities. For many of the executives we interact with, their next promotion is not likely at their current employer because their boss is not going anywhere anytime soon. This can be more pronounced in the support functions like IT or HR, where getting promoted to the C-suite is not very likely.

I had a typical conversation just last week. I met with a director of supply chain with a great resume at a reputable company. He has been there for five years and has accomplished a lot, and is ready to be a VP. His peers are the Director of Logistics, and the Director of Procurement. They report to the VP of Supply Chain, who is not in line for a C-suite job. He is 58 years old, and has said he plans on working as long as he is healthy enough to do so. While the director likes his job, company, and boss, he’s ready for the next step in his career. He recognizes he will most likely have to move out to move up.

Changing companies always brings some risk, but there is also risk to your career if you do stay put and stagnate. Each industry has normal promotion gates, and when you have been there for a longer period than normal, it can come across to other companies as you are either not promotable, or too risk averse to make a change.

My advice is to stay with your current employer if you have opportunities to move up and grow as your desires take you. Once you start hitting the ceiling, consider exploring new opportunities.

If YOU are the reason your people cannot get promoted, consider taking steps to ensure they do, even if it means them leaving the company. Grooming and facilitating your trusted lieutenant to go to work for a customer or supplier might not be the easiest thing for you to do, but will make you a legendary boss in the long run. Maybe when you are ready to retire, you can recruit them back to take your job.

At The Rivet Group, our job is to match companies with talented professionals. If you are ready to hire for your team or are ready to explore new career opportunities, we’d like to talk to you.

You can contact us at

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