Moving Out of a Career Rut

Brian’s head was starting to throb as he scrolled through the two dozen new voice and e-mails messages on his Blackberry while walking to his cubicle. Looks like another crazy day in the hamster cage he muttered to himself as he saw his phone message light blinking frantically. Brian, age 41, was growing increasingly frustrated. Despite working 50 hours and more per week (with an increasing amount of weekend work to “catch up”) it felt like his career wasn’t going anywhere. Work that once energized him now left him drained. Brian felt that unreasonable customers, managers, and co-workers were speeding up his hamster wheel just to watch him run faster. He had little time with his family and no time left to look after his health and fitness.

Down the hall the Brian’s boss was meeting with the HR director to review staffing for new roles and projects emerging from the recent organizational restructuring. They really needed a professional with Brian’s technical skills to lead an important project team. “Brian’s strong technically, but he’s clearly not the person to lead this team,” his manager reflected. “His ability to set priorities, deal with people issues, and pull a team together are weak.” “I agree,” the HR director nodded. “He works hard but doesn’t use his time well. I’ve also heard he’s becoming more negative and cynical about all our organizational changes and new services.”

Recognizing and Dealing with Stunted Career Grow

For professionals “on the grow” middle age can be a time of career renewal. Others, like Brian, can find their careers stagnating. Here are a few symptoms of stunted growth and how they can be rectified.

Time is not on your side

Symptom: Working crazy hours

Paradoxically, people who work harder, often get less done. As technology speeds up the flow of information and communications, less-effective people are swept away on a tidal wave of trivial urgencies and busyness. Failing to reflect and learn from their experiences before choosing their next course of action, they race around putting out multiple fires with little thought to fire prevention. They join the ranks of the industriously stupid. Like painting a building with a toothbrush, they’re working very hard using a dumb approach.

Prescription: Slow down

Step back periodically to reflect on whether your frenzied pace is really getting you where you want to go. Keep a time log or take a hard look back at your calendar. How are you using your time? Do you get dragged into minor activities that others could handle? Is multitasking and are constant interruptions fragmenting your attention and limiting your ability to concentrate on important tasks or projects?

Start reversing that by turning off the notifications for every incoming e-mail’ get out of the office when you need to focus on important tasks to give yourself some breathing space and think time.

Do You See What I See?

Symptom: Ignorance is (short-term) bliss

People with stunted growth often believe they are much more effective than others think they are. Their insecurity means they won’t seek critical feedback on their own performance or personal behaviour. Their “circle of delusion” is completed by being unapproachable with criticism or suggestions. This leads to a belief that they’re doing well because no one is telling them otherwise.

Prescription: Unfiltered Feedback: The Breakfast of Champions

You can get formal or more structured feedback through using surveys of your personal effectiveness that are completed anonymously by your co-workers, people you may be leading, those you report to (like your boss), and internal or external customers that you or your group serves. You should get an HR professional, professionally trained coach, or trusted mentor to help you interpret the results. It’s also a great idea to take the summarized results back to the people who completed the survey for further clarification and improvement or action ideas.

Keep your lines of informal communication open by asking trusted co-workers for general input on your organizational or team effectiveness or for specific feedback on a project you’re leading or a problem you’re having trouble with. Cultivate a mentor or two at more senior levels (by organizational structure or experience) in your organization and get their input on what you should keep, stop, or start doing to be more effective.

Technical Tunnel Vision

Symptom: I, robot

Many professionals are hired for their technical abilities, promoted for their management abilities and then derailed, passed over, or even fired for their lack of people skills. Technical professionals who move into management, lead key projects, or fill important support functions are usually given those additional responsibilities because of their strong intellect and exceptional problem solving abilities. But those stuck in a stunted technical growth trap fail to realize just how critical emotional intelligence skills are to influence, co-ordinate, lead teams and the like.

Prescription: Strengthen Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence research shows that up to two thirds of a manager or professional’s success depends on their ability to understand and manage themselves and their own emotions, read the emotional tone of others, and build strong relationships. There are many excellent books, websites, feedback surveys, and training programs now available to help you develop your emotional intelligence. If you’re a technical professional, it’s especially important to broaden this critical career (and life) skill.

A legend in your own mind?

Symptom: The failure of success

In managing investment portfolios, say, it’s all too easy to confuse brilliance with a bull market. When an organization is growing, many people’s roles and careers grow because they are in the right place at the right time. It’s all too easy to believe that their success reflects their skills and effectiveness. The longer this goes on, the greater the danger that skills will ossify: Why change and grow when what I’ve been doing has been working so well? But when the circumstances change or new challenges arise, that lack of personal growth and skill development can lead to a rude wakeup call and plummeting career satisfaction.

Prescription: Self-assessment

Periodically step back and look at your successes and failures. Which ones were due to lucky or unlucky circumstances? Did your successes come from alignment of the circumstances with your strengths? Do you know what your top five strengths are? What are you’re biggest weaknesses? Through feedback mechanisms, personal reflections, and expanding emotional intelligence, match your strengths and weaknesses to career opportunities that come along. Or with that self-knowledge, pursue or create the opportunities that play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

You make it, you sleep in it!

Symptom: Take this job …..!

There are few truly dead-end jobs. But there is lots of dead-end thinking. Many high growth people bent on building a career started with a low level job considered to have bleak prospects for growth. A common excuse of someone with stunted personal growth is that there aren’t any opportunities for them to grow. It’s very easy — and wildly popular — to play the victim and wait for someone else to open those career doors!

Prescription: ….. and perfect it!

Start by writing out a detailed job description of your ideal job. What would you be responsible for? What kinds of achievements would give a deep sense of satisfaction and achievement? Outline a typical day when you’re “in the flow” and time flies by.

Now look around your organization. Does this job currently exist? If so, do a brutally frank inventory of what skills, experiences, and the accomplishments you need to get there? If not, do you have a reasonable chance of creating the job? Can you align your perfect job with a recognized need in your organization?

If you don’t think you can get or create your perfect job in your current organization, start looking outside for alternatives. Use a career coach, develop relationships with recruiters, get more education, training, or recognized designation your ideal field. Or start building a business plan to create the company built around your ideal job.

In the velvet rut

Symptom: Getting too comfortable

Retired race car driver Mario Andretti once said: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” To excel and continue our personal growth involves constantly pushing ourselves beyond our own comfortable limits. If your days have become a predictable blur of standard activities, you may be settling dangerously deep into your comfort zone. Are you becoming more of a spectator and less of a participant at work?

Prescription: Stretch your comfort zone

Regularly do something that makes you squirm. That might be making a presentation, doing a financial analysis, becoming more technically suave, getting to know people at the opposite end of your personal style continuum or job expertise, getting out of your office and meeting with people throughout your organization, telling others about your accomplishments, or taking a “soft skills” training program. Use feedback or coaching to identify those areas where you most need to grow to build on your strengths and overcome weaknesses to move you toward your ideal job.

At various ages and stages of our careers most of us have experienced periods of frustration, confusion, and alienation. Whether those times become ones of self-discovery, new directions, and fresh beginnings or staging points for a downward spiral in career satisfaction depends heavily upon our personal growth.