1. “No, your idea is better.”
2. “What do you need from me?”
3. “Let me make sure I understand…”
4. “How can we reduce the number of steps in this process?”
5. “Thank you.”
Growing up and well into adulthood, whenever I left the house my dad invariably said:
Not “Drive safe” or “Be careful“, but “Watch for idiots on the road.” And as curmudgeonly and vaguely paranoid as it sounded, I always took it as a compliment.
It was his way of saying, “I know you’re smart and competent behind the wheel. It’s everyone else I’m worried about.” And I appreciated that. My dad wasn’t an overly affectionate man, but he somehow always made me feel that he believed in me.
So the tip here is really twofold:
First, actually do watch for idiots on the road. It’s sound driving advice.
And second, find a way to show your team that you believe in them. It doesn’t have to be overt or gushy or something out of a management textbook. Make it unique to you and your personality, and your team will appreciate it.
I’ve quit a lot of jobs. And not just burger-flipper kind of jobs. Real, career-level jobs. With nothing lined up to take their place. Do I recommend this as a career strategy? Um…no. But, my chronic dissatisfaction has taught me to tell the difference between real job issues and me just needing an overhaul, mentally and physically. If you’re feeling burnt-out and uninspired in your job, try these before you throw in the towel:
Get some exercise. Doing this is a constant battle for me, even though I know I will feel 10x better if I move my body regularly. So I get that it’s extra hard when you’re unhappy in your job. But you’ve just got to do it. Exercise releases endorphins, which improves your mood. It improves flexibility, something you’ll appreciate if your desk job is leaving you an aching, contorted mess. And it gives you the energy and stamina to do other important things, like professional training, strategic volunteering or pounding the pavement for your next gig.
Find a hobby. Find something outside of work that lights you up. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you need something to look forward to at the end of the work day. Having something to think (and talk) about besides your crappy job will make you happier and easier to be around. And connecting with people who share your personal interests is a non-greasy way to network and can lead to unexpected professional opportunities.
Take stock. When you’re feeling beat up, the temptation is to jump ship and hope for the best. But the “anywhere but here” approach often sets you up to be just as unhappy in the next gig. (Trust me, I know.) Think hard about what it is that you really dislike about your current job. It might not be what you first think. And consider what parts of it you actually enjoy. These are clues to where you might want to go next. Then take an honest look at your skill set and decide if it fits a career trajectory you can be happy with over the next 5-10-20 years. If it doesn’t, you have the starting point for crafting your next move.
We all know smart, hard-working people who have been individual contributors for years. And we also all know smart, hard-working people who have quickly jumped from entry-level to management, seemingly overnight. So, what is it that sets these fast-trackers apart? They have figured out one of the fundamentals of career momentum:
Your job, no matter what level you’re at, is about helping the organization achieve its goals, realize its vision and fulfill its mission. The tasks on your job description are only important to the extent to which they enhance organizational performance. Fast-trackers get this.
Now, one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood is that the opposite of a great truth is also true. So, yes, your job is about doing your tasks. The foundation of any career is doing the work and doing it well. You have to start there.
Then it’s time to explore how your work fits into the bigger picture. Look for ways to streamline and optimize. Find synergies between your tasks and the tasks of other team members, work groups or departments. Share your ideas.
Look up from your task list, shift your thinking from how to why, and prove you have the big-picture vision of a leader.
Most of us build our careers as specialists. We get really good in one area and then we get promoted to managing other people in that area. But at some point, growing as a manager requires a shift from being a functional specialist to a organizational generalist – from being a subject-matter expert to a leader who can understand how the business functions as a whole.
Early in your career, being assigned to a cross-functional project team can put you on the fast-track to management. It introduces you to new people, sets you up as the go-to person in your department and increases your visibility within the organization. It is also a great way to start making the shift from specialist to generalist.
Here’s how to make the most of the experience:
Do good work. This should be the foundation of all career advice and directly applies here as well. Make sure you’re contributing to the success of the project. Meet deadlines. Do more than required. You’re representing your functional area and will be the go-to person, so always deliver.
Learn from other team members. Respect that the other people on your project team are the experts in their own areas. Defer to their knowledge. Ask questions. Dig into what their jobs are really like and how they impact the company. Use the opportunity to learn their metrics, process flows and problem areas.
Don’t complain (but be sympathetic when others do). You’re using this project to build your career capital, so you should see extra work as an investment. But others on your project team may not feel the same way. Show them that you understand how busy they are. Commiserate, and then use your new cross-functional knowledge to alleviate their pain points.
Be a meeting rock star. Knowing how to manage a meeting is key to a successful project outcome. Be attentive, take notes and ask smart questions. Most importantly, don’t get bogged down in the details of your specific task. Understand the higher level problem the team is trying to solve and stay focused on the company-wide impact.
Project confidence but stay humble. You want to be seen as smart, capable and well-rounded. But no one likes a know-it-all. And no matter how good you are at your job, being liked is important. You’re building relationships that you will draw on as you move up in the organization, so build them wisely.
How about you? Has working on a project team helped you grow as a manager?
I think a lot about creativity – where it comes from, how to use it – because I’ve found that it’s all too easy to get stuck in a mental rut, particularly when it comes to our jobs.
Doing things the same way you’ve always done them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is limiting. And kinda boring.
So here are a few prompts to get you thinking creatively about management challenges. I urge you to spend some time letting your mind play with these ideas.
Change your perspective. Use your imagination. See what happens.
What if…your organization doubled its current square footage? (office space, manufacturing floor, whatever) What do you do with the space?
Now cut your current space in half. How do you adapt?
Find your superheroes.
What if…one person in your organization has a new product idea that will revolutionize your industry? But you don’t know who they are. And they don’t know what they have.
How do you find this person and capitalize on their idea?
“And the Oscar goes to…”
What if…your organization receives a prestigious industry award for excellence and you’re asked to represent your organization at the award ceremony.
Who do you thank in your acceptance speech? Why?
Observe and report.
What if…you were a consultant (secret agent, space alien) visiting your organization for the first time. It’s an average workday and you’re free to observe and interact with the staff.
What do you see? How do you explain your findings to the people who sent you?
Need a creative jump start? I love these books from Keri Smith:
(This post contains affiliate links to Powell’s Books.)
Graduating with a degree in Anthropology, I never pictured myself working in the private sector, and definitely not in manufacturing.
But life happens, and I found myself in the business world. And for a long time I struggled with finding meaning in my work.
Why am I working so hard at something so mundane? How is this benefiting the world?
What saved me was realizing that my work as a manager made an impact every day. Maybe I wasn’t going to change the world by making digital projectors or truck parts, but I could change how the people in my charge felt about their work. I could change how they spent their time, how they engaged with each other, and how successful they were in their careers.
Yes, I had operational goals as well, but the beauty of well-rounded, motivated employees is that they have a practical value: they perform better. A positive work experience that helps individuals achieve their personal goals benefits the whole organization.
So when you’re looking for meaning, struggling with the “why am I here?” question, try this:
How can you help them grow their skills, or meet their personal or professional goals? Is there an outside project someone is meaning to pursue? Perhaps you can help them through networking, planning, or encouragement.
Think about how you can better meet their needs and maybe you’ll meet more of yours in the process.
Revised from original post – August 21, 2013