Stuck in a rut


Careers rarely stay on the same trajectory from start to finish. Sometimes project professionals get stuck somewhere in between—and that stagnation can lead to job dissatisfaction.

There's no shame in admitting it. As many as 56 percent of employees expressed a desire to leave their jobs, according to a 2011 global survey by human resources consulting firm Mercer. About 65 percent of North American workers said they are unsatisfied in their current job, according to a 2012 survey by Right Management, a subsidiary of staffing company ManpowerGroup.

Whether they've been in the same role too long, hit a career plateau or are simply burned out, project veterans sometimes need a jolt to boost their enthusiasm. And doing so requires being proactive.

“Think of how far our profession has come in the past 30 years, how many new techniques and areas have emerged during that time. If you aren't constantly seeking new information and training, you will be left behind,” says Dana LaRieal Morales, PMP, project manager and licensing administrator at Waller, a law firm in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Here's how Ms. Morales and three other project professionals have stayed fresh in their careers—and how you can, too.

To keep growing as a project manager, it's important to be consistently adding value to the organizations you work for, and also disseminating the project management culture and benefits. Act as an advocate for project management, working with stakeholders to understand each project's benefits, and with your team to realize those benefits.

To overcome burnout, always be open to learning on each project. What did you do right and wrong that made a difference in the project execution and results? Repeat the right things, but learn from the wrong decisions.

Try to think outside the box, and motivate your project teams to do the same. Recently, my team and other colleagues delivered a project using a new technology. A key success factor was to challenge the status quo, ask internal specialists for assistance, benchmark with other companies and challenge the business's past premises. In the end, the business requirements became more flexible, and technical constraints were reduced by implementing new ways of working and a new service model.

After several years of doing project management with the government of the United Arab Emirates, I got stuck in a rut. The learning curve of my experience came to a stagnant or declining point. I decided to join the private sector to do something new and continue to advance in my career.

My advice to fellow project managers is to keep advancing technically and practically to remain competent. Throughout my career, I always felt there was a continuous need for me to upgrade my knowledge and keep myself as up-to-date as possible. I did this through continuous learning, such as taking courses to learn new programs and software. Obtaining the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential was also of great value to my career.

Even when there is a drawback or failure, keep persisting until you reach your goals. Lessons learned are a very good tool in project management—and your career.

When I started in project management, my focus was in IT, so all projects I handled were strictly IT-related. If, as a project manager, you have limited knowledge, you can only repeat the same work over and over and you risk losing your drive for the profession. If you do not show interest or knowledge in different types of project work, people may not feel you can handle more extensive projects or projects in a different area. This can be very frustrating if you have the desire to grow as a project manager.

Now my focus is on more firm-wide projects that include, but are not based in, the IT area. This allows me to gain extensive knowledge regarding both the law firm and the day-to-day tasks and needs that are affected, but not driven, by IT.

Treat professional growth as a project and make time for it. Set regular goals for yourself to ensure you are being pushed out of your comfort zone.

Let your personal passions drive your professional direction. If you like to solve problems and love putting together puzzles, for example, you may be perfect working on complex projects or projects with many pieces. You can rejuvenate your career without completely changing industries; you just have to change the focus.

I know several project managers who have burned out because they could not manage their personal time while managing their projects. I was very fortunate early on in my project management career to attend a “Seven Habits Workshop” by Stephen Covey. This workshop helped me to realize the importance of putting “first things first.”

As an outcome of this workshop, I decided to learn more skills so I could better handle different types of projects. I recognized that by implementing a continuous learning cycle, I could avoid burning out. I discussed the issue with my managers and worked out a win-win solution. Every few months, I would take time off to attend workshops covering topics such as improving customer service, reflective listening or financial analysis. In exchange, I had to teach the skill to my co-workers upon my return. Having to teach the skill gave me the added incentive to really focus on the training and understand how it could help on a project.

To keep costs down, I took advantage of the offerings at our local chamber of commerce. My company saw how diligent I was and decided to send me to major courses that lasted a couple of weeks, then eventually sponsored me for my graduate studies program.

After more than 20 years of managing projects, I still maintain a mindset of continuous learning. I try to find subjects that are outside of my current projects, which forces me to come off of a project and reflect on what is happening.


Warning Signs of Burnout

Feeling underwhelmed in your current job? Dana LaRieal Morales, PMP, Waller, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, says you might be experiencing burnout if:

  • You dread coming to work.
  • You are always upset with your team, no matter how small the issue.
  • You avoid talking with your team and do everything via email or phone.
  • You refer everything to someone else to handle.
  • You leave work with headaches or are regularly tense.
  • You find yourself envying another project manager and his or her projects.
  • You constantly complain to anyone who will listen.
  • You aren't eating or sleeping well.


—Dana LaRieal Morales, PMP, Waller Nashville, Tennessee, USA




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