Discomfort Zone

Growing Pains are Natural for Project Managers; also: Pushing Back on Burnout and Explaining Career Gaps

By Lindsay Scott



I've been working in project management for two years, but I still feel like a newbie in the field. When do I feel like I really belong?

You're definitely not alone. I've talked with several experienced project managers who still feel like this at times throughout their careers. Working in project management means that each time a new project comes along, you're starting over: a new team to put together, a new solution to deliver and something new to learn from each unique life cycle.

Those same project managers will also tell you that, in general, the feeling of being a newbie lessens over time as you build more skills through hands-on experience—celebrating triumphs and recovering from battle wounds. Of course, development is not always linear. I've heard project managers describe feelings that sound like “imposter syndrome”—that they're somehow winging it and eventually will be exposed as a fraud. Even people who appear brilliant at managing projects occasionally have doubts and fears.

Take comfort: Two years is still the beginning of your career. It's an exciting time where anything is possible, with lots to learn from everyone you meet along the way. As you experience the highs and lows of working in project management, just remember to capture a lesson every time—and file it under that thing we call life experience.

How do you raise the issue of burnout with a supervisor who sees stretching the team as a norm? Will I be labeled a troublemaker?

Burnout can do more to jeopardize your career than any effort to resolve it with your boss. Having happy and healthy teams is mission critical for any organization that cares about its employees. Raising concerns when sustained burnout is dragging you or other team members down doesn't have to be confrontational.

There's no doubt that for many project professionals, periods of high stress give them a real buzz. That all-hands-on-deck crescendo amid the rush of activities and overlapping projects can be a real part of the job appeal. But an unrelenting workflow is a problem most organizations want to avoid—it can curtail production and limit creativity. That's important to remember if you're reluctant to raise the issue with a supervisor.

Here's what I'd suggest: If all-stress, all-the-time is an accepted way of working and not just limited to your own project environment, then maybe you are in the wrong organization. But if the organization communicates openly about its desire to make employee welfare a priority, then refer to that organizational bedrock to frame any concerns you want to share.

In that context, you need to identify the source of the burnout and, wherever possible, how it can be addressed to the satisfaction of all those concerned. Then, schedule time with the supervisor to talk through those concerns. Don't just complain about how the work overload is impacting you or the team members; suggest potential solutions. By focusing on how the whole team, supervisor included, can find a solution that works for everyone, it's hard to see how you can be singled out as a troublemaker. If this approach fails, escalate the issue and show how you have tried to resolve it at a local level, which should generate empathy and respect, and keep you in good stead.

What is the best way to address a career gap in a résumé?

Be open and transparent. People take a step back in their careers for lots of reasons, and hiring organizations know that. Hiring managers have no ulterior motive when they ask about a gap; they just want to know what you were doing in that time. If you were taking time out to raise a family or care for relatives, just say that. And if the gap was involuntary, talk about anything you did to keep growing professionally, such as learning a new skill or getting involved in a community project. Those experiences show potential employers that you're always looking for opportunities to apply and improve your skills.

Taking time away from a career is perfectly normal. Wouldn't you prefer to work for an organization that recognizes that? PM

Have a career question for Lindsay Scott? Email [email protected].

img Lindsay Scott is the director of program and project management recruitment at Arras People in London, England.
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