CXO

Avoid getting into a career rut by challenging yourself regularly

The best way to avoid a career rut is to ensure that your workday presents new challenges and hones new skills. Here are some solid tips to make sure your career doesn't get stale any time soon.


Question
I've been in IT management for about five years. I'm not worried about losing my job, but I'm beginning to wonder where I should be going in my career. Should I keep doing what I'm doing or move into something else? I like what I do and could probably keep this job as long as I want it. But I'm worried about getting stale and losing touch with new tech trends. Can you work in an IT job for so long that you get typecast or stuck in a rut?

Answer
The short answer is yes. In IT management, it’s easy to get locked into a boring cycle of project management, endless meetings, and dealing with unhappy or unproductive employees. When your work life starts feeling predictable and stale, then you can safely assume you’re in an emotional rut.

Everyone who feels this way is certainly not without valid options, but everyone’s situation is a little different depending on career history and personal needs. You're in an advantageous position because you have a job that you feel you can depend on. Being in such a secure position gives you the ability to take some time to think and plan.

Being in an emotional rut isn't fun, but it’s not the same as being stuck in a career rut. Having been in management for about five years, you’re probably at the point where you’ve figured out how to handle most of the routine stuff. It also means that you’re probably just beginning to understand how to deal with the harder parts of your job. Nobody looking at your resume would say that you're stuck in a career rut.

Moreover, if you stay in management, you'll have 10, 15—maybe even 25 more years of doing pretty much what you're doing right now. Management tasks remain the same—just the situations and scope change. The only way you can get stuck in a management career rut is if you let yourself keep the same scale of administrative and executive tasks during those decades.

Increase your responsibilities and your challenges
When companies look for new managers, they like to see resumes that demonstrate a reasonable and orderly progression in someone’s management career. They want to see changes in titles that indicate increased responsibility, but they really like to see statements that indicate the person has taken on increasingly difficult assignments and challenges and handled them well.

If you started off in your first management position handling a staff of two to three and a small network, then, ideally, in your next position you would manage a slightly larger staff and be responsible for the smooth functioning of more technology. Having a bigger budget helps a lot as well.

Senior managers often supervise other managers who, in turn, manage a staff of people. While you didn’t state it outright, it seems you’re probably not working at a senior level yet, so maybe it's time to consider finding a more senior-level position with more challenges. If you're managing one or more other managers, you're on a senior level whether your title reflects that reality or not.

You need to keep your career moving while you keep yourself interested in your work. To do that, you must focus on finding a position where you are responsible for more than you are now—more people, more money, and more technology.

Take on interesting, cutting-edge projects
While you investigate other positions, take the time to find ways to help you counter the feelings of being stuck and falling behind in your tech knowledge. Look for an interesting project in your company that you can either help manage or be part of a planning committee. Bone up on the technical knowledge for the project by reading books or taking a course.

Make sure to choose a project that interests you and that you don’t know a lot about or is cutting-edge. If you pick something you already know everything about, you’re going to grind your rut a little deeper. Instead, stretch yourself by picking something somewhat unfamiliar. You’ll feel a little shaky in the beginning, but that feeling will help motivate you to learn.

If you can’t find anything interesting inside your company, you can get much the same experience by volunteering to help a nonprofit organization with its tech needs. You can always mention volunteer projects on your resume; some companies look for such activities when hiring new staff.

Here are two Web sites you can use to search for a volunteer spot: Tech Corps matches tech folks with schools (K-12) that need tech assistance; Geekcorps places tech volunteers in volunteer positions around the world for short- and long-term assignments.

You can also check with your local United Way to see if it knows of any nonprofits in the area seeking tech help. Sign up for projects that could benefit from your management expertise and that will offer you an interesting challenge.

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