Fast Company

Is Your Job Running out of Gas?

Here are five signs that it's time to fill'er up before your career stalls - plus four tips for roadside service.

Philosophers tell you that your life is a journey, not a destination. Career counselors tell you that your job is a car ride - and the question is, How much gas is in the tank?

Like most cross-country car trips, jobs have a predictable rhythm. You start out with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, and a tankful of gas. Down the road apiece, however, the trip loses some of its luster, and the excitement of being on the road starts to fade. Then you realize that it's time to check your gas gauge: How much fuel is left in your tank? Is it time to pull into that gas station and fill 'er up? Or is it too late - are you running on empty?

How do you read your career gas gauge? Fast Company asked Pam Lassiter, the principal of Lassiter Consulting, a Boston-based firm that offers career-management services to both individuals and companies. Lassiter, 50, has 26 years of experience as the workplace equivalent of a gas-station attendant. Among her corporate clients are Polaroid, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and Malden Mills Industries Inc.

We asked her to name the five most important signs that your fuel level is down - or that your boss is telling you to find a pump and refill. "These are signals that you should be paying attention to," Lassiter says. "They don't mean that you need to march into the boss's office on Monday morning and quit. But you should monitor your job regularly and check your network to see what shape your career is in."

And remember: Pulling into a filling station while you're still able to is better than getting stuck on the side of the road, holding an empty gas can.

You don't want to go to work when you get up in the morning.

This is the first, the most obvious, and in some ways the most important indicator that your job is starting to run out of gas, says Lassiter. "There was a time when your work was fun," she says. "Not necessarily laugh-out-loud fun, but the kind of fun that meant you were satisfied with what you were doing. But if going to work isn't something that you look forward to, it's time to check your fuel tank."

Be realistic, Lassiter cautions: You shouldn't expect to leap out of bed in the morning, champing at the bit to get to your job. "But as you get going in the morning, the wheels should start to turn," she says.

" 'What am I going to work on today? How am I going to approach this problem?' You should look forward to addressing those things. And if you're spending 60 hours a week at your job - which today is more common than working a 40-hour week - then you owe it to yourself to do something that gives you satisfaction."

Lassiter cites as an example doctors who suddenly find that their work is undergoing a subtle but disturbing shift. "For the first time in a long time, doctors are coming to me for career advice," she says. "Their work is changing, and they don't like it. What they're doing now has less and less to do with why they went into medicine in the first place. They're waking up in the morning, and they're not going in to work to heal people. They're going in to fill out forms, to move people through their offices as quickly as they can, to track volume of care rather than quality of care. One doctor who came to see me decided - after talking through these issues - that he'd had enough. He felt that he was undermining his credibility with both his patients and the hospital staff. He took a job with a medical-instrumentation company, and today he's much happier."

What if getting out of bed in the morning doesn't make your motor turn over the way it used to? "Ask yourself what part of the job is bothering you," Lassiter suggests. "Take it apart, and try to distinguish between the parts that you can fix and the parts that you can't fix. If you can figure out how to spend more time on the job doing things that you enjoy, you may find yourself more eager to get to work in the morning."

Gas-tank reading: 1/4 down

Your boss doesn't support your career development.

"Everybody has a boss," says Lassiter. "It could be a board of directors, or your customers, or just a standard boss. If you don't have the kind of boss who helps you grow, eventually you're going to be limited." A job in which opportunities for growth and development are constantly reined in is a job that is running out of gas.

This problem doesn't always manifest itself in an obvious way. Lassiter offers this scenario: "You tell your boss that there's a conference that you want to go to. Attending it would be good for the company and good for you. But the answer comes back: 'We don't have the budget for it.' That may be true once. It may even be true twice. But if there's a local conference with a minimal fee, and the boss still won't let you go, then there's something else going on."

Or consider this scenario: "You're asked to be on a cross-functional team. Again, the benefits are clear: You'd learn about another department, and you could represent your own department. But the boss says no: 'We can't spare you. We don't have the time.' "

In cases like these, says Lassiter, the boss may feel threatened, or may be afraid of losing you if you develop too many skills. Or perhaps the boss just doesn't know how to develop people.

There are ways to get around this problem - short of quitting. "It's your job to grow you," she says. "Look for ways to handle your career development on your own. Take courses on your own time, offer yourself as a consultant to other companies, join a professional association - do anything you can to keep growing." But sooner or later, if your boss continues to limit you, you're going to feel the effects on the job. So this is an indicator well worth heeding.

Gas-tank reading: 1/3 down

You're stuck on lower-profile projects.

At some time or another, almost everyone works on a project that his or her company clearly doesn't value very highly. Often the assignment simply comes with the territory: Somebody needs to do it, and your turn has come up. But what happens when one low-profile assignment is followed by another? "If you're going from project to project, and none of these projects is important to your company, then it's time to check your gas gauge," says Lassiter.

The main problem, Lassiter insists, is not what the company is doing to you - it's what you're doing to your own career. That you're stuck in a Groundhog Day-like repetition of the same dead-end project should tell you something about how you're approaching your job. "You're allowing yourself to drift," Lassiter says. And that's a sign that you're less than fully committed to either your job or your workplace.

Settling for low-profile jobs is like putting your career on cruise control - or worse, into neutral. It suggests that you've given up on where you are now and that you aren't willing to face that fact. Of course, Lassiter points out, it may not be too late to turn things around. "Position yourself now for what you want to do next," she counsels. "Control your own destiny to the extent that you can. It may not be fair, but the best jobs don't always go to the most competent people. They go to the most visible people, the people who go after what they want."

Gas-tank reading: 1/2 down

You've been pigeonholed.

The problem is common enough: Within your company, you become identified with the position that you first held or with a project that you tackled early in your career - and no matter what skills you add, no matter what promotions you earn, those early associations continue to hold you back. You're like an actor who's been typecast, and if you don't find a way out of that pigeonhole, you may find your career stagnating.

"I see this phenomenon a lot," Lassiter says. "A woman came to see me who had originally been hired in a bank as an administrative assistant. That was three jobs ago. Now she's managing a major database initiative for the bank, but to her boss, she's still an administrative assistant. She's not getting the resources that she needs to run the project successfully. Just as important, she's not being offered the supervisory experience that she'll need for future assignments."

To get around the pigeonhole problem, develop your skills as a negotiator. Learn how to ask for what you want without putting other people - in particular, your boss - in a corner. "Don't confront your boss with your concern that you've been pigeonholed," Lassiter advises. Instead, propose a demonstration project, a special task or initiative that will take, say, 10% of your time and that you can use to change the way the boss looks at you. "You're saying, 'Give me a test,' " Lassiter explains. " 'I can do the rest of my job and still have time to tackle this project. Let's see how it goes.' If it works, the company benefits, and so do you. And if the boss won't even let you try, your job is even more out of gas than you thought."

Gas-tank reading: 2/3 down

Your reputation is working against you.

Reputation is a taboo subject that most people, and most companies, shy away from. But your reputation can kill you, or it can vault you into new levels of opportunity - often without your even knowing why. How well you manage your reputation can determine how much gas remains in your tank.

"A reputation is created by an action or a perception," notes Lassiter. "Then it gets spread throughout an organization by word of mouth. Once it gets established within a company, your reputation can be hard to change - even if it's based on a misperception or a miscommunication."

Lassiter tells the story of a woman consultant who got stuck with a reputation for being greedy. "There was a dispute over how to divvy up the rewards from a lucrative new client," Lassiter says. "One of her colleagues, who had a grudge against her, went to the boss and accused this woman of claiming more than her fair share. The charge that she was greedy and overreaching spread through the whole firm. The only route left open to her was to leave. Eventually she went to another big consulting firm and was quite happy there. But a major career shift had stemmed from that one episode."

So how do you manage your reputation? Lassiter suggests thinking about it as one element in your overall performance. Ask for regular feedback on how you are perceived within your company. "Say to your boss, 'I heard around the watercooler that there's a problem with my reputation. Do you think that's an accurate impression?' " she advises. "Then at least you can get it out in the open - where you can talk about it." You may not be able to change a bad reputation, but once you address it, you can decide whether the only solution is to change jobs. And you may find out that you have a good reputation. In that case, notes Lassiter, you've got the equivalent of an endorsement that you can add to your resume.

Gas-tank reading: 3/4 down

Michael Kaplan (mkap@interport.net) is a frequent contributor to fast Company. Tricia Tomiyoshi, a Fast Company intern, contributed to this article. You can reach Pam Lassiter by email (lsstr@tiac.net).

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