Chief Counsel: How to Overcome the Feeling of Career Stagnation

Posted April 22, 2009 at 2:39pm

Q: I feel as if I have reached a plateau in my career as a chief of staff. How do I keep growing and stay motivated?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: Many of the strategies you would employ when answering this question for a staffer would also apply to you. However, you face the additional challenge of having no one but yourself with a vested interest in your development. It is the rare Member of Congress who concerns himself or herself with your next career move or with further growth or fulfillment in your current role. The first step to growing in your job includes some self-discovery.

During this self-discovery phase, ask yourself some key questions:

1. What am I great at? Which aspects of my job do I most enjoy?

Rarely do people succeed in positions that fail to leverage their greatest strengths. As a chief of staff, chances are your talents lie in certain parts of your job more than others. Are your strengths in legislative or media strategy, people management, networking or project management? You may want to solicit feedback from your boss, staff and colleagues about what they view as your strengths. It is important for you to continue leveraging, as well as developing, your strengths to maximize your success in your existing and future careers.

2. What am I worst at in my current role? What do I least enjoy?

While addressing your weaknesses can help you to improve your performance in your current role and better prepare you for your next job, you are unlikely to turn your weakness into a strength. The key here is to create self-awareness around your shortcomings and begin to manage them (whether that means delegating parts of your job or working to address them). While spending time in those areas you find most challenging can enable some growth, it is unlikely to bring you greater satisfaction in your job. The goal is understanding and recognition so you can identify discrete steps to help you address your weaknesses.

3. What is my dream job? What are the qualifications for my dream job?

Pay attention to the jobs in the marketplace and identify your dream job. Notice what background and qualifications are required for these jobs and find out who the key decision-makers are in these organizations.

4. What fulfills me?

After identifying what motivates you in both your personal and professional life, you can begin to incorporate these into your current role. Even when we extend ourselves, we usually get energized instead of exhausted when it is with those activities we find most fulfilling. As you stay in public service, it is essential to stay connected to that which keeps you emotionally committed to your work.

Once you have explored these questions, you have the necessary data to put together a development plan for yourself. If you want more data, consider taking a leadership assessment or having your peers, colleagues and staff evaluate your performance in your role. Your development plan should address not only the areas you need to improve to be more successful in your current position, but also how those deficiencies could affect your next role. Ideally, your development plan will give you a strategic path for landing that dream job when you are ready.

While development plans take different forms, the main components are: 1) your development objective — skills, knowledge, relationships, competencies you would like to create or increase, 2) actions to take or resources to leverage with designated time frames, and 3) measures of success. Ideally, you should also include the help you will need from your boss. However, given your position, this support might be difficult to solicit. Nevertheless, you may want to figure out what assistance you will need to fulfill your plan so that you can make the request when the time comes.

As an example, let’s say you want to develop an expertise in the health care industry, whether to apply that knowledge to your existing office and its new assignment on Ways and Means or to help you enter the pharmaceutical industry in your next job. Your development plan might include actions such as attending health care industry briefings or taking courses on health care economics; creating a reading list from the Congressional Research Service; or increasing your number of contacts at pharmaceutical companies. By identifying the top three activities you want to pursue, with timelines for completion, you make it easier to incorporate your professional development activities into your schedule, with its many other competing deadlines that cross your desk on a daily basis.

Alternatively, let’s say you want to develop your collaborative skills. Your development objective may include improving your listening skills and your ability to solicit and incorporate staff ideas into your office. Your development plan could include readings on active listening and team development. You may also solicit feedback from your staff as part of your development plan on ways you can be more collaborative, or you might set specific goals for incorporating others’ ideas on a weekly basis. The success measures would then reinforce these goals you set for yourself.

While you might often feel as if you have very little control of your schedule, as a chief of staff, you are in a unique position to pursue relationships, access opportunities and resources, ask questions and design (to some degree) your job. Once you make your own growth and development a priority, then you can shape and take personal ownership of executing the strategy. If this plan includes additional development and leveraging of your strengths, managing and addressing your weaknesses and positioning yourself for your next move, you should break through the plateau.

And remember to make time for what fulfills you. This fulfillment will give you the energy to plow through the periods of stagnation.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.