Bad Projects Can Still Be Career Builders

bad project
Guy on a bad project

Early in my career, I was once called at home around 9:00 PM on a Thursday night and told to report the next day to a project in a city, three and a half hours away from my home. The next morning I drove there to find out it was a project in trouble.  They were way behind and needed me to write some code and help them catch up.

I was at a point in my career where I was moving out of coding and trying to become a project manager.  I didn’t want to code.  I struggled silently for the next six weeks working 14-16 hour days to help get the project back on track. I couldn’t wait for the project to get over.  I felt like I was wasting away on that assignment.

Not such a bad project

In my next annual performance review, my boss lauded me for “taking one for the team”.  He said I had been a real team player by working on that assignment and that I had played a critical role in saving the relationship with that client.

And here I thought it was a waste of my time.

The fact is that not every consulting assignment is a glamour job that will catapult your career. You don’t get to work on the latest bleeding edge technologies or ones that are top priority that the CEO is watching closely.  It’s often luck of the draw.  A new project comes along and they need people with a certain skill.  If you have that skill and are available, the firm will rarely say, “Mary’s a great fit for this job, but she doesn’t like to do that anymore.  We’d better go out and hire somebody who wants to do that.”

Dealing with that bad project

So what do you do when they ask you to be on a project you don’t want?

Take it.  In most consulting firms, turning down a project is a career limiting move.  At best you will be labeled a prima donna.  At worst, you won’t get assigned to another desirable project.  If you think the job is beneath you, seek out ways to excel and add value.  It may do more for your career than you expect.

Don’t be a whiner.  If you find yourself stuck on a project or in a role that isn’t advancing your career, complaining to your manager will end up branding you as a whiner.  There are more positive ways to communicate a desire for a change.  You might consider telling your manager something like, “I like working here, but I don’t feel like I’m growing.” Then communicate to them some of the things you would be more interested in doing.  Ask her if she thinks you have the qualifications. It’s important to give the firm a chance.  They can’t solve a problem they aren’t aware of.

See my related post: The Meaning in your work

Develop other skills. If you find that you’ve been pigeon-holed into a role you don’t want, develop skills to get roles you do want.  Taking classes or just volunteering for tasks internally will help you develop and demonstrate your abilities to your firm’s management. It may allow them to see you in a different light and result in more desirable assignments.

Know when it’s time to make a change. If you’ve exhausted the above suggestions and the firm still insists on assigning you to no-growth projects, you have to decide whether you’re in the right firm.  If you have communicated to them in a positive way and they don’t seem willing or able to accommodate you, you may be better served finding a firm who will. Most firms value their consultants and will make their best efforts to retain them.  A few firms take their consultants for granted.  One firm’s junk is another firm’s treasure.  You may be able to move on and find one who will treasure you.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

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