In over your head on the job? Take a step back without losing steam

Is your job description and position a bit over your head? It’s time to step back and assess. Photo by: Devex

Many professionals are anxious to get to the next step in their careers. I often hear questions like: “How do I convince my boss I’m ready for more responsibility?” or “How do I ask for a promotion?” But what if you weren’t ready for that promotion, and in fact feel a bit over your head in your current role?

It’s a scenario one participant addressed during our recent “Ask Devex” CrowdHall for Devex career account members.

“I'm not learning the basics of my M&E craft because I got a management position too early (after three years),” the participant said. “Should I find a lower-level job?”

I responded that I don’t think he or she necessarily needs to take a step down, but rather look for more learning opportunities in the current position. Here are four things you can do to propel yourself to success even if you’re feeling a bit out of your league on the job.

1. Look for a mentor

Mentors can help you catch up on the basics, learn more about your craft and provide sound advice when you’re facing dilemmas like this one. A mentor could be someone within your organization — who will have the added benefit of knowing how your employer operates — or someone who works elsewhere and has the benefit of outside perspective.

There is also no rule to say that mentors need to be more senior or experienced than you. The best mentoring relationships are reciprocal, where both parties are learning from each other. You could try finding a mentor, or mentee, who is in one of the lower-level jobs you’re considering to get a better sense of what they are actually doing and learning.

2. Take advantage of training

I see new monitoring and evaluation training courses popping up all the time. No matter what your specific discipline is, there is likely to be some outside professional development you could consider. Some of these courses are online or one or two-day workshops, which means you don’t need to leave your job or give up all your nights to go back to school. Ask professionals you admire if they have any recommendations for courses that will help you build some of the foundational knowledge you lack.

3. Talk to your boss

We are often reluctant to ask for help or admit when we are struggling, especially in professional situations. Work culture doesn’t always encourage admitting weaknesses, particularly if you’re working in a competitive environment. However, most managers I know appreciate it when professionals recognize areas where they need improvement. Admitting to your boss that you need more help in the basics is not admitting failure, it’s showing that you care about your work.

Talk with your supervisor to develop a plan to help you grow in this area while still focusing on your core duties. Maybe your portfolio could be arranged to allow for more learning on the job or your employer can sponsor outside training. You won’t know until you ask. (Bonus points if you can come to the table with some ideas of your own.)

4. Make a lateral, non-management move

If you try all of these approaches and still feel like you’re not where you want to be professionally, you may want to consider a job change. Rather than looking for positions more junior than your current role, look for lateral moves that have a greater technical focus and less management responsibility.

If you want to eventually take on a leadership role within an international development organization, you will eventually have to master management responsibility. But taking a break to build on your technical experience can be a wise move as well.

Have you ever taken a step back in your career in order to take a step forward? Please share your advice and experiences in the comments section below. Tweet me at @DevexCareers.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.