Professional career mentoring requested: help me learn how to do better

Hi all,
As happens to many people, I’m in a job I don’t enjoy and I’ve been job-hunting. It’s been so difficult that it makes me wonder if part of my problem is… me. It’s time for some introspection, but I need help with it because I don’t know if I’m normal or if I’m just a big fat baby who needs an attitude adjustment. So tough love and suggestions for how to improve are very welcome.

I worry that I take this baggage with me from job to job: I’ve noticed that when a lot of responsibility is put on me, too fast for my liking, I push back and fuss about it. I don’t know if I am correct to push back because their expectations are unrealistic or if I’m just not rising to the challenge as I should. Here is a specific example. I am responsible for writing/maintaining documentation for five software products. I’m also responsible for answering questions about the products, including doing research if necessary in order to answer the questions. I’m also responsible for brainstorming new ideas for those products, and that involves going around to internal and external SME’s to get their thoughts, boiling ideas down into one or two proposals, campaigning amongst all the SME’s and eventual end users to get them used to the idea and validate the proposals, and then campaigning to get everybody to agree to doing one and agree to implementation dates. I feel overwhelmed with all that, so that when I overhear someone saying “Oh Jcwoman takes care of that, she can do it for you” or “Jcwoman is the expert in that…” I grind my teeth. Also on top of that, I’m expected to act like a champion of our products and our company and always be looking for new things that we can do.

But I have to maintain a cheerful attitude when my ideas are all shot down for various reasons, new awful problems are given to me to solve, and just keep trucking with my day to day work and brainstorm new ideas. I’m really struggling to have a cheerful attitude and see it all as wonderful challenges to eagerly take on. I see them as unwanted challenges and unpleasant work.

It’s all mental and that’s what makes it difficult to deal with. My supervisors have told me that if I feel like I can’t finish what’s assigned to me to let them know and they’ll get me some help. But I haven’t been able to because I seem to have become expert at doing just what’s absolutely necessary to pass muster but not go above and beyond. So for example I just don’t work any overtime because I know what the minimum is to get the work done and do that and don’t try to do more. It’s really hard to tell them that I can’t get the work done when I am clearly getting enough done to be satisfactory.

The other issue is that so much of my work is simply campaigning with people which takes time. It’s not like “it takes 3 hours to assemble this widget” time. Campaigning is more like talking to Bob and Larry to pick their brains, talking to Sue and Mary for the same, going back to Bob and Sue for further information, going back to Mary for her thoughts, writing up some kind of summary or proposal based on those discussions, reviewing it with all of them just to warm them up to the idea, wait a little time for them to mull it all over, going back to them all for their thoughts on it, rewriting, talking to them all some more to see if I’m on the right track and if they like it, etc… How can you do that for 5 products on an ongoing basis and somehow “put a pin in it” to identify that I have more work than I can get done and need help?

All my coworkers seem to be able to handle this cheerfully. They do drop stuff and lose track of many things, but they’re always cheerful and happy to add more to their plates, reshuffling priorities and setting things aside. I seem unable to maintain that kind of attitude because I worry about the things not getting done. Is that something I need to learn? Is it something that I CAN learn?

How long since you’ve had a holiday? It sounds like you are “burnt out”.

How long have you been in your current position? Do you have performance reviews where you talk about your job and where you are headed in the company? it seems like they think you’re competent and reliable because they ‘dump’ stuff on you. Why don’t you like the job and what are you looking at instead?

I had a rough first few years at this company, which very much contributes to my burned out tone. However I have noticed that I have adopted this attitude at previous companies too. At some point I start feeling overloaded, but it’s largely mental. I am thinking that I can’t gracefully handle the pressure of a lot of simultaneous responsibilities.

To answer your questions more directly, I’ve been there for 5 years now, and have short vacations (a week or less) a couple times a year, and a 2-week vacation every other year or so. Vacations only recharge me somewhat, because my responsibilities are waiting for me when I get back. I’m sure all white collar professionals know how that is!

I have talked about my feelings with my supervisors a few times but they don’t seem to be able to relate. This also makes me think it’s just an attitude problem or personality problem that I have. Maybe the issue is that I can’t handle a senior level position and should stay in a mid-level. But I don’t know how to stay mid-level when they keep dumping things on me.

First off, understand that these are not “your” ideas, even if you were the first to think of them. They are simply ideas. Ideas are put forth to the larger group primarily so that they can be built on or shot down. Very rare is the idea that is so well formulated that it should be done right now with no improvement. Further, if the majority of the ideas presented are not being shot down, then the team isn’t thinking hard enough.

Over all, though (IMHO), you do not seem to be a good fit for a project manager/facilitator/coordinator type role - and that is exactly the job you describe. Oddly enough, it’s the kind of work I thrive on - ambiguous, lots of unknowns, matrix management, team building - all right up my alley. But it ain’t for everyone, that’s for sure! That’s a good thing, too, “different strokes fro different folks” and all…

So, they give you work, you are handling the work, but you are feeling stressed and anxious about the responsibility/your ability to achieve it? Is that what you are saying? Is there anything identifiable that is “wrong” with how your workflow is dealt with? Something you could address? For instance, if you feel overwhelmed because you aren’t sure what’s lurking in the pile in your inbox, implementing a system of logging and prioritising and scheduling what needs to happen and by when might help with that. Do you have sufficient assistance to get things done and keep them organised? If you need more admin assistance, you could ask.

If there’s really nothing identifiable or “wrong” that you can address and it’s just how you feel, then what do you do outside work to deal with stress? Do you “have a life outside work”? Do you have a dog or go for a walk or to the gym or pool to get some exercise to help blow the stress hormones away?

If you feel there’s something about your reactions that “isn’t right for you”, have you considered seeing a psychologist who might be able to give you some ideas/techniques to block negative thoughts and take down the stress and anxiety? I found that breathing properly helped me deal with stress, many people don’t breathe correctly, I didn’t until I went back to swimming classes as an adult. I had a tendency to hold my breath which makes you feel terrible.

Here’s my guess - you are focusing on the stuff that you are not getting done as fast as you want as opposed to the stuff you are getting done. Any respected professional - and I can tell you are respected because you are getting responsibilities) gets more stuff piled on than they can do.
Figure out the things that are less important to other people, though you see them as necessary, and put them on the bottom of your to do list. And maybe at the end of the day focus on the stuff you crossed off your list, not the stuff still on it. Then you might feel better.

First, your job is where you exchange your time for money. If you get recognition, praise, friends, self-actualization etc, then that’s a bonus. It isn’t a given.

Second, it may be worth spending a week tracking exactly how you spend your time. Meaning every 30 minutes write down what you did the past 30 mins. While for that week it will slow you down a bit, it will give you a good idea how long it takes you to do specific things. From that, you should get a good notion of exactly what different mixes of activities you can handle in a week.

Pushing back or complaining about task can be caused by the fear of failing. But this is borrowing trouble. When you know for sure you will fail is the soonest you should talk about it, and at that point how you talk about it is to ask for either more time or help. If you did a good job tracking your activities, you will be better at asking for exactly what you need.

Last, remember that even if you screw up magnificently, odds are the consequences are going to be minimal. And if you were to scre up, it probably isn’t actually magnificently, so how worried do you need to be? Let me ask you, 8 months ago you surely were worried about not completing a specific task. Do you now remember what, exactly, that was? If you can’t even remember, how worried should you have been, in hindsight?

and it doesn’t sound that you are screwing up at all, they don’t give more responsibility to those who are screwing up. If your employer is happy, then you shouldn’t be wasting your energy second-guessing them.

Here’s a story- when I went overseas (years ago) on a working holiday, I signed up to a temp agency and got sent to various jobs. They sent me to a data entry “gig” where the client had number pads that were “upside down” from the ones I was used to (they can have 1,2,3 across the top, or across the bottom). I couldn’t do any entry at speed, because the keys weren’t in the “right place”. I immediately rang the agency and told them and they DID NOT CARE. Nor did the supervisor at the job. I was the only one who was bothered by not being able to do the job with my usual skill and speed. They were all “don’t worry about it, just plod away, it’ll get finished eventually”.

Go by what your employer is telling you about your job performance. Don’t let your own (high) standards drive you nuts, if everyone around you is happy.

Are you being groomed for the CEO job? Then what the heck do you care beyond doing the bare minimum to keep your job?

I’ll add that you clearly are doing well in the eyes of your managers if you are getting promoted and getting additional responsibilities. Some (all?) of this pressure you feel is internal.

Do you keep a working log of all of your projects? An Excel spreadsheet is good, but even a handwritten list works. If you get a new project, you can slot it into the list, and respond then and there with “this fits --> Here on my list. It is Priority 7.” A conversation can follow about whether they want it to move up or down and whether that means something else will be finished later or not all. This is not complaining. This is allocation of resources. Using the list allows you and your manager to realistically assess your resources.

Networking with people to determine how to get things done is absolutely something that has to happen in order to get things done. It is part of your job. You may explain them to anyone who asks as “A meeting with Bob to get information on how his department implemented chicken farming.” These meetings are important because no one wants to repeat past mistakes, and everyone wants to benefit from internal knowledge. Furthermore, the benefits from internal networking are important. If you know that Suzie in Internal Procedures Mapping can help you find someone who knows where the widgets are for your gizmo, and you have a relationship with her, you saved your team time and resources.

I would suggest that you look for a career coach, either near you, or online, who can help you work through some of these issues. I think you may be stumbling over yourself a bit, and a few adjustments might help. If you do this before you start a new job, things will go more smoothly.

Really? Wow.

Thanks everybody for responding. Here are some answers to your questions:

Great feedback here, especially the reminder that the ideas are not mine. Also I agree that I feel like this facilitator type job is not for me. There is a huge amount of campaigning that I have to do. Pretty literally like political lobbying except with people inside and external to a company instead of a political party. My people skills are fair but not good enough for this, and I have zero patience for it.

I know what’s wrong but I don’t see solutions. What’s wrong is that I have so much campaigning to do and you really can’t know when people will make decisions. Since my work depends on other people all agreeing to doing the same thing at the same time, I never know if I’ll accomplish the task or not (the “task” is to get everybody to agree so that we can move forward with the actual hands-on work).

And yet, I am given deadlines for accomplishing these things. My stress is knowing I’m up against a deadline but not being able to read people well enough to know if their thinking is coming around to agreement or if I need to “lobby” some more, or even when they’ll be ready to make a decision. Multiply this by about ten to fifteen which is roughly my average workload of things I’m supposed to accomplish.

A couple years ago they did send me to a “leading without authority” class which helped a little. But as mentioned above, I think this kind of work is just not in my personality/mental skillset.

I’m sorry but this advice is only helpful for physical tasks like building a widget or programming a module of code. When it comes to lobbying people to make decisions, the log would look like what I wrote in the fifth paragraph of my original post - every 30 minutes! I know very well how long it takes me to do the physical tasks that are part of my job and I’m very good at estimating the time of those accurately. What I can’t estimate is the decision-making process of other people and navigating politics.

I appreciate that but the problem is that I have NOT been promoted. I’m simply a business analyst. And at previous jobs where this kind of thing happened, I was also never promoted.

At the current place, one reason my workload is so high is that they reorganized the company into product teams and implemented Agile software development. I’m on a special matrix team that does niche work. The product team I was assigned to wanted two of us but the matrix manager wouldn’t let them have two so they only got me. So I’m expected to work on two scrum teams (the product team sub-divided into two scrum teams) and do work on five products. I get the feeling that they wanted me to somehow document that it’s too much work for one person to justify moving another one to the product team. But I haven’t been able to do that because of the touchy-feely nature of all the campaigning/lobbying I have to do. There is also very weird pressure coming from the fact that I’m doing this campaigning-type work while being expected to organize my work as if I was an Agile software developer, and participate in all the Agile ceremonies.

I’ve given them feedback that all of this doesn’t make sense and I’m struggling to deal with it but they just sort of metaphorically pat me on the head and say there there.

Can’t you give them a deadline? If no positive decision by x date, then it’s a “no”? Explain why it’s important that "whatever’ proceed, give them the info, follow-up within the schedule with a “how’s your decision-making going, do you need any more information from me?” meeting, but make it clear that you need a response by X date. Would something like that work? Be a bit pushy so you can know when people will give you a decision?

You may be right that this sort of thing isn’t for you, but are other positions always going to include it?

(I hate Agile. I know teams who make it work, but in the wrong organizations it creates hellacious churn.)

It is the nature of your job to do that lobbying. You have to do it. It’s the only way to get the work organized and teams aligned. If your management truly doesn’t understand that, [del]they are idiots[/del] then they don’t understand project or product management.

You’re going to have to stand your ground and document everything. Chart it out, just like you do for your teams, and put your projects above the line and below the line. Above the line gets done, and below the line doesn’t. Management won’t do anything about it until the work stops getting done. Don’t burn yourself out. Don’t fret about it. Just make sure they see the implications of their actions. Right now all they see is you managing to juggle it, so they’ll keep handing you more to do.

As far as the lack of promotions, now that I know that you’re in tech, and you’re in the technical side of tech: it’s not you, it’s them. I don’t know that for certain, of course, but after almost 20 years in the industry I can tell you that the odds of a woman getting promoted are very, very low on the technical side. I would think about moving to the marketing or sales side, or changing industries altogether.

They are primarily external client staff who I am lobbying. I’m not kidding when I relate it to politics; it’s like having to get all the leaders of every nation to agree to implement trade agreements on the same day.

Also, it happens fairly often that they agree to do something on a certain date then one client backs out at the last minute causing us to have to renegotiate with all of them. Since my work coming in doesn’t slow down when that happens it just piles higher and deeper.

I think this kind of work, at this level of difficulty, is usually done by executive levels of a business.

In my experience high performers beat themselves up for not doing what everyone else knows is impossible.
Are the deadlines for the clients very visible to your management and to anyone else with a stake in their decision? Can you escalate lack of decisions on their part to your sales team or to the management responsible for the contract? Beating up on clients is above your pay grade.
What are the consequences for clients who don’t respond or buy in? Can you give them a default - if you don’t decide by X date, here is what we’re going to do. And make the default the best thing for you. It might also help to convince them to buy into it - a learning from behavioral economics.

Is there an element of “I don’t get paid enough to do this?” in your dissatisfaction? That you are expected to work “above your pay grade” without status or remuneration? Is the stuff they are “dumping” on you stuff that a person at your level shouldn’t be expected to do (this might be a difficult question to know for sure)? If so, you might feel happier at work if you raise it with your employer, get a payrise/new title and get acknowledged and rewarded for it? If you are being treated like a doormat, that’ll make you unhappy.

I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t really understand what you are doing, but is there something that can be done to prevent clients pulling out? Do they have to pay when they agree to “whatever”? Can they be made to put down a deposit, or sign a contract or something that means they won’t just go “lalala, we’re going to Disneyland instead”? Alternatively, if it’s just that some things you lobby for don’t and won’t come together, you just need to deal with the disappointment. Back to the physical things you can do to deal with stress and frustration…

EDIT: in your job-hunting, are you working with a headhunter/employment agency? They should know whether your work duties and remuneration are on par with the industry

The OP’s job sounds similar to mine. Well…similar to the job of the BAs I manage on my current project. They have (or had…well…still have) similar problems of having to chase people down and get signoffs on stuff. What I would suggest is to try and structure your approach a bit more. Instead of all sorts of ad-hoc chasing people down and whatnot, come up with a plan for how you gather requirements, etc each time. It might look something like:
1 hour SME brainstorming session
3x 30 minute SME/client interviews
4 hours Create preliminary product documentation draft
2 hours Initial document review
4 hours updating document
1 hour Final document review and signoff

Or whatever your actual process is. And roadmap it out on a calendar. That way if someone asks, you can say “It takes me x hours to complete one of these documents. These y activities need to be scheduled to complete it. I can complete it on z date when so and so is back from vacation, etc.”

It sounds like they’re doing it (Agile) wrong. Implemented correctly, JcWoman’s work would be put on some “backlog” and prioritized. Every two weeks or however long their “sprints” last she and her team would see what was accomplished and then reprioritize the tasks for the next sprint.

Instead they are doing the typical idiot corporate project management “methodology” of setting random dates and dumping work on people.

That doesn’t sound like the OPs role to me. She said she’s a business analyst. Her job is gathering and documenting requirements, etc. What she needs is a Project Manager or Agile Scrummaster or whatever to organize and prioritize her work and a Product Manager to manage new feature development.

That speaks to an organizational culture problem. High performing organizations know how to make possible what is impossible for more mediocre ones. Mediocre organizations feel it’s more important to pay lip service to getting the job done than actually doing it.

In my company, that level of work is done by BA’s (though we call them BIA’s - Business Integration Analysts), to differentiate between them and the “basic” BA role msmith describes below). That is the team I manage, and they work with internal departments and external clients to implement changes, new products, etc. on a timeline that all agree to. It ain’t easy, and constant change is the status quo.

“Business Analyst” means different things at different companies, sometimes even within the same company. It is not in any way a standardized role like “SQL coder” or “Network Engineer” may be. I went by her description. While that probably includes the functions you mentioned, it also includes a healthy dose of facilitation, coordination, matrix management and change control. This is exactly how the BIA’s on my team operate. A PM or scrum master may help, but it seems to me that her difficulty lies with the job as defined, not necessarily with the workload or prioritization.

Nope, it’s not that. If they paid me a million dollars a year and promoted me to VP I’d still feel overwhelmed. The problem isn’t recognition, the problem is that I have not been trained or in any way prepared for this kind of work. I’ve gotten the old “throw her in the deep end” kind of training. I’ve discussed it with my supervisors and they’ve only given me pep talks and pats on the head, as I mentioned. Really, my situation can be equated to expecting a physical therapist to do brain surgery.

I think it’s more the bolded part above. I would need to learn to deal with the disappointment but also have the tenacity to keep lobbying to make it happen. In this and other responses I get the feeling that you guys aren’t understanding the scope of what I mean by lobbying our external clients. I don’t blame you and I don’t know of any other company that works this way. We literally require **all **of our clients to implement our solutions on the same day and time. Copying this comment here again to emphasize:

In my opinion it’s a bad business model. But I’m not here to fix the business. I just want to be a a simple business analyst developing software solutions.