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  • Daniel Muller

Dealing with Messy Situations During Your Career


After 35 years working at my profession, then retiring and starting a new business and becoming an author, I have many memories about specific times that were very difficult.


I often hear consultants, the media, or friends tell younger professionals or those pursuing their degrees to ‘Pursue your passion!’.


I have a different philosophy about careers. My view is that ALL jobs have both positive and negative aspects, even dream jobs! And all jobs have periods where there are serious challenges that require extraordinary efforts to overcome.


I strongly believe that most people, with exceptions, are not exactly clear on what their career path should be. Over time, most will figure out what they really enjoy, and really hate, in their late 20’s or well into their 30’s. Those who figure this out earlier are blessed!


I was one who never clearly developed a career passion. Instead, over time, I figured out that I wanted to work for an employer that I respected and that made a difference in the quality of life for others. Over my 35 years, I held very different jobs, each with uniquely positive and negative aspects.


So, how should we think about these challenging times that we all have, or will, encounter? Are those times just unfortunate events that should be avoided at all costs?


First, I believe that challenging times are those periods where you earn your pay. Challenging times present the opportunity to apply a wide variety of skill sets, and require the skills acquired through practice, education and experience. Second, extreme challenges become periods where you add the most value to society!


Let me share a few examples.

Let’s say you are an ER doctor, and you are forewarned that there has been a serious car accident and that 3 people are enroute. The medics in the ambulances tell you that all are critical injuries. You were hoping for a quiet night with few serious cases, but nonetheless, you and your peers have to deal with the situation. Over the next hour, you are tested as a medical professional in all aspects. You and your team have the opportunity to save three lives, although what you face is extremely challenging.


Another example: Let’s say you and your team are responsible for collecting from customers in a large electrical services company. Then the pandemic hits. Customers are losing their jobs in masse, your management is pushing you to get the payments at all costs, and you are challenged in ways never encountered before. You can make a huge difference both for your company and for your customers if you work wisely and creatively to solve these problems. You would rather not deal with this, but this is a ‘messy’ aspect of your job.


Let’s say you are a quality control manager at a large multinational company. All is well, and you enjoy most aspects of your job. Suddenly, your company has a serious quality issue that impacts nearly all global customers. Customers are alarmed, investors are perplexed, and management is depending upon you and your team to rapidly focus on the problem, find the root cause, and find solutions that will satisfy management, customers, and shareholders. Your ‘normal’ life is interrupted, long hours become the norm, and stress is at an all-time high. You are challenged more than ever before to utilize all your skills, experience, and savvy to rectify the problem.


I will share a personal example. I led the IT organization of a large company. I was within 6 months of retirement. Suddenly, we discovered a very serious systems issue that threatened our business and employees in a variety of ways. For an IT leader, this is the worst-case scenario. Management, shareholders, and employees had serious concerns. Should I just resign and let someone else (future successors) handle this problem? In my case, I could not do that, I had the responsibility of my job, and I felt that I had to come up with the best solution possible, regardless of the time I would have to spend to resolve the problem. I tapped into expertise from others, as well as all my prior experiences and skill sets to resolve the issue to the best of my ability. During a two-week period, I was at the office at least 16 hours per day, plus weekends.


What do all these examples have in common? Even though these situations create stress for you, those affected are totally dependent upon you to respond and to utilize your talents to solve problems and to improve the situation.


Why is this important? I hear examples from others about situations where younger workers in particular get ‘fed up’ with challenging situations, and their reactions many times are to resign and seek a ‘better’ job with less stress.


But all careers, at one time or another, hit rough spots and unforeseen challenges. My view is that these are the times where you can prove your value, apply your skills and experience, and have success such that you enhance your skill set and your reputation with your employer.


When many might run away from tough challenges, you can be the one that faces the ‘messy time’ head on and works to resolve the issue for the better of all involved.


No doubt these times create stress, challenge your capabilities, take away from family time and your personal free time, and perhaps cause sleepless nights. But this is your job, like it or not. You can choose to take responsibility and help society in ways that others could not, or you can choose to run and avoid all the hassles and ‘the mess’.


Messy times are part of the reality of the world, and part of the responsibility that comes with any profession. Instead of dreading ‘messy times’, face the mess head-on and do your best to solve problems as best you can. This is all part of career growth. Nobody improves without challenges. Everyone has to deal with messes, but these times are when you add the most value!

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