Want a new job? Give your old one a makeover

Lots of New Year's resolutions involve a job hunt, but you may be able to get out of your rut without quitting.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Friends, are you feeling restless? Seems so.

A few days before Christmas, the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group for HR people with 210,000 members in 100 countries, came out with a startling report: 75 percent - yes, fully three-quarters - of employees in a new poll say they are job hunting. Not surprisingly, the survey says that 73 percent of HR folk are "concerned" about the possibility of a mass exodus, and more than half have begun bending over backwards to keep the employees they value most.

Just handing out money won't do it: About one-third of the employees who want to quit are after better pay, but a far more common goal - better career-development opportunities - was cited by 48 percent of people who plan to change jobs. Other reasons given included boredom and burnout, mentioned by 28 percent. (The percentages add up to more than 100 percent because people were allowed to give more than one answer.)

Of course, pulling up stakes and moving to a different company is one way to get a shot at fresh vistas and new challenges, but it's not without risk. Over the years I've heard from plenty of people who felt that in changing jobs they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. A new boss, for instance, often turns out to be no better (or even worse) than the old one, or a different role just isn't as interesting as it first appears.

Particularly if you have been building a career, and a reputation, in one company for a long time, going somewhere else essentially requires that you start all over again from scratch: The relationships it's taken you many years to build are suddenly gone, and there's no guarantee you'll thrive in an unfamiliar culture.

Jump out of the rut

So what can you do instead? Before dusting off your resume and hitting the job boards, it might be worthwhile to try getting more out of the job you have now. Cynthia McCauley, a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., has written a book called "Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences Without Changing Jobs" (Center for Creative Leadership Press, $25.00). In a recent conversation, McCauley offered these three suggestions for getting out of the same old rut:

1) Take over a task or responsibility, or create a new one.

"Adding new responsibilities or reshaping your job may be more realistic than you think," McCauley says. "Consider moving something from someone else's plate to your own, trading tasks with someone else, or taking on a task that needs to be done but that no one currently 'owns'. You can also take a fresh look at responsibilities that are a legitimate part of your job but that have received little attention."

McCauley knows one manager who wanted to gain experience dealing with people outside the company, "so he traded hats with a colleague and took over managing relationships with vendors. Or negotiate to take something off your boss's plate. A manager I know took over a high-profile customer account, to get a taste of dealing with that kind of high-stakes situation."

McCauley adds, "You can also create opportunities - like someone I know who built an entire program for training and managing interns. That added real value both for the interns and the company."

2) Seek out temporary assignments that build skills and broaden your network.

"If you look around, you're almost certain to find a task force or some other temporary project that can add a whole new dimension to what you're doing now," McCauley says. "Even offering to fill in for someone who's out on medical leave can lead to some really valuable experience."

Let your boss and the human resources department know that you're on the lookout for fresh challenges, and you may be surprised at what turns up.

3) Look outside the workplace, especially at nonprofits.

"Usually, nonprofits want to tap you to do things you're already good at. But for your own career growth, it's better to look for a 'stretch' assignment that will give you new skills you can take back to work with you," says McCauley. "For example, you can join a start-up nonprofit, to get experience at establishing something new. One executive told me he deliberately chose an advocacy organization, so he could practice persuading people of a point of view. You can also gain global or cross-cultural experience through nonprofits. I know a woman who works for a very U.S.-centric company, but who spends two weeks a year working for a nonprofit that provides educational services overseas. It's a valuable perspective."

McCauley notes that it helps to start your job makeover with "an idea of what skills you want or need to develop. For instance, you might think, 'I'd like to strengthen my coaching skills. Where in the company can I find a way to do that?' If you set out with a specific goal, you may start seeing opportunities that weren't obvious to you before." With any luck, your search could lead you to a really rewarding New Year.

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