Q: I volunteered to take on a new project and am now freaked out as I’m way over my head. What do I do to keep this from harming my reputation and career (or my company)?

Renee, 35, team leader

A: Stay calm, think things through and reach out for assistance when you need it.

Think of all the times you have been in a tight spot. Maybe it’s been professional, or perhaps it’s been in a personal situation. Consider the skills you have developed to extricate yourself from binds in the past and ways you could use them now.

Use this to reassure yourself that you can come through this successfully. Things seldom are as dire as they seem. Remember, too, that you were given this opportunity for a reason, so your bosses likely have a certain amount of confidence in you.

At the same time, consider whether you tend to dramatize situations you are in. If this is a pattern for you, it would be a good one to address, as it creates a lot of negative emotional energy that can keep you from being successful in your day-to-day activities.

One of the best ways to get out of a panic hole is to break things down into simpler parts. Let’s consider what you might mean when you say you’re over your head, as well as some possible solutions.

Perhaps this is a bigger project than you are used to, or you are not accustomed to being in charge. In this case, you may be stuck right at the beginning, knowing how to approach from a big picture perspective. This is your chance to study up on basic project planning techniques. There are a lot of excellent online resources, books, local and national events, and training on this; check out the Project Management Institute’s offerings as a starting point.

This is foundational to taking on projects, even if you don’t get a formal certification, and will serve you well in the future if this is a gap in your skills.

If success requires certain technical skills you lack, enlist others to take on those portions. The more complex the project, the more essential it is to have the right people lined up. You don’t need to be the only contributor.

Be sure you have sufficient communication skills if you are dealing with a more senior level in your organization. Get mentoring on managing up and stepping up your communication game, if needed, and have a formal communication plan in place.

And maybe it’s just taking more time than you expected. Talk to your boss, and look at what you could delegate from your “day job.”

Above all, don’t keep secrets and let a disaster form. Unforeseen events come up on every project. Be matter-of-fact and practical about the challenges, looking at your options and developing alternatives. Then communicate directly with your boss or project’s executive sponsor so that they don’t get secondhand news and lose confidence.

Everyone has challenges; the key is owning up and aligning resources to get the job done.


What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.