Spring Cleaning for Your Career

You rearranged your closet, pruned the rose bushes and cleaned out the garage. But don't put away the broom or take off your work gloves just yet. Because until you sweep away that career apathy you're suffering from, you still have more spring cleaning to do.

You wouldn't be alone in your quest to spruce up your professional life. Since the start of the decade, the Conference Board, a leading business think-tank, has been trotting out studies telling us that only one in two Americans is satisfied with his or her job.

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And while a raise, promotion or permission to work from home in your underwear might be nothing more than a 3 o'clock daydream, you can punch up your drab old position the same way you'd fluff those sagging bed pillows.

How? Certainly not by volunteering for projects that bore you to tears in the vain hope that the head honcho will reward your slavish commitment. Instead, take inventory of the tasks you thrive on — and tackle them with the same gusto as Cinderella did when she got that free ride to the ball.

Build new alliances: Don't have the peer network you need to make your job easier? Then create one (with the big cheese's blessing, of course).

That's what self-professed "troublemaker" Claire Kuhl, 55, did. When the Greenwood, S.C., resident began working as an entry-level technical writer at one of the big three credit-reporting agencies more than a decade ago, the company was sorely lacking in any standards for creating technical documents. So Kuhl took it upon herself to round up half a dozen writers from various departments to collaborate on a company-wide style manual.

"It made my work easier and it was a lot more fun, not just being a lone wolf in the corner but having people to network with," she said of the group, which convened during monthly lunches at first, then quickly moved to e-mail.

Kuhl wasn't the only one who was pleased. A year later, management turned her ad hoc editorial committee into a full-fledged department, placing Kuhl at the helm. Within seven years, Kuhl, who has since left the company, was managing a team of 30 employees and contractors.

Adopt a pet project: A common complaint from right-brainers is that they don't have enough opportunities to flex their creative muscle on the job. But software design engineer Brian Cross, of Seattle, wasn't having any of that. Fascinated with robotics, the 31-year-old Microsoft employee decided to teach himself to build a robot that ran on the company's mobile operating system, on his own time and own dime.

Several evenings spent tinkering with code and old mobile phones later, WiMo (www.wimobot.com) — which Cross says rolls around and streams video "kind of like the Mars Rover thing" — was born. And so was a new phase of Cross' career. Because WiMo showcases the company's products (in addition to drawing on a whiteboard and dancing the hokey-pokey), word quickly spread among marketing managers. Cross received funding to create more versions of WiMo — now on company time — and to demonstrate them at software developer conferences. And his boss let him scale back on his regular workload to make time for his inventions.

Break out of your box: If you've been in the same role for more than a decade and the job's starting to smell a bit musty, it could be time to whip out the cleaning supplies. Such was the case for Chris Heinz, 41, who has been an architect for 17 years. Ready to leave the design trenches behind, the Kansas City, Kan., resident wrote a description of the position he wanted — at another company, as a design director who oversees the work of other architects — and successfully pitched it to the partners at Hollis & Miller Architects, a midsize firm in Overland Park.

"The thing that drew me to pursuing a different role was that I enjoyed working with people more in a collaborative way, helping them understand bigger-picture issues and how design affects construction costs," he said.

Four years later, he's loving the new digs as well as the juggling act of advising his colleagues on as many as 30 projects a year, often half a dozen at once, as opposed to the four to six designs he created annually in his previous gig.

Teach what you love: Another way nose-to-the-grindstone types can step out of their hidey-holes is to lead training programs. After donning a white coat for more than two decades, chemist John Kressaty, from Haskell, N.J., welcomed this opportunity.

"Besides being a chemist and formulating, I like being out there and talking to people," says the 50-year-old scientist, who works at 3LAB, an Englewood, N.J., company that develops high-end skin care products. "I'm not satisfied just sitting in a lab making a sample."

A five-year veteran of the company, Kressaty spends 20 percent of his work schedule traveling to retailers such as Barneys New York and Selfridges in London to teach salespeople about his products' ingredients.

Do some good in the world: Okay, so maybe the only redeeming thing about your job is the paycheck. But you might change your tune if you could convince the powers-that-be to support you in launching a department-wide community food drive or youth mentoring program.

Heinz, the architect, has been a driving force behind his employer's recent push to create greener, more sustainable building designs. To help his firm practice what it preaches, he's spearheaded an office-wide recycling program and encouraged colleagues to use dishes and silverware in the lunchroom (courtesy of the firm) rather than disposable plates and utensils.

Put it in writing: To sell management on your spring cleaning scheme, some research is in order. Find examples of other organizations that have successfully rolled out a similar project, position or do-goody program. If proposing an initiative that will require a team effort (such as Kuhl's technical writing committee), find allies among your co-workers before you go to management.

Consider not just how your idea will benefit you, but the company overall. Will it raise morale? Boost productivity? Improve the firm's public profile? Back up your argument with any facts and articles about comparable programs you can. Then make your best case in writing, detailing how you'll execute your idea, on what timeline, and what resources you'll need.

Start by clearing one shelf: "It's not up to your boss to recognize your glory and then lift you up," says Kuhl, who now works as special projects director at Park Seed Company in Greenwood, SC. "The most important thing about career development is recognizing that you own your career."

If you can't see yourself taking the same bold leaps as Kuhl and the rest of this crew, there's no law that says you have to clean out your entire career closet at once. Even straightening up one shelf can mean the difference between jumping out of bed in the morning and catching a few more zzz's (not to mention dust).

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author, and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work, and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com