Have you heard the advice “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life”? Or how about the Japanese concept of Ikigai, where you should find the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for, and do that? (My apologies for what I’m sure is an awful attempt to sum up a philosophy in one sentence.)
I have. I read those advice pieces regularly, wonder if there’s room to refine where I’ve ended up, and then shrug and go back to the job I really like (most of the time) which pays the bills (as long as I’m not too extravagant). I’ve done OK by those measures – perhaps better than most. But I’ve always wondered whether it’s actually useful advice? As a trite throw-away line, I’m pretty sure it isn’t – but if you go a little deeper I believe there’s something useful there.
This article is going to go a little deeper – but first I need to set some context. “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t just apply to fiction. If you really want to skip the rambling and get to the actual point, scroll down to the section titled “The Actual Point”.
Writing My Own Job Description
I’m leaving my job shortly. As I write this, I have one week left. The job I’m leaving is a “management” role (it says so in my job title!) and I was the first person in the role. I didn’t start the team, nor was I the first person to have play a leadership role on the team, but I was the first one to play a purely-overhead, non-developer role (although when I started, there was an intent from both sides that I would be on the tools).
That means I got to write the job description.
To be fair, someone else wrote a job description before I took the role – but they hadn’t done the job, and they didn’t really have a deep understanding of what would be involved. The role started as an informal one: I was a senior consultant, and the job was a team lead one – but for a particular long-term team, rather than our usual temporary project teams. Later, the role was formalised, and I applied for it, interviewed, and officially became “Regional Manager” (to some minor applause and a significant number of The Office jokes). I won’t dig up the original job description, because it’s just not relevant – I don’t think I even read it when I applied. It certainly didn’t guide what I did. I knew what needed to be done: I’d already been doing it for years.
Having recently resigned, and needing to help find the right person to replace me, I sat down to describe what I actually do. I thought about what my one-up had said when I asked what he expected from me early on. “Happy clients, happy team.” Great advice, but a four-word job description probably won’t cut it! Perhaps reasonably, I started reviewing all the things I spend my time on. First at the day-to-day level, then at the monthly level, then the longer-term things. I looked at what changes I’d helped achieve, and thought about how I helped achieve them. If I can find someone who can keep doing the things I’ve been doing for the past few years, I thought, they’ll keep achieving the success I’ve been achieving!
Perhaps you can see the problem with that idea. Hiring someone to repeat the patterns of the past isn’t necessarily the best way to lead the team into the future. That’s not the lesson here, though – although I’ve just added that article to my backlog. I zoomed out a little – I described the goals I had pursued, and (to a lesser extent) the outcomes I’d been hoping for. I looked forward as well: what outcomes do we need in the future? They’ll be the real responsibilities of my replacement. Or perhaps they’ll even decide they’re not actually the right outcomes, and come up with new ones! That’s the real job.
Anyway, after a few more rounds of zooming in and out, reviewing and editing, and seeking input from my colleagues, I had what I thought was a workable job description. Only there was a problem.
There is no way I would have applied for that job.
I like my job. Quite a lot. I’m not sure I’d say I love it, but I work with some amazing people, I get to see a lot of different clients (we’re a consultancy, after all), and I have the autonomy (for the most part) to organise the team as I see fit. I pass a lot of that autonomy down to my team, to organise themselves around the clients and problems they’re facing. That wasn’t the problem. The position description didn’t make it sound like an unlikeable job.
It made it sound like an unapproachable job.
Echoes of Imposter Syndrome
“I’m not qualified for my job!” is a thought I’ve had plenty of times throughout my career, but not recently – and I didn’t quite think that now. I seem to have succeeded in the role. The things people have said (particularly since I resigned) and the metrics of the team I manage suggest I’m doing pretty well. But I know that if I’d seen that job ad a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have applied. It was too intimidating. If I saw it today … the same. It’s too much. I’m not ready for a job like that!
I had two adjustments to make. One to my own expectations of myself. I can do a job like that! And while the expectations of the role I’m going in to won’t be quite so lofty, there’s a good chance I’ll turn it into something just as big. I’ll broaden my responsibilities, I’ll fine-tune the role to suit me, and when I leave people will (hopefully) talk about how I have big shoes to fill. That leads me to the second adjustment I needed to make.
I added a sentence to the beginning of the position description. “The right candidate will have the opportunity to shape the role to fit their strengths, and delegate some of the following responsibilities and goals to other members of their team.” I think all leadership roles carry this implication, and we might find more people would be comfortable in stepping in to leadership (and be better at delegating) if we made it more explicit up front.
That’s still not the main point of this article, but I have finally arrived at it.
The Actual Point
Whether or not you’re in leadership, you should find ways to make your role suit you.
The real insight I came to is that the role description only looks the way it does because I’ve shaped the role around my own strengths. I hunted around looking for ways we could be better, and where I found something I would be great at, I added it to the list of things I do. Where I found something that would be highly valuable that I would be bad at (or was too far from my sphere of influence), I tried to get someone else to do it. Had another person been in the role instead of me, and they’d actively shaped it to suit themselves in the same way I did, the role would probably look different – and they’d probably like it just as much as I do.
That’s fine advice, Lionell (you might object), but you’re a manager! Individual contributors (ICs) don’t have the authority to do that!
It’s true that I have more authority than I did as an IC, but I also have a broader variety of larger-scale outcomes I’m on the hook for. I’ve been shaping my role to suit myself for most of my career, and it hasn’t gotten any easier now that I’m in management. Whether you’re a manager or an IC, it’s tough – but it’s also extremely rewarding, and I think everyone should try to do it. You won’t always succeed (I’ve certainly had jobs where I couldn’t make it work), but you won’t know if you don’t try.
It’s Not All About You
It’s not just personally rewarding. It’s likely to be great for your team, as well. In one role where I was a senior developer or a tech lead (to this day I’m not quite sure), I advocated for 20% time – where developers get the freedom to spend 20% of their time on side projects. We didn’t get 20% time – but we did get 10% time, and one of my first 10%-time projects was to build a proof-of-concept user interface for our flagship product based around Google Earth. It was extremely well-received, and while we ended up pivoting to Google Maps instead, that layout became core to the product for many years to come (it might still be that way).
In another IC role, I put my hand up for presales work every single time the sales team needed an engineer. I enjoyed it, I built some great skills, and I helped us close some deals which we might otherwise have missed out on! Or maybe I lost us some deals. At least, I helped make sure engineering had a voice at the table early on. My goal was not to win or lose deals, but to help shape opportunities into successful projects. It meant my engineering work was regularly interspersed with presales work, and I loved the variety.
Back to my current role: that presales experience came in mighty handy. I’ve done presales work on just about every new client my team has picked up in the last three years. I’ve loved that part of my job! But if I’d hated presales, I wouldn’t have done all that presales at a previous job, and I would probably have left it to others. Hopefully I would have found someone on my team interested in it.
Advice for Individual Contributors
If you’re an IC, I can’t tell you how much of your current role will be negotiable. Perhaps it’s only 10%. Perhaps it’s 100%. If you keep scanning your sphere of influence for things which need doing, pick the things you think you’d be good at, and ask to do them, you’ll find out. If you don’t know how to find things which need doing, ask your manager! Tell them that you’re looking for opportunities for expanded responsibilities, and tell them what kind of things you think you’d be interested in or good at. Most managers I’ve met have too much on their plate and will be happy to offload some of what they do – but watch out for them giving you busy work. A great manager will give you opportunities which you can learn from and feel good about. A poor manager will just give you the menial tasks they hate.
One thing to watch out for: if you’re very early in your career, be wary of a trap I’ve seen some people fall into. Don’t let yourself end up as a gopher (“Hey [name], go’fer coffee” / “hey [name], go’fer [other task]”). You need to be learning the fundamentals of your craft, and that means spending plenty of time on the tools. A little extra responsibility is a good thing, but you shouldn’t over-do it and you shouldn’t let yourself be de-valued by getting all the menial tasks. Picking up coffee for the team is the kind of thing that should probably be a shared or rotated responsibility, not a task given to the most junior IC on the team.
Advice for Managers
If you’re a manager, you (hopefully) already have the autonomy to build your role into something you will like (or even love). The more senior you become, the more your responsibilities should be focused on achieving outcomes with your team, rather than doing specific things personally. If you’re not already taking advantage of this – get on it!
There are three things I’d recommend a new manager flexing their autonomy-muscles watch out for:
First, don’t lose sight of the actual goals you’re responsible for. This isn’t a license to just do whatever seems fun and forget your responsibilities! Even more importantly, don’t lose sight of the fact that one responsibility every manager has is to build up their team. Don’t keep all the fun jobs and delegate all the rubbish ones: that would be failing in that responsibility.
Second, be aware that you’re part of a broader organisation, and there are other people around you with their own goals and passions. If you think you’d absolutely love to run a customer-facing product forum, but there’s already a community engagement manager running a customer-facing product forum, this isn’t a license to go start your own competing one! Instead, see if there’s a related gap: perhaps there’s an opportunity to launch a public Slack or Discord group focused on your product. Perhaps there’s just no need, and you’ll need to scratch that particular itch on your own time (maybe by finding an open source project or not-for-profit group in need of a spare-time community manager).
Third, be aware of the time costs of the things you take on. If you’re the CTO, spending half your time moderating a community forum is probably not what you’re being paid for. Keeping an eye on trends in a community forum and making sure you understand how your users see your product might be, though! If there’s no community forum right now and you think there should be, delegate. You get bonus points if you can find someone in your organisation who would love to take on that responsibility for you.
My final advice is to take your time over this. You’ll get the best outcomes if you find things to do which not only help you like your job more, but let you learn new things and help the team around you achieve better outcomes. If I had to choose, however, I’d focus on things which make me happier. You might be surprised just how valuable it is to your team for you to be happy at work!