The Unwritten Role Description
When it comes to increasing your payoff for all you invest in work, many companies spell out to their employees the official formula for advancement within the organization. A career path document, sometimes presented as a chart or table, is basically a document that says, “If you have met the following conditions by the time we review your performance, you will advance to the next level with increased compensation and responsibilities.” Do A, B, and C, and in return we will entrust you with responsibilities D, E, and F, for which you will receive $X in additional income. When you read the document early in your first real job, it seems so comfortingly…algorithmic. You don’t need to solve for x, because they’ve already told you the answer.
I remember looking at the career roadmap chart for research analysts during orientation on Day 1 of my first job out of college. After reading the flow chart that told you what you needed to do to reach each stage, I was already thinking about how quickly I could make my first promotion and what came after that. I think a lot of people experience this. But before you get carried away, there are a few things you should understand that you almost certainly won’t hear when your career path and performance review criteria are first explained to you:
- It is impossible to distill the entirety of your job’s demands into a checklist on a page.
- Whatever else happens, your professional advancement still occurs when those more senior to you decide it will.
- Despite all of objective criteria laid out for you, some percentage of your evaluation is still subjective.
- The exact performance review criteria matter less for advancement than whether you make the organization more successful and make managers comfortable trusting you with more responsibility.
I’d love to shake the hand of any manager who explains these realities to their new hires on day one. I think it would prompt people to think about their careers in a more realistic light from the beginning.
Some people feel uncomfortable when subjectivity is introduced into what otherwise seems like a predictable process for success. If you are such a person, try to remember that subjective is not the same as “unfair”. It simply reflects the reality that human judgment is inevitably involved in evaluating your performance. This is especially true when comparing your performance with others, because that simply has to involve subjectivity. Regardless of title or expectations, no two people do exactly the same job in the professional world. There are always some different circumstances or contexts to factor into a comparison that require people to make a judgment call. You and a peer may get different opportunities to demonstrate certain skills throughout the year because you worked on different projects, for example. That brings subjective judgment into the picture. On top of that, some of the things that have significant influence on the perception of your work quality, like your communication skills, are unavoidably subjective. All of this is actually good news for you: not only can you influence the subjective criteria as much as the objective ones, but the fact that most of your colleagues will fail to do this means opportunity for you.
Trust: They Key Ingredient to Rising Fast
The last point, that what matters most is whether you make the organization better and earn peoples’ trust merits special consideration because it’s easy to miss the point. In a sense, performing your listed responsibilities should be thought of as the minimum requirement for doing your job, not the entirety of it. Making the organization more successful is the ultimate measure of your performance – and not because that’s what someone in your role is tasked with. It’s the case because that’s just what people who are great at their jobs do, period. As for building trust, I think most people intuitively get that gaining others’ trust is important in a role wherein your promotions and opportunities are controlled by people more senior than they are. But I also think that most people not only underappreciate its importance to their immediate advancement, they also don’t realize that earning managers’ trust actually helps the business too.
How earning your managers’ trust helps you is fairly obvious. The more managers feel they can rely on you, they more important things they’ll ultimately give you to work on will be. The more opportunities you get to work on critical projects, the more you elevate your stature, creating a virtuous cycle of opportunity, recognition and reward. But the business actually benefits in a way that is a bit subtler, but no less important. Senior managers need employees they can count on at the junior levels to effectively accomplish tasks down the chain from themselves. If a senior manager doesn’t trust that the work will be done effectively, it keeps them from focusing on things like growing the business, hiring, and other things they need to do. That’s a major problem for the business, because its more expensive resources are spending time on things that they shouldn’t. When you become a go-to person who gets the job done without too much oversight, you have solved a problem for the business, in addition to relieving stress for your managers. You’ve given them one less problem they have to worry about and made it easier for them to do their jobs. Problem solvers get remembered, and they rise fast.
So the million-dollar question is: How do you earn the right peoples’ trust when you’re still so new to the job? Answering that question will be a theme that I return to again and again. From my experience, you do it through the following*:
- Helping them solve important problems
- Showing that you understand in a deep way how your role adds value to the business
- Understanding how important decisions get made
- Communicating in a way that organizes peoples’ thoughts for them
- Understanding the weak points in your company and what causes them
- Becoming an authority early in something important
- Bringing big ideas to the table
- Finding leveraged ways to keep developing your skills
Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well unfortunately it can be damn hard to do all of these things when you’re brand new and trying to get up to speed on literally everything. But it can be done, and I don’t mean by working twenty-four hours a day either. As we dive into all of these topics individually, we’ll discuss in particular how to do all these things when you’re still learning the ropes and light on experience and context. I hope you’re looking forward to the journey as much as I am.
* One last thing: You might have noticed that “working hard” and “producing good work” aren’t on my list above. Why? Because they’re both givens. Working hard and doing your job well are table stakes – they just get you in the game. Plus, you’ll get plenty of advice on how to do your specific job and what kind of productivity is expected of you. My goal is to help you understand the aspects of your role that no one tells you about but that set you apart from your peers. That’s what I know, and it’s what has allowed me to build my career quickly. I’ll expand more on this topic in my next post.