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Playing Outside Your Box

by Hank Barnes  |  May 15, 2018  |  1 Comment

Job role definitions are an interesting thing.  On the one hand, it is important and valuable to have clarity over what is expected of you.  On the other hand, they can feel very constraining if you view your responsibilities as solely being defined by what is in that role description.

I spent much of my career at startups.  In startups, role definitions are often “mushy.”   You do what needs to get done.   You often don’t get hung up on hierarchy–at least certainly not as much as in larger organizations.   People who enjoy this environment thrive in startups–they learn many functions and contribute in a wide variety of areas.  Often, they become defacto leaders–contributing to the success of the company and their own careers.   The key is to recognize the things that you are expected to get done AND for you to identify other things that need to get done and do them.

Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

As a company grows, and for large established organizations, things don’t often work that way.   The most frustrating job I had was in a very large company.   I felt like I was constrained to only do what was expected of me.   When I stepped outside the box, some of my colleagues really appreciated it, but management did not.  They put me back in it.   Effectively, they were saying “Know Your Role” and let others worry about the rest.  This attitude then permeated into the souls of co-workers.  While some wanted to be different, many would open every discussion with “That’s my responsibility, not yours.”    It was an awful experience and the performance of the division suffered.

But it is hard to avoid.  The paradox of growth is that in order to scale it, you have to break free from some of the old ways of work.  There is more to be done and more segregation of duties.   Enabling that scale is tricky.   And frankly, you need some people that enjoy staying in their box (these are folks that are often driven somewhat crazy by the fluid nature of job descriptions in startups).

However, even in large companies, the people that excel and create the most value for their organizations are the ones that step outside their box.  They understand the roles around them and the entire value chain out to customers and contribute across that.   They don’t say “sales is not my job”; they say “how can I help sales?”  And then they find ways and do it.   At times, this will cause some friction with the “inside the box” folks, and that level of friction is determined by leadership.   Do your leaders embrace the idea or want everyone to stay in their place (that can be easier to manage after all)?

All I know is I’ve been the most successful and contributed the most to my company’s success when I felt comfortable and supported stepping outside the box.   And I fundamentally believe that the best performers do this regularly and humbly. (I’m not suggesting the approach of throwing stones at other groups but not offering solutions for improvement).

Be a leader.  Get the stuff done that is expected.  And then play outside your box and find other areas to contribute to the success of your company.  Think of roles as a guideline, not boundaries.   Think of your role as the center of an ecosystem, where you then identify all the connections and use that as your guide to find other areas to contribute.

And, if your leadership does not support this–and you want to do it.  It might be time to find another place to play where the leaders foster an environment that is more built for collaborative success.

Get out of your box.


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Category: career-planning  

Tags: collaboration  job-descriptions  leadership  roles  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Playing Outside Your Box

  1. Thomas Fitz says:

    Actually, it’s easy Hank. Do what’s right, add value to mankind, the people you work with & serve, & amazingly it usually works out well for your employer, clients, consumers, & even you too. But hey, the last point is a nice to have. In the end it really determined by what lives in your heart.

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