As we have previously discussed, you are the only one who will truly take care of you, career-wise. This goes for your tenure in a given role as much as it does over time as you move through jobs and companies.
At the same time, though, you are not the only driver of your job and career. For the average corporate worker, your role and potentially your career will be steered, to varying degrees, in the direction other forces want it to go.
Your trajectory at a company depends somewhat on your manager’s convenience. Everyone at a company has stuff they need to get done, from the task level on up, and everyone would love it if their load was a bit easier to manage. Depending on their level of power, they will make decisions, or at least push, for things to fall into place to achieve that.
Sometimes that means collaboration with other teams. Sometimes it means bringing in a contractor or an agency. Sometimes it means your manager moving around their people to solve problems or get things done. Sometimes it’s absolutely critical, and sometimes it’s convenient.
Managers generally get at least some leeway to arrange their team(s) as they see fit. Now, ideally what they want you to do is part of your job description or at least skill set. But sometimes the parameters of your role will get nudged because something needs to get done and they don’t have a more suitable resource.
Sometimes this nudge is a one-off, but it’s pretty common for it to be the beginning of serious scope creep. Next thing you know you’re flying by the seat of your pants doing work that’s most definitely not in your job description, that you’re not really trained for, and in the worst cases, for legal liability reasons, shouldn’t be doing.
Of course, it goes without saying that you’re not getting paid more for it. Sometimes managers will mutter something vague about talking about it at your next performance review. Good luck with that.
It commonly happens when there is attrition at companies. Someone leaves and isn’t replaced. But their workload ain’t going anywhere. It gets distributed to those who are left. Or dumped lock, stock, and barrel onto one person.
Be vigilant about these requests or assignments. Not saying you’ll always, or even often, be in a position to say no to them. But there’s a difference between pitching in occasionally and being exploited.
I’ve even heard stories of people being guilt-tripped about how they should be grateful to be so needed, and how they should want to help out the company however they can, since it needs everyone to go the extra mile so they can all survive and thrive. Which I’m sure is great when you’ve been doing TPS reports all weekend and your CEO is at the Super Bowl.
Doing this is also probably screwing over your chance at advancement, because so much is now riding on you and they know they can’t replace you quickly, easily or cheaply. Being called “irreplaceable” should be a warning.
If this happens to you and the one-off becomes a two-off becomes a regular part of your job, you are no longer steering your role or career. It is entirely at the direction of your manager’s convenience (or desperation). Getting enough people to do the work at hand, distributing it more equitably, or at least paying you more would require time, effort, and budget. Terribly inconvenient.
This can also happen at healthier companies, and sometimes your manager isn’t involved much. If you’re the person who gets things done and handles emergencies, then you develop a reputation. You become a convenience to other people. So of course they’re going to want to bring everything to you to do. You’re good and you’re reliable. You make their lives easier.
Now, it’s good to have such awesome people available, but if such lopsidedness of skills and productivity has developed, that’s the manager’s fault. If there are other team members so bad that no one wants them to do work, that is way overdue for being dealt with.
There can be a variety of reasons that such situations develop, but none of them are legit excuses. People who are good at their jobs shouldn’t be punished with extra work because other people are bad at theirs.
You know that situation where people who are really great at widgeting get made managers of the widgeting team, and thus stop doing any widgeting themselves, even though managing widgeters and being a really good widgeter yourself use completely different skill sets?
That typically happens for one of two reasons. One is because the widgeter has gotten pretty senior and feels like management is right for them as the next step in their career. They may actually want to do it, having taken an unofficial leadership role on the team already, perhaps having led some projects and enjoying it. This can be a great move, both convenient and a logical step.
Or, the second, and less ideally, the widgeter has gotten pretty senior but there is no other way to advance at that company except to become a manager of people who widget. Also, their current manager, who’d make the call on promoting them, hasn’t paid attention or isn’t qualified to determine if they would, in fact, be a good widgeting manager. They do know, however, that it would be really inconvenient for them if that person left the company.
If a role needs to be filled, and it can be filled by someone who’s already at the company, won’t really need training, can possibly be paid less than a new hire, and saves time and resources in the hiring process, why wouldn’t an upper manager want to take advantage of that?
Now, good leaders know their people well enough to know if the awesome widgeter has management potential. It might have been their suggestion that the widgeter lead a project or two to test the waters. Sometimes they know when the widgeter themself doesn’t. Some people have great potential but need to be encouraged (or pushed) harder than others do.
But good leaders also know when orchestrating that move would be a bad idea. When the widgeter works great on their own but not as well with people. When the widgeter doesn’t have the savvy to navigate upper management or office politics. When they’re not overly helpful to junior staff who need assistance, or solving complex problems, or keeping anything more than their own immediate work organized.
In cases like that, the benefits and convenience of promoting the widgeter would only be temporary, if that. It would set up the team for a chain-reaction disaster.
A bad manager will cause serious issues with productivity, inter-team relations and morale. Additionally, the widgeter’s previously awesome productivity is gone, which will already have put pressure on the other team members. The messier things get, the more it will encourage attrition on the team. It may end up with the upper manager having to let the new widgeting manager go before they tank the team entirely. After all, their team doing badly reflects badly on them as well.
If they’d only had a non-people manager career track for the advancement of (non-widgeter management) senior awesome widgeters, hired a different good management candidate, and accepted slightly more inconvenience for the benefit of all concerned.
Good leaders don’t base large decisions on their own convenience. Part of being a good leader is being able to do the calculations to determine what needs to be done, what problems need to be solved now and for the future, and if it’s worth some pain or short-term suckage for long-term benefit.
But good employees are proactive about their roles and careers, too. Sure, you can only push back so far when someone’s trying to make decisions that will use you for their convenience. Sure, sometimes your concerns may be ignored and you get stuck with the fallout of a bad idea for someone else’s convenience.
Such is life. Then you need to choose whether to stick it out and try to mold it into something better and more convenient for you, to move elsewhere in the company, or to leave for somewhere else entirely.
The best teams work as a partnership, with the widgeters and management having each other’s best interests at heart, and doing their best to consider everyone’s convenience where possible. Usually they have to take turns with that, of course.
It requires people to really see each other as their own entities with skills and experience, sure, but also with potential and nuances and specific goals. When someone’s a convenience, you don’t see any of that. You’re actually invested in not seeing it, because it probably conflicts with what’s convenient to you.
A situation where you don’t feel like you have any say in your role or career trajectory is a problem. When you feel like you’re just shoved here or there to plug leaks and make life more convenient for someone else, who clearly couldn’t care less about what’s best for you or what you want.
We have to understand that our jobs and careers aren’t 100-per-cent up to us, but we still have to proceed like they are in order to reach our goals. And if you don’t want to be a convenience, do your damnedest to make sure everyone really sees you as much as you can make them.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.