The careerist: Ill-defined roles

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Stepping into a role that is either very loosely defined or has a lot of extra space for you to make your own can be very daunting – but it can also be a huge opportunity.

Are there different types of ill-defined roles?

Barrie Hopson, a psychologist and author of And What Do You Do?: 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career, says there are broadly two sorts. The first is where the role is unintentionally ill-defined: “This might be where HR has done the hiring and the manager in question wasn’t involved.” Second, in some organisations, especially high-tech ones, “there’s the Steve Jobs notion of hiring someone and telling them to find their own way”.

Alan Redman, a business psychologist at the Criterion Partnership, says loosely defined roles are becoming more common. “Increasingly, we’re seeing organisations looking for qualities in their staff that equip them to deal with ambiguity. A lot of employers want people who can deliver and work without someone constantly telling them what to do – and much of this is just down to the way modern business works.”

How do I work out what I’m supposed to do?

“A key starting point is that there are outcomes that are important to your bosses at a fairly high level,” says Peter Shaw, an executive coach at Praesta. “Find out what they want. But also take time to see what is happening, what matters to people and what the issues are. Observe and listen – and begin to define the role and define what you want to deliver. Then reach an agreement with your boss about this.”

If the role is intentionally ambiguous, you may have to take a slightly broader approach. “Find out about the organisation and what it wants to achieve – and the mindset so you know how do this,” says Mr Hopson. “Ask colleagues, ‘what do you think would be considered success?’ and ‘Are there appropriate ways to behave?’”

Again, you need to get sign off from a superior: you don’t want to discover the right thing by spending four months doing the wrong thing.

How can I use the latitude I have?

“Do what ambitious and motivated people have always done,” says Mr Redman. “Look for extra opportunities and responsibilities outside the role. Empire build and look for other things you can be.”

Mr Shaw adds: “Build a network and find your champions. You want people who want you to have resources and have an interest in your outcomes.”

What are the risks?

“For some, a lack of clarity and clearly defined tasks to crack on with is threatening,” says Mr Redman. “They feel the need to deliver against goals.”

Mr Shaw says that some roles are intentionally vague because circumstances are expected to change. “So be careful not to create your own rigidity when you define the role.”

Finally, there is a danger that, as others are unsure about what you are supposed to be doing, they don’t pay attention to what you do. “Find a way of ensuring that what you do is noticed,” says Mr Shaw. “You need to ensure others think it’s worthwhile.”

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