Your job is not your job.
Your job is not what you do, but the goal you pursue.
Yet most professionals I know limit their careers believing that their job is what they do. When I ask them, “What’s your job?” They give me answers such as, “I run sales,” “I look after operations,” “I manage HR,” “I develop new products.”
So did I. I was a teacher. My job was to teach. Or so I thought.
What’s Your Goal?
Human action is behavior with a purpose. A person acts because she wants to bring about a future she desires, a future she believes will not come to pass without her effort.
The value of an action lies in its contribution to the actor’s goal.
I learned this thanks to the work of Ludwig Von Mises, long after I got my Ph.D. in Economics. Until I read Human Action I had never asked myself what future I was trying to bring about through teaching.
But in a flash of humbling insight I realized that teaching is irrelevant; what matters is helping others learn.
That realization changed my career, and my life. I stopped teaching and started helping my students learn; I stopped advising and started helping my clients succeed.
How would you change your job description (and your Linkedin profile) if instead of your role you focused on you goal?
But this shift would not be enough to maximize your value. If you are a member of an organization, your individual goal is not your real goal.
If you play defense, what’s your job?
Not to defend, because you job is not what you do but the goal you pursue.
So your job must be to prevent the other team from scoring, right?
What’s the goal of the team?
What’s the goal of each and every player in the team?
To help the team to win.
Imagine you are losing one zero with five minutes to play. Would you go on the offensive? Or would you stay back arguing, “My job is to prevent the other team from scoring, not to score”?
I bet you’d attack, because you know that your real job is to help your team to win.
Your real job is not to defend. Defending is how you generally do your job, but not always. At times, attacking is how you best help the team to win.
Your value as a player is your contribution to your team’s success. If you think that your job is anything else than helping your team to win, you will lower your value and limit your career.
Your real job is to help your organization accomplish its mission. Your job description describes how you generally do this. But “generally” does not mean “necessarily.” At times, you must sacrifice your personal goal (the lower) to promote the organizational goal (the higher).
If you are to reach your full potential as a professional, you must never place “your job” above the organizational goal. Otherwise, you will commit a sacrilege, giving up the organizational goal to pursue your personal goal.
Your value as an employee is your contribution to your organization’s success. That’s why in order to win, you must subordinate to the team.
There are times when a defender must go on the offensive, even at the risk of a counter-attack. If not, the team will underperform. Worse yet, defense and offense will play against each other instead of align against the opposition.
Take a profit-maximizing company. If salespeople maximize revenue, they may focus on high-revenue, low-profit opportunities. If production people minimize cost, they may focus on low-cost, low-profit opportunities.
If the highest revenue products have the highest costs and lower profit margins than mid-revenue ones, and the lowest cost products have the lowest revenue and lower profit margins than mid-cost ones, revenue-maximizers will clash with cost-minimizers.
Unless all members of the organization understand that the common goal and sole measure of success is to maximize profit, they will not work together; they will not play to win.
Tearing Down the Silos Is An Inside Job
Every client I’ve had has asked me to help them “break down the organizational silos to improve collaboration.” A typical example was a financial services company where defense, I mean credit managers, had the goal of minimizing unrecoverable debt. Meanwhile, offense, I mean business managers, had the goal of maximizing return on assets. “You are imprudent, your credit standards are too loose!” complained the ones. “You are overly conservative, your credit standards are too tight!” decried the others. Not surprisingly, the company was not doing well.
It is tempting to fault compensation systems for organizational misalignment. Irrational performance metrics certainly bear much of the blame. But even the best system will not solve the problem. It is impossible to align a complex organization through financial incentives. (I will show this in my next post.)
Organizational alignment requires leadership, culture, and clarity of purpose. It demands that you, and every one of your colleagues, drop the limiting belief that you were hired to do your jobs.
So what will you tell the next person that asks you, “What’s your job?”
By Fred Kofman
September 10, 2013