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Succeeding at Your Job-Within-the-Job

How individuals can dig deeper and uncover hidden demands and challenges.

In the current environment of increasing demands and shrinking resources, just being good at your job isn’t good enough. Although your job description may lay out clear responsibilities and goals, what keeps you moving up the hierarchy is much more complicated than that list.

To keep succeeding in your career, you must add value to your organization through continuous learning and outperform yourself quarter after quarter. On top of that, you need to uncover and learn to navigate your “job-within-the-job” — the unspoken, unwritten work that, among other challenges, requires you to manage constant change and navigate workplace politics, all while getting your best work done.

As I have written about before, it is imperative to recognize and confront these demands, which I call the “hidden curriculum of work.” Your ability to understand, respond to, and communicate the unapparent demands of your work is paramount. That’s because when you sit down with your boss every year to review your performance, the assessment is most likely based on your boss’s (and, to some extent, your own) limited understanding of your role and your inability to communicate it to higher-ups. Your compensation and opportunities to grow are tied to your manager’s incomplete — often unrealistic — expectations about the part you play in the organization, the challenges you actually face, and the most important contributions you make.

These three exercises will help you truly understand your job-within-the-job and discover how it fits in with your organization and its needs.

Dig deeper. To go beyond your job description, start by asking yourself this series of two-part questions. The first question of each pair pertains to the superficial expectations of your traditional job description. The second invites you to probe deeper and helps you translate what you do into the value you deliver.

1. What single statement best describes your role?
2. What single statement reveals your vital purpose to your team/organization?

1. What tasks and activities absorb most of your time?
2. Which of your contributions have the greatest value to your team/organization?

1. What are the common obstacles that prevent your best work?
2. What are the unexpected challenges of staying on purpose and delivering your value?

The experience of the CTO of a mid-market technology firm is a good example of how the process works.  After some initial coaching, the executive carefully worked through his six questions and arrived at the following assessment:

“On paper my job is to ensure that our technology needs are met so that each business unit operates to its full potential, but the vital purpose I play goes beyond that: I’m responsible for anticipating the evolving needs of our business units and ensuring our readiness to identify and deploy feasible technology solutions that meet them.

“The tasks that absorb the majority of my time include attending meetings, sending informational emails, and responding to emergencies, but my higher-value contributions are to enable others to get out of crisis mode and spend time developing scenarios that help us better anticipate how our needs may change. Instead of getting caught up in the urgencies of the day, I need to build deeper relationships to help our leaders communicate their specific needs. My highest contribution is instilling confidence and stability in our strategy.

“The day-to-day challenges that prevent my best work include leading from behind as I often react and play catch up. This inadvertently sends mixed signals about priorities because I’m prone to let short-term issues distract me from moving forward on long-term goals. The hidden challenges are subtler, and more insidious. I set the tone for my team, so when I react, they react. As I become excessively wrapped up in everyday execution, I take my eyes off the strategic importance of our long-range planning. This erodes our business partners’ confidence. I have to remain strategically focused to boost my team’s motivation and keep us better aligned with the long-term view.”

Thinking critically about and answering these six questions began to reveal the CTO’s job-within-the-job, which was the pivotal first step.

Look outward. Once you can more clearly see the unobvious aspects of your role, it’s important to test your findings against the perceptions of others. To start, consider your own boss and ask, “How much does she understand about my job-within-the-job? What do I need to communicate to make her aware of the true challenges of my work? What would shift if I were ultimately rewarded for effectively addressing these elements?”

What single statement reveals your vital purpose to your organization?

For leaders, the question becomes, “How well do you understand the jobs-within-the-jobs of your people?” Think about those individuals who are most responsible for your team’s success. Can you articulate a clear picture of their vital purpose, value-added contributions, and hidden challenges? Where might you be losing credibility by not seeing — and meaningfully supporting — the true demands of their jobs?

After finishing this second exercise, the CTO began to rethink several key aspects of his approach, including ways to manage his key relationships where there was little knowledge about his purpose, contributions, and challenges. He also committed to investing more time in one-on-one conversations with his directors in order to more fully understand the true demands of their roles. More than anything, the experience of seeing a more precise and comprehensive picture of his job-within-the-job restored his energy to keep charging ahead.

Align with the mutual agenda. Once you are fully aware of your job-within-the-job, it is critical to validate its ongoing relevance. You must confirm whether or not there is a “mutual agenda” — the powerful space where your own goals and desired contributions intersect with the organization’s needs. A mutual agenda ensures your work is vital and value-driven.

You cannot define a mutual agenda in isolation. Even the strongest individual contributors must collaborate with others to assess changing market conditions, internal company challenges, shifting stakeholder priorities, and the like. Initiate a conversation with your boss or other trusted colleagues to explore your assessment of your job-within-the-job and ask, “If I’m successful in fulfilling this purpose, delivering my valuable contributions, and meeting these challenges, how will that directly enable our team/organization to achieve its intended results?”

If you discover that your job-within-the-job does not align with the vision and priorities of your enterprise, you’ve made the case for why and how your role may need to evolve. Rather than staying in a role that keeps you stagnant, fine-tuning your contributions to align with the mutual agenda will activate your focus and positive outlook in the short-term. In the long-run, your value-added contributions will improve the team’s performance, while opening your access to choice assignments and increased opportunities for advancement.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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