March 28, 2014

How to Outperform Your Place on the Organization Chart

3d arrow burst through brick wallRecently Zappos announced its move toward becoming a holacratic organization, one where traditional job titles and the roles of hierarchical management are irrelevant. While Zappos and other headline-grabbing companies attempt to innovate their way beyond the status quo, the vast majority of us still work in traditional cultures where power and influence are governed by titles, organization charts, and the fixed expectations they dictate.

If you are limited by your current place on the organization chart then your capacity to gain access to choice assignments and receive opportunities for growth and advancement may be structurally restricted. To loosen the constraints, here are three strategies to help you stand out and stay relevant at work by outperforming your place on the organization chart.

#1 – Work Out Your Performance Equation

While there is no magic formula for success on the job, there is a performance equation that can concentrate your energy, enhance your focus, and elevate your best work. To identify yours, first consider something that you have always known but have likely been unable to express: there is a “double-reality” of work.

On the one hand, all of the tasks and activities laid out in your job description only tell part of the story about succeeding at work. On the other, there is a “job-within-the-job,” which is an alternate picture of the vital purpose and value-added contributions you must deliver, as well as the hidden challenges (that nobody talked about during the interview) that accompany every standard job description.

Vital Purpose + Value-Added Contributions – Impact from Hidden Challenges =

Outperforming Your Place on the Organization Chart

To map your performance equation you have to recognize your vital purpose to the organization — what pivotal role you can play in the pursuit of team and company goals. You have to distinguish value-added contributions that go beyond your job description — the specific skills and competencies you rely on to anticipate challenges and deliver unexpected solutions. And, you have to expose your hidden challenges — the everyday stumbling blocks to managing constant change, effectively collaborating with difficult colleagues, navigating confusing workplace politics, and getting great work done in an environment of shrinking resources and increasing demands.

#2 – Put It In Three Dimensions

Nobody is an island and your capacity to advance depends in part on the quality of mutually beneficial relationships you cultivate. Once you grasp your performance equation you have to put it in three dimensions by scanning up, down, and across the organization to see the impact of your “job-within-the-job” on colleagues.

For upward assessment, you want to consider your immediate supervisor and any other “bosses” that you may not report to directly, but who nonetheless impact you. You can explore this with questions like:

  • At this moment, how much does my boss know and understand about my “job-within-the-job”—including both the value that I contribute and the hidden challenges I face?
  • What do I need to communicate to make them aware of the successes and challenges of my work?

For lateral assessment with peers who are across from you on the organization chart, it helps to pick just two or three colleagues that are the most influential to your success. Whether you think of them as supporters or detractors, the goal is to identify those who play a substantial role in your everyday experience at work:

  • Overall, do these people make it easier or more difficult for me to succeed in my “job-within-the-job”?
  • What steps could I take to improve our shared understanding about the impact we have on each other?

If you are in some kind of management role, it is critical to reflect both on how much your people know about your own double reality of work, as well as on how much you know about the true challenges your direct reports encounter. If you have many formal direct reports, I suggest focusing initially on the pivotal ones that you rely on most for your own success:

  • How well do I understand the “job-within-the-job” of my key reports?
  • How have I been hiring, managing, and evaluating people based on assumptions about their standard roles rather than on their “performance equation” and realities of their double reality of work?

#3 – Make Small Moves

A clear performance equation in three dimensions is a foundation for changing your stars because we make our own experience at work. Regardless of our title, tenure, or slot on the organization chart, we are the single greatest influence that shapes the quality and character of our working lives. This gives us tremendous power—especially if we are unhappy with our job, the quality of our work, or the prospect of what lies ahead.

Knowing that there will always be bad days and teachable moments, the surest path toward steady growth is through small moves. Three manageable questions that can be seamlessly considered in the course of your day-to-day responsibilities offer small, but incremental opportunities for improvement:

  • What vital purpose can I play today during meetings and conversations with colleagues?
  • What value-added contributions can I deliver during my key interactions today?
  • What challenges could surface and interfere with my best work today and how can I get in front of them?

If you veer off purpose, fail to consistently deliver your value-added contributions, or get overrun by your hidden challenges, the “job-within-the-job” will keep you stuck in place. Alternatively, taking steps to work out your performance equation, putting it into three dimensions, and making small moves can help you outperform your place on the organization chart and plot a course for achieving the working life you want.

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Jesse Sostrin is the author of 'The Manager’s Dilemma.' He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success. Follow him on Twitter: @jessesostrin.