Know Thy [Work] Self

There are 3 types of roles that I think everyone should experience in order to learn more about themselves and how they work best:

  1. Working at a larger company or larger team where you are a ‘grunt,’ or have supervisors in your specialization.
  2. Working at a small company or small team where you are the domain expert.
  3. Freelancing or owning a small business so that you understand the business side of things (apart from just your specialization).

Where You are Powerless

Working at a large company where you at the bottom rungs of the ladder is a bit like being an adolescent in a family. You think you know better than those with the power. You may actually be right in some cases, but in most cases you believe what you believe simply because you don’t know what those above you know. You may rage against the machine, but in the end you are victim to the whims of your superiors, for better or worse.

You learn patience. You understand intimately the inefficiencies of bureaucracy for those on the ground, where it matters. You are a cog in a wheel that runs a machine. But ultimately, you learn to deal with what you cannot control. You learn the rules, but more importantly, you learn the reasons for the rules. This gives you the ability to discern which rules make sense and in what context. You are siloed, and while you may interact with those in other departments, you aren’t consulted on inter-departmental strategic decisions.

Where You are Respected

Working as a key player in a small company or team is a bit different. You aren’t the boss, but people listen to and respect your opinion. You learn to influence without ultimate power. Cooperation is key to achieve your objectives. You may have direct reports or a higher level of responsibility in other ways. You have more ability to dictate, influence, or skirt the rules. As long as you play nice and do no harm to others, you have some degree of autonomy. You participate in decisions across departments. You represent your discipline or department and advocate for its interests. You manage both down and up. You are held accountable by those above you, your peers, and those who report to you.

Where You are the Authority

Now it’s time to put up or shut up. All your complaining about how the powers that be just don’t understand doesn’t matter now. You make the decisions. What will you do now that you’re in charge? You get to decide what to pursue and what adds no value. You get to deal with everyone questioning your judgement at every turn. Ultimately, success is in your hands. It’s a burden you haven’t experienced before. It’s lonely at the top. Even if the buck stops with you, you still have to rule with grace and try not to piss off those below you. What’s the use in being top dog if your leadership doesn’t inspire followers? It gives you a completely new perspective, and perhaps some empathy for your previous and future managers. To be clear: it’s not for everyone. But you will never know if it’s for you unless you try it. There is no shame in preferring not to be at the top of the food chain.

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