Q&A With Author Jesse Sostrin
Q&A with Jesse Sostrin
Beyond the Job Description
Question: What does the title of your book mean and what’s the truth about what employers really expect that is never written in job descriptions?
Sostrin: Beyond the Job Description represents two fundamental truths about the world of work. First, whether we realize it or not, our standard job descriptions only tell part of the story about the demands we face at work. In addition to the tasks and activities we have to perform, there are countless other challenges to getting great work done.
The second meaning has to do with the need for all of us to stand out in a crowded job market and do what is necessary to stay relevant in careers that keep getting longer. To do that you have to go "beyond the job description" and identify unique ways to contribute increasing value to your team and organization.
Question: How can employees discover the true demands or “double reality” of their job?
Sostrin: Far too many people discover their “job-within-the-job” through trial and error over time (and they end up with the scars to prove it). With focused attention, the framework of six core questions I developed to expose the “double reality” of work can be used to look within your known responsibilities and pinpoint the vital purpose, value added contributions, and hidden challenges that – if addressed – can set you apart.
Question: What is the “hidden curriculum at work”?
Sostrin: A hidden curriculum exists anytime there are two simultaneous challenges where one is visible, clear, and understood and the other is concealed, ambiguous, and undefined.
For example, professional athletes master the fundamentals of their sport and excel at the highest level on the court or field of play . . . but they still have to learn how to deal with wealth, fame, and the many other challenges and distractions that come with professional sports.
And, when children enter school, they have to master the educational standards in their curriculum... but, reading, math, and science lessons do not prepare them for the peer pressure, social dynamics, and developmental challenges of youth that they inevitably face. In the same way, there is a hidden curriculum of work® that we all encounter.
Question: What is the “Mutual Agenda” and why is it so rare for employees and managers to share one?
Sostrin: Individuals and organizations are stuck with each other. The reality is that you cannot have organizations without employees, and the role of individual employees is to align their contributions with the intended purpose of the organization. To succeed in the world of work you have to operate within the mutual agenda where these two factors intersect.
The mutual agenda defines this powerful space where individual goals and desired contributions overlap with organizational objectives. Individual contributors, managers, and senior leaders can discover the mutual agenda where their own career aspirations and hopes for a productive working life you seek can align with the specific needs of the organization.
Question: How can you pinpoint the “Mutual Agenda” and align your skills, interests, knowledge and passion to the goals of your team or organization?
Sostrin: Employees can identify the mutual agenda by first understanding what matters to them (it’s harder than it sounds). Discovering your “job-within-the-job” gives you a clear picture of your vital purpose and value added contributions.
Once you translate these into goals for the working life you want, you’re ready to bring your personal priorities to the table. Next, it is a matter of understanding the stated goals of the team and organization, then deeply engaging in ways that allow you to anticipate how those priorities may evolve.
Adjusting and continuously aligning your own hopes, passions, and talent with the evolving needs of organization can make you future-proof and give you a path toward a long, successful career.
Question: How can managers help employees achieve this?
Sostrin: Managers can help define the mutual agenda for their direct reports by investing time and attention into knowing what they care about. When there is a sever mismatch between individual contributions and team needs, the good employees will usually jump ship to find a better alignment, while the struggling employees may quit (and forget to tell you).
Specifically, when a manager helps an employee to carefully define and embrace their purpose, contributions, and capabilities, they deliver a supportive relationship that is itself the first step toward the mutual agenda.
Sostrin: To keep people aligned around priorities and key actions, Managers can use a straightforward framework to track three interrelated elements in real time:
Both employees and managers must know their context in order to understand the internal and external conditions, including how those emerging trends shift priorities, challenges, and opportunities. Managers must then define and communicate clear goals that are consistent with the context and that can withstand the pressure from shrinking resources and competing commitments to undermine top priorities.
And finally, managers must spot and work through the gaps between goals and obstacles. Integrating the CG2 sequence helps managers understand and influence their circumstances in periods of heightened ambiguity and intense change.
Question: How can the manager and employee relationship be improved and better aligned?
Sostrin: The number one reason that a person leaves a job is because of the poor quality of the relationship with their boss. This exemplifies the critical role managers play in reducing turnover and increasing the learning and performance of their team members.
Three things that every manager can do to improve the relationship they have with their team members include:
- Paying attention to the hidden curriculum of work® that employees encounter. Managers can use a common language to name the true challenges of work and create a culture of expectations, accountability, and support for team members to examine their “job-within-the-job” and to navigate its challenges.
- Shift performance management practices to match the double realities of work. This means reorienting the way managers set and measure performance goals around the needs of the hidden curriculum of work®, and not just based on the standard job description (i.e. setting benchmarks, annual performance appraisals, compensation schedules, etc.).
- Commit time, energy, and resources to the growth of their people. Managers must engage others to reveal their hidden curriculum of work® and empower them to meet its demands. Without active and consistent engagement from managers – including real investments of time and energy – there is no reasonable expectation that employees will sustain their own engagement over time.
Question: How can managers help employees discover their “job-within-the job” and achieve the working life they want?
Sostrin: Once you acknowledge and fully embrace the hidden curriculum of work, you have no choice but to manage differently. The commitments and practices managers can apply include five key drivers:
- Establishing a supportive, trust-based relationship that balances the individual’s knowledge and skills with the true demands of their job and the goals of the organization.
- Creating expectations early and reinforcing them often.
- Making the hidden side of work discussible and investing time and resources into others’ processes of discovering their “job-within-the-job."
- Staying present enough to track their ongoing efforts and progress.
- Communicating early and often when expectations and accountabilities are unmet.
Question: What is the role of communication between manager and employee when it comes to navigating the hidden curriculum of work?
Sostrin: I have always believed that the driving purpose of a manager is to help their people understand and transform the everyday challenges that prevent them from doing their best work (and then get out of the way). With that definition, some of the commitments and practices managers can use to achieve it include:
- Establish a supportive, trust-based relationship that places the quality of the employee’s working life at the center of importance.
- Accurately assess the individual’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in relation to the requirements of meeting the true demands of their “job-within-the-job."
- Work with the employee to define the mutually beneficial agenda, where their vital purpose, value-added contributions, and career aspirations align with the needs of the team and the overall goals of the organization.
- Create expectations about communication, collaboration, and performance early and reinforce them often.
Question: What was the inspiration for your book?
Sostrin: I bumped up against the hidden side of work from day one, but it was my first management position where I confronted the “job-within-the-job” in full force. As a new manager, I found that for every moment of insight and success there were two challenges around every corner. The progress made on one front was just as quickly eroded by another unseen obstacle elsewhere.
Constant change from the world outside, combined with the unpredictability of people and circumstances inside the organization, kept me chasing the ghosts of issues that affected my team’s performance, my own contributions to the organization, and the bottom line. Most of the resources available to me, often in the form of workshops and training programs, failed to get to the root cause of these issues.
For over a decade now I have been a cartographer of sorts, painstakingly mapping the ecology and terrain of work’s greatest challenges and helping leaders and their organizations to work differently in response to it. I put all of these insights and practices together so that others could decode their greatest challenges at work, and Beyond the Job Description is the result.