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The golden cage of the job title

The other day I had verbal diarrhea. It came out of nowhere, and then it just wouldn’t stop. Sometimes words came out. Sometimes just word-resemblant creatures. Most of the time lots of eh, ah, uh.

You get my drift, it definitely wasn’t pretty. You might wonder though, what triggered the shapeless blob word response? Sure, I’m happy to share… It was a smalltalk question at a friends’ gathering.

“What’s your job?”

Yes, this is the line that usually evokes in me an uncontrollable word hiccup. And that’s because the job title I carry is not a telling answer to this question. It shares only a part of the salad ingredients of the actual skills I get to build on a day-to-day basis. It shows only a part of my interests. And it definitely doesn’t tap into the values of who I am and what I stand for in my career.

And yet, since the beginning of our professional lives, the emphasis on job titles is huge. We spend time discussing what kind of job title we’re after. We include a change in our job title in our negotiations. We introduce ourselves via our job titles. For some reason, the job title we carry ends up defining us in some way in our professional environment.

Not only are job titles a part of our day-to-day conversations and aspirations, but they can also sometimes become a societal cage of what we can or cannot do.

To get a job in an ie. Analytics role, most of the time you will need to have that title on your resume; no matter if you’ve gathered and used the analytical skillset in a different environment, like analyzing the traffic of your own web-shop.

Your responsibilities are frequently defined by the exact scope of your job title. It is rare for organizations and managers to spot and use the strengths of their employees outside of their core position. If an employee works in Data but also loves meddling with learning and development, most of the time this piece of information never even sees the daylight. We live in the world of never-ending career possibilities, and yet, the job market is not fully tapping into the possibilities of catering to multi-interest employees.

This responsibility lies in different touchpoints along the employee journey.

1. It starts with Recruitment. How do we recruit for different positions? Do we look only at titles and direct experiences, or do we also take into account skills developed not directly on the job? A while back I had a coachee who wanted to transition to Learning and Development, even though their background was in sales. While they didn’t have direct experience as a Learning and Development Specialist, they researched the ins and outs of this world, read up on all the materials they could study, and volunteered to create workshops and development programs. They had the skills, the passion, and they were putting in the hard work. Yet, they still struggled to get a junior position, as they were missing a key ingredient of a job title on their resume.

2. It continues with the managers. Let’s imagine a situation. You have an employee who does a good job at software development. But what you actually notice, is that they are very passionate about diversity and inclusion, and it is a topic that they feel very engaged about. Why not give them an opportunity to use both of these skillsets? It doesn’t have to be anything big - of course, I’m aware that you hire them for something - but even inviting them to a diversity and inclusion employee group could have an impact on their overall engagement.

The benefits here are actually about strengthening the manager-employee relationship, as the employee could see the manager as someone who cares about them and notices their interests and passions, rather than someone who is only there to get the job done. This could result in lower attrition, higher commitment, and engagement at work.

To share with you my own example from past experiences: my manager went above and beyond to give me 20% of my work time to focus on developing the skills that were not directly connected to my title; they were directly connected to what I loved doing. He found a way of creating for me such activities that benefitted not only me but also him and the whole team. Interestingly enough, my performance in my core position wasn’t impacted; on the opposite, it thrived, as I knew I had a special opportunity I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose.

A pre-requisite here is of course managers taking the time for career development coaching for their employees.

3. Organizations of course also play a big role here. Do we, as organizations, enable and empower managers and employees to give the space to employees to pursue multiple passions? Or is it frowned upon? Do we have clear policies about such opportunities?

4. Lastly, it’s of course also about employees themselves. Are we proactive to look for opportunities we see for organization and team development that our interests and passions could contribute to? (for example, maybe your interest is in Web Analytics, even though you work in User Research. Do you proactively play with data and share data insights with the Analytics team?) Do we communicate these to our managers/organizations?

These are just some examples of the things we can do to slowly start stepping away from the constraints of a job title. After all, in our careers, we are so much more than that.

There is one more thing we can do, as humans, and that’s to ask better questions. Instead of asking “what’s your job?”, how about asking “what are the different things that you are excited about in your career?” You might open a much more interesting conversation.

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