The best way to grow professionally in remote leadership positions is to proactively take over hard work in adjacent domains from your peers or boss. You will expand your ability to execute complex cross-team initiatives and prepare for the next step in your career.
This is the idea that stuck with me the most from reading An Elegant Puzzle. Let’s go deeper.
What Is Hard Work?
Hard work is:
- Any work nobody is asking you to do.
- It doesn’t look fun; nobody is rushing to do it.
- Work outside of your domain and comfort zone.
- Poorly defined, with loose criteria of success.
- Requires functional skills you don’t have.
Example 1: You’re an engineering lead. Your scope is to lead the development of an API and accompanying docs. In one of the technical leads meeting, you learn that the company is gearing to revamp the budgeting process. This change will have a significant impact on all technical leads. Someone should represent engineering in the process. The head of the engineering org is swamped. Taking responsibility for representing eng’s interests is hard work.
Example 2: You’re a customer success manager. One of the technical teams is a frequent source of bugs that you hear from customers; long bug resolution times make some customers abandon the product. This is a frequently discussed topic in the company, but there’s no obvious resolution. You proactively offer to help the technical team improve their backlog management and find an effective triaging process. You don’t know much about the technical teams’ internal processes, but you have a great understanding of customers’ priorities. Crossing the team boundary to the other side and finding a solution within another team is hard work.
You can probably come up with several examples like this within your company without much thinking. All of these represent hard work.
Why Do it?
Aside from flexing your problem-solving muscle, hard work confers several benefits that are hard to find elsewhere:
- Understand Other Teams
- Understand Your Boss
- Grow Your Horizontal Expertise
Understand Other Teams
Taking jobs in adjacent domains enables you to understand other teams at a level you can’t attain by reading docs or attending meetings. If your company doesn’t have a rotation program for managers, taking on hard work is one of the best ways to become a part of other teams within the company temporarily.
By moving work through other teams, you learn their cultural norms, what makes them tick, and their process.
This knowledge is a superpower when executing cross-team projects with ever-increasing complexity, a frequent expectation of all managers.
Understand how other teams spec out work, prioritize and schedule enables you to tailor information to their needs when the time comes. You will find yourself collaborating with them with little time to getting to know each other; serving information in the right way makes collaboration easier.
You will also understand how other teams operate within the context of your company. You will discover many tricks and strategies on how to work within your company’s system effectively. This information is specific to your company, so other teams are one of the only ways to source it.
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Understand Your Boss
In many cases, taking on hard work means easing your boss’s load in one way or the other. Frequently hard work takes the form of representing your broader organization within the company or helping other teams within your org. These are workloads core to your boss’ role.
By executing hard work, you’re working on tasks that’d be your bread and butter if you were promoted into the next position on the company ladder. Hard work allows you to build an “ahead-of-time” experience that provides a peek at what’s next. Will it be a route you’ll end up liking? You’ll also make a stronger candidate in your company or others when the opportunity arises.
Even if you’re not gunning for your superior’s position, micro-dosing their workloads into yours can work wonders for your mutual partnership.
By taking your boss’s viewpoint, you can much better appreciate their points of leverage and uphill battles they’re facing. This new information helps you understand where you can offer valuable help and, conversely, what your boss can deliver to you. Your 1:1s will become more engaging as suddenly you share several workloads and challenges, sparking exciting conversations and lessons you can apply back in your home team.
If you’re a lead, you should already be exceptional in your functional domain.
But to take the next level in your career requires more. You need to become a versatile leader with a broad set of knowledge in many functional areas – from marketing through product management to financial management. After all, the higher echelons of leadership are all about cajoling a diverse set of teams into pursuing a shared vision, goals, and process. Understanding individual vantage points is essential.
There’s no better way to ramp up quickly in a ton of functional areas than collaborating with other teams in the company within their domains.
When working with other teams, you’ll take part in their daily decision-making and pick up on considerations unique to the specific team. You’ll gain new vocabulary for discussing particular kinds of problems. And you’ll understand why they balk at seemingly minor asks.
All of this information will become immensely valuable in the future when you try to align your team’s resources, strategy, and execution tactics with other teams. The ability to appreciate specifics that matter to other teams enables you to take them into account ahead-of-time instead of becoming predictable scope creep mid-way during a complex project that’s already late.
Where to Find It?
If you’re convinced that hard work is worth tackling, where can you find it within your company?
This is where things get easy. There is a lot less competition for hard work.
In meetings, company chat, and anywhere else your company communicates, look for phrases like:
- “It’d be great if someone…”
- “We could really use…”
- “We we’ve been talking about this for six months already…”
- “There’s no responsibility for…”
These are all hidden prayers for someone to pick up the flag and run with it. In many cases, they’re loosely formulated as the person uttering them doesn’t have the time to specify the problem and required steps to solve it in detail. (this is a core part of dealing with hard work after taking it on)
Every time you hear these prayers, think about if the problem at hand sounds like a good learning opportunity, and if the risk that it brings is acceptable.
Try to prod a bit for more information before offering help, but most of the time, you will need to take a leap of faith and offer up a firm commitment.
If you manage your time well, you should always have a bit of slack time available for unexpected work. If you don’t, taking on additional work outside of your core scope is a great opportunity to improve your downward delegation ability and transfer some of your current responsibilities to your team temporarily (and hopefully make the changes permanent).
Note for Remote Leaders
In remote settings, we tend to have less organic collaboration and low-touch interactions with other teams. The social bonds that become bridges for organic collaboration between teams are weaker, and opportunities to strengthen them are scarce.
This scarcity makes hard work all the more valuable in remote settings. It’s one of the few tools to consistently increase ties to other teams and getting insights that allow you to find cross-team synergies that help your company thrive.
As you take on hard work consistently, you accumulate essential knowledge that makes it easier to execute more of it. You enter the virtuous circle of collaboration where a robust internal network enables you to take shortcuts to success, becoming a ninja facilitator of the company’s most complex workloads in no time.
If this sounds great, you probably already have a couple of ideas about where you could make an impact. Commit and start your growth through hard work!