As a manager, I spend a lot of time with people discussing their career goals. Ambitious people want to see forward movement in their careers, which most often translates to “getting the bigger role”. That might mean promotion, becoming the team tech lead, switching to management, or growing into a manager of managers.
In my career I’ve had success “getting the bigger role” in both a four person startup and in an organization with thousands of employees. Luck and privilege did play a significant role in that success, but the other most important factor was that I was already “doing the bigger role” before getting it.
Doing the Bigger Role
Many people have identified the bigger role they want, but struggle to get it. They expect the role to be given, and roles aren’t given, they’re earned. The best way to earn the role is to start doing the role.
At Instapaper I was hired as an iOS engineer. Having previously been a startup founder, I couldn’t help but fill some of the other gaps. I wrote the blog posts, did competitive analysis, created financial models, and heavily advocated that we make Instapaper free to download.
After piloting Instapaper as a free application, the data showed that the paid download was a major cap on our growth, and that we could effectively grow our subscription business in a freemium model. As a result, I was promoted to General Manager. I developed the roadmap to bolster our subscription offering, increase the price, and rebrand as Instapaper Premium. After successfully executing on that roadmap, I was promoted to CEO.
Being hired as an iOS engineer, none of this was part of my role or job description. No one asked me to do those tasks. I did them because I wanted to help the company and product in a capacity outside of my given roles and responsibilities.
Years later as an engineering manager at Pinterest, my team and three other teams were moved to a new organization. The new organization had three groups with multiple teams in each. Two groups had directors in place, but my group did not. I asked my manager, the organization leader, if he was planning to put a third director in place. He told me it was something he was considering but didn’t yet have any concrete plans. I expressed interest in the role to him and then started taking on what I thought the role entailed, I…
- created a charter for the new group
- built an org chart
- set up 1:1s with my peer managers in the group
- set up bi-weekly meetings with the cross-functional peers for the group
- outlined a plan for the group to execute on a proposed product redesign
A few months later, when my manager decided he did need a third director, his decision was made easier by the fact that someone was already doing the role.
Creating Time & Space
In order to do the bigger role, you’ll need to create the time and space in addition to managing your current roles and responsibilities. There are a variety of ways to achieve this…
- Delegate current responsibilities to a person on the team that wants your role. This has the double benefit of giving you time and space while also giving the other person the opportunity to grow.
- Dedicate 5% of your week toward doing the bigger role. Two hours of dedicated focus time can be really productive, and most roles can support blocking two hours each week.
- Flexing into your personal time is a surefire way to ensure you have the time to do the next role. You can leverage lunch hour, early morning work, or evening hours. However, work/life balance matters and you should only lean into personal time as a last resort.
Doing the bigger role is only effective if you’re excelling at your current role. Trying to do another role without establishing a track record of excellence is likely to do more harm than benefit.
It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, when doing the bigger role. If you’re overstepping boundaries, you’ll find out, and it’s easy to apologize.
Manage your expectations. Doing the bigger role doesn’t mean you’re entitled to it. In the worst case, you won’t get the role, but you will get valuable experience doing the role unofficially.