Waiting for Your Boss to Give You Responsibility is a Mistake

Cody Boyte | December 2015

“…whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve been, is all, totally, one hundred percent, your own fault. All.”

Dr. Richard Colin Campbell Ames, The Cat Who Walks Through WallsBy Robert Heinlein

The quote isn’t actually true, entirely. There is a lot of argument for luck in everyone’s career. But thinking that everything is your fault gives you a more agency in how you think about your career. In fact, I’d argue it’s the secret to getting ahead.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about careers. It seems to be trending with the people around me. This weekend, I read both You’re Only 23. Stop Rushing Life. and a fantastic response Do Your Job First. Both articles talk a lot about career progress and the manager/employee relationship. In both, a young employee was looking to the boss to give them responsibility.

That thinking is exactly the wrong way around. If you want more responsibility, it’s your job to take it.

Here’s the secret no one tells you: Your boss is busy. They’re dealing with the needs of 3 or 6 or 10 or 50 other people. They’re trying to hit their targets for the quarter. They’re dealing with their own boss. And often they’re fighting internal political battles to get the resources they need to make you successful. They aren’t watching your every move. They don’t have that much time.

Lesson 1: Be fantastically good at something.

Before you do anything else, focus on your job. The one you got hired to do. Your boss has to trust that when they give you a job, you’ll get it done at least as well as they expect. If you can’t do that, nothing else matters. Focus on being exceptional at your job. Odds are, no matter how fast of a learner you are, you can get better. A lot better.

An unfortunate truth is that it’s unlikely your boss is one of the best in the country at your chosen skill. Maybe he or she is, maybe not. But even if your boss is, it’s unlikely they have the time to teach you everything you need. There are, however, dozens of experts out there you can read about, follow and mimic. I bet you can start learning on your own, without needing your boss to tell you want to do next.By looking at how other people do your job, you’ll get new ideas. Combining those new ideas with what you’re learning from your current job is where the magic happens.

Let’s say your job is to write a daily blog post for your company. Start reading about how other people do the job and your performance will get better. If you go the path of getting good at SEO, say by watching Whiteboard Fridays by Moz, you’re likely to get better traffic to your posts. If instead you spent time reading The Art of the Interview, you’ll get ideas about who to interview in your industry and what to ask them.

Bringing your new skills to work will make you more valuable to your boss. Keep doing that and pretty soon you’ll be so good that your boss won’t be able to ignore you.

Lesson 2: Take responsibility. Don’t wait for it.

I guarantee, no matter how big your company is, there is always something else to do. There are problems to solve. There are processes to optimize. There are things you could be doing if you just looked around. The secret is simple: make things better around you.

If you want more responsibility, you have to take the initiative to find the problems and fix them. Too many people believe that the can only start doing a particular job if they’re given a title for that job. It rarely works that way. Inside of companies, it almost always works the other way around. Your boss doesn’t want to tell you what to do all the time. They want people who do what needs to be done before they’re told to do it.

Titles are a lagging indicator inside of companies – they’re given to people who have already proven they can do the job.

Let’s say you want to be a manager in the future. Great, so does everyone else. So how does your boss figure out who is the best candidate to promote? They look for who the “natural leaders” are. That’s secret code for “who is already leading people.” The boss notices the people fixing problems around them or training other people. The people who act like they own the place and make it better.

Most people hear that they need experience managing before they can get a particular job. Maybe they are only willing to hire someone to write a particular set of code who has written that code before. Or they only want writers who have written before. How do you get that experience?

You just do it. A little bit at a time. Sometimes at night or on the weekend or in the spaces everyone else wastes on Friday afternoons.

If you want to manage people in the future, start by mentoring the next new hire who comes to your company. Start by taking responsibility for a new project. Or start by learning a new skill and then start teaching other people how to do it. Work on open source projects. Get management experience at a volunteer organization like Taproot or Catchafire.

Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it’s okay to do what you want to do. Find a way to just do it.

How it Works in Real Life

At one of the companies I worked at while back, I watched one of my coworkers ace these two steps. He started off as a regular, run of the mill hire. Nothing special about him. In fact, he was pretty young. While we thought he would be good, he didn’t come with a lot of experience or accolades.

The first thing he did was identify the best person at his role in the company and became his best friend. He mimicked his process, took him out to lunch or coffee whenever he could, and generally tried to figure out why it worked. Within a couple of months, my colleague was the second best person at the company in his role.

At that point, he turned his focus. He kept getting better at his individual job but started thinking about other people. He started taking every new hire under his wing. He would teach them what he knew, give them feedback on how to get better, and take them to coffee or lunch. He started helping them through the process he went through.

No one gave him this responsibility. There wasn’t an HR meeting or some committee that annointed him the onboarding specialist. His boss didn’t tell him to do it. He just did it. He made the world around him better without asking for it. When a position came up for a manager, he got the position. Everyone wanted to work for him. He’d made them all better at their jobs. And, because he’d continued getting better, he was the best at the company.

Today he manages more than 50 people and has accelerated his career. Within 5 years, he will have gone from a no-name hire to a VP at his pick of companies. Follow his lead.

Become fantastic at your job, make the people around you better, and take responsibility before it’s given to you.

As one of my previous bosses, the brilliant Sam Jacobs, aptly put a couple weeks ago:

Your career is your biggest investment. Don’t leave the investment to other people. It’s not their fault or responsibility. It’s not up to your boss to give you direction.

This is all you. What are you going to do?