Backpacker’s guide Education

Read between the lines

When applying for a job, keep in mind that while knowing your role is important, developing an openness and learning from the overflow is also vital

I have worked a variety of jobs, with different kinds of organisations — big, small, mid-sized. Each has had a specific work culture and structure, from extremely defined to very open. This range also shows itself in the roles people play. Some work places are very clear about who does what, and there is rarely an occasion to go outside those definitions. Others have a broad description of responsibilities, recognising that everyone pitches in when and as needed.

When companies come-a-calling for new hires, they often provide a job description, and when they don’t, candidates often ask for one.

My take

But in my own journey as a professional, if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that no job description ever really tells the whole story — or even comes close to it. However, much detail has gone into thinking through the various tasks that need to be done and assigning them to specific individuals, there are always things that don’t get listed, and that still need to be done. There is often a need to step in for needs that haven’t been anticipated, or when a task demands more effort than estimated. In times of crisis or when racing against a deadline, there is often a need to step up and take care of things without reference to any manual — because to not do so would lead to disaster.

The smaller an organisation, the greater the level of fluidity and flexibility, and the greater the deviations from a job description — if such a thing existed. But this open-endedness offers wonderful opportunities to learn new things, to pick up skills that you wouldn’t have in the course of a straight and narrow career path. For instance, when I was already at a fairly senior level in an organisation, I had the opportunity to help organise a major conference. Putting together a big event can be hugely stressful, but also wonderfully instructive. On such occasions, all job descriptions are thrown out the window and everyone pitches in with an eye on the common goal — to run a successful event. I could have quite easily said, “it is not my job” when one group was packing conference kits, but I joined the others on the floor and helped stuff the bags. Soon the president of the association, many years my senior, walked by and joined us. There was no need to sign up for an expensive team building programme; it was all happening right there. But quite apart from the exhilaration that comes from such collective effort, I learnt how to organise material, how to make checklists and monitor them, and how to coordinate a diverse group of people. Not the kind of detail you find in job descriptions.

Over the years, I have ended up doing many things that have nothing to do with what one might formally think of as my “role”. They have all been necessary — to stitch an organisation together, to oil the wheels of an event, to move plans ahead.

For those entering the world of work, I can understand the need for clarity in the role, which a job description provides. But it is important to appreciate that being part of an organisation requires a lot more than such descriptions can cover, and to develop an openness to accommodate and learn from the overflow.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 11:37:03 AM |

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