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Take the jobs no one else wants
Why you should take the jobs no one else wants
We often describe open organizations as places where people volunteer to take on new challenges. But what about the jobs no one wants to do?
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So often, we describe open organizations as places overflowing with highly engaged people—places where leaders emerge spontaneously to tackle urgent problems, where people opt-in to challenging initiatives they know they can influence and drive, where teams act with initiative and few top-down mandates.
And it's all true. I see it regularly at Red Hat.
But what about the jobs that no one in the organization seems especially excited to do? What about the jobs people seem like they're actively avoiding? These exist in all organizations—including open ones.
But what might surprise you is that those are the jobs I consistently recommend people step up to take.
The jobs that "no one wants" are exactly the jobs offering the greatest opportunities for growth. And to be perfectly frank, that's because they're often the jobs that require the biggest investments of time, energy, and critical judgement.
The job people seem to be shying away from is typically the one that's attached to something in bad shape. Maybe a project has been mismanaged. Maybe a business unit is losing money. Maybe a team's morale is in decline. Whatever the case, these are the situations that might not immediately promise glory.
I like to think about this kind of work as if I were staring at a broken down, rusted out bus in need of repair. The fun part of working with that bus would be operating it: using it to haul passengers, strategizing about the most efficient routes to run with it, driving it through all kinds of circumstances that could improve people's lives.
But the broken down clunker in front of you can't do any of that until it's road-ready. You've got to perform the long, arduous work of fixing its internals and making sure its most basic systems are up, running, and effective. Most people, I think, would look at a vehicle in that state and just throw up their hands. They'd prefer to start their work with a bus that's already in tip-top shape.
The same is true of ailing teams and initiatives in an organization. Taking on the task of leading them means doing lots of trying—often personally draining—work just to get the team or project in a place where it can begin fulfilling its basic functions. It's not glamorous; it's the kind of nuts-and-bolts work required of anyone trying to rehabilitate something. And it presents ample opportunities for struggle and criticism.
So let's say you've done that work. You've taken the dilapidated bus that was destined for the scrap heap and gotten it to a place where it's drivable. You're still not ready to drive it, because you need to fill it.
This is the next critical task for someone working to get a team or project back on track: preparing and coordinating the people who'll make that initiative succeed. Does everyone on your bus want to move in the same direction? Do they all agree on a destination? Where is everyone going to sit (after all, there can be only one driver)? And critically, who's got a hand on the exit lever (because, unfortunately, you might need to help those passengers relinquish their seats).
Only now—only after all the work of repairing the bus and aligning everyone inside it—are you ready to accomplish higher-level work. Only now can you successfully drive it anywhere, think strategically or long-term about where it's going, and experiment with new routes and techniques on the road to success.
Those initial phases—all the steps involved in rehabilitating something—are the jobs people tend to avoid.
I faced this all-too-familiar situation when I became CFO at Red Hat—a position to which I was appointed expressly on an interim basis when my predecessor left the company to pursue another opportunity. I faced a decision: Pour all of my energy into starting at the beginning during a turbulent time of transition and making the best of my newfound role, or pursue something external that I could likely step right into with greater ease.
I chose to stick around and devote myself entirely to earning the top finance spot in a dynamic, fast-growing software company. And that meant playing mechanic for a bit.
I needed to determine where other leaders in the finance organization were sitting on the bus (and where they felt they should be sitting). Some were already making a break for the emergency exit. Others were on board but didn't have any concrete idea about what success would ultimately require of us. I got to work building relationships with my passengers (board members, peers, and others), and refocused all the in-transit transformation activities. It all required immediate (and tough) decisions in conditions that were essentially unprecedented for me.
But those are the kind of jobs that have lasting personal impacts. Those are the jobs that will stretch you, the jobs that will make you uncomfortable—and discomfort is the surest sign of personal and professional growth. If you're not uncomfortable, you're not growing—and you're not helping your organization grow either.
Working in an open organization doesn't magically make this kind of work disappear. But in many ways, it does make these jobs easier.
The jobs that others don't want are often the jobs that can make you feel incredibly lonely, because in most cases they'll force you to initially strike out in a new direction. I still remember my first day, sitting in a new office and gradually realizing that I no longer had a boss I could simply defer to (that would have been CEO Jim Whitehurst and, well, I didn't think barraging him with questions would make the best impression!).
But in open organizations, where leaders tend to work transparently and collaboratively by default, that lonliness eases. In open organizations, leaders taking on hard work can share their goals, challenges, frustrations, and success stories more candidly with others—and that, undeniably, goes a long way toward eliminating those feelings of isolation.
Pretty soon, you'll have racked up enough small wins to inspire confidence in what you're doing and to inspire others to join you. That's how a reputation for being the "person who takes the jobs nobody wants" turns into a reputation for being the "person who gets things done."