As a leader of a large team, the members of my team tend to have pretty well-defined roles, like designer, or product manager, or researcher. They also tend to interface with other employees of the company with pretty well-defined roles like engineers, analysts, data scientists, etc. Now, most of the time, these well-defined roles operate in cross-functional teams. But, what if you don’t operate within one of those roles, or don’t want to fit the mold of these well-defined roles? How do you work with teams? To answer that, it may first be helpful to understand how these teams form.
“In the beginning, there was an engineer.”
Most startups begin with an engineer building something from scratch. As the company scales, usually a designer is added next. Then, as keeping track of projects between the designer(s) and engineer(s) becomes onerous, a product manager is added. Then, as the team scales and problems become harder, the product manager and engineer(s) don’t have enough time to fulfill the analytical needs of the team, so they hire an analyst. Then, keeping up with users becomes too time consuming for the designer or product manager, so they add a researcher, etc. This is an overly simple example, but all cross-functional teams grow larger as the company scales, with more specialized roles over time. One issue you may have if you don’t fit into this model is that you want to perform a more specialized role than the company has scaled into needing yet.
The opposite can also be true. You may want to do bits and pieces of a well-defined role, but not all of it, or may want to combine some elements of a few different roles into your job. Either of these situations can be totally fine. But each require a more tactical, subtle approach to working with teams than fitting within well-defined roles. When people outside of the cross-functional teams want to work with these cross-functional teams, they frequently perceive friction. They interpret this as political, when in fact, it is structural.
By definition, when you don’t have a clearly defined role to others, they do not know how to work with you. The onus is on you to prove value so that they want to work with you, because they don’t have to. Usually, my advice when people come to me with these problems is to switch to a more defined role. There may be a valid reason to leave your role less defined though, and in this case, I propose a framework for finding a valuable fit within a cross-functional team.
While all cross-functional teams have well-defined roles on paper, in reality, for all the needs of a team, people within the cross-functional team trade off responsibilities based on skill set and interest. You may have a PM who’s better at execution, so the designer takes on strategic duties, for example. What you’re trying to find with a less defined role is a team that has a need for a skill set, and wants someone to fulfill that need.
What happens in each of these boxes? Well, if your role is not needed or wanted, then you don’t get an opportunity to help. If your role is wanted, but not needed, you tend to be superfluous and lowly leveraged. If your role is needed, but not wanted, you experience rejection. If your role is wanted and needed, that’s where the magic happens. You integrate into the cross-functional team well, help them achieve their goals, and likely are happy in what you’re doing.
Two Tips to Make These Roles Work
#1 Get a senior leader to sponsor your effort
It’s almost impossible to make this type of role if your manager and ideally someone very senior in the organization support it. If senior leaders are very strict about team formation, it just might not be the company where you can be successful in a non-uniform role. Also, if your manager doesn’t support the direction you’re targeting, there will be a big mismatch come review time that will stifle your career.
One way to be more successful with managers and senior leaders is to be very clear why you want to work this way and what value it adds to the company. I would not recommend going to managers and senior leaders suggesting you not fit a typical role in the organization, and then ask how you can be effective. You are not giving them two problems: 1) someone who won’t fit into the traditional organizational structure and 2) someone who doesn’t know how to help the company. For many managers, this would trigger them to ask why you’re at the company in the first place if you don’t know how to help.
#2 Approach teams with humility
Your approach to talking to managers and senior leaders about your role should be very different from how you approach teams. While with managers and senior leaders, you want to make a clear case of the value you can add and what you want to do, that can not work so well for approaching teams. A better approach gets across a few key points:
- You’re interested in the problem they’re working on
- You think they are doing interesting work
- You’re just here to help in whatever way you can
- These are the skill sets you have that may be valuable
- Finally, the ask: What can I help with?
Whether you have a traditional or non-traditional role in a team, the first step is building trust, and that is usually earned by doing smaller tasks the team is not getting to and would like help on. From there, you earn the right to work on more critical tasks. It may take some time to get to the role you’re most interested in playing on the team, and that is normal.
At Eventbrite, we have multiple people who sit outside the traditional paradigm of well-defined roles who are thriving. They all found a way to add value to a team that was wanted and not competitive, and the team operates better for it. But this all happens on an opt-in basis. The teams chose to accept them. If you want to play outside the lines, you have to understand that other teams playing with you is entirely opt-in on their part. This is the risk of not participating in the structure the company operates in; you may find opportunities to help that the team isn’t welcoming to, and there’s nothing you can do about it.