Work Assignments Differ From College Assignments

Think about the start of a new school term and how we approach preparing for it. The first class primarily focuses on the syllabus that outlines the class expectations. It is a fairly prescriptive approach with clear guidance on what we must complete. Then throughout the term, we consume the provided reference materials and listen intently during the lectures, recalling what we’ve learned when presented with an eerily similar problem we now need to solve on an exam. These problems typically relate directly back to the topics covered in the lectures and reading materials.

At work, our manager gives us a general explanation of our department and responsibilities. They outline initial goals or tasks they would like us to complete. And they might share the areas of our responsibilities they believe need improving. Then they point us to where we can access different information within the organization. And there you have it. That’s the provided guidance.

From there, our manager expects us to figure out how to go about our job and achieve our goals. There are no pre-defined reference materials that outline and state what is to be completed week by week. In our careers, we are expected to continuously look for issues by analyzing performance data and observing and experiencing processes. And then solicit others throughout the organization to help us fix any problems or improvements to existing processes.

But our manager’s expectations are broader than identifying and preventing problems. They also expect us to identify new growth opportunities. We must continuously observe and analyze what is changing around us and determine if and how we can take advantage of these changes. And we need to be receptive to change, including changing priorities, because change is, as we all know, the only constant at work and in life.

Not convinced? If you’ve read job descriptions lately, you’ve noticed they are evolving as well. They are starting to communicate these managers’ expectations and desired approaches to work more clearly. Here is how you can translate requirements in today’s job descriptions that illustrate the expectation that we will understand a goal or purpose of our responsibilities at work and then define an approach and take action to achieve them.

Here is a translation for you.

  • Self-directed/self-starter/motivated = defining how to achieve goals or objectives on your own.
  • Analytical = critical thinker who challenges their knowledge of a topic to ensure they are moving beyond surface, automatic thinking, and can predict responses to actions correctly.
  • Creative or define strategies = Define solutions to problems or identify opportunities.
  • Work cross-functionally = masterful at developing strong work relationships to collaborate across different departments effectively.
  • Effective communicator = demonstrating our strategic thinking by clearly presenting a problem or opportunity, outlining the impacts on the business, and presenting creative solutions to fix the problem or take advantage of the opportunity.
  • Being a life-long learner has proven to be a requisite for career success. In addition to deeply understanding and addressing our business challenges, we need to take ownership of staying current on the trends in our areas of expertise and identifying new technical skills that will support our continued growth and development in our careers.

The overarching message here is that we must define the path to achieving our responsibilities at work. No one else is responsible for doing that for us. Once we know the goal or purpose of what we are to do, we are responsible for defining the path to accomplishing it.

This is not to say we need to go it alone; on the contrary. Our managers and colleagues are happy and eager to hear our ideas and provide additional guidance to our thinking. The vital action is to demonstrate a well-thought-out idea or proposal, backed by data if possible, to engage in a meaningful conversation with our manager to demonstrate our strategic thinking, and then augment our ideas with their feedback.

We are not adding value if we need our manager to provide step-by-step guidance on the actions we should take to accomplish our responsibilities. And adding value is today’s work performance measurement.