When “That” Is Not Your Job

It’s always a good idea to branch out and build new knowledge, skills, wisdom, relationships, experiences, best practices, tools, work products, and repeatable solutions.

Despite all the advantages of adding to your repertoire, you still need to choose very carefully before saying, “Yes” or “No,” to a new task, responsibility, or project.

Sometimes It Really Shouldn’t Be Your Job

Not all opportunities are equally promising. The least promising fall into two main categories:

1. The wild goose chase. These are fruitless tasks that are often time consuming and sometimes difficult time wasters that are usually not even much fun. Keep your eyes peeled for the wild goose chase and do whatever you can to avoid it.

How do you know a wild goose chase when you see one? Sometimes it seems obvious, as when somebody asks you to do something that seems nearly impossible. But don’t mistake something difficult and ambitious—say, sending a rocket to the moon—with something that’s not possible. Something difficult and ambitious might prove to be a game-changing opportunity for you.

One shortcut might be the reputation of the asker. Has this person wasted your time before? Or that of others? Still, prejudging a colleague’s requests based on reputation or even your own experience with them might get you a reputation for being uncooperative or cliquish (as in “I won’t work with certain people”). And you might miss out on a great opportunity.

The #1 common denominator of the wild goose chase in the real world is the half-baked ask: If the ask comes in early and then gets revised iteratively, then you are likely to go off in one direction, then another, and then another without accomplishing much. Sometimes those projects just go away altogether; it becomes clear they shouldn’t be undertaken at all. Other times, they are revised and mature into good projects. Either way, the early stage work proves a fruitless waste of time.

2. You are really the wrong person for this task. There is a will to prepare, and you are not a lawyer, but a dentist. Or there are braces to install, and you are a lawyer, not an orthodontist. Or there are a hundred heavy boxes to move from one side of the warehouse to the other, but you are a file clerk and don’t even know how to drive a forklift.

In some cases, it would be ridiculous for you to try to do the task yourself. But the great thing about go-to-ism is that, increasingly, if you are a go-to person with real influence, then you have a lot of good customers, and you know where to find go-to people or potential people you can nurture. You know who’s who and where to find them, so you can make the introduction and be the connector, which by itself is a service. If you are a go-to person, then your introductions will carry more weight. That ties back to the importance of building your network and making yourself indispensable by being known as someone who connects talented go-to people to each other.

Sometimes Maybe It Should Be Your Job

What about times when, yes, you’d probably do well to decide that something seemingly outside your job actually should be part of your job? There are three primary instances:

1. Somebody has to do it—and it might as well be you (at least sometimes). I’m not talking here about tasks ancillary to your primary responsibility but still part of your job, like the heavy machine operator’s safety checks and shift handoff checklists, or the neonatal surgeon who washes her own hands.

I’m talking about the tasks that come up regularly or every so often that belong to no one, but somebody has to do it—one-off errands. The reasons to sometimes do the occasional one-off errands include: good workplace citizenship, teamwork, humility, and sacrifice. And don’t forget relationship ROI. People notice, and they appreciate and remember it. For example:

  • Not being the office cleaning service, but perhaps emptying the garbage midweek when it overflows
  • Not repairing office equipment, but knowing how to troubleshoot a paper jam
  • Not being the office caterer, but perhaps making the coffee when you come in first
  • Not being the office manager, but bringing in the mail or opening a box of supplies when you see them
  • Not being a trainer, but taking the time to teach a colleague how to do something new on the computer

Do be careful: You do not want to become that would-be go-to person who jumps at every chance. You won’t become a go-to person but, rather, the office gofer.

2. The job is a close cousin to your specialty. These are often the most natural and easy opportunities to add to your repertoire. This is the neonatal surgeon specializing in chest, abdominal, and urological procedures who learns a new way to do a procedure using new technology or adds an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat) procedure to her bag of tricks. This is the ditchdigger who learns to drive a newer and bigger piece of heavy equipment or dig a new and different kind of ditch. This is the waiter who learns to fill in for the hostess and greet customers in the front of the restaurant. These are the jobs that are usually a good fit with your other responsibilities and relatively easy to add to your repertoire of specialties. It makes sense to do them.

3. The job presents a brand-new opportunity to truly expand your repertoire—or even take on an additional career or change careers. It’s always a good idea to branch out and build new knowledge, skills, wisdom, relationships, experiences, best practices, tools, work products, and repeatable solutions.

Mastering brand-new specialties is how you truly diversify your opportunities to add value. Some new specialties are easier to add than others. Most require some amount of up-to-speed training. Some require going back to school. This is the restaurant waiter who decides to move from the front of the house to the back, the kitchen. He needs to learn how to cook first. This is the ditchdigger who decides to go into heavy machinery maintenance. He needs to learn how to be a mechanic. This is the neonatal surgeon who decides she’s going to start operating on adults.

Or suppose you are a lawyer and decide you want to be a dentist. Or you are a dentist and decide you want to become a lawyer. Or perhaps you decide you will use your training as a dentist in your newly acquired legal profession—say, by focusing on dental malpractice cases, representing dentists, or even suing dentists. My favorite example is Dr. Eric Ploumis, DDS, Esq., in Brooklyn, NY. He is a dentist who decided to study law. That in itself is not the most unusual thing. But Ploumis neither sues nor defends dentists. Rather, he continues to practice dentistry in one office and law in the other. Patients or clients proceed through one door to the law office where they may discuss contracts or instead go to his dental office to have their teeth treated.

Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” (Harvard Business Review Press), is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. You can follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.