Be a star or a janitor.
How to prioritize at work early in your career.
I talk a lot of shit and give a lot of negative career advice. Don’t be a generalist. Don’t work in venture capital. I stand by that but I’d be remiss not to present a more constructive viewpoint on how to think about early career building.
For most people, especially early in their careers, there’s just not a lot of agency at work. By and large, junior people are told what to do and it’s on them to execute as instructed. Even if you’re well paid knowledge worker, you’re mostly carrying out marching orders from your boss early in your career.1
What you do with the agency you DO have, however small, is probably more important than anything else beyond basic competency. And if you’re lucky/privileged enough to be in a junior role with significant autonomy and agency, how you choose to use it isn’t the most important thing - it’s the only thing.
When do you raise your hand? What do you volunteer for? When do you ask for permission first? How do you define, measure, and communicate success? How do you prioritize your goals vs the team’s priorities?
In short, how do you earn your colleagues’ trust, make yourself valuable, and grow into the job you want?
Here’s what I’ve learned and the rough framework I’ve found. You should always strive to do the work either 1) no one else can do or 2) no one else wants to do. Be a star or a janitor. Be like Mr Clean - the perfect mix of sex appeal and down and dirty effort.
As a janitor, you should enthusiastically tackle the projects and tasks that are just miserable. Find what is going to be most painful and take it on with gusto. Shovel shit for your team and they’ll love you for making their lives easier. Do that and you’ll find yourself in the guts of the business, indispensable to your team whose gratitude you’ve earned through brute force. Along the way, you’ll learn much faster by getting into the messy process and mechanics than you would have otherwise.
As a star, you should seek out the work you are uniquely capable of or the opportunities where you have some comparative advantage. Take the initiative to do things that might not have otherwise happened and your team will value you for your unique contributions. Do well, and the leash will get longer until eventually those things you’re best at are your primary function.
The corollary here is to avoid (as best you can) anything that is “replacement level;” the hum-drum tasks that neither drive outsized value nor relieve disproportionate pain. This the mushy middle of “just doing your job.”
Of course most jobs most of the time are just that - jobs to just be done. That’s fine. Do what’s needed and do it well. Obviously. The point is to define your role (through actions) to look as bipolar as possible.2
Pull this off and you can initiate a flywheel whereby you get more autonomy and a better fitting role over time. You’ll be increasingly doing only the work you’re either best at or most appreciated for.
But how do you avoid becoming a full time janitor? How, for example, do you avoid the trap of becoming a de facto assistant/bandaid applier for your boss or winding up in a job you never wanted at all?
The key is to focus on projects rather than ongoing maintenance. This is the difference between a salesperson on a small team with no support stepping in to project manage a CRM migration or major cleanup and being the sales ops person responsible for maintaining the CRM on behalf of the whole team day to day. The former is a pain in the ass that someone needs to own and do well once. The latter is just a different job that you, as a salesperson, might not want.3
Last year I built a new operating model for my fund from the ground up. It was not a fun time and no one much wanted to do it. In doing this rather miserable, janitorial work I 1) learned a ton about how venture funds really work on a granular level and 2) earned the right to help drive conversations about strategy going forward. Having built it, I don’t spend much time/effort inputting new data into the model on an ongoing basis myself: I took on the major pain of the initiative but not the “job.”
Ideally, the janitorial aspects of your job should fall within your role as “person who gets shit done” rather than “person whose job it is to this one annoying thing or collection of annoying things.”
You can apply a similar logic in your role as a star. There’s a fine line between taking the initiative on opportunities to drive unique value and just being an asshole not willing to help out the team.
To make it personal again: I have generally tried to source deals through my own networks (younger founders, more under the radar, etc.) and through brute force (junior folks have the least valuable/constrained time) rather than trying to do a worse version of what my partners do. I could try to compete with them and with their peers at other firms or I could try to find some angle that wasn’t necessarily better or worse but was certainly harder for my partners to replicate, especially earlier in my career. I tried to add something different knowing that I couldn’t possibly outperform on an equal playing field.
Those angles and avenues for both janitorial work and stardom won’t present themselves on day one and they may not ever be obvious at all but I promise you they do exist. Find them.
The point of this framework isn’t to guide your every decision; it’s to help you prioritize at the margins. But all those marginal choices add up over time. More than that, they compound and collectively form the basis of your role and reputation. So choose wisely.
Thank you to Chris Brown and Justin Gage for editing and feedback.
NB: this is written from a place of privilege and is generally (though not exclusivity) meant for similarly privileged readers. For many if not most people outside of high status white collar work, jobs don’t work this way.
I cannot over-emphasize the extent to which you should not present this framework to manager as an excuse to not do something. Do not do that. If you are told/asked to do something by your manager, do not for a second think that it will ever be to your benefit to do anything less than your best at it.
If, in this example, you are the sales ops person then there will almost undoubtedly be a different version of the same paradigm within your role. Do not take any of this to mean that some roles are inherently low value or lacking opportunities to excel beyond the hum-drum. In my experience, that is just not true.