Knowing which jobs to say 'Yes'​ to...and those to politely say 'No'​ to

Knowing which jobs to say 'Yes'​ to...and those to politely say 'No'​ to
Source: Clarence Nartey | Country Director of Invest In Africa | clarence.nartey@investinafrica.com
Date: 08-11-2019 Time: 01:11:30:pm

Over the course of my 18 year - long career in the for-profit & not-for-profit sectors, I have been fortunate to experience a variety of roles (11 in all ) across product categories, functions, geographies and sectors. I have tried to categorise these roles into 5 buckets:

# A 'starter’ role (in the mould of an intrapreneur, ‘white space’, start-up business)

# A 'fixer' role (one with expertise in orchestrating a major brand/business turnaround )

# A 'builder' role (in the mould of one who helps sustain or consolidates business growth)

# A 'chiropractor' role (think of one charged with leading re-alignment/re-positioning)

# A ‘conductor’ role (someone in a coordinating role)

Like me, I am sure most readers have experienced many, if not all of the above-mentioned roles at some point in their working career. I have thrived in some but have also been unsuccessful in others. Similarly, I have observed a “successful here, not-so-successful there” pattern in the career trajectories of peers, direct reports and even senior colleagues- including those considered to be top talent. I am yet to meet a person who has excelled in all 5 roles, on a consistent and sustained basis. Please note that excellence, in this case, refers to being in the top 10% of your peer group.

Do some roles come more ‘naturally’ to us? Are there specific roles/assignments we are better off avoiding because we are unlikely to succeed in them? I sincerely believe this. Fortunately, I am in good company. No less a person than Peter Drucker, considered by many to be the World's Greatest Management teacher affirms this in his seminal article 'Managing Oneself'. He underscores this with an admonishment "Do not try to change yourself – you are unlikely to succeed. Rather “work to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.

The obvious question is how does one obtain the relevant knowledge to help make the right decision on roles to take up ( and those to say no to). My first response is to point out that the primary responsibility for finding this out lies with the individual. Here, permit me to go down a short rabbit trail. A major guiding principle that has shaped by career is taking personal ownership of my own learning and development. I have never believed in outsourcing this responsibility to my Line Managers, HR BP’s or even the organisation. Let’s be clear: I am not by this, recommending that those in these positions sidestep their responsibilities. I am only challenging managers in today’s volatile and dynamic world- where the employer/employee pact is increasingly being defined on a short term basis- to assume even greater responsibility for their own career development.

It took me several years to figure out which roles (note, not jobs) I am cut out for and should pursue. And similarly, which roles I am unlikely to perform well in and therefore de-prioritise. But once I gained the requisite understanding it became an empowering tool to deploy in planning and negotiating my way through a career landscape full of snakes and ladders. Let me add that one of the most liberating outcomes of this self-discovery process is the inner confidence, intellectual and emotional integrity it produces- which enables you to politely turn down roles that do not play to your strengths without having any regrets. Even in those ‘complicated’ situations when you are compelled - for a variety of reasons- to take up roles that are not ideal, this knowledge can help you negotiate for a ‘job re-design’ – reorganising aspects of the job in a way that enhances your chances of success.

Dear reader, have you figured out which roles you are hard-wired for? What about those that do not play to your strengths or the way you perform? It is important that you know BOTH. Would love to get feedback from those who have done so already.

In the remaining paragraphs, I would like to share a few self- discovery pathways to consider. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Neither are they laid out in a sequential manner nor is one necessarily required to choose one at the expense of another. As always, it is a case of ‘horses for courses’. In my own journey, I have walked across all the pathways I describe below, to arrive at my current 'understanding'.

 Here are some pathways:

Pay attention to your Passions & Proclivities What situations, challenges are you instinctively drawn to? For example, if you are constantly excited about identifying and commercialising new opportunities you are more likely to be attracted by “en/intrapreneur”-type roles. On the other hand, if you are obsessed with order - structures, systems and always looking for ways to optimize and maximise performance, you probably will enjoy ‘builder’ type roles.

Personality /Performance-Based Tests: Can I assume that most of us have probably been exposed to some Personality & Performance-based tests over the course of our career? If so, then like you I have- and have found the following to be particularly helpful: Clifton Strengths Assessment, Myers Briggs 16 Personality testBelbin Team RolesDISC Colour Personality types. Together, they have helped me understand myself better and also how to also build effective working relationships. Strengthsfinder assessment decidedly helped me to better understand my strengths, how to maximise them and also work at my full potential. It is advisable- if you can afford it- to enlist professional help ( e.g. Career /Life Coach, Strengths Coach etc ) on this journey as you explore possibilities - including roles that play to your strengths.


Feedback analysis: A critical input for shaping an individual’s personal and career development is objective and constructive feedback. Whether from a family member, line manager, work colleague, mentor or coach, when offered by an insightful and well-meaning person who has experienced you in a variety of situations/roles over a period, this can be very helpful. I encourage you to use the 360 - degree feedback approach instead of relying on only one or two sources.

Experimentation: When all else fails, you can always count on the trusted ‘trial & error’ method ( i.e. experimentation). Consider volunteering or taking up assignments in a variety of roles to ascertain which one(s) resonate with you (and those that don’t). I know some large organisation which practice an ‘inverted T’-model of career development for their young managers. These managers are consciously exposed to different assignments during their early years to enable them gain breadth(and rich variety) of experiences. Used well, it can serve as a great self-discovery process. I was fortunate to be exposed to ‘starter’, ‘builder’ and ‘turnaround’ -type roles during my first 7 years in the Corporate world. This helped me get a good sense of roles that played to my strengths and those that didn’t. A major caveat with this ‘experimentation’ route is that it is ideal during the early years when the cost of failure - both to the business and yourself - is relatively low and inexpensive. In other words, when you have many more years ahead(and opportunities too) to recover- from any initial career setbacks.

Thanks in part to this experimentation process, I have no shame in admitting I am not cast in the mould of a Carlos Ghosn( Ex- Nissan CEO ) or Sergio Marchionne ( Ex-Fiat Chrysler CEO) whose expertise lie in orchestrating major business turnarounds- rescuing great businesses from the abyss of despair.

Read Peter Drucker’s HBR article ‘Managing Oneself’: In this highly influential article( https://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself) Drucker lists some questions we must answer on this self-discovery journey. These are “what am I good at”?, “how do I work/perform”? what are my values? what should I contribute ..and dynamics of taking responsibility for relationship management. “Successful careers, he reminds us… develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work and their values.  

The power of this self-knowledge plays out powerfully even in circumstances when you are assigned roles that do not play to your strengths, Drucker explains that you can make a case for a job re-design. How? “Yes, I will do that( referring to say the non-ideal role). But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am”.

Hopefully, some of the above pointers will prove useful whether you are just starting out, at mid-point or even in the process of re-ordering your steps on the career path. Wishing you great success in identifying appropriate roles to go for that will enhance your chances of career success