The Effective Contributor
When I was 15 years old and still in high school, I was fortunate enough to get a job in a software development shop. My job was not as a software developer, but instead as what I now affectionately call a “do boy.” A do boy, does what the organization needs. This usually meant picking up lunch for senior members of the team, organizing paper files, and running all kinds of errands.
I was happy and grateful to have a job, and initially, I didn’t find the work demeaning at all. But eventually, I started questioning whether it was the best use of my time. Since the age of 10, I had been interested in computers. I wrote a few simple BASIC programs on the very first computer I got my hands on. Despite my history with computers, I did not have the knowledge or experience it would take to write software professionally. I was, however, spending all my free time learning how to program. Running errands began to feel like a waste of my time.
One day, I decided to pose a question to a senior member of the team. Why did he think it was a good use of my time to have me pick up lunch and run errands, instead of allowing me to learn how to program so I can work as a software engineering apprentice. His answer was clear yet unexpected. “You are here to contribute”, he said. At that time my best contribution was to take care of the errands and allow the software engineers to focus on their contribution.
Fast forward a couple of decades I am reminded of this time in my life. As I read Peter Drucker’s: The Effective Execute, It helps me recall this story from my past. In the third chapter of the book, Peter starts with a question: “What can I contribute?”. In hindsight, my puzzling thoughts around why I ran errands for others now become crystal clear.
Organizations serve to assemble people into a common goal. The most important question each member of the team needs to ask themselves is “What can I contribute?”. Some twenty years ago, I contributed by aiding in the preserving of focus, not for myself but for others. Their contributions were more significant than mine.
As time goes by, we must align our contributions with the needs of the team and the organization; this will require us to grow. We need to evolve as our contribution expectations change. Failing to understand this will result is doing the wrong things the wrong way. To quote Peter's book:
“The most common cause of [contributor] failure is the inability or unwillingness to change with the demands of a new position. The [contributor] who keeps on doing what the has done successfully before he moved is almost bound to fail.” — The Effective Executive, page 58
As our responsibility and the level of contributions grow, we face new challenges. The one I recall most vividly was the challenge of choosing what to focus on. My contributions became more significant over time as I began to spend more time writing software. My new dilemma was now one of focus. Which of my tasks were most important? Peter again offers excellent advice in his book which I wish I had back then.
“The focus on contribution counteracts one of the basic problems of a [contributor]: the confusion and chaos of events and their failure to indicate by themselves which is meaningful and which is merely noise.”- The Effective Executive, page 70
Asking “What can I contribute?” will clarify what should be your focus. I had to answer this question daily. Once I was asked to spend more some of my time in the software, rather than simply running errands, I put the work of debugging low priority software issues dozens of times to go pick up lunch for others. Even though I was growing into a new responsibility and slowly becoming a software developer, my most important contribution at that time was to allow the senior engineers to remain focused on their contributions, mine was to ensure they were fed.
Contribution and impact go hand in hand. Lately, how I remind myself of this matter is to *focus on impact*. What positive impact can I bring to the organization? The impact is the destination; the contribution is the journey.
Whether you are starting out or late into your career, assessing your contributions and narrowing your sights on impact will allow you to focus on what the organization needs the most. As you progress, continue to ask this question, as it will help you focus and deliver a positive impact.
What can I contribute?
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I can’t recommend Peter’s book enough.
I replaced Peter's use of ‘executive’ with ‘contributor’ as each person plays an essential role in the growth and success of the organization, regardless of their title or position.