Do you watch TV sitcoms or comedy series? If so, you’ll know that the characters often evolve from the original concept of their roles. 

Take the popular American sitcom “Will and Grace”, for example. The role of Karen Walker, Grace’s personal assistant, originally was written as a supporting character. But the role became far more prominent based on viewer reaction. 

This was in large part based on the way actress Megan Mullaly played the character and made it her own. Mullaly originally played the role using a normal voice but then increased the tone and pitch in subsequent episodes until she created the distinct nasal voice that’s become one of the character's trademarks. 

What’s interesting is that no one asked Mullaly to try a different voice, and she didn’t jump to the final version in one episode. The key to her success was taking the initiative and taking gradual steps to discover what would work best. And the rest is history. 

Just as Megan Mullaly was able to take the role she was given and make it more interesting, you can take the role you have at work and make it more motivating for yourself too. 

To help you do just that, there are three steps you can take:

  1. Observation
  2. Conversation
  3. Motivation

Let’s begin with observation.

To create the role you want, start by observing your current situation 

Think about what you’re doing – the activities and tasks you perform – and how you’re adding value. What are the things your boss and teammates look to you to do, including things that aren’t in your formal job description? For example, my analytics specialist who noticed that I also ask for his opinion on strategic decisions.

Look at the work you’re doing that you don’t get credit for. Like being the one who informally mentors new team members. Or being a culture carrier who lifts the mood and motivation of the rest of the team. 

Also, think about where you could add more value. These are the things that you’re great at, love to do, and are valued by your organization, but aren’t being asked to do… yet. Like my personal assistant who I hired to take on individual tasks, but whose real strength is organizing people, processes and projects to get things done.

Which brings us to the second step. 

Have a conversation with your boss or relevant stakeholders

Once you’ve identified the activities you want to make part of your role, it’s key to confirm that they’re needed and valued by the organization. This is the time to get your ideas out of your head and into the “real world”. 

In Megan Mullaly’s case, the relevant “conversation” was with television viewers, so she needed to start incorporating the change and seeing their reaction. In your case, it’s more likely to be an actual conversation with your boss or teammates. 

Having the conversation is a golden opportunity to refine your idea and to socialize it with your boss or other stakeholders. 

In the case of my team members, it was only through having conversations with me that I learned what they were already doing and capable of doing beyond their job descriptions. And those conversations were key to expanding their roles.

Which brings us to the third step: motivation. 

Something magical happens when you give your role a name 

Giving your role a name confers a special status to what you’re doing. People will associate that status with you, and you’ll feel more confident and motivated by it.

This is especially valuable if you’re doing important but “invisible work” that you don’t get credit for. So if you’re the one mentoring people who are new to the team, perhaps you’re the Onboarding Mentor. And if you’re the one who role models the team’s norms and standards of conduct, maybe you’re a Culture Carrier or Culture Strategist.

Whether the role you want to create is something you’re already doing or something new, when you name it, you get to claim it.

Ideally, it’s a name that you co-create with your boss or stakeholders to make sure they buy into it. Just make sure it’s a term that gives you scope to do more of what you love to do and get recognized properly for doing it.

So my “analytics guy” is now our Analytics Strategist, and my assistant is now our Global Project Manager. And they’re both super motivated and doing great work.

But what if your boss disagrees?

If you’ve taken these steps and tried everything you can, but your boss won’t support your proposal, then it’s time for Plan B: “accept the role you have and train for the role you want”. 

It’s a lesson that our friend and professional basketball player (let’s call her Dynah) learned the hard way. She was recruited to the team with the promise of being able to develop her outside shot, but halfway through the season she was still asked to be an inside post player.

Upset, she went to her former coach (my husband) for advice. They determined that she needed to improve her shooting skills, otherwise it was just too risky for her new coach to agree to a change. Dynah’s best strategy would be to do the best job she can as an inside post player and work on her shooting skills on her own time.

So if you don’t get what you want right away, keep doing your current job well and invest in the skills and capabilities you need to get the role you want. That way, you’ll have support from your boss and stakeholders when you’re ready for the new role.

And what if you’re just taking on more work for the same pay? 

These steps are about helping you shape your role so you get to do more of what motivates you while also getting well-deserved credit for it. Think of it as finding the “sweet spot” between what you’re great at, what you love to do, and what’s valued by the organization. 

As part of that, you may need to shed some activities that don’t fall into your “sweet spot”, perhaps by delegating to someone else (including outside your team) or asking for a resource to support you. Alternatively, it may be time to negotiate for higher pay given the additional greater value you’re adding. 

Just don’t make the mistake that most people make

When you’re feeling undervalued, unappreciated or in need of a more motivating role, it’s all too easy to suffer in silence or worse yet, complain. You’ll inevitably become less engaged, which in turn affects your performance. Left long enough, you’ll put yourself at risk of being the first to be laid off and in the meantime, fall into the trap of learned helplessness. And that’s a recipe for plateauing in your career. 

Instead, take action to create the role you want

Start by observing what’s needed, where you’re already adding value (but not getting recognized), and where you could add more value by operating in your “sweet spot”. 

Then start having conversations with your boss and stakeholders to confirm that what you’re proposing is needed and valued by the organization. And finally, take the motivating step of giving the role a name. 

What’s the next step you need to take to create the role you want? 

Leave a comment and let me know.