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Passion, People and Principles

What Do You Want From Me?

post # 46 — April 9, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

Whether you are being given work to do by a client or a boss, it’s common that people will assign work to you badly, and that will cause you problems.

How can you do what they want if they don’t tell you clearly what they want?

The key is to take responsibility and ask permission to ask questions.

When someone gives you a task to do, say something like ‘I really want to do a great job for you, so can I clarify a few things?’ Most people will say ‘Yes.’ You can then be sure you understand the following details about your assignment –

  1. The context of the assignment – ‘Please could you tell me what you are going to do with this when I get it done, tell me who is it for, and where does it fit with other things going on?’
  2. Deadline – When would you like it, and when is it really due?
  3. Scope – Would you like me to do the thorough job and take a little longer, or the quick and dirty version?
  4. Format – How would you like to see the output of my work presented? What would make your life easier?
  5. Time budget – Roughly how long would you expect this to take (so I can tell whether I’m on track or not?)
  6. Relative priority – What’s the importance of this task relative to the other things you have asked me to do?
  7. Available resources – Is there anything available to help me get the job done? For example, have we done one of these before?
  8. Success criteria – How will the work be judged? Is it more important to be fast, cheap or perfect?
  9. Monitoring and scheduled check points – Can we, please, schedule now a meeting, say, halfway through so I can show you what I’ve got and ensure that I’m on track for your needs?
  10. Understanding – can I just read back to you what you’ve asked me to do, to confirm that I got it down right?
  11. Concerns – before I get started can I just share with you any concerns about getting this done (e.g., other demands on my time) so that I don’t surprise you later?

Yes, your client or boss should be good at delegating or assigning work and giving you this information anyway. But the truth is that many people won’t have thought through what they really want from you until you guide them through their ‘either-or’ choices.

If you have not received answers to these questions, you don’t yet know what to do, and the risk of being judged a failure is high!

Don’t rely on your superior (or external client) to give you all this information. Pull it out of him or her.


CarSinger said:

Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with great managers—or perhaps I made them that way (chuckle)—where we have been able to jointly establish the parameters that you so clearly enumerate.

My only complaint has been that some of my managers have had the audacity to retire, leaving me to build new relationships.

I believe a key is something recently articulated to me by one such manager: “I always put my people in a position where they can succeed.” This goes beyond the mutually understood assignment(s) to effective coaching and leadership — something that you have often stressed.

posted on April 10, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Great topic, David!

This is particularly important for newer employees, especially recent graduates. As the director of career services at a law school, I required every student to attend my lecture devoted largely to this topic.

Taking the initiative to clarify assignments provides the worker with a distinct competitive advantage in producing a high quality work product. It also evidences that the worker truly seeks to be of value to the company, and that he/she already is thinking like a more-seasoned associate. This is a great way to get the attention of a manager and start developing that relationship.

posted on April 12, 2006

Nut Suwapiromchot said:

Simple but powerful concept:

Only the staff should learn to ask but the boss should learn how to assign the jobs as well.

If both task were completly done we can get the excellent execution

posted on April 15, 2006

Shaula Evans said:

David, this is still one of my all-time favourite posts on the blog. It’s a great check list.

I try to cover (or solicit!) all of these points when I receive OR delegate a task—and I also just forwarded this post to my assistant, to make sure my assistant also holds me to these standards.

posted on May 16, 2006

Maggie Milne said:

Thanks David for this invaluable list! It’s the flip side of “how to delegate”. Will send to a client: whose management staff has been struggling with underperformers. I am anticipating a few “aha’s” from the front lines as well as the leadership. Thanks for sharing this tool.

– Maggie

posted on February 7, 2007

Karen Senteio said:

Excellent list!

posted on February 19, 2008