Now that we’ve considered a problem’s significance and a method’s efficacy, let’s get more specific and assess the potential impact of particular roles.
When working in an organization that’s doing a lot of good, it’s likely that all roles are pretty valuable, but some roles enable you to make a larger impact than others. These roles tend to have higher leverage— that is, they have a greater capacity to generate impact or progress within a problem.
In a broad context, leverage can be thought of as your total influence over how resources, time, labor, and money are spent. For example, if you donate to an effective charity, your impact will reflect your personal contribution— but if you could leverage your persuasion and communication skills to get even more people to donate, your overall impact would extend to the contributions of others.
In the context of impactful jobs, leverage can be thought of as the total influence a role has on the impact the organization or company is trying to make. In other words, how much difference does this role make?
A longtime advocate of animal rights, Anjali currently works as a campaign coordinator for a U.S.-based animal welfare organization. In this role, she performs a wide range of tasks— from developing volunteer networks, to managing logistics and long-term projects, to creating campaign strategies. Anjali enjoys the job and does it well, so much so that her manager recently approached her about a new opportunity: Her organization is gearing up for an international expansion, and they’re looking for someone to lead their newest office in India.
As a native of the country, Anjali is initially excited by the prospect and feels like she could be competent at the job. However, she has some doubts whether or not to leave her current position. Changing roles would mean taking on a lot more responsibility— like managing a whole team, overseeing a large budget, and starting projects from the ground up. These sorts of tasks seem daunting, but they also mean that Anjali could do much more good in the new role than she is able to do in her current role. By taking it, she could help expand the organization’s impact, influence how donations are spent, and enable many more people to do important advocacy work. As a result, the new role would have incredibly high leverage— even if she isn’t totally sure it’s the right fit for her yet.
How much does this role actually matter?
To get a sense of a role’s leverage within a problem, we need to answer a fairly simple question: does it actually matter?
You probably know of jobs that seem highly critical – ones in which every task and hour involves important work. You’ve also probably encountered a job that doesn’t matter too much – one in which it’s unclear whether a person doing it makes any difference. Anthropologist David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs goes as far as indexing these sorts of jobs into a “typology of bullshit.” In it, he breaks down the five major types of jobs that may be a waste of time and resources.
Even if an organization is solving a significant problem with an effective method, a role might not make an impact if it doesn’t do much to enable progress. As a result, the first step in determining a role’s leverage is to make sure it makes a difference. This often depends on the specific situation and organization, but we can gain some intuition by asking ourselves:
- Would the organization still make progress without this role?
- Is this role central to what the organization does?
- How much will this role enable others to do important work?
- Does this role directly make an impact on the problem we’re solving? If not, how does it indirectly contribute to progress?
If you’re at the point of interviewing with specific organizations, another helpful way to gain a sense of a role’s importance is to simply ask them. It may be tricky to get an honest answer, but some strategic questions can help you gain a sense of what this role looks like within the organization’s structure and dynamic.
- How does this role impact the organization?
- What’s the difference between someone great at this role vs. just okay at it?
- What do the day-to-day activities of this position look like?
- What sort of dilemmas does this role deal with?
After a bit of investigation, you can usually get a sense of whether or not a role is very useful. If a role seems to meaningfully contribute to the organization’s goals or impact, great! We can probably say it has pretty good leverage. However, there are also some cases where a role’s leverage score could be much, much higher.
Uniquely high leverage scenarios
Fortunately, effective companies and nonprofits tend to have less BS jobs and useless roles. But even if a role is genuinely useful, there can still be major differences between the leverage of different positions— and some scenarios allow a role to have much more impact. These unique situations are not necessary for a role to be impactful, but they could potentially lead us to score their leverage much higher. Below we’ll touch on a few (though not the only) ways in which a role could have greater leverage.
Having influence over budgets and resources
A role can often have high leverage if it has access to or influence over a lot of resources. A grantmaker, for example, can leverage their position to influence how large sums of money are spent. Similarly, a role in the civil service or government may have some influence in budget matters, which could determine how different resources are utilized and allocated. If a role has the ability to influence contributions beyond your own, it naturally has an outsized impact within the problem or organization.
Managing or overseeing the work of many other people
In the same way that some roles can influence resources and budgets, management roles can influence how people’s time and efforts are spent. A great manager might enable a whole team to be significantly more productive or effective— generating much more progress or impact than they could have made on their own. With these types of positions, it’s especially important to understand the role within the context of the specific organization (as we talked about earlier) since some managers can be used ineffectively. But if it seems like a management role is critical to the organization, it’s likely to have high leverage.
Doing work that is both critical and that few people can do
Sometimes, only a limited set of people are able to fill a particularly critical or important role. Perhaps the role requires a unique or rare skill set or maybe the role needs someone with an extensive background in the field. Some examples include an AI researcher who understands the technical complexities of the subject, a position in an effective charity that requires an in-depth understanding of the field, or an academic who has an extensive research background in a particular subject area. Those who find themselves in the small minority of people able to take on these critical roles can often speed up progress, clear up bottlenecks, and enable the organization to do important work it may not otherwise be able to do.
Improving the work of someone else who’s incredibly high leverage
Many people perceive the most important roles as those with impressive titles. While there is some truth in this, the individuals working behind the scenes to facilitate high-impact work also play a crucial role. Consider personal assistants or chiefs of staff. Although their roles might not carry the same visibility, an effective assistant can increase a high-impact individual’s efficiency by freeing up their time and energy for more high-leverage tasks that they are uniquely placed to do. Nevertheless, it’s important to consider the concept of counterfactual impact. If you’re aiming to make a significant difference, it’s not enough just to serve as an assistant. Rather, your goal should be to excel in that role and provide value far beyond what an ordinarily-hired assistant could offer.
Sometimes a role is in the unique position to expand an organization’s reach or impact— like by opening up a new branch, extending services to a new region, or reaching a new audience/population, etc. Other times, it can enable some sort of growth within a field or cause area— like by improving the quality/scale of training, recruiting new people, fundraising, helping to automate certain processes, etc. In these scenarios, it’s easy to see how a role could have an outsized impact on the problem or goal.
Summing it up
If we want to make an impact with our careers, it’s important to understand how a particular role or job could actually contribute to improving the world. So long as a role plays a meaningful part in generating impact, we can say it has some leverage. If a role is in the unique position that provides it even more leverage, we can be even more confident in its importance.
In these cases, though, it’s important to remember that great influence comes with great responsibility. It’s possible that high-leverage situations could also lead to more harm— and if you’re doing a bad job or only pursuing your best interests, it could have an outsized negative impact overall. When it comes to a role’s leverage, we’re looking for any information that indicates:
- How this role meaningfully contributes to making an impact.
- If there are reasons the role could have uniquely high leverage.
Next up in our impact assessment, we’ll look at how your personal preferences and aptitudes can influence the impact you’re able to make.