Seven must-know contextual details about a role

Role descriptions vary in how much information they provide to applicants. Some are usefully detailed. Others have important gaps, leaving an applicant without sufficient information to make an informed decision, let alone provide a tailored application.

If you find you are reading a role description that focuses on the immediate team, the duties and role requirements, there are at least seven contextual details to uncover. Contextual details give you information about where, what and why questions that are essential to know.

What are the duties of this role?

This might seem like an obvious question and information that you would find in a role description. Sadly, this is not always the case. If you don’t know what you would be expected to do in a role then selecting suitable examples to make your case is difficult.

If a contact person is nominated then you should call them. Even more sadly, some role descriptions don’t give this information either. If you’re an internal applicant you might have colleagues who can supply information or know who to call in the area where the role is. As an external applicant, particularly one outside the public service, you could try the recruitment area or call the department/agency and ask to speak to the director of the area where the role is located. It’s worth a try, even though you may come up empty.

Where is the role located?

It is not enough to know the immediate team and/or branch location of a role. You also need to know where in the organisational structure this work sits. What division, who heads it, what its purpose is. This contextual detail is essential to know as it gives an indication of the role’s importance, its focus, and purpose. For example, a finance role that sits in a corporate area will likely have a whole-of-organisation focus. A finance role that sits in a business area will likely have a focus on that particular area, although that would need confirming.

What corporate strategies apply?

Some roles are directly affected by corporate or public service-wide strategies, although this may not be mentioned in the role description. For example, a security role in the APS may need to consider the Protective Security Policy Framework. An auditing role may need to take into account a corporate risk management strategy. Senior roles will need to take account of the corporate plan and the relevant strategies in that document. Insiders may know this information, while outsiders may overlook this detail.

What affects complexity?

Few roles fail to mention that they involve complex policy issues, complex problem solving, or complex stakeholder issues. The nature of the complexity may not be clear from the role description. Guessing may result in a misaligned application.

There are many factors that can add complexity to a situation, including geography, politics, economics, culture, demographics, uncertainty, conflict, competition, status, hierarchy, professional background, to name a few. To give examples that are relevant and of a suitable level of complexity, the complexity of the role needs to be fully understood.

Why is the role available?

What is driving the availability of the role can make a difference to how you make your pitch. If it’s a new role, which is rarely mentioned in role descriptions, it makes a difference if it’s a result of a restructure, a new government policy or program, or the need for more staff. A restructure or new subject matter can mean increased uncertainty and the opportunity to manage change.

This contextual information will affect how you pitch your management and leadership skills. A situation of uncertainty may require a person who can manage change, clarify roles, delegate work while engaging and motivating a team to work together for a new goal.

What’s the status of the team?

If the role is for a team leader or manager it is useful to know something about the status of the people you will be managing. Is the team fully formed, effective and productive, with high morale, competent skills? Or is there high turnover, low morale, interpersonal conflict, and general dysfunction? What’s the demographic and professional makeup of the team, where are they located, and level of competency, also impact on manager skills. Knowing this information means you can tailor your application to suit the context.

What are the key deliverables?

Role descriptions can be a bit vague about what is expected from the person doing the job. There can be a healthy list of duties which ‘may’ be handled by the person, without being clear as to which ones are critical right now. If a role is of a fixed term, then there may well be duties and deliverables vital during that period. Knowing this information means you can focus on what’s important, rather than giving a broad brush across everything.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.