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A Party of One
The four characters of knowledge work
I never played Dungeons & Dragons, but I was always fascinated by the character classes. Like the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings or the squad in The Bad Batch, a core component of D&D is a balanced group of characters whose strengths offset each other’s weaknesses. The classic party includes someone that heals, someone with stealth, someone that fights, and someone who uses magic. A myriad of different classes exists, but these four are foundational.
I believe a similar set of character classes exist in knowledge work. Understanding these four skill sets can help us understand our strengths and weaknesses in the often opaque definition of our roles. These character classes are not substitutes for job titles or levels—for they could appear in any function or grade—instead, these characters are a way of understanding our purpose on a team.
While most of my experience is in the tech sector in a product manager role, I hope these experiences can transcend the specifics and serve as a general framework for understanding our purpose in any team. Over the last eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to work as a Cleric, Ranger, Warrior, and Mage, and here are a few things I’ve learned.
When I left college, I was a nice idiot. Sure, a paper said I knew things, but all I really had was a can-do attitude and a decent work ethic. General Electric took a chance and hired me into their “leadership program” to move around the company every six months for two years. I didn’t know anything about gas engines or wind turbines and—admittedly—not that much about the software I was supposed to manage.
Even though I had minimal hard skills, I was a collaborative millennial who was easy to work with and good at building relationships with many people—from leaders to peers to PhDs to wind farm technicians. I didn’t know anything, but people didn’t mind helping me because I wasn’t arrogant. I was a Cleric.
The Cleric is a collaborator. They team well, communicate clearly, and support others in achieving goals. For me, this translated to the clerical tasks of scheduling meetings, sending status reports, creating dashboards, filing requests, giving presentations, and making spreadsheets. Although I was an entry-level Cleric, I’ve met many strong executives who were also Clerics: servant leaders who created the culture and processes for their people to succeed.
Good Clerics are friendly, patient, and humble enough to learn from more experienced and specialized team members. They add value by taking on tasks that would otherwise distract the team and streamline processes that enable collaborative work.
Bad Clerics are “overheard” when they’re impatient or arrogant because they forget their primary job is to support the team.
After a few years at GE, I was decent at planning since I could decompose problems into smaller parts without losing sight of the bigger picture. I got better at tracking metrics and planning projects in complex domains, such as high-performance computing. In short, I became a Ranger.
The Ranger is a planner. They are highly organized and meticulous at tracking initiatives. They are uniquely positioned to see the bigger picture since they operate at a high level. While on a team of very senior engineers with deep expertise in their respective systems, I learned to add value by connecting the dots through my knowledge of each system. I could accurately coordinate timelines and monitor dependencies because I had a bird’s eye view. This perspective eventually led me to craft a cohesive experience for end users.
Good Rangers don’t perch on the edge of a cliff, surveying a space—they get in the weeds and track prints. They are comfortable diving into the details and emerging to inform their long-term plan.
Bad Rangers hover on the surface and are too timid to descend into low-level messages. When I set my sights on new pastures and landed at Ekata, I was responsible for a massive identity data asset. In that role, I learned the hard way—through several buggy releases—that drilling into the details was fundamental to building an informed perspective.
One day, I found myself in the depths of Amazon—serving as a PM on a core services team. It was the height of the COVID lockdown, and my team cycled through a carousel of leaders as we struggled to scale with the company’s aggressive growth. Amazon has a heavy self-service culture, so one must be a competent, fast learner and comfortable doing independent work to succeed. It was an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and hack through the jungle.
The Warrior is a doer. They are highly competent in their skillset and are masters of execution, so they consistently deliver results. Throughout my time at Ekata and Amazon, I got proficient at shell scripting, writing SQL and Python to manipulate data, building web apps, and doing the deep, independent work needed to craft product specs. Although I was initially deficient as a Warrior, most people enter their careers with a solid foundation of hard skills to serve in this class. With a firm foundation of doing, they can develop the competency that leads to confidence.
Good Warriors are calm and competent. They’re great at execution and have high say-do ratios. Without them, no real work can happen.
Bad Warriors are trigger-happy and overreactive. They act without fully understanding a problem and immediately start solutioning—which can waste resources and create new problems.
Two years ago, I returned to Ekata to work on data science products. I had some familiarity with machine learning, but I was by no means an expert, and the complexity of the domain soon caught up to me. Although I had a strong foundation for doing, planning, and collaborating, I lacked proficient thinking skills to be effective. The complexity of the space felt like magic, and I was merely an enthralled audience member—unaware of how my mystical coworkers conjured such spectacles. But through independent reading, dumb questions, and trial & error, I learned to strengthen my thinking.
The Mage is a thinker. They have exceptional critical thinking skills and clear-headedness that allow them to perceive what isn’t there. A Mage can envision something and determine what’s missing from the current state to realize that vision. There’s a reason wizards have long beards: it takes years to develop deep thinking.
Good Mages draw from a latticework of mental models to appropriately shape their thinking to the circumstance. They develop the practical wisdom to know when to question, reframe, or slow down.
Bad Mages are overly critical and misuse their powers to turn down solutions without proposing new ones. They might dwell on problems endlessly or talk about ideas but never execute them.
A Balanced Party
No party is complete without these four classes. The Cleric collaborates, the Ranger meticulously plans, the Warrior reliably executes, and the Mage thinks deeply.
If one role is missing, the group is unbalanced.
No Cleric → toxic environment and low trust
No Ranger → stressful and randomized days
No Warrior → no execution or progress
No Mage → solving the wrong problem
Multiple people might fill one role (i.e., three people are Warriors), or one person might fill numerous positions (i.e., someone is both the Cleric and the Ranger), but every team needs the four characters.
In A Company of One, Paul Jarvis describes a model for solopreneurship that involves developing a broad skillset. While most of us won’t become solopreneurs, balanced skills can make us more effective at anything we set our minds to. If we’re a little skilled in each class, we can fill the gaps in whatever team we’re on—even a party of one.