Define and design your role

Bob ILP Leave a Comment

What is my role exactly?


I think one of the most common demands I get from leaders today, when supporting them to develop the performance of their international teams, is to help build among team members a stronger sense of accountability, to build a more proactive mindset, to be braver so they can go the extra mile in their roles.

It’s an interesting demand because I’m not sure that people lack courage or a sense of accountability, or that they’re reactive rather than proactive. I think the problem is another one. I think they have a false sense of their role, a false perspective which generates sometimes frustration, anxiety, even paralysis – not doing thing – all of which can breed conflict and extra cost in the organisation.

So, how many of you actually know what you have to do?

Let me explore this this with a story. Last week, during a training seminar with a group of professionals working in a range of international contexts, I asked people to raise their hands if and only if they fully understood what they’re responsible for. Now, it was a bit of a strange question. After all, everyone had a business card with their job titled stated in black and white. Clear enough, no?

However, curiously, only around 10% of people put their hands up. Now, how could that be, that so many people were unclear about what they were supposed to be doing at work, every day, when they went to the office.

Now when I asked the group about their answers, they said, that’s their reality, and a reality which doesn’t feel good. And between the lines, I could hear a sense of complaint, that their organisation, even their own specific leader, was underperforming by not giving them a clear job description. You could sense many were waiting, expecting someone to clarify their responsibilities in order that they could go out and perform to the max. And it’s this expectation which I believe is the dangerous and false one, the expectation that a clear and fixed job description exists for them in a drawer somewhere, and that when it’s found and handed to them, they can go and deliver.

Living with false expectations

The reason I say that it’s a false expectation has many roots. Firstly, roles and jobs are no longer static as they were in the past. In fact, roles today have become highly dynamic. Why? Well, organisations are constantly transforming. New technologies are emerging every day. Customers regularly make new demands. So, this means that what we did yesterday at work is no longer a guarantee of what we need to do tomorrow. Roles, and the people performing them, need to adapt and evolve constantly to a changing paradigm. I think Charles Darwin said something very similar over a hundred and fifty years ago.

And secondly, let’s not forget, we’re living in the age of agile. People now work in short creative cycles, inventing and reinventing their roles and priorities on a weekly basis sometimes – testing what works and could work better in a form of constant experimentation.

And then, don’t forget the financial pressures we always operate under. As companies downsize to reduce cost on a regular basis, so the remaining few have to do the work of the many, which means constantly facing having to do more. Roles seems to expand like the universe, slowly and inexorably.

And finally, as we adjust our sense of role, we also need to adjust our sense of organisation, because as companies change and transform, they leave gaps. Important areas of responsibility in the company become unclear, responsibilities fall between two new roles no longer within the scope of one deciding individual. As a client recently said to me, ‘If my organisation is not defining responsibilities clearly, can I really be expected to show responsibility?’ Now, that’s a good question.

OK, so how should I think about my role?

The best way to answer this is to look at your role, as an example, and start thinking about the different levels of responsibility you need to consider. So, firstly, there’s the core, a set of key deliverables which demand your attention. And, of course, while it’s great to be super creative and innovative at work, you always need to deliver on your core.

However, this core is not enough. As I sometimes say, don’t just do your job now, or your company will fail. Your organisation needs you to do more. Your manager will expect you to step outside your core, on a regular basis, taking on additional tasks, participating in new projects, being flexible. Not doing this, is not an option. Where you do have a choice is where to be flexible. For example, does the required new task match your talent? Does it fit to an important organisational need? Does it give you the opportunity to work with somebody more experienced and senior, a person to learn from? These factors should influence your decisions on which extra tasks to accept.

And we’re not finished because then, you may need to think even bigger, and this is where life can get really difficult because sometimes, to do your job, you need other people to do their job, and if they don’t, because they’re busy, they don’t have time, maybe they lack the skills, then you have to step into their role, and do their job. So, your job now includes others people’s jobs, sometimes. Sounds good? Not really, I guess. And probably sounds very dangerous. And you’re right. You need to negotiate any role invasion very carefully; make sure you offer support, don’t just step in, as this can trigger conflict.

Balance matters

And then in addition to all of this, you also need to learn to say yes and no lots and lots on an ad hoc basis. When people come asking for help, like someone did with me last week. ‘Do you have time to help with a client proposal?’ What else can I say but ‘Yes.’ It’s business. I’m not going to put that at risk. I didn’t have time, but I still said yes. Probably cost me one hour of sleep that night. Mind you, we can’t say yes all the time. I also had a colleague ask me recently to provide a list of clients I’d visited in 2019. Now, I knew this was pretty pointless. I also knew that the information was available in the CRM if they just took the time to look. So, I said no. They didn’t like the answer but, hey, that’s life. The key thing here is balance. Say yes all the time, and you become overloaded. Say no too often, and you may be seen by others as uncollaborative.

Don’t forget the dark zone

And then finally, when you think you’ve covered everything, there’s that dark zone we talked about earlier – the part of the organisation where responsibilities are exceptionally fuzzy; where perhaps no-one yet has clear authority to take decisions. With the dark zone, you will sometimes just need to jump in courageously – because you need things to happen, you can’t wait. And here’s the thing, you might make a mistake when you do this, because it’s dark. So, make sure you have your boss covering your back. You may need support if you fail.

Welcome to the end of the job description

So, that’s it. Forget traditional job descriptions. This is how a role looks these days: core, expanded core, stepping into the role of others, saying yes and no, getting brave and jumping into the dark zone.

Now, to make all this a lot clearer, you need to do a little work. So, plan thirty minutes next week to map and design what your role looks like – to make it clear to yourself. On a piece of paper, note down your current activities in each of the above areas – core, expanded core etc. In addition, note the priorities you give to each of these activities – use a simple colour code: red (very important), amber (important), green (partly important). Then, and super important, discuss your design or role map with your manager, so you can align on what you should be doing, which tasks are really the top priority, what you should stop doing.

And remember, once you know what you have to do, it’s so much easier to do it well. That’s both efficient, and motivating. And when you both have a clear sense of what you should be doing, when you do it well, you’ll get the recognition.

So, I hope this was useful. Hope it helped you to understand more what you do and why you should be doing it. And I look forward to hearing your feedback on this blog, and on the ebook, and maybe even seeing a few of your new job designs.


Bob Dignen

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