Get Beyond Busy — How to Create Simple Role Descriptions That Help Your Team Focus on What Matters

You’re not spending all this time on brand-based recruiting, paying above-market salaries and offering generous perks to have people spend their day scrambling (and mostly failing) to keep up with their inbox. And yet, if you look under the hood of the modern organization this is mostly what’s happening. We are spending an incredible amount of money and time to attract brilliant, creative, curious, and caring people — people who believe in our mission — and we get to experience only a fraction of that potential while they’re with us.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of the environment we intend to create as leaders. Ask any CEO and they’ll tell you they want their people to break things (even things that are working) in the spirit of making them better. They want people to challenge the status quo. They want people to hold themselves and others accountable for showing up with their best self, to ask questions, to never stop looking for a better way.

At the top of the org chart in every growing business lives an obsessive search for that tiny little thing that will turn a satisfied customer into a raving fan.

The question that has bedeviled the leadership industry for the last half-century is this: Why doesn’t that obsession translate down through the org chart?  Beyond raises and promotions, which there is never enough of to go around (and as we now know are not the drivers of human behavior anyway), how do you get people to put the best of themselves into their work?

It turns out that all you can do is all that you should do — which is to create the conditions for personal excellence and let each individual choose for themselves. In the frenzy to add the latest perk or the coolest bit of people technology, we seem to have lost sight of that more foundational and far more personal endeavor.

This is not a screed against gorgeous campuses or catered lunches. It’s simply a challenge to not take our eyes off the ball, and to invest the better part of ourselves into the deeper project of creating a truly meaningful place to work: giving people higher-quality feedback, cultivating leaders who know how to be transparent and vulnerable while maintaining professional boundaries, and the biggest, scariest (and most misunderstood) one of all: to figure out how to turn our places of work into places of personal development.

It’s not nearly as complicated or high-minded as it might sound. Let’s start with a simple formulation of the steps involved to get there:

  1. Start by painting a picture of what excellence looks like in each role.
  2. Proactively mentor the person currently in that role on how they are showing up relative to that picture.
  3. Have the fortitude (and compassion) to let go of anyone who, in spite of your best efforts and no matter their technical expertise, can’t reach that standard.

These days everyone is talking about the second step — the conversation around how to give feedback and have great one-on-ones is at a fever pitch (as it should be). But it’s the first step in the sequence that’s most often missed, and, as a result, makes those feedback and one-on-one conversations way more confusing and hard to navigate than they have to be (not to mention far more ripe for unconscious bias, psychological projection, and power-imbalances to creep in).

Without a clear picture of what standard you are mentoring them towards, your team is left guessing — fumbling around trying to do great work but falling short — not because the destination is technically unclear but because it isn’t personally meaningful. And, as a result, feedback from managers is perceived (and just as quickly discarded) as a passing comment instead of an invitation into the career- and possibly life-changing conversation it could be.

This is our new task. How do we shift the “job description” from a set of tasks to complete (or even a goal to accomplish or a set of company values to adhere to) and create a set of compelling, personally-challenging, and organizationally valuable standards that require people to dig within themselves in order to reach?  

Is the primary purpose of my role in your organization to serve the business, facilitating my development as an employee as a nice-to-have secondary thing? Or is my development your primary focus—in the conviction that the natural and inevitable result of a better me is a better business for all of us?  People will motivate themselves if it’s the latter. You can spend the rest of your career chasing them and churning through (good) employees if it’s the former.

What does a standard like that look like? How do you talk about a business goal in a way that draws people inward (and therefore engages them)?

Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to create a standard like this for a customer service lead on one of your teams. It helps to break it into two steps, a big picture “Why?” and a few examples of how that big picture “Why?” shows up in practice.

Step 1: The Big Picture “Why?”

Understanding what our customers are really thinking is hard. We need someone who has that as a primary focus — someone who listens beyond the obvious, isn’t afraid to challenge the way we’ve been doing it, and turns over all the stones until they find the thing that makes a difference.

Step 2: Here’s What that Looks like Day-to-Day

  • Proactively ask our customers about experiences that you suspect didn’t go perfectly.
  • Share your theories and ideas about how we might improve to senior leadership, even if you don’t have perfect data.
  • Go beyond an apology and offer something of value to the customer when we mess up.
  • Be a consistent mentor to your team by helping them improve their written and verbal communication.

Can you start to see how having standards like this would start to shape and guide your feedback and one-on-one conversations?  It takes time to come up with statements like these that aren’t generic or corporate-sounding. As you begin to build yours, here are a few guidelines to think about:

  1. Notice in the examples above that there’s a thread of risk in each one. I have to stretch myself to reach it. Excellence demands that I lean into the unknown.
  2. Each standard gives a clear sense not of what work I should be doing but on what qualities I should be showing up with. It makes intangibles observable and measurable and it gives me guidance and permission to delete and “unsubscribe” to the conversations that are not central to my role so I can focus on what is.
  3. By starting with an impersonal standard, keeping the work at the center, you set up a challenge that I can own and excel at. Starting with objective and agreed upon standard also tends to reduce the role of unconscious bias, psychological projection and power imbalances between managers and employees.

Attempting to document the specific “jobs” a person has in the modern organization is largely pointless. Even if you could do it (and redo it and redo it), it doesn’t give the human being in that role something to strive for, a picture not only of a job well done but of the person they’ll become by doing it.

Start this project with a new assumption: If (and when) someone on your team isn’t stretching beyond what comes easy, it’s not because they don’t care, aren’t smart enough or aren’t capable, it’s because nobody has taken the step back to imagine and articulate what excellence looks like in practical terms. More importantly, nobody has ever shown them what their life will look like when they get there.

Jonathan Raymond