Person to the role
April 16, 2021

Shape the role to the person, not the person to the role

By Paul Laughlin

Reading “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” recently reminded me of the need to shape the role to the person. That was a lesson that I learned the hard way, as most leaders do.

Much of that book focusses on the need to see the complexity & nuances of human relationships when seeking to lead adaptive change. Both the need to be willing to create conflict and the need to navigate different political constituencies. A humanising of the organisation & its systems if you like.

My own experience of leadership in a large corporation also taught me that one of the ways this needs to manifest is in a leader’s approach to job titles & role descriptions. In this post I will share my own experience of it being helpful to flex roles as well as lean into people’s innate strengths.

One of the problems of org charts

There are many pitfalls to avoid when using formal organisation charts to help you shape or navigate a business. For those leaders coming in fresh to an existing organisation, such charts cover over a myriad of sins and important benefits.

Despite the modern obsession with process automation & AI, businesses are not machines. They are human constructs which gather together diverse human beings. Experienced leaders learn that the formal org chart doesn’t tell them even half the story. Even 360-degree feedback surveys of leaders capabilities often measure their ability to “get things done” by knowing the right people.

But I have in mind the times of reorganisation. Times of change when you as a leader often go away into a coven with other senior leaders & after the white smoke has gone up emerge with the much awaited new structure. Understandably people are nervous. The fear of likely job cuts can palpably stalk an office like a fearsome predator. People keep their heads down & hope for the best.

At worst, job cuts & even team structures can be imposed from above by directors who only vaguely understand a function. But even when the appropriate leader has designed a new structure for their team, much can go wrong. People may not respond to that ‘new opportunity’ as expected. Those hired to fill vacated job descriptions may not turn out to be as you expected. All in all it can feel like you now need to go into ‘tough boss‘ mode & force people to adapt to a new role. If the reality doesn’t fit the theory, then ‘manage it‘ until it does.

I urge caution.

Why might there be a case to shape roles around people?

I’ve shared before on the relevance of Positive Psychology to leadership today. Both in my review of “Strength Finders 2.0” and when reporting from the Wales Coaching Conference in 2020, I mentioned this school. Significant research effort has confimed the theories. That we achieve more success by playing to our strengths than trying to significantly change our weaknesses.

That is not to say we cannot develop nor cover our gaps, just that our relative progress will be less than can be made when leaning into our natural aptitudes. Yes, this can be overdone. Yes, every apparent strength can also have a ‘shadow side‘ of which we need to be aware. But that does not change the overwhelming research evidence that we should seek to play to our own strengths where possible. This is also why I favour Belbin Team Roles as a psychographic instrument. This embracing of our ‘spikiness‘ means we should seek to understand how we can work collaboratively with others to mitigate our weaknesses or blind spots.

So, what does this have to do with imposed roles or job descriptions? Well the same argument for leaning into their strengths is also true for your team. Yes, each analyst can improve their commercial awareness, data visualisation understanding & a raft of other Softer Skills. But, you should also notice the differences within your team. Who has greater aptitude for different parts of what the team needs? Who might be able to excel if you let them focus on different elements? That is key to my case here.

My own experience of roles & real people

Ok, I’ve put it off long enough. Time for me to enter the confessional. What is my experience & what did I mean by saying that I have learnt by getting this wrong? Let me share a few examples, both positive & negative, to bring this to life.

There was a young analyst (no it’s not the start of a limerick) who was performing really well at both producing robust analysis & presenting it beautifully to business stakeholders. His internal customers loved him & wanted to see more of him. So, without talking it over with him, at the next of our regular reorganisations I moved him into what I called a Business Partner role. He would perform the translator role of briefing technical work into the team & improving the presentation of analysis going out. When I had a one to one meeting to tell him it did not go as well as I expected. He was disappointed. I had failed to consult him (or his immediate line manager) well enough to appreciate that his passion was for the technical work. The new role would force him to move away from that. Thank goodness that he was valuable enough to the team for me to recognise the need to flex. Not him but the role. We transitioned his role into one that had a greater & greater technical content over time.

Another mistake was in my Database Marketing team. Having a technically competent & experienced manager, who was eloquent when talking with me, I placed him into a role that required him to manage our relationship with Marketing. What I had failed to appreciate was both his introverted nature & the immaturity of the Marketing team. It was close to a bullying experience & one I profoundly regret. With hindsight I learned that where this manager added lasting value was in his technical thinking, architecting of solutions & approaches for the future. I should have flexed his role to focus on this and his effective people management of a technical team.

Turning to a positive example, I learnt how powerful such a flexible approach to roles & remits can be with another Database Marketing leader. At the time our remit as a team still deferred to IT for operational solutions. We could brief in what was needed & moan about IT, but systems were either bought in or built by IT. Due to failings & lies from our external supplier, this was hampering our delivery. The business & I were frustrated. But I did not have the headcount nor a formal role to address it. Chastened by my past mistakes I learnt to listen more to this analytical leader. As we chatted over the problem I recognised his ability & drive to innovate. So, stuff the role description! I gave him ‘aircover’ to build our own mini-IT team. To code a solution that worked better & launch it. A great success resulted & we retained a very able leader longer than I would have otherwise.

Look at the org chart but listen to your people more

Please hear me, I am not advocating chaos or anarchy. It can help to have a well thought through team structure with honed complementary job descriptions. But no plan survives the real world. From my own experience I advise you to hold such a plan lightly.

As you approach the allocation of work & collaborate to improve ways of working or innovation, listen to your people. Pay particular attention to what people do well. How could you flex their role to let them do more of that? Even if the HR policy is that everyone at a certain level has to perform certain tasks, can you be wiser? You won’t get the best out of your gifted people by strictly following the rules.

Perhaps this too is leaning into your own strengths as a people leader? If so, give yourself more slack. Don’t try and do everything well. But I recommend prioritising freeing everyone to play to their strengths. At the end of the day your employer is more concerned with results. You may see more progress towards those by flexing the role to the person, not the person to the role. Try it.