A senior manager in a large corporation in downtown Manhattan was hosting a lunchtime business meeting in the boardroom of the company. At about 10:00 on the day of the meeting, he took the elevator to the penthouse floor, the same of which housed both the boardroom and the CEO’s office. He had gone up to make final arrangements with the Personal Assistant (PA) to the CEO and on his way, had to pass the CEO’s office. He was surprised, as he glanced in, to see the bald head of the CEO sticking out over the back of the black leather chair, which had been swivelled round so that the CEO could get a good view over Manhattan Bay. The senior manager shrugged his shoulders, concluded arrangements with the PA and went back down to his office. At 12:00, the senior manager went back up to the penthouse floor to make final adjustments to the setting in preparation for his meeting. Passing the CEO’s door, he noticed that the black leather chair was in exactly the same position and the bald head of the CEO was still sticking out above the back of the chair. When he again met the PA, he pointed back to the CEO’s office and asked: “What’s wrong with him?” She responded: “He’s fine – why?” “Well, doesn’t he have any work to do? He’s just sitting there looking out over Manhattan Bay!” questioned the senior manager. The PA responded: “He is working – he’s thinking!”

At this juncture, one might ask: “What does the job of a CEO entail?” Certainly, strategy, networking appropriately and delivering value for shareholders would be high on such a list of responsibilities – thinking forms part of everything a CEO does, so he was indeed working appropriately. I am not sure the same can be said of everyone who works in corporations, government institutions and other organisations. Days are crowded by extensive lists of “To Do” items and focus is clouded by conflicting messages and instructions from managers as they scuttle to achieve all that the executives are demanding from them. If one had to consider the confusion of a week’s work, multiply and repeat the same week over a 30 years career timeframe, most people would admit to achieving very little and ending up frustrated with plenty of regrets.

What is potentially needed for all people is “role clarity” – an understanding of the unique contribution expected from the individual within the organisation. Many employees receive job descriptions (a list of activities that are required from them in terms of outputs, targets and the like) – job descriptions, however, are not usually role descriptions. A lot more attention has to be given to how the uniqueness of a specific role fits into the organisational strategy, money-making model and “big picture” of what the organisation ultimately wants to achieve. With this understanding, the employee can focus effort appropriately and achieve mission-critical objectives.

Leaders should thus focus on the following factors to clarify roles amongst all employees:

  • Clearly outline the scope and responsibilities of each role – having discussions around expectations is critical to get everyone “on the same page” and focused appropriately
  • Define the limits of authority – providing a framework in which an employee can operate gives the employee value and a sense of security
  • Develop staff into their respective roles – invest in development processes so that employees rise to the challenge of meeting their respective role requirements
  • Remove obstacles to role performance – try to eliminate unnecessary work and barriers that prevent staff from operating at peak performance
  • Mentor employees with clarity and enthusiasm – a guiding hand, word of recognition, performance discussion and encouragement are all necessary elements in bringing out the very best in staff

Role clarification is essential if employees are to be focused appropriately on the crucial elements of the company strategy. The effort invested in role clarification will enhance confidence in team members, reduce stress, conflict and confusion caused by poor role clarity, crystallise team goals and increase ownership and pride in what is accomplished.

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