Role Definitions

Oct 22, 2001

Every month or two, I end up in an office where the owners or managers of the firm are telling me that their most critical need is to have formal job descriptions for each of their staff members. Confusion abounds about what it means to be a vice president, what associates are supposed to be doing, and how you can tell if it’s time to promote someone from engineer IV to engineer V. Then there’s always the issue of Jean’s project architect doing something completely different from what Deb’s project architect does, and that doesn’t seem fair. Complicating the whole mess is the question of how much they are supposed to pay for each of these positions. Now I am not going to say that these questions are always irrelevant or easy to answer. I don’t want to sound glib. But I do have some experience in these matters that I think might help if you are grappling with some of these questions right now. Here’s a quick brain dump: Why do all project engineers, or all project managers, or all principals, or all whatevers have to be put in the same box? I don’t think they do. One thing I have learned is that when building teams, workgroups, or departments, only a fool would ignore the strengths and weaknesses of the people involved. You have to put together people who can shore up the weaknesses and bolster the strengths of the others they work with. To me, that means if I have a great technical person with lousy communication skills as project manager, I am going to pair that person with a project architect or engineer who has great communications skills and is not necessarily as strong technically or design-wise. Likewise, if I have a PM who is a fantastic communicator and seller, but not so good technically, I will make sure that the person assigned to be project architect or engineer is very strong in that department and would consider his or her communication skills as secondary. All of this means that, to do the work of the firm effectively, there will be radically different definitions of project architect or engineer from team to team. The same thinking applies throughout the firm in all positions. Since people are radically different, even though they may have the same title, and some skills are much harder to find than others, I can’t see why anyone would want to lump all these people into the same pay category either. That seems foolish to me. Supply and demand should dictate pay, not title. In this industry, most firms tend to pay people pretty much the same thing if they have equal years of experience and equivalent education and registration credentials. That’s pretty odd too when you think about it! Many of these status titles, like “senior associate” and “vice president,” or “director,” simply cannot be defined in functional terms. All senior associates are not alike. One may be working on projects and another may be working in finance. Yet another may be in marketing and a fourth senior associate may run an office. Why do we think there is a job description that goes along with this title then? It’s crazy. There isn’t one. And we don’t need to hold meetings of these people either, or make work up for them to review, or have them make recommendations on some sort of overhead expenditure that the firm is currently making. I have never understood this! Of course, we want the basic functional roles defined. Everyone needs to know who he or she reports to— that’s critical. And the whole chart should be in writing and should be continuously updated as well as provided to every single employee in your firm. But don’t you think we are letting this whole title issue get a little out of hand? Is this really the most pressing problem facing our firms right now? I think not! Originally published 10/22/2001.

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