How to Know Your Role at Work

During a recent dinner I had the good fortune of sitting across from a successful Founder/CEO in the biotech space. The company, less than a decade old, was enjoying its second round of funding and growing at an exponential rate. Despite this overwhelming success, the CEO seemed a bit flustered having just come from a meeting with prospective investors. “I know what we do, what we make,” he said, “but I’m not sure what I do; I don’t know what my role is.”

This lack of clarity as to one’s role is not uncommon, regardless of your title within the organization. We can all write our basic job description, like the one you might find when applying to a new position, but a job description is mostly a to-do list. And while to-do lists can be helpful task masters, they are insufficient when addressing the scope and complexities of modern organizations that are part of an increasingly interconnected global economy.

One helpful tool that individuals and organizations can apply to better understand their function at work - and grow as a result - is a Role Charter. A role charter is a living, breathing document that defines your roles and responsibilities within your organization. Unlike a to-do list, a role charter helps one strategically define their identity and purpose at work by analyzing some key components of the job itself.

Though a role charter template may vary from firm to firm, the principal tenets should typically remain constant. In some form or another, employees will be asked to identify their key accountabilities (both individual and shared), decision rights, areas of influence, and metrics for demonstrated success. Not only do these elements further empower the employee, but they bolster the organization as well.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a champion of role charters, contends that the chartering process can be a helpful tool for enterprise-wide decision-making and collaborative exploration. “Role charters are simple instruments that enable tough conversations to take place so that key tensions among managers and leaders can be resolved. These tensions inevitably arise out of the complexity of matrix organizations - in which employees have multiple bosses - and the increasing need for collaboration across all organizations. But rather than address tensions, traditional HR processes often exacerbate them.”

That is not to say the role chartering process is without its own tensions. During a role chartering exercise a few years ago, our team was tasked with drafting role charters for an entire financial services division. Initial conversations were met by team members with suspicion and distrust as they felt essentially de-valued by the organization. To the employee, the question being asked was more along the lines of: “What exactly do you do around here all day anyway?” When in fact the organization had grown at such a fast rate, senior management simply wanted to map out collaborative channels and better understand the intricacies of individual functions.

In the end, the division found value in the exercise but only after honest conversations took place with company leadership - and team members realized every senior manager was completing their own role charter as well.

If anything, the role chartering exercise strengthens an organization because of the tough conversations it necessitates. Managers and employees are forced to have conversations about seemingly every aspect of their job; ranging from metrics for tasks performed on a routine basis all the way to longitudinal influence on company-wide decisions. In simple terms, team members are asking direct questions of vital importance: What does it mean to be successful in your role? How can your peers better support you? What mission-critical decisions do you affect?

By encouraging these open channels of dialogue the role chartering process directly impacts organizational performance in a positive way. “Tough conversations” can boost levels of trust and group emotional intelligence. According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “teams that enjoy high levels of group emotional intelligence have established norms that strengthen trust, group identity, and group efficacy. As a result, their members cooperate more fully with one another and collaborate more creatively in furthering the team’s work.”

Role charters help individual entities define their piece, and once the process is complete, organizations are left with a neatly completed puzzle. Leadership is able to pick up and examine a particular piece, assess one section, or look at the full picture as a whole. And, as any manager will tell you, the sum is greater than the individual parts. Per HBR, “the ideal team merges individual talents and skills into one super-performing whole with capabilities that surpass those of even its most talented member.”

So while our CEO dinner guest would certainly benefit from the experience of drafting a role charter, so too would his organization - not to mention the investors with some monetary interest in the company’s continued success as well. What may seem an exacting process, the act of building a role charter will strengthen individual and organization alike, and make the second round of venture capital funding more enjoyable.

(This article was co-authored by Dr. David Brendel and originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse)