Changing the Roles and Duties of Team Members

Startups rely on employees accepting shifting roles, which is scary, even counter to human nature. Learn how to help good employees embrace change and excel.

July 27th, 2017   |    By: Keith Liles    |    Tags: Management, Employees, Staff, Recruiting

“Stagnancy isn’t good for anything, from standing pools of water to athletic performance to startups serious about growth. Ensure positive outcomes and superior employee performance and avoid team rifts well in advance by staying attuned to changing individual and cultural needs within your workplace.”

–Michael Manning, How to Know When to Shuffle Your Employee Deck

“Every company needs to set its sights on fostering alignment between the best roles for team members as befits the business’s objectives and vision. It all starts with taking some steps toward a more organic way of managing people,” proclaims Michael Manning in her article on why shifting an employee role may allow you to see your team members in a new light.

employee management

Easier said than done. Shifting roles can be hard on both Founders and employees. What are the benefits? Can it be done well? How can roles be changed successfully? In today’s Startups Live discussion, Founders tackle these questions and more.

“Excited to dive in & discuss ‘shuffling your ‘employee deck’,” Steph Newton greeted the group. “As I was reading this article… I think this philosophy can also be attributed to Founders, too.”

“Absolutely! It’s so easy to get yourself in a rut doing what you’ve been doing and not stop to think about what you should be doing or even what you want to be doing,” said Kevin Ball.

“I think that the core of using people’s potential is an ongoing, collaborative effort and dialogue between founder and team, and corporate leader and employee,” stated Dr. Deborah Hecker.

“Yeah, I really like the suggestion of having recurring growth planning meetings,” Steph said.

“What specifically about those appealed to you, Steph?” asked Ryan Rutan.

“Well, I’m a huge fan of open dialogue, frank discussion and growing professionally and personally. I think that any leader would see the benefit of hosting those [recurring growth planning meetings] regularly with their team. It would help with hiring strategy, employee development and retention.”

“No downside to communication,” replied Ryan. “I’ve used what I call ‘stretch’ projects for years. Ways for people to do things outside of their core duties to test for aptitude and ability.”

“I don’t do it in a prescribed and obvious way most times. I just find small opportunities for people to get involved in non-core activities, and look for two things specifically – how did they perform, and did they actively express desire for more.”

“I tend to try to observe in the wild, which is why I asked what appealed to you about the meetings.”

“So one interesting thing on the open dialogue and frank discussion…” began Kevin, “at a prior company, we had a whole system around that, with a bunch of really interesting introspective exercises to think about where each of us were struggling, what our natural inclinations were, etc… and what we saw was that for some people it was AMAZING, and for other people it really made them very uncomfortable.”

“One observation from my own experiences,” said Ryan, “has been that in meetings where you are talking about growth – it changes the context and people start to think about ‘the right answers’ and look for things that will be impressive rather than something they are already good at or want to do more of.”

“How can you tell when someone is just giving the right answer? Do they throw out the word ‘synergy’ a lot?” Steph asked wryly.

“When I hear things in a meeting that I never see manifested IRL,” replied Ryan.

“Can you share what kind of exercises you guys did?” Steph asked Kevin. “Maybe one that pushed the comfort zone of many?”

“Sure… let’s see, where to begin?”

“So one was around creating your web of people… essentially create a list of people who are your ‘collaborators’, folks who are your ‘leads’, folks who are your ‘customers’ (internal or external), and folks who are your ‘team’ (ie look to you to lead)… and then go and have conversations with EACH of those people and talk about what your relationship is, what you get from them, what you want from them, and what they want from you.”

“For those of us who were a bit more extroverted and comfortable in themselves… that was an AMAZING exercise… it really opened my eyes to what I should be doing in all of my work relationships. But it was uncomfortable, and for some folks it was REALLY uncomfortable.”

It’s inherently risky to place employees in a position where they’re asked to make themselves vulnerable. Dr. Hecker was quick to point out that individual attention is crucial for such exercises to succeed. This attention might come in the form of encouraging personal growth, ensuring that employees know that what they are doing in the company is valued and explaining to them how they can contribute to company culture.

In any of these scenarios, leadership, honest and transparent communication is a must.

“We all need to feel listened to, that what we think is important,” noted Dr. Hecker, “….all of the important hallmarks of a good relationship – compassion, empathy. She then added, I agree, there is little growth without painful introspection and a commitment to want to go further.”

“What sort of differences / transformations could you associate directly with this work once it was ‘done’?” Ryan asked Kevin. “Were there any amazing improvements?”

“I think so… one example I can think of was an engineer who came in extremely resentful (many of the first sessions were essentially like therapy). Resistant to the idea that other people might look to him as a role model (he was a very talented engineer), resistant to the idea that anything but code mattered to outcomes… and over the course of around a year, he came to be more or less leading an engineering team, mentoring junior engineers, working collaboratively with design and product team…”

“Wow — that’s a 180!”

“What did you do to facilitate that?” inquired Dr. Hecker.

“Listening, patience… when he came in resentful, letting him rant, talking him through, trying to work with him to understand the underlying things beneath the anger. It was a long hard process, and I’m not sure that he would yet acknowledge the importance of emotional intelligence per se… not to mention he still tends to think code first… but he both became aware of the importance of so many things and re-engaged in learning and the work beyond just engineering…”

An earlier remark from Dr. Hecker applied nicely here:

“Too many people believe emotions and business are incompatible, like oil and water. So not true.”

“What do you do with an employee who is open to shifting roles, but unsure where they would like to end up? Does testing this person in multiple areas waste time?” wondered Devon Milkovich.

“Testing that person in multiple areas saves a lot of grief, Devon,” replied Ryan. “If you simply arbitrarily move that person (or leave them where they are already struggling), you’re leaving the outcome to chance. You want to ensure you have alignment between skill set and desire.”

“Keep in mind it isn’t that common a scenario in a typical work place either – startups are more inclined in my opinion. In a corporate environment, you may not have the ‘luxury’ of exploring additional roles – particularly if they aren’t on the same ladder.”

“If you are struggling in a role (aren’t good at it, don’t like it, 100 other reasons) – you aren’t given a chance to explore within the company – just a chance to explore the classifieds.”

“That actually opens a whole interesting area around this question of roles,” said Kevin. I tend to feel that leadership positions are taken, not given, and in fact many roles are that way… but many folks need to be given permission in some way.”

“How have you seen this play out when roles are still blurred and there isn’t a real hierarchal structure?” asked Steph.

“It tends to come down to putting yourself into a position of leadership,” Ryan said, “by doing 1000 things including:

  1. Absolutely handling your role and showing progress at that level first (personal leadership)
  2. Empowering your team in a way that keeps them coming to you for more (support, direction, help, guidance) (implied leadership)
  3. Taking on the responsibility for your actions in a way that never leaves doubt among your team or fellow leadership that you own your space”

“At the risk of sounding obnoxious,” Dr.Hecker ventured, “this kind of leadership is not unlike a great parent/child relationship where there is an ongoing commitment to another’s development, independence and ultimate growth in life.”

Ryan agreed. “And much like parenting,” he said, “the appreciation for that commitment often comes MUCH later than its delivery.”

“It also takes much of the same energy!” said Kevin. “I found that when I was doing a lot of this work in that position, I had less patience/energy for my kids’ shenanigans a home.”

“I’ve found that shouting ‘everyone go to your rooms!’ has a real impact in the office,” Ryan joked.

Dr. Hecker took the conversation about relationship dynamics back to the root of the discussion: “I think a key word in today’s article is ‘organic’. That means empowerment is encouraged, and problem solving is encouraged. This stands in contrast to assuming upper management is better capable of making decisions and that instructions must be followed.”

“Yeah I don’t think I would work well in a scenario where you were expected to stay within the dictates of what someone else had predetermined,” noted Kevin. “Have never really been in such an organization though…”

“I find myself thinking about Carmen Sample’s article about transparent pay scale,” said Dr. Hecker. “The bottom line is that assigning roles to the job ultimately encourages independence.”

“You mean defining roles and expectations clearly, right?” Steph sought clarification.

“Yes, assigning a value to a job and encouraging someone to push themselves to the next level. It’s about personal initiative.”

“IMO,” said Kevin, Products, teams, and companies need a narrative about what they are trying to accomplish… without one, decision making is extremely hard, and folks feel like they don’t know what they’re doing or why… often you can synthesize a narrative from the commonalities among folks’ opinions, but a HUGE part of what a leader provides is the creation & communication of that narrative.”

“Having clear expectations around a role helps with success within the stated mission,” said Ryan, “but, per the article today – it can leave people short of their potential (something I’m not huge on, btw) by constraining them.”

“People need context. Give a ‘why’ to the who, how, what, when. And I think this is very freeing.”

“Because if people have a true understanding of the context – it allows them to stretch their own roles – to expand their activities and achieve more of their potential by having a clear view of how it follows / supports the narrative / context.”

“Having defined roles is not an issue,” Devon jumped in. “Perhaps setting a static expectation is? I think of goals and expectations as moving targets— always changing to something a step more challenging or sometimes pivoting. But when I say defined role, I don’t mean it in a limiting way — just laying out the responsibilities you own.”

“Yes, definition is important at the goal level,” said Ryan. “For me, more so than at the role level. Consider our own team, Devon. The consistent communication has been to ‘expect change’ because we’re ‘experimenting constantly’. We know where we want to go – and because there is no prescribed path – we have to remain flexible regarding role structures. You’ve experienced this first hand.”

“Agreed,” Devon replied. “It’s a balance. Like Debbie said, people need and like parameters. But as an employee, it’s your job to be flexible for your employer – if you want to challenge yourself and your own career path as well.”

“Drawing attention to a LinkedIn Study linked in the article,” Steph remarked, “I knew hiring + churn was expensive — but didn’t know it was THAT expensive.”

“Keeping the wrong people is even more costly,” said Ryan. “Harder to quantify – but the impacts are serious.”

“Churn is expensive!” said Devon. “I think this is why companies are implementing different benefits these days as well as training programs. Especially since job switching is more common than ever before.”

So often startup success depends on people being made to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. To keep the people responsible for your company’s fortunes committed to the mission, continue to re-examine roles and find ways to inspire employees to ‘fit’ with evolving needs.

About the Author

Keith Liles

Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying “yes” to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he’s asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.

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