Total Business Magazine

Understanding Job Titles: Cutting Through the Jargon

John Durant, CTO of Kaseya, discusses how important it is to make job titles and descriptions as clear as possible in order to avoid confusion and inefficiency.


My mother worked at Target, the eighth largest retailer in the US, in 1974 when there were 23 stores, until 2003 when there were more than 1,000. She worked in something called “CRC” and ran off loads of boring reports, but that was not what she told me when I asked what her job was. She told me it was to eliminate inefficiencies in Target’s inventory system and relationships with suppliers so they could reduce costs and offer better selection to customers.

Aha! Unlike my mother, though, it’s rare that people know what their true job is. Over the years, I have interviewed many people, and I like to get to know them. During those encounters, I usually ask, “What’s your job?” The answers I get back are revealing.

Most often, people just state their title, sometimes with a little extra added on to the end. “I am the West Regional Sales VP” or “I am the Procurement Manager.” If you have been around long enough, you know that titles are often very poor indicators of what a person’s job actually is. On other occasions, people will tell me their reporting structure. They will say, “Well, I report to the VP of Sales Training,” or “I am part of the support organisation.”

When you drop your car off for repairs, would you have more confidence in the expected results if the person grabbing your keys says, “I am an auto mechanic,” or if she or he says: “My job is to make sure you are thrilled with the performance and safety of the car and the value of these repairs?”

When people give red-herring or vague descriptions of their jobs, it shows they are probably not very connected to their true responsibility and the vision and mission of the organisation they are involved with. Being able to draw direct lines between themselves and that mission is a must-have for personal, team, organisational, and company success – and it is up to company leaders to instil this philosophy.

This all seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But it turns out, it is harder to do than one might think, especially as your organisation grows in complexity and sophistication. Despite most of today’s HR systems which make it easy to see everyone’s titles and reporting structures with the click of a button, I am not sure most people are any closer to understanding what their colleagues do precisely and what they are responsible for.

Whether you are in management or not, true leaders have a duty to create a culture in which people understand what they are there to do and can explain it to themselves and everyone else.

As Steven Covey,  the American educator, author and businessman, once said, “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

Making sure this important and often overlooked attribute is given attention and corrected (if needed) will require a great deal of commitment from all managers and executives.

Why is this important? When people don’t know what their jobs are, it can lead to tremendous inefficiency, poor morale, and confusion. The inefficiencies can take a lot of shapes and forms.

First, there is the risk of people working on things that are no longer important. Second, it can breed duplication of effort. Third, responsibilities can become vague. Perhaps you have seen the worst manifestation of the problem where, like Milton in “Office Space,” you have someone coming to work and guarding their stapler, without having any known duties or accountabilities. Sadly, through the decades, I have seen this more often than I would like to say.

Making sure everyone knows their job fosters better communication, enhanced efficiency, improved job satisfaction, and the ability to achieve your goals more quickly and easily. So, where do you start?

The first step is working out where you are. For you to understand your current state in your teams, even if you are not a manager, I recommend launching a simple open-ended survey. Ask people what their job is. Read the qualitative results and decide for yourself how well members of the organisation are connected to their real role.

Second, make this a topic in your one-to-ones and team meetings. Have people prepare the elevator pitch answer to the question, “What’s my job?” Work on this with them in your weekly one-to-ones or individual briefings. Help them understand it. Help them accurately describe it. Get them to explain it to the people around them. Make it a fun part of town hall meetings and other group events and offer a prize to every person you call on who can accurately and enthusiastically describe what they do.

Third, model this behaviour yourself. In my recent annual kickoff event for my organisation, we all met as a worldwide team across a variety of countries and time zones. We covered a lot of valuable topics, and at the end, I felt strongly that I owed them an explanation of my job. One of the things I shared in that job description was that a top responsibility for me is hiring the best possible management team to lead them in fulfilling the vision I had laid out.

It has been interesting to me how at least several times in the past few weeks, as I have made strategic appointments, individual contributors and line-level managers have, without prompting, said that they recognised that my recruitment decisions aligned to what I told them my job was.

We can all learn a lot from what my mother taught me: Know what your true job is, not just what you think your title says it is.

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