Everything, and the Kitchen Sink

Jessica was less than a year into a role as office manager for an 85-person construction firm.  She had successfully held similar roles in the past, like running a major law firm’s 24-hour document production operation.

Ordinarily crisp, articulate and professional, she slumped as she described grinding 14-hour workdays.  Despite consistently beating her budget and exceeding deadlines, she concluded, “No matter what I do, the owner doesn’t think I’m doing a good job.”

She went on, “They threw the Zoning Project in my lap at the 11th hour, and I worked around the clock to get it done on time. I even negotiated a discount with the printer.”

“Zoning Project? That sounds technical.”  I asked, “How does the office manager get involved in something like that?”

When competent, intelligent people routinely rise to the occasion, we reward them by giving them more work.  This is not a problem: it’s one way we grow leaders in organizations, trial by fire.

When her boss said “jump”, Jessica didn’t ask how high, she didn’t ask how she’d be supported, she didn’t initiate a dialogue about what would happen with her already assigned responsibilities.  She said “yes.”

In a trial by fire, sometimes we get burned.

At first, our Jessicas work smarter.  Maybe they hadn’t been working anywhere near their boundaries, so they use existing bandwidth for their new responsibilities.  Next, they work harder.  Jess often wound up in the office at 9:30 p.m., long after the owners and everyone else had gone home.

As long as everything looks good to us, we lob them another ball.  And another.  And maybe another.  And, sometimes, our Jessica has so many balls in the air, she can no longer see her job.

We see missed deadlines, errors, damaged workplace relationships.  Maybe she gets sick.  Or she quits.

Often, like the actual Jessica, we stop thinking she’s doing a good job.  We wonder what it takes to find a good people any more.

I call this the “Kitchen Sink” job.  It’s a job has so many different responsibilities that it has lost its boundaries.

It’s a potential outcome any time we ask a talented individual performer to stretch — particularly an employee who supports multiple people or constituencies.

In smaller firms, it’s often an office manager.  As it turned out, Jessica’s two predecessors had been external hires; neither had lasted a year in the role.  (Rapid turnover in a role can be a red flag for the Kitchen Sink job.)

It can happen in client service roles in companies of all sizes.  Imagine Stacy, the account executive whose clients can’t stop praising her – so you double her book of business.

This doesn’t have to end poorly, if you’re smart when you tee up developmental opportunities.

Before giving Stacy 10 more clients, know how she spends her time.   Maybe her current clients love her because she spends 3 days a week creating custom reports for them — satisfying the clients, filling her time, and not really working at her highest level as an account executive.

Maybe you can give Stacey the space to manage more client relationships by having an IT expert automate her custom reports.  Or maybe a junior staffer looking to grow into an account executive role can work with her.

The Kitchen Sink job can arise because of inattention — or due to the “all hands on deck” culture in a startup or rapidly growing company.

A job like this is not a problem, in and of itself.   It bears examination, because we can often use our people’s time more effectively.   And because not every Office Manager has the talent or willingness to run with your zoning project:  it can be a bear to find the person who fits this role.

The starting point is conversation.  I recommend face-to-face discussions with team members at least annually to reality test job descriptions vs. the work being done.   (And possibly more often, when there’s lots of change.)

This is a simple, effective way to keep an eye on boundaries, and an opportunity for you to coach your people on delegation and asking for resources.

And Jessica?   Fearful of being perceived as a whiner, she never initiated this conversation with her boss.   Instead, she found another job — leaving her former boss to look for her 4th office manager in as many years.

Photo:  Diagram of an actual kitchen sink role, courtesy of a client, who whiteboarded a role in collaboration with the role’s incumbent. (I’m proud to say that the “after” version looks awesome, and was done entirely without my help.)  Photo is used with permission, all rights reserved.  Jessica is a composite of former colleagues, all identifying details have been changed.

Hiring? Preparation Evens The Odds

Within a month, it’s clear: your newest hire isn’t a good fit for your team, or your company.

She’s smart, nice, and has an impressive resume. Her recommendations shone. Everyone on the team interviewed her and gave her the thumbs up. The odds looked great.

Your leadership development depends on your ability to build a strong team. Now your next hire feels like a bit of a gamble.

Here are a few basic interview tactics that can make a dramatic difference in your results. Hiring managers can use these simple steps to help drive the process. Team members can use them to offer structured input to your manager’s decision process.

Have a well-defined job spec. A good job description describes responsibilities and expected outcomes in concrete behavioral terms. A job spec includes skills and experience that a successful candidate will likely bring to the job.

When a job spec lays out the details with the clarity of a 30 second elevator speech, you’ll source more appropriate candidates, and know what to ask them. Get this clarity before you start.

Understand your culture. At work, culture is often a set of unwritten rules: how we behave, to what we wear, and the language we use.

Culture is visceral. We might consider it to be a touchy-feely attribute, and think we’ll know the right fit when we see it.

This would be a mistake. To find the right fit, we have to be able to articulate the rules and rituals of our culture, and ask questions that identify whether people will thrive in our environment.

When interviewing, craft open-ended questions. The open-ended question is the killer app. And open-ended doesn’t mean haphazard or undirected.

Walk into every interview with a set of pre-defined questions. Each question should target a factor for job success: experience, skill, or ability to fit into your culture.

An example for a client-facing job: “Tell me about a time you disappointed a client.” Someone who has never disappointed a client lacks either experience or honesty. Unreasonable clients and incompetent colleagues may be red flags: those who disparage, blame or make excuses won’t be joining my team. I’m looking for the candidate who accepts responsibility, speaks respectfully about others, and learns from experience.

Pipe down and listen. Interviews are stressful, and open-ended questions may create uncomfortable silence. It’s important to avoid filling this silence yourself. Let a candidate tell you what you need to hear: stop talking and listen.

Every hire is a significant investment, in money and time. 80% of a successful hire is in preparation – without thoughtful preparation, the process is a crapshoot.

Photo:  Gambling – 104/365 by morberg, used under Creative Commons License.

(update, July 2017:  A version of this post was originally cross-posted on Women In Wireless blog, concurrent with a workshop I did for them.  Lol, even the internet wayback machine doesn’t have it any more.)