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.

The A Player: Meme or Mantra?

So, I read on the internets that 20th century management sage Peter Drucker had a habit of asking executives whether they had any “dead wood” on their teams*.

Execs would usually confess to harboring under-performers.  Then, Drucker would supposedly ask, did you hire your under-performers, or did they stop performing once they hit your shop?

I smell a related meme.

People who are growing teams have been telling me,  “A Players attract A Players.   B players attract C Players.   So I only want to hire A Players.”  (It might be more of a mantra than a meme.)

When someone’s not performing, it’s tempting to decide they’re a “C-player.”   In this view, performance is a fixed characteristic.

It’s like like being tall, or having brown eyes.  They were born that way.   And when you hired them, they fooled you.

Hmmm.   Where’s the manager in all of this?

The A Player terminology seems to be lifted out of the Topgrading paradigm, in sort of a warped way.

“Topgrading” is a method designed by Geoff and Brad Smart, most recently described in Who: The A Method for Hiring.

It’s simple.   Figure out what you really want before you even interview.  Then, ask the right questions to see whether a candidate fits the bill.


Though my own methods differ from the topgrading approach, we largely agree.

  • Hiring is a huge investment in money and time.
  • Thoughtful, well planned hiring is all too rare.
  • Most firms don’t execute on a truly consistent process.
  • Many very skilled senior professionals don’t know how to interview candidates.
  • And even minor improvements — like taking time to gain internal agreement on job responsibilities — make a big difference.

I don’t think that the Smarts would describe people who don’t fit into your company as Losers.

When you hired someone over an internal candidate, and probably paid them a premium, you thought they were an “A Player.”  Right?

Recent research by Wharton’s Matthew Bidwell points out that external hires often don’t perform at expected levels; it’s tough to retain them, too.  You don’t always get a good return on your investment.

And this doesn’t just happen at large firms.  Faced with challenges assimilating new managers, Twitter’s Dick Costolo has taken to teaching an internal management course himself.   Wired‘s Michael V. Copeland reports:

 As managers were piling in from places like Google and eBay or promoted from within Twitter, Costolo saw a consistent Twitter management style evaporate. “I realized that all my managers were managing differently,” Costolo says.

Performance is about more than skills.  Cultural fit and management support are critically important.

Successful people can falter when they move to another company — we read this story about A Players over and over in the business press.

There are any number of reasons that someone might not perform well in a job.

And yet, there are two main reasons that an employee can’t do a job:  they don’t have the skills; or, they don’t fit into your culture.

It’s kind of a Loser move to call someone you hired a “low performer” or “C player.”   Whether you hired them, or whether you made them, they’re your responsibility.

“A Player” is jargon, a shorthand for the perfect candidate — someone who’s got the skills and cultural fit, and who’s extremely likely to perform to meet or exceed your expectations.

Finding them requires your effort and focus.  You’ve got to define the job, its expected outcomes, and the skills and interpersonal attributes required to be successful.  You have to have the right conversations to identify them and bring them on board.

But when they join your team, your work’s not done.   Facilitating their success is your responsibility.

Managing isn’t like throwing someone into the water and letting them sink or swim.

A team’s coach makes sure that players are drafted, trained, outfitted, briefed about the opponent, and on the field when they need to be.   That’s management.

If you want use the A Player terminology without stereotyping people based on a meme, do read Who, or its less conversational prequel, Topgrading: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method That Turbocharges Company Performance.

Then, apply the method.   Not just the mantra.

(*This is one of those stories that smells potentially apocryphal.  Just saying.)

Loser, by bre pettis, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License