Role Confusion

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“Well, I don’t understand what he does! Yes, the organization has good results and he’s developing people, but he certainly isn’t involved in the details of the new technology we’re developing in my organization.”

Wow! I was stunned. My lunch partner was a long-term R&D director who had 20+ years of experience at the company. He, by any stretch of the imagination, had been successful. At one point in his early 30s, he’d been the youngest R&D director in the history of the company. And this is where he remained for the next 15 years. This is where he was when we had lunch.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. If “Kevin” had been content with his job, I probably would be writing a different leadership article. However, Kevin was not content. He believed he had more to offer. He was somewhat bitter about his lack of movement in the previous 15 years. I also want to be fair to Kevin. Overall, he’s a pretty good guy. Maybe not the type everyone wants to hang out with all the time but not a bad guy. We weren’t best of friends and, truthfully, probably never will be. However, I had agreed to meet him for lunch and discuss a handful of topics. One of them being his job.

Kevin and I discussed a number of things but he really got passionate when he talked about his boss, “Paul.” Paul was the General Manager of the business in which Kevin worked. He had a number of functional areas reporting to him, including R&D. My experience with Paul was limited. However, he came across ok. Competent. Solid. Above average.

I could tell Kevin was trying to avoid talking badly about his boss. I was glad. That way I didn’t have to confront Kevin and try to keep the conversation going at the same time. I truly wanted to help him. I also wasn’t going to engage in a conversation with Kevin talking poorly about Paul behind his back. It wouldn’t solve anything. And, it wasn’t right.

About 10 minutes into the conversation, Kevin said, with strong energy, “Well, I don’t understand what he does! Yes, the organization has good results and he’s developing people, but he certainly isn’t involved in the details of the new technology we’re developing in my organization.” My warning bells went off!!!

I asked, “Kevin, how would you describe the technology you’re developing? Is it being commercialized? Bringing dollars into the corporation? Adding value in the market?” He was slightly taken back. “Of course it is!” He went on to describe all the great R&D metrics surrounding the technology and its commercialization. I was impressed.

After he paused, I asked. “Kevin, if Paul has you to take care of the R&D details and you’re delivering, why does he need to be deeply involved in the technology? That’s your job. His job is to run the business.” Kevin was silent. He wasn’t sure what to say.

I let it sink in for a few seconds and then added. “You say the organization is meeting its overall deliverables and he’s developing people. You say your R&D organization is delivering as promised. I don’t see the problem. It sounds to me like he’s doing a good job as the GM of the business and you’re doing a good job as its R&D director.”

Now, we could talk about whether Kevin felt he was being appropriately recognized for his work, etc., but the bottom-line was this; he felt he’d been passed over for promotional opportunities. He was not content. He believed Paul should’ve been more involved in the R&D details. In sum, Kevin had a misunderstanding of general management.

Paul, like most successful GMs, can’t be involved in all the details of their organizations. There are too many details. It’s also why there are people like Kevin. Professionals to take of details at the next level. A GM who is delivering business results, developing people, and staying out of the way (ie not micromanaging), seems like a pretty good GM to me.

Kevin suffered in part from role confusion. He didn’t have a good grasp on how work evolves as you move up the classic management chain. He was thinking tactics. Paul was thinking strategy. Both are important. It’s also why there are different roles and levels in an organization.

How about you? Do you understand the roles of those around you? Do you have an appreciation for the blend of task/relationship that’s required as you move up the organizational ladder?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

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