An Effective Job Description Creates Value

I have been a CEO at two companies and a senior executive or board director at several others. In nearly every job description for a CEO that I have seen is something similar to the following: “To develop, in conjunction with the Board, the Company’s strategy.” Sounds good but what does that mean, exactly? And how does sticking the board in the middle of it useful in any way other than to confuse who is responsible for what? A job description is supposed to be a map to an employee’s job. In reality it is usually a feel good statement that serves no practical value.Employee job descriptions are critical to the success of the company as they translate macro-goals, i.e. vision and mission, into micro-goals, e.g. develop a new product that sells 50,000 units per year with a minimum margin of $1.20. Job descriptions should be specific, detailed and updated annually.

Job descriptions are not targets, hence the difference between developing a yet unknown product and, say, targeting sales of an existing product. But it is not enough to say develop a new product, there has to be detail around it. It takes a tremendous amount of work to develop a detailed performance based job description. It is simply too easy to make, or copy, a list of vague responsibility based descriptions such as “Manage the risk function of the company.” This is especially true since a performance based job description needs to be updated every year whilst a vague principle based job description  can be reused for years.

There is a price to avoiding the detail necessary to develop an effective job description and that is an organisation with talent running far below potential. If your team doesn’t know what they are supposed to do, then how are they going to do it? Once you accept that most jobs are not static then it follows that the job description cannot be static.

Human nature settles on extremes, and whilst I am advising that the extreme of generality is not effective, it is important that you do not go to the other extreme of specificity. Specific performance targets are managed through business plans, KPIs and the annual performance review. The job description is the link between strategy and tactics, an all too often forgotten link.

So what should a job description look like? Starting with the example “To develop, in conjunction with the Board, the Company’s strategy,” expand it appropriately with some high level detail “To develop, in conjunction with the Board, the Company’s strategy, delivering to the Board by end of November annually a strategy document outlining the five year financial and operational targets as well as projected product portfolio and client demographics.” Notice that this extension of the JD statement does not involve any performance targets. It simply clarifies what the deliverables are  in the job description. This is important as the ambiguity of the original statement has resulted in many a CEO/senior executive presenting a farcical strategy document that is vacuous in its content.

Other elements usually missing from job descriptions at the executive level include organisation charts and budgets for his department and his authorities. It is not enough to simply list the responsibilities in a job description, the executive needs to know what the authorities granted to him are so that he can understand if he will be empowered to fulfill his responsibilities. Similarly the organisation chart and the budget detail the resources at his disposal to fulfill his role. Finally a functional organisation chart for the company is useful for the executive to understand the role of his department in the company and the company services that he can draw on.

If this sounds a lot, it is. I would ask for a little common sense here: is it plausible that the job description of an employee, especially an executive, can only take up two or three pages? Or is it more likely that job descriptions, as a tool, have not been fully developed? Job descriptions are not meant to be policies and procedures but they do need to better reflect what the job truly is. The right balance between macro and micro description will always be more art than science and there will always be debate on where that balance lies. However, the current state of affairs is clearly inefficient.

The bottom line is that detail, ladies and gentlemen, is what improves the efficiency of business value creation.