Build the Job Around the Employee

I recently had an interaction with a client — let’s call her Miranda — that went like this.

Miranda: So here’s my problem. I’ve got all these moving parts and I need someone to manage the process so that nothing falls through the cracks.

Doug: Okay. What’s the problem?

Miranda: I can’t get anyone to do the job. I have a guy, Julius, who I want to do the job, but everytime we sit down and talk about the job, he describes it differently than I do.

Doug: How are you describing it?

Miranda: It’s basically an operations job. He needs to walk around with a clipboard, make sure everyone’s hitting their numbers and yell at them if they aren’t until he can get them to improve.

Doug: Would you want that job?

Miranda: Hell no! It’s a horrible job!

Doug: So let me get this straight. You have identified a problem, designed a miserable job that you believe solves it and now you’re having trouble getting Julius excited about doing the job that you yourself described as “horrible”.

Miranda: Yes.

Doug: This employee who you are trying to get to do the job…

Miranda: Julius.

Doug: Yes, Julius. How does he see the job?

Miranda: He wants to work with people and develop them. It’s like a learning officer job.

Doug: And how does he seem when he is talking about his vision of the job?

Miranda: He seems really enthusiastic.

Doug: What’s preventing you from letting him do that job?

Miranda: I don’t think it solves the problem. I need the problem solved.

Thus began an interesting adventure.

What I promised to do was work first with the team to make sure we had the problem right. Julius was in on that workshop as he is a part of the team. So was Miranda. Once we had identified the problem, Julius’ job, with my support, was to design his dream job. What did he really want to do all day? What would get him out of bed in the morning? What would make him want to come back day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? In other words, what would infuse the work with a transcendent purpose? (See Daniel Pink’s work on Motivation, specifically Transcendent Purpose.)

But there was a catch.

The job he created also needed to solve the business problem. He couldn’t decide that he would like to organize baseball cards all day, because that would not solve the current problem. (He could decide to organize baseball cards all day, but he’d likely be doing it at home… alone.)

And so we envisioned a role. And we mapped out the Concrete Engagements built into that role. (See Gabe Gloege’s article “Concrete Engagements: The Currency of Work”) And we talked about the way he would get the team to give him feedback. And we pitched it back to the team.

The team was excited. We asked them whether there were any problems that this role, the way we described it, did not address. They said no. We asked them if anyone thought that this didn’t at least have the potential to solve the business problem. They said that it seemed like it had the potential. We asked for a commitment of three weeks from everyone. We asked that, during those three weeks, they be cooperative and open to meeting with Julius. In essence, we asked them to give it a chance to succeed.

And so we began our pilot period. The pilot period was not without it’s potholes. Some people were more resistant in practice than they had promised in theory. Some of the work we had promised that Julius would do took longer than he anticipated and we had to adjust his schedule and his priorities.

But what we had done was a shift in paradigm in two ways.

  1. We built the job around the passions and vision of the employee rather than building it around a solution created based on assumptions and trying to get an employee to do it.
  2. We involved the person who would be doing the job into the process of creating the job, ensuring ownership and follow-through.

This is the story of one company and one employee, but it speaks to a larger paradigm shift that is lacking in our current economy and that has the potential to make businesses more successful and employees happier with the stroke of one brush.

Employers are having trouble retaining young people. Young people want to learn and grow and feel that they are valued. Valued not in the abstract: “I think you’re great.” Valued in practice: “How do you think we should solve this problem?” This is causing turnover in companies. Turnover is expensive. Turnover is time consuming. It means more job posting, more resume reading, more onboarding and less continuity in the work and the company culture. Or rather it becomes the company culture. “No one stays here more than a year” is a refrain that no business owner, manager or CEO wants to hear.

And employees are uninspired in environments where they do not have a passion for their work, feel ownership, have a sense of autonomy and feel like they are learning and growing.

The solutions to these two problems do not have to be in conflict. (See Tiago Forte’s article “Emergent Productivity: A People-Centered Equation for Modern Work”)

If employees are using their work as a platform for self-development, the company benefits and the individual benefits.

So how do we get there?

Here’s your challenge: The next time you have a business challenge to solve, don’t solve it. Identify an existing employee who seems to be uninspired or not reaching his or her potential at work. Ask that employee to take on this problem as a part of his or her job. Ask him or her to design a role, a series of Concrete Engagements, that would be done by that employee, would be a positive and substantive challenge for that employee and would solve the problem. Then, see what develops. See if the employee is able to create a role that solves the problem. And see if that process and the subsequent work doesn’t increase the satisfaction of that employee in your office. See if other people don’t start thinking about how they can solve the company’s challenges. Maybe you’ll be able to shift the paradigm.

We’d love to hear about what you learn. We at CultivateMe are fascinated with the way people work now, the way people wish they could work in the future and how we can build the bridge to the new world where learning and work are two parts of the same whole. Send me an email at

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