Job descriptions should provide a lot of help in determining the key responsibilities of a job but they rarely do. Too often, however, job descriptions are written in very general ways to serve many different purposes: recruitment, compensation, legal requirements, etc. As a result, they sometimes provide little information that is useful for performance management purposes.
The best way to determine the key responsibilities of a job is to start by identifying the ‘‘big rocks’’ of the job. The big rocks of a job are not the day-to-day tasks and chores, duties and assignments that consume all of the hours that we spend on the job. Those things are our activities.
The big rocks of the job are the major responsibilities—the reasons that we do all those tasks and chores. We engage in all of our daily activities because there are things that we are responsible for.
Tell Me More
Consider what might be the most familiar and easily understood position in an organization: the secretary or administrative assistant. The secretary is involved in a constantly changing series of tasks and miniprojects. If we watched a secretary during the course of a day’s work, we would see her engage in dozens of different activities. But there are only a small number of key responsibilities or big rocks in the secretary’s job. The key responsibility list might include the following items:
- Prepare documents.
- Handle faxes and copies.
- Manage the mail.
- Make travel arrangements.
- Manage information.
- Greet visitors to the ofﬁce.
When you look at the list, you’ll notice a few things. First, it’s short. No matter what the job, there aren’t all that many big rocks—major responsibilities. While people are busy doing dozens of different things during any given day, only a small number of genuinely important results are expected from the position. Five, six, or maybe seven big rocks will be sufﬁcient to cover all of the important responsibilities in most jobs.
Second, each item is stated succinctly. There are no elaborate descriptions of the activities or the conditions under which the job is done. They are the most fundamental and uncomplicated statements of the essential responsibilities of the job. In every case the statements are simply a noun and a verb.
Third, there’s no overlap. There is no connection among the various ‘‘big rocks.’’ They are all separate and independent accountabilities. Each one refers to a discrete and separate area. Fourth, the list includes only responsibilities, not competencies. It focuses on the outcomes of the job, not on the way the secretary goes about achieving those outcomes.
Thus, there is no big rock labeled ‘‘effective communications’’ or ‘‘good interpersonal skills,’’ or ‘‘friendly demeanor.’’ Those things, if they’re important, will be measured in the competencies section of the performance appraisal form.
Finally, there are no references to the quality of performance. It doesn’t say that the secretary manages the mail efﬁciently, or greets visitors warmly, or prepares documents without making any typos. The standards of performance will be developed later. Right now, all we’re concerned with is what the key job responsibilities actually are, not how the individual’s performance is going to be measured.
For each secretary or administrative assistant working in a different department or for a different company, the ‘‘big rocks’’ might well vary. The focus is not on the title of the job; the focus is on the major responsibilities of the person who acts in the capacity of administrative assistant or secretary, whatever the job title may be.
The job of secretary is one that is in the administrative job family. Next, consider the big rocks in a job in the professional/technical or clinical job family: the job of a nurse. The big rocks for an RN might be:
- Provide patient care.
- Educate patients and families.
- Assess patients.
- Ensure physician satisfaction.
- Coordinate support services.
- Ensure patient satisfaction.
Again, the number of big rocks is small (even though the nurse may do dozens of tasks over the course of one shift), but the statement of each is simple (verb and noun). No quality indicators or measures are mixed in with the statements of key job responsibilities.
Take another familiar job in the professional/technical job family: the position of personnel specialist or HR manager. The list of big rocks/key responsibilities for someone holding this position might include:
- Recruit candidates.
- Counsel employees and managers.
- Administer beneﬁt programs.
- Conduct training programs.
- Ensure legal compliance.
Finally, consider a job from the managerial/supervisory job family: engineering project manager. The big rocks in this job might be:
- Complete projects.
- Develop new approaches and innovations.
- Create long-range plans.
- Train operations and maintenance personnel.
In this case there are only four big rocks. That’s good—it’s better for people to have a clear concentration on achieving a small number of genuinely important responsibilities than scatter their efforts on a myriad of minor duties.
Only when the big rocks—the key responsibilities—of a job have been identiﬁed is it possible to assess how well the person is performing the job. One of the great beneﬁts to both the manager and the individual for spending time at the beginning of the year identifying and coming to agreement on the key responsibilities of a job is that the process ensures that the individual won’t spend time working in areas that the manager feels are unimportant or more properly in someone else’s domain.