When goals and strategies are relatively clear, many people can be “proactive.” When things are not going well, most people can improve their performance relatively effectively with some guidance and encouragement from their superiors.
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However, when goals and strategies are unclear or constantly changing, or when an organization is rapidly evolving, being “proactive” is not enough. In such situations, a more advanced ability called “Customized Role Sense” is required.
This advanced ability is particularly crucial in at least three scenarios:
- In early-stage companies, especially startups.
- In “true executive teams,” such as those found in entrepreneurial leadership teams.
- In organizations that advocate self-organization and innovative organizational forms.
“Customized Role Sense” comprises three key elements: “customized,” “role,” and “sense.”
- “Customized” contrasts with “predefined,” meaning it involves taking initiative rather than waiting for someone else to assign tasks or roles.
- “Role” refers to the position or function, and “sense” encompasses an understanding of the role’s purpose, responsibilities, tasks, and relationships with relevant stakeholders. It’s not just about understanding the role personally but also effectively communicating it to teammates. Even if you understand your role clearly, it’s not enough if your teammates don’t understand or support it. “Role sense” emphasizes the role bearer’s responsibility for communicating, influencing, and training the “key stakeholders.”
To help illustrate what “Customized Role Sense” means, let’s consider a real-life example:
Suppose a wife asks her husband to pick up their child from tutoring. Some husbands may see themselves solely as a “driver” and consider their task complete once they pick up the child on time, giving themselves a perfect score. However, the wife expects the husband to take on the role of a “parent.” In this role, the husband should use the opportunity to observe the child’s emotional state and engage in emotional communication. For example, the husband might notice that the child seems upset and, upon inquiry, learns that the child was being bullied.
Without adopting the “parent” role, the husband might not even ask the child about their feelings. If the child only sees you as a “driver,” they won’t share their emotions, even if you notice them.
The husband needs to customize his role as a “parent” and ensure that both the child and the wife (as well as grandparents and other family members) accept this role.
Husbands who lack the ability to customize their role often contribute to family conflicts.
Similarly, colleagues who lack “Customized Role Sense” can easily leave their teammates feeling exhausted, especially in executive teams, startup companies, or organizations advocating innovative self-organization.
In more mature companies, many positions and their associated tasks are well-established and often documented through job descriptions. In such cases, the ability to customize roles may be less critical.
However, in a startup team, “Customized Role Sense” is considered a basic requirement because companies evolve rapidly. For example, a “Customer Director” responsible for client-facing activities may need to position themselves as a “salesperson” or a “marketer” depending on the circumstances. Different role orientations entail different responsibilities and ways of communicating with colleagues.
In essence, each role can have multiple facets, and their nature can vary significantly. Some roles are assigned by the organization, but others are self-customized. Role bearers need to self-evolve their roles to fit the evolving needs of the company.
It’s important to note that the job title may remain the same while the role evolves. Additionally, role bearers not only need to self-evolve but also communicate, influence, and train their teammates regarding their role changes. If colleagues still perceive you as the “salesperson” when you’ve evolved into a “marketer,” conflicts can arise.
In traditional hierarchical organizations, roles are often defined based on job titles and positions. In contrast, in innovative organizational forms like “circle structures” within holacracy, “Customized Role Sense” is a common requirement. In these structures, each partner can customize their roles based on company needs, individual capabilities, interests, and objectives, forming a network of interrelated roles that replace traditional departments. Partners may participate in various roles across multiple circles, allowing them to contribute to different aspects of the organization.
So, how can a company cultivate the ability of “Customized Role Sense”?
The key is to create an environment or “domain” that nurtures this ability. The best starting point is often the executive team (including the founding team in a startup). If you can’t establish a domain that fosters “Customized Role Sense” at the executive team level, the CXO-level executives won’t develop this ability, and the entire company will likely lack it.
So, who should be responsible for creating this domain? The top leader, particularly the CEO, is primarily responsible. Ideally, the CEO should find internal or external allies and helpers to assist in this effort.
Here are some principled suggestions for developing “Customized Role Sense”:
- Provide team members with opportunities to shape the company’s mission, vision, values, and strategy. Encourage participation rather than imposing these decisions from the top down. People are more inclined to develop “Customized Role Sense” when they have a personal connection to these important aspects.
- In more mature companies, where executives may feel detached from the overall mission, create initiatives that allow team members to contribute to something meaningful beyond quarterly and annual reports.
- In startup teams, when goals and strategies are unclear, gradually clarify the “why,” the overarching direction, and the guiding principles, such as through mission, vision, values, and strategy. With these in place, team members have the space and direction to develop “Customized Role Sense.”
- Provide opportunities for team members to take on roles related to their interests. Sometimes, a lack of a sense of purpose stems from not doing things that genuinely interest individuals.
- Aim for a significant intersection between each person’s personal mission and the collective mission and vision. Allow individuals time to gradually align their personal interests with the team’s objectives.
- Establish transparent communication mechanisms, including ways to understand what others are working on, not just company goals. The more transparent the information, the easier it is to develop “Customized Role Sense.” If someone discovers that a teammate is already working on a particular task, they won’t need to reinvent the wheel.
- Create mechanisms for mutual feedback, allowing team members to legitimately complement and challenge each other.
- Address and resolve conflicts arising from differences in role orientation. Some team members may believe that individuals must unconditionally follow the collective mission and vision. Such conflicts need guidance and resolution.
- Emphasize the selection and development of competencies. Having a positive attitude toward role customization is not enough; individuals must have the ability to learn and acquire professional skills. For instance, if a Customer Director realizes they need to evolve from being a “salesperson” to a “marketer,” they should quickly acquire the necessary knowledge and skills.
- People with a broad view of the organization tend to adapt more easily to customizing roles. Active individuals without a holistic perspective can sometimes cause frustration. However, the ability to see the big picture is relatively scarce. For these skills, it’s better to select rather than develop.
- Be mindful of maturity levels and guide accordingly. Sometimes, individual career aspirations may conflict with the company’s immediate development needs. For example, an employee may prioritize professional growth when the company urgently needs everyone to develop marketing skills. If these conflicts persist, it may indicate issues with an individual’s maturity and personality traits. Some people may be hesitant to make commitments to the collective mission and vision due to a fear of losing control. Such personality traits can hinder the development of “Customized Role Sense,” making it challenging for highly skilled individuals to make significant contributions to a team.
- First-rate leaders must reward displays of “Customized Role Sense,” even before clear results emerge. Rewards can include promotions, equity, bonuses, granting decision-making authority, and closer collaboration. Without such rewards, those who are willing to customize their roles may be ridiculed by those who wait for tasks to be assigned.
In summary, “Customized Role Sense” is a more advanced ability than being merely “proactive.” While proactivity is primarily a personal capability, “Customized Role Sense” is a higher-level ability that emerges from positive interactions between individuals and organizations. Proactive individuals can develop “Customized Role Sense” when they are in certain organizational environments, which allows them to create more significant value.
It’s important to note that “Customized Role Sense” is a valuable ability that can be easily suppressed or extinguished, particularly as a company matures. Wise leaders should protect and nurture this precious skill, even if it means intentionally creating some chaos. Without individuals who can customize their roles, the next generation of leadership teams may be in jeopardy.