How to be a small organization man or woman

Many HatsIn small organizations, each member of the team wears many hats. You have to. It’s not economical to have one person write marketing copy, another to pull Salesforce reporting, and another person make the copies and take out the trash. Often times, a single person must do some of all of the above. Everyone must pitch in to help complete tasks and responsibilities outside of his or her title, station or department.

In our office of 12, we have titles and reporting relationships like every company does. That said, the titles are loosely held, and the formal reporting relationship doesn’t matter as much as the working relationships do. You don’t ‘report to’ a superior as much as you are ‘accountable to’ your teammates. We frown on pulling rank to win a point, and invoking top managers’ names in order to get something done. We try to make the best idea prevail, regardless of its provenance. Another thing is that we don’t have anyone whose roles are strictly administrative. You make your own copies, take your turn vacuuming half the office once a month, and help put in the Costco order.

I like the way we operate, and believe that our ways are appropriate for our size. I also recognize that we aren’t a fit for everyone. There are folks who prefer the predictability of formal reporting relationships, and the security that comes with higher (or lower) rank. They’d prefer to have someone else take out the trash and order the water for the cooler. And that’s ok. But it’s tough to operate a small office with even just one person who is oriented in this (I’ll call) ‘big company’ way.

It’s not easy to tell during an interview process or even during the honeymoon phase of a person’s joining our team whether they are more ‘small company’ or ‘big company’ in orientation. But we’ve found that inevitably, people in the latter camp tend to ask a three-word question that all but confirms that they are not well suited for small company life: “What’s my job?”

On its face, it’s an innocent question. But the truthful small team answer (“To do with alacrity all that the company and the team need”) tends not to satisfy. The person asking usually wants a job description laying out in concrete terms what she or he is to do during work hours. Such a description is difficult to produce in a small company context, especially if the company is poised to grow. There are too many items to enumerate, too many uncertainties. So companies end up putting in blanket descriptors at the end, like: “Other tasks and responsibilities as directed by supervisor.” We do the same thing.

Clarity of purpose is important even for those in small, growing organizations. I encourage our teammates to ask what their roles are, and I give a clear perspective when they do. But there’s a tremendous difference between asking “What’s my role?” and “What’s my job?” The innocent-sounding “What’s my job?” often foretells the future appearance of its more problematic four-word cousin: “That’s not my job.”

My small organization cannot afford to employ those whose conception of role is necessarily explicit and who require their jobs to be spelled out. This will change as we grow. Over time, we must exercise the discipline of more strictly defined roles, because doing so will help support organizational integrity. But for the moment, the members of our small team are necessarily flexible. Put another way, if your burning question at work is “What’s my job?” my answer is always this: your role is to contribute to our team and our growth in all the ways you can.

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