Learning in the workplace starts with understanding one's role. The individual professional must understand it, of course, but so must her manager and her teammates. There must be a shared understanding of what this role does and how it creates value for the team and the customer.

It is this shared understanding that enables a sense of progress. You don't know if you're getting better until you understand precisely what you should be getting better at. And that starts with a lucid description of the job.

Here are some key concepts that help clearly define a role and to guide the growth of an individual.

Separate Roles from Souls

A role is a collection of skills and activities. The junior account manager, for example, attends conferences, qualifies prospects over the phone, and updates the CRM (among many other things.) These are the activities of the role. The junior account manager applies skills like empathy, verbal communication, and fluency of ideas to perform this role.

A soul is the person who performs that role and their mastery of it. It is Jeremy, who has the role of junior account manager at the moment. And Jeremy is a social guy who qualifies prospects like nobody's business, but is terrible at updating the CRM. Whereas Mindy, another junior account manager, updates her CRM data every single day at 3:30 like an atomic clock.

The role of junior account manager, in this example, is an abstract ideal. Jeremy and Mindy both play that role right now. Each has their strengths and weaknesses within that role. Each create different value for the agency based on their unique mastery of that role. Each has different needs when it comes to getting better at that role.

Identify Skills and Activities

Here are some skills:

  • negotiation
  • critical thinking
  • time management
  • written communication

Here are some activities:

  • generate quarterly financial report
  • lead weekly team status call
  • design landing page for marketing campaign

Skills are abstract. Activities are concrete.

Skills are noun-ish. Activities are verb-ish.

One skill can transfer to many activities. One activity can require multiple skills.

When defining a role, start with activities. What does a person in this role do all day? What's on her calendar? What's on her to-do list? Write these down.

Then consider the skills most essential to performing those activities. Write these down.

You should now have a clear list of the most common and essential skills and activities. Which means you have the foundation of a clear role description. Now you need to structure this list in a relevant and practical way.

Understand Your Value Chain

How does your agency create value for clients?

  1. How do clients first hear about you?
  2. When do they become actual clients?
  3. What products and services do they experience?
  4. How do you produce and deliver those products and services?
  5. How do clients leave and become former clients?

This linear process is the value chain of your business.

Now look at the role you're defining. Where does it sit on that value chain? Which parts of that client journey does it affect? If it affects many parts of that value chain, then structure it using that order.

This value chain should be a shared mental framework across the agency. When you define roles within the same framework, people can see how they support each other—how they depend on each other. This gives a role greater meaning. This network of dependency and obligation helps define "what good looks like" for any particular role.

Role As Curriculum

Consider the following two perspectives:

  1. You could think of a role as simply turning inputs into outputs. Hitting targets and KPIs on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.
  2. Or you could think of a role as a process of constant learning and discovery. Each task, each project, is an exercise that leads to mastery.

Which of those two perspectives do you find more inspiring? Which perspective is more likely to increase retention and engagement?

Remember, no one wants a job. They want a journey.

A role, as we've defined it, is a set of skills and activities structured around the value chain of your business. If a role was a textbook, these skills and activities would be the chapters. These are the things you study and practice. It's the curriculum. To perform the role is to explore that curriculum.

When you think of a role as curriculum, the professional starts as a student and then becomes the teacher. A teacher can then improve the curriculum. They modify, expand, and improve the role. This enhances the value chain of your agency, which then delivers greater value to clients, who in turn continue giving you their business. Thus does learning and development impact your bottom line.