What do you do?

August 2010 » Web Exclusive » INSIDER'S VIEW
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

Most engineers likely have several possible answers to this question. Can you imagine responding, “I’m responsible for planning, organizing, directing, coordinating, and supervising the team.” You can anticipate the next question (especially if you’re sitting in a job interview): “But, what do you actually do?”

Yet some form of this sentence, expanded into several paragraphs and pages, is what passes for many job descriptions these days. And not just on résumés or job postings — they are sprinkled liberally throughout HR documents and performance reviews with little thought given to what they mean or how they should be applied to the work.

As a manager, you already know what you need from your staff. At the most fundamental level, you need projects that can be completed on time, on budget, to the client’s satisfaction, and with minimal problems. For all the vagueness in many job descriptions, however, they may as well simply end there. Perhaps HR staff simply doesn’t know what a particular job entails and asks current technical staff for descriptions, which are provided courtesy of past résumés.

Indeed, such vague language may be tolerated on a résumé; countless tips specify precisely such “action words” to better promote one’s work. The problem? Once on the job, fuzzy expectations lead to poor accountability, poor professional development, and considerable difficulty in managing the firm’s services. For example, the following excerpt is from a senior project manager description. Consider how such an individual might be evaluated on his performance of the following:

“Coordinate with estimators, project controls group, project sponsor, construction manager, and project team to establish budget, meet project schedule, and develop comprehensive plan for project start up.”

Seemingly simple, a deeper investigation leads to more questions than answers. Think about the timelines involved. A manager will not know whether these goals have been met for weeks or months. Is coordinating with the project sponsor the same as coordinating with the project team? Does it require meetings, presentations, or site visits?

What about this one, also from the same position:

“Provide environment where dynamic project communication occurs between Project Engineers, Foremen, Superintendents, and Construction Manager to ensure work is accomplished in an efficient, profitable, and safe manner.”

Again, all noble goals, but what exactly is the firm (or the eventual client for that matter) expecting? How would one distinguish between “dynamic communication” and any other type?

It would be nice to have a checklist that clearly assessed the incumbent’s abilities, but this isn’t usually possible. Normally, your services are complex and may not display direct connections between a person’s actions and the corresponding output. Still, most individuals will desire greater structure and accountability — all the more so if your incentive plan is tied to such outputs.

How can we break down such a description into meaningful expectations and accountability? Using the first example, focus on “coordination.” One might envision that this means making visits down the hall, phone calls, e-mails, or meetings to somehow get everyone on the same page with respect to some deliverable. But look a bit deeper.

The real output is not that everyone “feels” coordinated. Rather, it is to ensure proper alignment of goals, responsibilities, and responses to conflicts. One possible measure of success could be keeping meetings to a maximum of 30 minutes or one per week. Another might be the number of change orders per month. If the firm is very dysfunctional, perhaps it could be the number of phone calls the principal receives after business hours. None of these things by themselves confirms that everyone is 100-percent coordinated, but if the metrics are headed in the wrong direction, at least you know where to start.

As your firm continues to seek efficiency and internal accountability of its engineers and managers, one of the first steps is to revisit job descriptions and performance reviews. Take note of particularly vague words such as coordinate, manage, communicate, and organize. As important as these abstract concepts are, they cry out for structure and definition to evaluate your success effectively and address any shortcomings properly. Without better targets, everyone may end up pulling in different directions.

Jason Burke, P.E., is a project manager in Billings, Montana. Find additional information at http://pmug.wordpress.com.

E-mail comments in care of bdrake@stagnitomedia.com.


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