Recently, I was doing a coaching session with the owner of a small language school. Very quickly, I saw that he was getting very confused and overwhelmed by the number of different things that he had to do in his work. Like many one-person businesses, on any particular day a huge range of different types of work can arise. For example in his case on a typical day, the lessons need to be prepared, the students need to be taught, the paperwork has to be completed, new projects need to be planned, the office needs to be cleaned, the telephone calls have to be made, the sales projections have to be planned …
Anyone who has run a small business, particularly a one-person business, knows exactly what I am talking about here. The number of different kinds of tasks that a single person is required to do can certainly become confusing and overwhelming. As I listened to my client speak about all these tasks, I could see that he was beginning to make himself even more overwhelmed.
So, I began to take notes and to help him identify some of these different tasks more clearly. As he talked about different tasks, I asked a variant of this one simple question again and again: “if this were a big company with many employees, who would be responsible for carrying out each of these jobs?”
We began to identify several clear roles immediately: teacher, materials designer, cleaner, and salesperson. And as he began to understand the exercise, he started seeing other roles such as financial planner, director of studies, and of course, the boss of all the other roles, the CEO.
Once we had established these roles, I had him go through them one by one and specify the duties of each of these people. Of course, all of these roles actually exist within one person, but dividing them up began to offer him a clarity that was shown clearly on his face. Here was a way for him to start to impose some order and management on the multiple strands of his work, and for him to begin to recognise which roles were getting more or less attention than they deserved.
I realized that this little exercise and clarification of roles could also be useful for other people, so I have provided it as a step-by-step process below. It has also proven to be very useful for myself. As a coach/trainer and owner of a small business, I have many roles, too. Most people do!
Even if your job is a relatively straightforward one, If you stop to think about it, you probably have many different roles that you play in your own life, too: father, mother, son, daughter, manager, employee…
It is quite likely that at least sometimes, a problem arises in your life because you are paying too little or too much attention to one of the roles that you play. In the long term, we want to ensure that all of the important roles are receiving the appropriate amount of attention, and even that some old roles may be outdated and can be removed from our lives.
The Role-Cards Process
This process is for anyone who has multiple roles in their work. The process can help you to clarify and manage your roles more effectively. You can do this exercise by yourself, although it is usually helpful to work with a coach or another person to help you do it more effectively.
1. Make a list of the tasks to be done.
Try to cover the different areas of the business. Don’t worry if you don’t get everything as you can always add them later.
2. Elicit the roles
For each task, ask the question (or a variant), “if this were a big company with many employees, who would be responsible for carrying out each of these jobs?”
3. Add duties to each role
At this point, you can add duties to each role. For example, the CEO is clearly in charge of managing the whole company and ensuring that the vision is coherent. The director of education is in charge of staff development, and learning opportunities. The cleaner is in charge of keeping the place looking nice, feeling pleasant, and presenting a professional image to the customers. The table below shows the roles and duties that I came up with for myself. Clearly, it would be possible for anyone to come up with a much larger number of roles, but for practical purposes I think that a number under 10 is probably good.
4. Create your role cards
Create one card for each of your roles. Add the standard duties expected of each role. Add a colour or image to each card to make it more clearly identifiable.
5. Laminate your role cards if possible
Laminating the cards or putting them in a little protective case is a good idea. As you will see below, the more you handle those cards the better, and paper is going to get torn and crumpled pretty quickly. I also punch a small hole through them and put them on a ring so that it is easy to flip through them.
6. Anchor the roles to the cards
The NLP concept of anchoring is a very useful way to really make the cards work for you. For example, here is how you can anchor the CEO role card. a) Remember your vision for the company. Think about your goals and dreams. Really allow yourself to get into your best CEO state. b) When you can really feel that you have taken on the role completely, pick up the card and hold it. You might like to also say something to yourself that reinforces the CEO state, such as “I’m the boss” or “I believe in this company” or saying your mission statement. Anchor all of the other role cards in the same way, really stepping into the role each time. Keep practicing until it becomes completely natural for you.
7. Step into the CEO role
The CEO is the most important role because this is the role that creates the vision for the company. It is also the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that all of the other parts are working effectively in a way that will serve the company in the most effective way. In the case of a one-person company, the CEO may be the same person as the cleaner, but thinking each role separately helps to clarify your thinking.
- Do you need to consult with any of the roles?
- Are the duties of each role appropriate?
- Which roles are particularly important at the moment in moving the company forward?
- Do you need to call a meeting of several roles?
8. Step into the other roles
As you look at a card, imagine that you completely take on the role and think in the way that person thinks. Over time, each card will become an anchor, allowing you to easily step into that role.
- Check the duties listed.
- Are you fulfilling them?
- Should new duties be added?
- Should any be removed?
- Do you have sufficient time and resources to carry out your duties?
- Do you need to consult with any of the other roles (CEO etc.)?
- If you think of tasks that need to be done, add them to a task list.
9. Let the roles interact as appropriate
You can have the CEO call a meeting with one or more of the roles.
- How is project X going?
- What else could you be doing to reduce costs?
- What ideas do you have that would help improve profitability?
I punched a little hole in each of my cards and added a ring so that I can take them out of my pocket and flip through them easily. The ring also opens easily so that I can take the cards out and play with them at a table in a coffee shop or other suitable place where I have a few minutes spare. Having used the cards for a while now, both with myself and with other clients, I have realised that they are a very valuable tool, often in ways that I hadn’t expected. Here is an amusing example of how they helped me to resolve an internal conflict.
The CEO called in the Cleaner and said that the office was messy and that this was not a suitable image for the company. In particular, there were a big pile of old computer parts that needed to be disposed of. They had been sitting on a shelf taking up valuable space and looking messy for well over a year.
The Cleaner had a bit of a mental block, or what we call a limiting belief in NLP. He didn’t like to deal with the bureaucracy necessary to dispose of the computer parts. That seemed much more difficult than physically carrying them over to the official dumpsite, but was a necessary step before they could be disposed of.
Luckily, I happened to have a Therapist role in my collection. So the CEO sent the Cleaner off to talk to the Therapist. With just a short session, the Cleaner found that he was able to clear that old limiting belief.
It was when the Therapist was drawn in to help out the cleaner that I first really began to understand how useful these role cards can be. As the work of Milton Erickson and NLP emphasise, we already have all the resources that we need. The Therapist was a powerful resource within me that I had never considered bringing to this situation. By externalising the resources in the visual format of the cards, I was much better able to see and utilise my own resources.
The Cleaner used to represent bureaucracy as a great steel block with just a small hole where applications could go in. To get results out, the big heavy lid of the steel block would have to be lifted, and that was obviously a lot of effort.
The Therapist helped the cleaner to change the representation into a rather psychedelic box with a light lid and lots of holes. That definitely helped the Cleaner to move on to dump the computers.
Although I haven’t seen the idea of role cards before, the idea seems so obvious to me now that I assume other people have probably done similar things in the past. For example, I have seen in Michael Colgrass’ book, My Lessons with Kumi, he has a person sketch out different parts of their character. Colgrass uses a more metaphorical process which I have also found to be very useful. For example, he suggests that one part of a person might be the Lion (with attributes such as strong and brave) and another part might be the Eel (very flexible).
In NLP terms, the different role cards could be considered to represent different ‘parts’ of the individual. While NLP is rightly proud of its parts integration process and it is useful to be able to integrate conflicting parts, it is also useful to be able to consider the separate identities of the cards.
To borrow another term from NLP and Gregory Bateson, the role cards allow the user to develop “multiple descriptions” of a situation. If you are juggling different roles, try out these role cards for a while. And please let me know how you get on!