Job Descriptions With Legs

The Industrial Age is giving way to the Knowledge Age, and leaders must welcome the shift instead of resisting it.

The Industrial Age is giving way to the Knowledge Age, and leaders must welcome the shift instead of resisting it.

A friend told me this story: “I recently spoke with a man, not yet 30 years old, who graduated from college several years ago with an excellent degree and tremendous talent and energy to contribute somewhere. Today he is employed by a financial-services company. I asked him several questions:

“‘What kind of goals are you working on?’ He didn’t know the answer.

“‘What is your company’s highest strategic priority right now?’ He couldn’t say.

“‘When was the last time you met one-on-one with your manager to talk about your role in achieving the organization’s goals?’ He said he hadn’t met with his manager one-on-one since his hiring three years before.

“Finally I asked him, ‘What have you personally contributed to your organization?’ He quietly answered, ‘I think I’ve saved the company a half million dollars in the last year.’

“‘Who knows that besides you?’ I asked him.

“‘I make out a report once a week for my boss, but I don’t think he reads it.’

“I felt deeply for him—his energy had been drained, his dreams of making a great contribution had shrunk down to fulfilling a mere job description. He had been reduced to a ‘job description with legs.’”

Peter Drucker said, “Knowledge Age workers must learn to ask, ‘What should MY contribution be?’ This is a new question in human history. Traditionally the task was given, either by the work itself or by the boss. Until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told. The advent of the knowledge worker is changing this, and fast. And for this change, management is totally unprepared.”

Industrial Age workers saw themselves as subordinates who did as they were told. Knowledge Age workers see themselves as volunteers. They are better educated and have more choices about where they will invest their energies.

Industrial Age workers were given a job description, similar to a user manual for a machine. It told them their function and what to do about it. Knowledge Age workers want to be valued for the specific and unique contribution they can make.

Industrial Age workers lived by the calendar. They put in their time and kept their appointments. Knowledge Age workers live by their “wildly important goals”—the priorities they must achieve in order to make their contribution.

Industrial Age workers worked for a paycheck. If paid fairly, Knowledge Age workers work to achieve their “wins,” the goals that lead to organizational and professional growth. They want to add measurable value, and they want to be valued in turn.

In the Industrial Age, leaders wanted harmony from the workers. They no more wanted to hear from the workers than they wanted to hear from the machinery—because that would have indicated something was wrong. Knowledge Age workers insist on being heard, and they demand candor from their leaders.

Industrial Age workers were expected to simply comply with standards, policies and procedures. Knowledge Age workers go beyond compliance. They question standards, policies and procedures—they want to work in synergy with others, continually finding new and better ways to do things.

Industrial Age workers valued their two-week vacation above all. Because they found little satisfaction in their work, they sought it elsewhere. Knowledge Age workers insist on finding satisfaction in their work, on the unleashing of their potential to achieve.

If I were you, I’d write on a notepad right now the practices in your organization that are reducing your people to “job descriptions with legs.” Brainstorm now how to transform those practices so that people can make their highest and best contribution.

Stephen R. Covey, Ph.D., is co-founder of FranklinCovey and author of the best-selling “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The 8th Habit.” He can be reached at