Designing Staff Positions

by Susan Beaumont

Many congregations spend considerable time in the creation of job descriptions without asking the fundamental questions required to effectively design a staff role. Robert Simmons of the Harvard Business School recommends addressing these four basic questions in the design of any staff position.1

  1. What resources will the staff member be able to control in order to accomplish assigned tasks? (Span of Control)
  2. What measures will be used to evaluate the staff member’s performance? (Span of Accountability)
  3. Who does the staff member need to interact with and influence to achieve goals? (Span of Influence)
  4. How much support can the staff member expect when he or she reaches out to others for help? (Span of Support)

The Span of Control

The span of control defines the range of resources (people, assets, infrastructure) for which a staff member is given decision-making rights. Typically the span of control is established by assigning reporting relationships (who does this staff member report to and who reports to this staff member), assigning budget line items of responsibility, and setting spending limits. Different staff members should have different levels of authority when it comes to making decisions about allocating resources, but every member should have some defined level of freedom for decision making in their area of responsibility.

Entry level or inexperienced staff members will typically be assigned a narrow span of control, meaning that they have narrow decision-making rights. As a staff member grows in wisdom and experience, the congregation can widen the span of control as a form of leadership development. However, it is important that the span of control in each staff role relate logically to the span of control in corresponding staff positions. Your head of staff should always have a span of control that exceeds the span of control of every other staff member. A staff member should never have a span of control wider than the person to whom she reports.

A common question that emerges around the issue of span of control is this one. What is the appropriate number of people for any one person to supervise? There is no easy, uniform response to that question. Generally speaking, it is important to consider the number and ease of required contacts, the degree of specialization in the positions that report to a supervisor, and the ability to communicate with direct reports. Bear in mind that the number of potential interpersonal relationships between a supervisor and subordinate increases exponentially with each added direct report. This holds true because supervisors must contend with the direct relationships, with a group relationship, and with the cross relationships between each of the people that report to them. It is easier to supervise a group of people with very similar areas of specialization (e.g. youth small group leaders) than it is to supervise people with very different specializations. It is simpler to supervise people in close physical proximity than it is to supervise people who work at a distance. It is easier to supervise people who are very much alike in terms of temperament, background, and experience. The greater the diversity, the greater the distance, and the greater the variety of specializations the smaller the number of direct reports ought to be.

The Span of Accountability

The span of accountability refers to the measurable goals that a staff member is expected to achieve and the range of trade-offs available to affect those measures. A narrow span of accountability generally involves simplistic, easily definable measures: a line item in the budget, enrollment or attendance numbers, number of groups or classes offered, etc. In a narrow span there are few variables or trade-offs that can impact the outcome being measured. A wider span of accountability uses broader measures that incorporate many variables of congregational life. Examples include the general level of giving, overall worship attendance, and spiritual growth of the membership. The wider the span of accountability, the greater number of variables and the greater the number of trade-offs that must be managed.

Generally speaking, the span of control and the span of accountability ought to be established in tandem with one another. People should never be held accountable for things over which they have no control. However, a congregation that wants to encourage a creative and entrepreneurial spirit will try to set the span of accountability just a little bit wider than the span of control. This gap encourages risk taking and greater creativity. However, if the gap becomes too wide, employees become discouraged and frustrated at being held accountable for things outside their control.

The Span of Influence

The span of influence describes the width of the net that an individual needs to cast in gathering data, collecting new information, and attempting to influence the work of others. A staff member with a narrow span of influence does not need to pay much attention to people outside of his area of responsibility to do his job effectively. An individual with a wide span must interact with and extensively influence people in other areas of ministry. Generally speaking, in faith communities we are always seeking to enhance the community by building greater interconnectedness and wider spans of influence. However, at times it can be a waste of congregational resources, and even distracting to congregational mission, to encourage specialized entry level functions to influence all aspects of congregational life.

A congregation that is interested in increasing the span of influence among its staff members can take several actions. The job description can be rewritten to suggest a broader area of influence. Goals can be set that require broader interaction of staff members. Cross-functional teams can be established to tackle emerging projects and problems. The span of influence should be set a little wider than the span of control to encourage staff members to work across boundaries and solicit help from one another.

The Span of Support

The span of support refers to the amount of help an individual staff member can expect from people in other parts of the congregation. When the span of support is narrow, staff members are very highly focused on their own performance and accomplishment of goals. A wider span of support emphasizes shared responsibilities through purpose, mission, and strong group identification. A congregation cannot adjust a job’s span of support in isolation because it is largely determined by the staff’s sense of shared responsibilities, which in turn stems from a congregation’s culture and values. In most cases, all of a congregation’s staff will operate with a wide span of support, or none will. Various practices and policies of the congregation can help to create or destroy a shared sense of purpose and support among staff members. A clearly defined mission, fair and equitable pay practices, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities all contribute to wider spans of support within a congregation. Keeping the spans of control, accountability, influence, and support properly defined and aligned within a congregation can be challenging. However, thinking about your staff positions along these four dimensions will allow for better alignment of staff roles with congregational objectives. Over time each of the spans will likely shift in response to changes in congregational circumstances and strategies. Being intentional about revisiting and revising the four spans will enhance the effectiveness of your staff.

NOTE
1. Robert Simmons, “Designing High Performance Jobs,” Harvard Business Review (July-August 2005): 55-62.

Alban Weekly, 2006-01-23
Number 79