I HAD BEEN in my first dean position about two months. There were three staff members in my office supporting the administrative team. One of the members, Joyce, was on vacation for the week when I asked one of the others, Laura, if she would take care of something for me the next day. She immediately said, “That’s Joyce’s job,” and pulled out a two-page document of responsibilities in the office.
It was a “who does what” list. She showed me that Joyce’s name was beside the item I had asked her to do. I was a bit astonished. While I appreciated that they had figured out all of the tasks, I was a bit concerned that work would not get done when the responsible person was out.
“While some of these items can wait while staff is out, others cannot,” I said. “What happens to sorting the mail, for example, Laura, when you’re absent? Does it pile up waiting for you to return?”
The answer was that it didn’t wait—someone else sorted the mail. But they were rigid about some of the other tasks. If the assigned person wasn’t there, the task wasn’t completed until they returned.
I waited a few days until all three staff members were in the office and called them together. I shared that, while I appreciated the effort they had put into the document, we weren’t going to follow it any longer. Then I tore it up.
I told them that everyone was responsible for learning how to do everything, as we needed redundancies in the office. We weren’t waiting for people to return to get work done any longer. While it was a shock, they gradually adapted to the new expectation, although I cannot say all of them liked it.
Redundancies are important in volunteer work as well. I’m in a service organization with many people who have assumed roles over the years.
For example, Jerome always leads a major annual fundraiser, while Frances has led another fundraiser for years. The same people do the same jobs, year in and year out. While that can be healthy to a point, I always wonder what would happen if, in this case, either Jerome or Frances is unable to do the work.
Illness, accidents, work pressures, and family needs might require someone else to step in. If Jerome and Frances weren’t available to coach me in what to do, I’m confident I would get the work done, but it probably would create a lot of unnecessary angst for me and the other volunteers. At least two—and ideally more—people should know what to do, just in case. You hope nothing horrible ever happens, but we don’t know.
The last example is more personal.
In most marriages or committed relationships, there’s a division of labor, which is good. The one place where both partners need to know what’s going on, at least to some degree, is with the family’s finances.
We hear too many times where one person dies and the person left behind has no clue about the financial situation. Or perhaps it’s a divorce situation. Both adults in the home need to have some sense of what’s going on. One of us may pay the bills, but both of us should know a bit about our various financial issues.
So I urge you to think about this in your workplace, volunteer organizations, and at home. Do you rely on one person, and one person only, to know how and what to do about different things?
It’s not a healthy situation for the person doing the work. Think about involving a second or third person in learning how to do things. You’ll be glad you did when the main person leaves, and they will, often unexpectedly. You don’t want the work to screech to a halt. And you also don’t want to create unnecessary stress for those left behind.
Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.