How to excel in 'blank slate' roles

While a blank canvas offers the potential for great gains, it also comes with an increased risk of missteps and failure.

A "blank-slate" role is inevitable at some point in any career, and can be both exciting and challenging.

A blank slate – leading a new team or stepping into a newly created role that lacks a clearly defined scope – is an invitation to try new things and adopt new methods, approaches and strategies.

“When there’s a completely new role that’s never existed before, the business is looking for you to do something differently,” says Repa Patel, leadership expert, executive coach and director of Leading Mindfully.

Charting new territory in an organisation requires equal measures of temerity and tenacity.

“It also involves an element of courage,” says Patel. “You’ve got the ability to change the way things are done and to shift perceptions.”

While a blank canvas offers the potential for great gains, it also comes with an increased risk of missteps and failure.

Assess the role

First, establish what the role requires of you, advises Patel.

Is it an individual contributor role that relies on your technical expertise? Is it a position that requires you to manage people, projects, processes and systems, deliver outcomes, and engage in technical work? Or is it a leadership role that requires you to oversee a large team and influence outcomes?

“We know from Gallup research that 82 per cent of leaders are promoted because of their technical expertise,” says Patel, but that doesn’t always translate into leadership success.

A new role requires its own fresh approach and development plan to fill any skills gaps.

“You don’t have to solve every problem, but if you can show some progress or improvement that goes some way to addressing why the role or team was created in the first place, you’ll stand out.” Amalia Chilianis, career coach

“If I’m moving from, say, managing a team of 16 people to managing a team of 350, there’s no way I could continue doing the technical work. It requires a different level of leadership,” she says.

“Unfortunately, we know the leaders who continue rolling up their sleeves to do the work rather than focusing at least 30 or 40 per cent of their time on leading the team don’t always succeed.”

A double-edged sword

Amalia Chilianis, a Melbourne-based career coach, workplace consultant and author, says a blank slate offers the “opportunity to be creative and innovative” while playing to your strengths.

“You have free rein to take a newly created role and make it your own.” In a team environment, free rein means using the strengths of others around you to cover gaps and maximise success.

This broad remit has its pitfalls, however. A misalignment in expectations can arise when a role or team’s responsibilities and desired outcomes are undefined. You head off in one direction when your leader expects you to move in another, and you discover too late that your priorities differ. “Sometimes there’s a lack of direction…that can make it difficult for people to know what to do first,” Chilianis says.

Free rein means it is your responsibility to determine the best path forward – “that’s where that creativity and innovation comes in,” says Chilianis – but you must first establish what success looks like to the decision-makers around you. 

Chilianis recommends adopting “a questioning approach” to establish your priorities and the course of action you should take.

Ask simple questions of stakeholders, such as: “In 12 months, if this role or team is to be successful, what would that look like? What are the problems you are hoping to solve? If you had a magic wand, what would you fix?” Answers to these questions will give you a clear understanding of the problems you need to solve, the outcomes you need to achieve and how you can make an impact in the role.

It is often assumed that “if I put my head down and work hard, people will notice,” says Chilianis. “They don’t.”

Instead, she says, focus your effort on key priority areas and aim for “some small quick wins”, ideally in the first three months.

You don’t have to solve every problem, says Chilianis, “but if you can show some progress or improvement that goes some way to addressing why the role or team was created in the first place, you’ll stand out.”

CPA Library: Unleashing creativity and innovation: nine lessons from nature for enterprise growth and career success. Read now

Staying strong

An often-overlooked aspect of taking on a new challenge is our capacity to withstand adversity and adapt to change, particularly now, when pressures like the pandemic and climate change are altering the way we work.

“We all operate in an environment that’s uncertain – uncertainty is certain,” says Patel, who recommends developing a ‘resilience plan’ to help navigate adversity.
Patel encourages clients to consider what she calls their “energy bank account.”

“What’s your plan to ensure that your mental, physical and emotional energy is going to be sufficient to draw on when things get difficult – and they will get difficult,” she says.

“It’s too late to have a look at the resilience plan when you need to draw on those reserves.

“Consciously think about daily and weekly things you need to do to replenish your mental, physical and emotional energy, because that’s going to underpin the rest of your success.”

December/January 2022
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