The Career Boosting Value of ‘Blank Sheet’ Opportunities
You may have already, or certainly will one day, be presented with what I call a blank sheet opportunity: a new role or project for which you may not be totally (or at all) qualified. You will not have had prior experience, nor will you necessarily have had all the expertise needed for the assignment. In taking on the role, you will feel like someone placed a blank sheet of paper in front you with no structure, guidance, direction or outcome — just a blank sheet. When faced with such a daunting prospect, and I hope you have many in your career, I have simple but important advice –say yes and take it on!
There are three types of blank sheet opportunities: a role new to you such as a promotion or lateral move (the role may be defined, but it’s new to you); a new role/position in your firm (no one has had this job before); or a role that is completely original, like starting a new business or new initiative. Remember, no one is born a CEO, we all face blank sheet opportunities in our lives. Most senior people are successful because of how successfully, and how often, they’ve taken on blank sheet opportunities. These opportunities are the big steps on the ladder of career success.
With any job, especially a blank sheet assignment, a key question is: what does success look like? What would I have to achieve long term in order to feel like I was succeeding in the role and what are the mile markers along the way so I could measure my progress? Starting with the end goal may be counter-intuitive, but if you don’t know where you are going, how can you get there? Others who are in this role or had done similar things can give you advice on how they defined and measured success. It’s not necessary to adopt someone else’s measures or goals, but by hearing several people talk about what they found to be important, you can recognize patterns and trends. Then you can make it your own.
Here are six valuable pointers I’ve learned along the way:
1. Go on a Listening Tour
It is no surprise that one of the first things many new executives do is go on a listening tour. Start inside your organization to learn what others are thinking. Seek out your peers to learn best practices. Create a board of advisors so you have experts on hand to help you. Growing your network is essential especially when you take on new roles. As I write in my book, Meet 100 People, start with people you know and ask them for advice and suggestions. Then proactively and consistently expand that network to keep learning.
2. Build it Brick by Brick
I received this advice from a senior executive when I took on a role that was new in my industry. He was one of the pioneers and I’ll never forget his words, “Whatever you are creating, you must build it brick by brick.” Laying a strong foundation is critical, prioritizing is essential, and focusing helps create real outcomes. If you attempt to do too many things, you will not have had a chance to see which initiatives work and which do not.
3. Enlist Internal Champions
Your success in your new role will depend on the results you achieve as perceived by others in your organization. You need to enlist your champions and the first one is the person who offered you the assignment. Make sure you understand what this person wants and needs, and execute on that. In addition, find those individuals who will benefit the most, those who will offer support and those who will sing your praises. Get them to be vested in your success. Communicate often and effectively.
4. Get Some Early Wins
If you prioritize properly, you can find a few initiatives that will make the biggest impact. Determine which one or two ‘wins’ not only have noticeable and measurable results, but can be delivered rapidly. Showing a few points on the scoreboard early in the game will give you the momentum and internal support to continue to build and produce the results you need.
5. Nurture the Network
The network you are creating to learn is an invaluable one. You will be surprised how many people are willing to share their knowledge and expertise. Be grateful and appreciative of others’ time. As I advise in Meet 100 People, look for ways to help others with your knowledge, experience or contacts. Give the gift of introductions: connect people who will benefit from knowing one another. Your network is part of your value as an employee, leader and fellow human being. It’s a long road and you want to both nurture your growing network and pay it forward to others you approach for help.
6. Build the Team
When you are presented with a blank sheet opportunity, you have been offered a leadership role, whether it’s explicit or not. A blank sheet opportunity allows you to create and build an area of expertise, a function, a department and sometimes a company. While the first step is reaching out to a network and gathering expertise, a final step is building that expertise internally. Often one person is insufficient for the role. Your job is to find experts, hire them and build a team to take your work to the next level of success.
A few key personal qualities which will make taking on blank sheet opportunities less intimidating. Be fearless: trying something new is how you grow and learn. Be curious: by learning you are developing professionally and personally. Be innovative: think outside the box to find new answers. Be outgoing: your network both internal and external will be there to help you. Say yes to the blank sheet and make it your own!
Pat Hedley is an investor in and advisor to growth companies. She is a former managing director of General Atlantic, a global growth equity firm. She is also the author of Meet 100 People, A How to Guide to the Career Edge Everyone’s Missing. See www.meet100people.com to learn more.