With Martin G. Moore

Episode #114

Making a Role Your Own: Play to your strengths

Starting a new role can be a little daunting, whether you’re being promoted to lead the team you used to be part of, or moving to a completely different organisation in a new industry.

Every new role requires you to go through a deliberate process to set yourself up, and to establish the right expectations with your stakeholders – your boss, your peers, your team and, depending on the role, your customers and suppliers.

In this episode, I help you to work out how to match your skills and capabilities to a new role, how to establish your credibility quickly, and how to set a new standard for the people you lead!

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Episode #114 Making a Role Your Own: Play to your strengths

It can be a little daunting to go into an unfamiliar environment, especially when it’s at a higher level than roles you’ve previously held. There are all sorts of circumstances that see you transitioning into a new role, for example, receiving a promotion to lead a team you used to be part of, moving to a completely different organisation in a new industry, taking a role at the same level in the new company, and even being moved across functions to a completely different job family (which I did several times during my career).

Each time it requires you to go through a deliberate process to set yourself up in the role and to establish the right expectations for your stakeholders, your boss, your peers, your team, and depending on the role, your customers and suppliers. As someone who transitioned through lots of roles during my corporate career, I want to lay out a bit of a roadmap for how to transition into any new role, play to your strengths, and stamp your own individual excellence on it.

So we’ll cover three key areas:

  1. We’ll look at how to match your skills, capabilities, and experience to any new role

  2. I’ll then move on to discuss what you can do to establish yourself as a credible performer, under any circumstances and;

  3. I’ll finish with some tips for drawing a line in the sand and setting or resetting expectations for your team

Matching what you’ve got to a new role

Every vacant role that needs to be filled, comes with a wishlist of skills, experience, capabilities and behaviours. Just read any job description and you’ll see how they describe a diverse range of skills and capabilities. Some of these expectations are completely unreasonable based on the pay grade, the industry, the location, and so forth, and you never get everything you want! There are always going to be risks, trade-offs, and judgement calls that have to be made. Sometimes, if you’re looking at a new role, it’s going to stop you from applying, and women are much more likely than men to not apply.

According to a recent LinkedIn survey, women apply to 20% fewer job roles than men. And research has consistently shown, the women need to perceive an almost 100% fit to a job description in order to think that they are qualified. Men on the other hand, are much more willing to give it a crack if they have only a 60% fit. Now the moral of this story is twofold:

To all our women listeners, I say this – be bolder and be confident in what you can bring to a role.

For all our listeners, don’t expect that you will ever have a 100% fit for any role – you’ll need to craft the role to fit you!

I have a three-step process, which is conceptually really, really simple, but it’s difficult to do well, because it requires you to exhibit strength and confidence in an unfamiliar environment.

Step 1: Have extreme clarity on what creates value

You first have to understand the industry if you don’t already. So go to school and put in the work. Personally, I did this half a dozen times during my career, but my background in consulting really helped with this. I could recognise patterns and similarities really quickly and also work out what I could bring from my diverse experience in other contexts. In a new industry, I found it would take me about six months to get a competent working knowledge that generally enabled me to perform as well as anyone else who’d been in the industry for a while. This being said, it probably took me two years to gain that profound understanding that really delivers exceptional performance. That’s why the ability to bring value from your other experiences is so important as a balancing factor while you’re learning.

More commonly you’ll be staying within the same industry, but you’ll still need to understand the organisation, if you’re new to it, and you’ll have to understand what the mandate of your team is, at whatever level that team sits in the organisation. Regardless of the circumstances, your first job is to work out what value leavers you can pull to make a difference. Make sure you know, with as great a level of clarity and certainty as possible, what drives value for your part of the organisation – going after this should be your primary focus of attention!

Step 2: Work out what skills you have that will help you to unlock that value

This is how you have to craft your role, you have to map it against the strategy of the organisation and the value proposition that you can potentially unlock for your team. Once you have a good idea of the value you can bring, frame up a conversation that you can have with your boss and other key stakeholders, for example, your team.

Step 3: Assess your team’s capability in light of your strengths

You need to build what you don’t have, but remember the order of events, it’s strategy first, then structure, and then people. When you need to look at structure and people, the big thing is don’t just accept what you’ve got in your team when you turn up, this is what I like to call an artificial constraint. Your instinct will likely be telling you not to change people out, but think of it this way: it’s like buying a prize racing thoroughbred, and then you find out that the jockey who’s been racing that thoroughbred, weighs in at 75kgs (around 165 pounds). That clearly isn’t overweight for an adult male, but if you want a jockey who can ride that horse to victory, you’ll need one that weighs something more like 53 kgs (about 50 pounds less). Now it’s completely up to you, whether or not you get the right jockey, but don’t be surprised if your expensive race horse doesn’t win.

Now I want to be clear, I’m not talking about being hired as a CFO, and then deciding that your marketing skills might be more applicable. You can’t go completely AWOL, but you can mould the role within reason! Ultimately you need to work out the areas that best match your capabilities to the task at hand, and to find that as what your job is going to be, then you can have the conversation with your stakeholders.

“Here’s how I’ll best be able to lead this team to deliver the most value for the organisation. Here’s what I’ll do differently, from what you might have imagined when you brought me in, and in terms of results, it’s going to be X percent more valuable to you in the organisation if I do it this way.”

How to establish yourself as a credible performer

As part of making a new role your own, you need to stamp your mark quickly as a trustworthy and credible performer. Now, if you’re new to the organisation, you may be able to rely a little bit on ‘halo effect’, for a short period of time, before people work out what makes you tick. When you’re promoted from within however, this can be pretty tricky. You already have a brand and people have already formed some perceptions of you, but now you’re moving up a level. How well have you set up your credibility for that next level? What do you need to do to perform at that level?

Before you think about your individual adaptation to the new role, you need to understand what a new level actually means, because every level has a unique purpose, and every level has a unique time horizon. So as a frontline employee, the time horizon you focus on might be this week, but as the CEO of a major business, the time horizon you focus on might be five to 10 years out.

In our online leadership program, Leadership Beyond the Theory, we go into some detail about how to position yourself at a new level, but basically it requires you to leave your comfort zone. The short story is you need to ask yourself the questions that will help you to determine what the new role demands. So for example:

  • How does my focus shift?

  • Who are the new stakeholders that I need to be aware of?

  • What new groups have I just joined?

  • Who are my peers and how do I interact with them?

  • What are the critical elements of support that I require from other areas that I don’t currently run?

  • What are the new delivery imperatives and value propositions that I have to now think about?

Communication is key

Once you know what you’re going to do, a solid rule of thumb is that you can’t over-communicate when setting up the expectations for your new role with your stakeholders. Over and over again you just have to keep pushing. “Here’s what I’m going to focus on. Here’s where I think my team can provide the most value. And here’s how I’d like to work with you”. Your team, your boss, and your new peers need to know how you’re going to be different in the new role. “I used to do X, but now we’ll be focusing more on Y”.

One thing I want you to keep in mind, is to not be surprised if you don’t get a huge amount of guidance from your new boss when you step into a new role. You’ve got to remember that if you’ve been through any sort of recruitment selection process, you’ve probably just spent a huge amount of energy convincing her that you already know how to do the job! But ultimately, if what you’re doing makes sense, if you have the ability to identify the greater value creation opportunities, and if you can articulate how you’re going to shape the role, your major stakeholders will generally be pretty happy with that. Explicitly setting expectations is the most important thing, and it’s the area most often neglected by people coming into a new role at any level.

Drawing a line in the sand and setting expectations

Regardless of where you’ve come from, whether it’s inside, outside, below, or beside, you need to set expectations right from the get go. It’s really important to stamp your mark on the role early! So you’ve got to tell people what they can expect from you. What I always used to do was call the team together straight away. Sometimes, even before I’d officially commenced in the role, and I’d normally start just with my direct reports, because that was going to be my focus of attention (depending on the level, you can also consider getting to the broader organisation as well).

You need to talk about what’s important to you, and remember, this your first opportunity to set the tone, the pace and the standard for your new team. For me, it usually went something like this:

“We’re going to be driven by results, and the culture I’m going to create is a no blame, no excuses culture. We will relentlessly pursue excellence, and make no mistake, I’m going to set some high standards and I won’t relax those for people who choose not to meet those standards. Now I accept that everyone’s different and has different strengths and weaknesses, but that doesn’t excuse anyone for meeting the minimum acceptable standard. This is what’s going to make you your best. It’s going to make you the best in this role that you’re in now, and it’s going to make you the best for your future career. It’s going to open up opportunities for you. You will grow quickly and you will build your confidence and capability like never before. But to do this, there are a few vital ingredients. Your attitude to the role is everything, and you’re going to need to have a drive to be your best. That’s going to be critical. So too, accountability. I’m going to give you plenty of rope, and I want you to push the boundaries. I expect that you’ll crash and burn occasionally, but I’ll be doing my best to make sure that none of those crashes are fatal. One thing you need to know about me though, I have no tolerance for self-seeking behaviour. It’s organisation first, then team, and if you do that, in my opinion, you’ll see your own best interests satisfied in spades. I’m going to give you guys plenty of open ground to run in. So you’re going to get heaps and heaps of autonomy and empowerment, but just remember, you’ve got to be adult. And if you have problems, you got to come to me. If something’s going pear shaped, I need to know about it quickly. So the rule of thumb for me is, bad news by rocket, good news by rickshaw. If you keep bad news from me, you’re effectively taking away my ability and opportunity to manage that situation, and I would view that really, really dimly.” 

So that’s the typical opening speech I’d give to a leadership team that I was taking over, and of course at high levels of an organisation, it’s much more appropriate because you’ve got people who are independent and autonomous and competent already because they’ve made it up the ladder. You can really use a variant of that at any level in an organisation with any team size, just tailor it to fit.

Once you’ve done that, it’s really important that you follow it up with one-on-ones with each direct report over the next week or so. That will give you the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can about them, but it will also give you an opportunity to reiterate your expectations and focus, because every one of these conversations is a learning opportunity.

Another great way to communicate the standards is to ask your new people to present their portfolios to you. You can learn so much from an hour with someone, as they tell you what they’ve been doing and what they think constitutes good performance. This is the first step in working out whether you have the right capability or not, and it’s also a lot easier to give more direct messages in a one-on-one setting. I’d save my best work for this scenario, eyeball to eyeball. So I’d say things like, “Look, if you want to perform at your best and deliver exceptional results, you are going to love working for me. But I’ve got to be honest with you, there are lots of easier jobs than working for me. If what you’re looking for is an easy life, you’re going to struggle. Why? Because I expect you to bring your A-game every day and I’m not going to let you get away with any less than that.”

I’d also be really direct about what I bring and what I don’t bring, and then I’d specifically tell them how I’d normally approach their portfolio. Now I was across almost all functional areas of an organisation by the end of my career, at least in a high-level way. But if it was an area where I had little or no expertise like derivatives trading, for example, I’d tell my people that I’d need to rely on their expertise and guidance for a period of time, while I got up to speed.

After that, you’re going to need to deal with any problem children. So for example, the person who thinks they should be in the role that you’ve just taken up, instead of you. I had a situation like this in one of my first executive roles. I came in from outside the organisation and the two IC to the old exec thought that he should have had my role.

So I let him go for a few weeks to see how he was going to handle it. He wasn’t terrible, and he was clearly a really, really bright guy, but he just had that look of passive aggressive resistance on his face. So one Friday afternoon, I called him in for a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting. I was pretty direct with him. “Mate, you have a lot to offer, but I’m not going to ride the bucking bronco here. You either get on board and get behind me, or I’ll have to find someone who will. Don’t answer now, take the weekend and let’s meet Monday morning and see where your head’s at.” Now this can go either way, but you’d better get it sorted, or you’ll have a burr in your saddle until you do. It won’t always be the case that you’ve got people who don’t want you there, but just make sure you are aware of those in your team who’d rather you weren’t there, and deal with them quickly and deal with them surgically. Until you do, the whole team is going to be held back and you can’t deliver what you’re there to deliver!

Going into a new role is exciting and challenging. And I’m surprised at how few smart people take a methodical and deliberate approach to making that transition successful. Every role is a combination of two things. There’s the core objectives of the role itself and then there’s the unique capabilities of the individual who occupies it. If that individual is you, make sure you do what you need to do to make the role your own and maximise your chances of success.


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