New Work, New Roles, New Challenges, New Opportunities

By Cinda Voegtli

Everyone understands the importance of a good "project start." Now let's talk about another kind of "start": starting a new role or a new set of responsibilities. Here's a quick quiz:
  1. Are you doing the same work you did a year ago? Six months ago? 3 months ago?
  2. What's new and challenging about the work and responsibilities you've undertaken in the last year?
  3. Has your company done anything to assist you with your new responsibilities?
  4. Have you sought out education, knowledge, new skills for your new role?
Read on for some ideas on preparing for the start of any new role.

Why are "Role Starts" Critical?

Well, we all want to be successful. The start of a new role means new work to do, new uncertainties about how challenging it will be, plenty of opportunity to encounter things we don't know how to handle. Success is much less assured. The preparation we do for the new role can help make sure we get off to a great start in two areas: capability and confidence.

Capability: New roles require new capabilities. Some can and will be learned as you go. But the lack of particular capabilities could actually slow you down, cause bad decisions, and damage your performance way up front. It's worth some time to get some education and practice at new capabilities early on.

Let me give an example: When I decided to transition my consulting business into an internet service business, I needed to raise funding. My early funding discussions proceeded much more quickly than I had anticipated. I found myself negotiating a term sheet for the investment before I could blink an eye-- and before I could go take a negotiating class! So my first negotiating experience was somewhat traumatic. I lacked knowledge of how to go about it, what to expect, techniques to use. I grabbed some quickly from a good how-to book; I got coached by my attorney; I learned a few things the hard way. A key piece of advice I now give to new entrepreneurs is to get negotiating savvy early on-- get some knowledge of techniques, get some practice. Very important to the entrepreneurial "role start"!

Confidence: What's sometimes the most stressful part of starting something new? Losing your previous level of confidence -- the confidence you had from experience with the tasks, your well-honed judgment in making decisions in challenging situations. I experienced that in the negotiating situation above. I was on totally new ground; I was very unsure early on as to whether I was handling it well, cutting a good deal, etc. Some earlier preparation would have helped my confidence level and my execution.

Ideas for role starts:

So here's what you can do when you're about to start a new role.
  • Identify any new knowledge and skills you need. You may need technical or product knowledge in a new area, or familiarity with related business issues, to be most effective in the new role. Some of the most effective project team members are engineers who have broadened their perspective and contributions beyond just the immediate technical issues.

  • Attend a conference or course to get a quick immersion in the subject. There's no better way to get a lot of learning quickly, along with exposure to colleagues who are operating in the real world. They'll bring some nuts-and-bolts issues and solutions to discussions at the conference or course.

  • Find opportunities to practice in the real world. About to start your own business? Find a colleague who's already started one and do some work (maybe free!) to find out what it's like on the inside. About to start managing a new kind of project? Volunteer to help out another project leader in your company to gain some hands on experience quickly.

  • Seek out an informal mentor who can support you as you try on the new role. Some companies appoint mentors to new project managers, for instance. If your company doesn't, look for someone who's gotten a reputation for helping others in your position. There are usually a few generous folks in any company who find it fulfilling to mentor people in the new role, to help them avoid the problems they themselves once faced! Or you can find someone outside, perhaps in a professional society, to give you advice, provide a sounding board as you start your new role.
Role starts can be intimidating. Very often they're exciting-- but still challenging! The techniques above can help make sure you hit the ground running in your new role -- and successfully achieve the career advancement it offers.

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