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Filling the Role that Doesn’t Exist—Yet

Thursday, November 16, 2017
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One of the fascinating challenges—and opportunities—of the contemporary workplace is rapid change. I’m not referring only to rapid turnover of employees, clients, or technology, although those things move fast. I’m thinking more of the way a conglomeration of social, cultural, and technological changes is creating not just new jobs, but also a proliferation of entirely new roles. With the exception of positions in the healthcare industry, none of the jobs that make lists of most-in-demand for the next decade even existed when I was in college and contemplating a career path. It’s a trend with no end in sight.

In recent months, I’ve talked to a number of people who created roles for themselves where none existed. Michelle McKenna-Doyle is the CIO of the NFL; when she applied, the job was advertised as something else, but McKenna-Doyle recognized that a CIO was what they really needed and sold Roger Goodell and other stakeholders on that role and herself to fill it. Sarah Feingold did the same thing with Etsy. They weren’t advertising a need when she presented herself at the doorstep to claim the non-existent role of chief counsel.

I advise individuals to pinpoint their desired opportunity and increase the odds that they will land it, even when the opportunity doesn’t yet exist. I advise HR professionals and other managers to use similar methods to imagine the roles their businesses need and to make space for innovative, ambitious people—even if a hire or role change wasn’t planned. Here’s how.

Identify distinctive strengths. These are not just things that someone is good at, but what they are uniquely good at that others don’t do well. Here are some questions to ask:

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  • When you were younger, what made you weird? Not always, but often enough, our superpowers set us apart from our peers when we were school-aged.
  • Where do disparate interests intersect? For Sarah Feingold, it was art and law. For Michelle McKenna-Doyle, it was technology and sports-love. Most of us are good at or interested in more than one thing. What’s more, we may do our most innovative and productive work where those interests overlap.
  • What do other people do that irritates you? Almost nothing casts more light on what we do really well than becoming aware of how we are annoyed by other people’s inability to do those things as quickly and competently as we do. Here’s a simple example: decisive people often find indecision in others an irritant.

Identify an unoccupied niche that needs to be filled—a problem to solve or a product or service to innovate. For a manager or talent developer, creating roles in such vacant spots and matching them to the distinctive strengths of a particular employee or job candidate can generate real productivity magic.

I’ve heard enough stories similar to those I’ve mentioned to be convinced that if individuals can identify unmet needs in businesses that they don’t yet work for, HR professionals and managers within those businesses should recognize the same expertise gaps and proactively move to fill them. If we aren’t doing so, it suggests we’re trapped in status quo thinking rather than the innovative thinking that is essential to survive and thrive today.

“Up” and “forward” are not the only directions. Employees in almost every position should be willing to step back or sideways to grow. Achievement may not always be gained with a full-steam-ahead approach. Sometimes, the opportunity that will help slingshot us forward—both as individuals and as businesses—requires a backward or lateral move to open the path to an objective. Talent developers can maximize the resources at their disposal by multiplying the possible moves that are available to a valuable employee and clearly articulating the long-term opportunities that may result from a seemingly counterintuitive role change. Additional training, team leadership, challenging projects, and other expertise-oriented opportunities can be offered to incentivize such changes, particularly if compensation advantages are not part of the package.

In addition to the micro-cosmic focus of creating the roles within our businesses that can maximize our return on today’s human resource investments is the macro-cosmic perspective. What will the world look like in a decade? How do current products and services available to consumers affect their expectations for the future? What will they demand in the next year, five years, or 10 years and beyond? What jobs, expertise, and people can meet those expectations? Being able to imagine those changes, as well as preparing for and making them happen, is the key to evolving today’s success into tomorrow’s possibility.

Want to learn more? Join me December 7, 2017, for the webcast: Disrupt Yourself. Learn a seven-point disruption framework and understand how you can apply the framework to your personal career path.

About the Author
Whitney Johnson has been identified as one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world (Thinkers5). An expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption, she outlined her framework in the critically-acclaimed book  Disrupt Yourself. She developed a proprietary framework and diagnostics after founding the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. Whitney is one of the original cohort of Marshall Goldsmith's #100 Coaches, a Coach for Harvard Business School's Executive Education and a Harvard Business Review Contributor with over 1 million followers on LinkedIn.
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