Have you ever worked in a “pioneering position” or created one for your team?
These are the jobs that begin from scratch. They have no predecessor and are often designed to fill a much-needed gap. They begin with some excitement and anticipation because whatever the untouched responsibilities are, they are finally going to be taken care of by this new position.
Yet, many find this role difficult, especially the new hire. They often feel isolated, trying to figure out where they fit in with the team. The boss has expectations but may not have been explicit about them from the start and the team doesn’t know how to work with the person. There is no past experience to draw from.
This is why “pioneering positions” (a made-up term, one created for this blog post) can be unsatisfying, stressful or frustrating, and can result in the new hire taking longer to perform effectively. Some also fail to meet performance expectations altogether.
If you have been in one of these roles (I have, it was rough) or hired someone into one and you were perplexed by how difficult it was, then read on. We’ll explore the reasons behind the hurdles that impact this type of role.
Lack of Role Definition (both duties and interactions)
The newness of the role is probably the biggest factor that contributes to a pioneering position being more difficult than it needs to be. The absence of a predecessor leads to ambiguity in how that new hire will actually work with others both on the team and with those outside of the team.
Most managers don’t realize this. After getting the position approved, many just work with HR to write up a job description, post it, and hire. This is often done without the inclusion of those who will work directly with that person.
Here’s the thing, role definition has to do with both duties and interactions. Such as what decisions will the new hire be allowed to make (this is a duty) and who must they work with to make that decision (this is the interaction). This applies to other duties like developing reports, leading meetings, or implementing a new initiative.
So, once the interaction (or the person, people, or department) is identified, then the best practice is for the boss to communicate this to those impacted. This is so everyone is on the same page and knows what is expected. Remember, no one has been in this pioneering role before, the boss communicating both the duties and interactions will set it up for success.
Lack of Defined Performance Goals
New hires want to add value to the team as soon as possible. This is standard. But folks in newly created positions often want to even more. This is because they are greeted with a sense of relief from others since they will fill a gap. There is a sense that their positions will “save the day”. This motivates the new hire to “get to it”.
But because there is no predecessor, there are also no previous performance goals to rely upon. Many managers are so excited by their new hire, they let this slide. They are certain that the person will be great for the role and be able to figure things out.
This is a huge misstep. The boss must clearly define what is expected in terms of the results for this position. What does the manager expect to see or have at the end of 3 months, 6 months, and one year? Defining this is critical to the success of the role.
If you’re the person in the pioneering position, then ask. Get clear performance expectations, deadlines, and (if you can) examples of anticipated work so that you know exactly what is expected of you.
Lack of Buy-In
A colleague of mine recently told me this story. Years ago, she had worked for an organization that created a “Director of Innovation” position. People were curious. Everyone wondered what exactly this person would do because there was little information shared about what the role would achieve.
The person hired had an incredible resume with impressive experience and was welcomed with open arms upon hire. They met with department heads, demonstrated wanting to truly understand the business, and had great rapport in the first 3 months.
Many did not know that the Director of Innovation had been tasked by the CEO to reinvent a major organizational process. A process that touched nearly every department and would require significant buy-in from those impacted. Once this work began, the Director was met with significant resistance which didn’t just stall their work, but effectively inhibited it.
My colleague became friendly with the Director and remembered having lunch with them about a year after starting. They said,
“I thought everyone knew this was what I was tasked to do. Clearly, people didn’t know what was coming. I’m not sure I would have taken this job if I had known all of that.”
They resigned 3 months later.
If a pioneering role is designed to make a major change or disrupt current operational practices, then being transparent and building buy-in for that is an important initial step. The person in a newly created position is isolated and, in many cases, powerless. The more buy-in created for the role prior to hire, the better.
There is no question that pioneering roles can position teams to achieve important results. Yet, if there is a lack of role definition, performance goals, and buy-in then not only will it be an unsatisfying job experience for the new hire, but it will likely compromise the productivity and results for the organization.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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