Into the Deep End

Gaining Control in an Unexpected New Role

Into the Deep End - Gaining Control in an Unexpected New Role

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Learn to swim in deep waters.

Imagine that you've just had some surprising news: one of your colleagues, who does a very different job from you, has unexpectedly gone on long-term leave. You'll be taking over her role for the next few months, while she's away.

Immediately, you have more questions than answers. What are her biggest responsibilities, and how can you fit these into your already-full schedule?

You know that this is a great opportunity to showcase your talent, but you also feel overwhelmed by how much work there is to do, and by how much you need to learn.

When someone throws you "into the deep end," you have no choice but to sink or swim. In this article, we'll explore a step-by-step approach that you can use to gain control – and succeed – in an unexpected new role.

Taking Control

There are many situations where you might have to step into a new job unexpectedly.

For example, one of your colleagues may take long-term sick leave with no notice, or a team member might accept a new job without warning, leaving an empty position to fill. Or, someone might ask you to step into a new role, without providing a handover or any training.

It can be stressful to take over a new position unexpectedly. However, you can use a number of strategies and tools to understand your situation, and to plan for what comes next.

Below, we've outlined a step-by-step approach that you can use to navigate this transition successfully.

Step 1: Assess the Situation

You'll probably feel like a "fish out of water" when you first step into this situation. You may not know what your responsibilities are, who your allies are, or where you should begin.

This is why it's important to analyze the situation. Your goal is to determine what you're here to do, and to identify factors that may help you or hinder you.

First, look at the job description for this position, and speak with your boss. What are the job's main responsibilities and key performance indicators? What are the objectives of the role, and how do these fit with the team and organization's goals? And what resources will you have at your disposal?

You should also identify the critical success factors for the role. What must you do well to be successful?

Then, gather information about the position. Talk to key stakeholders, such as team members, clients, suppliers, and customers. Who are your key contacts? What do they need from you? What problems exist? What works well currently? What doesn't work so well?

Step 2: Identify Skills and Knowledge Gaps

It can be a challenge to identify your skill and knowledge gaps in the new role. After all, how do you know what you don't know?

Give yourself a training needs assessment to understand what you need to learn. If possible, talk to the person who previously held this position. What knowledge or skills did that person rely on most?

You could also do a Personal SWOT Analysis to uncover, and then manage, any weaknesses that might hold you back.


If you need to find time to develop new skills alongside your routine work, see our article, "Finding Time for Professional Development."

Step 3: Communicate With Stakeholders

Once you have a better understanding of your responsibilities and you've identified the skills you need to develop, create communication channels with your stakeholders to keep them "in the loop." These people may include your boss and new team members, as well as customers, consultants, and suppliers. Plan how you'll communicate with them, and manage your relationships with them appropriately.

It's important to realize that communication should go both ways. You may need to tell others what actions you have taken, and why you decided to take them; and you may also have to communicate your progress, priorities, and projects. However, you should also listen carefully to what these people are saying to you, and adjust your approach appropriately.

Step 4: Analyze Risks

You need to understand the risks you'll face in this new position, especially if you're taking on extra work.

Do a Risk Analysis to determine the issues or problems that you need to stay on top of, as you make progress. Then, use a Risk Impact/Probability Chart to prioritize these risks, so you can address the most important ones first.

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Step 5: Develop a Plan

By now, you likely have a long list of tasks, projects, and responsibilities to address. This is where it helps to develop a plan, so that you have a focused approach for taking action.

First, use the Urgent/Important Matrix to prioritize the most valuable, high-priority tasks that you need to complete. Then, identify some quick wins, so that you can start well.

Also, set short-, medium-, and long-term SMART goals for this role, and use planning tools such as To-Do Lists or Action Programs to manage multiple projects and priorities effectively. (For more complex roles, brush up on your project management skills.)

Step 6: Manage Expectations

You know that you'll do the best you can in this new role. However, it's important that you manage expectations with your boss and other senior leaders as well – you're going to need their insight and support to succeed.

Raise any concerns that you have up front, and be honest about your ability to meet key goals or objectives. Let your boss know if you have a knowledge or skills gap that you can't quickly address, and don't be afraid to ask for help or extra resources, where you need them.

It's also important to manage your own expectations. You might feel pressured to work very long hours to deal with the workload, but this is a sure route to burnout. Make sure that you know how to cope with change, and use techniques such as affirmations and visualization to stay positive when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.

Also, learn to manage stress – feeling stressed is natural when you step into the unknown, but you can manage this effectively, with the right tools.

Step 7: Set up Support

No one gets anywhere alone. You may not realize it, but people and resources may be available to support you in this new role.

Try to find a mentor to guide you through this transition. Mentors can be invaluable sources of learning and feedback, especially if they have gone through this experience before, or if they have held a role similar to yours.

Also, find your allies in this position. These people can provide much needed support, whether it's a listening ear or valuable advice. Just make sure that you return the favor, and that you do your best to support them in their endeavors.

Key Points

If you've taken a new role unexpectedly, you probably feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, and by how much you don't know. However, if you prepare thoroughly and stay focused, you can survive and thrive in this new position.

When you step into an uncertain situation, take time to assess it. Make a list of everything that you need to learn, and set up communication channels so that everyone who matters stays "in the loop."

Develop a plan to move forward on key goals and objectives, and find out who your allies are, so that you can tap into their knowledge and experience.

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