Stepping up to fill an empty role seems like a good way to ger ahead. It can be, but it’s not without risks.
A friend of mine has proposed staging a “coup” at her company and taking over another team. She notes, “This would be a benevolent takeover, they need leadership, and they all really don't want to do it.” It seems like a win for everyone.
At first blush there’s an open role that needs filling. It may or may not be officially on the org chart but there seems to be a clear need. It might seem like everything will work smoothly.
Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. Just because no one is in that seat doesn’t mean everyone wants you in it. If the team didn’t want her as the lead that would be another story; in this case, they do. But they are not the only ones with influence. What about the peers? Was someone else gunning for the role and you just don’t know? Even if they don’t want the role, do they see you being in the role as a threat to their future ambitions?
How about others, more senior? Obviously, the person you’d be reporting to should want you in the role. Of course, if the directive comes from his superior, he may not like the idea but feel compelled to go along with it. It’s not a great start to a role when your boss doesn’t want you in it, even worse when such a decision is forced upon him.
Even other leaders may not want you in the role. It could be because they don’t think you’re the right person for the role. In some organizations they may have their own proteges they wanted for the role. Perhaps they had ambitions to roll that team into their own and you would get in the way of those plans.
In many cases they may not be signaling their intent; even if they do, those signals may not have reached you. There are challenges starting any role. Those challenges are compounded when you move from peer to manager. If you add political opposition to the mix, it can turn out to be a rocky road indeed.
When you see an empty chair, look carefully before sitting. Make sure to get a sense of the opinions of all parties, even the ones not necessarily in the chain of command for that role. Try to get buy-in. Even if you can’t, being aware of the feelings of others ahead of time will ensure that you go in with your eyes open.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.
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Groups with a high barrier to entry and high trust are often the most valuable groups to join.