I play a lot of ultimate frisbee. I’ve written about it before here and here. Recently, I was selected for a high level men’s team that represents Montreal. They’re good. The level of play is higher than any other team that I’ve been a part of. They’ve won national championships and they’ve gone to worlds. For my ultimate frisbee career, this was a move up for me. When this happened, I was REALLY excited. It would give me a chance to learn from a group with a high level of experience, strategy and skill.
And then something interesting happened – they changed my position. I normally play a cutter, because I’m quick on the field. They changed me to a handler. The football equivalent would be moving a wide receiver to play quarterback. When this happened, I almost shit my pants. I had no idea why they thought that I would be a good handler. I had basically no experience in that role. I didn’t know the positioning, strategy or throws required. I was in fear of seriously screwing up and getting benched.
The stark reality of promotions is that people usually get pushed into positions of greater responsibility by being really good at the tasks that they already do. The challenge is that the new position often involves a completely different skill set than what was required from the previous role. Basically, because you were good at one thing, you’re asked to do something completely different. Because you’re an awesome art director, all of a sudden you’re expected to manage creative teams and guide other people’s work. But being good at concepting and art direction doesn’t give you the skill set to manage people. It’s a totally different beast. You have to deal with egos, motivation, creative opinions and strategy.
When faced with a host of new responsibilities without the proper training, it’s easy to panic. Since you just got the new position, you sure as fuck don’t want to screw it up. It increases your stress levels and distracts from actually performing. To move up gracefully, and surviving the handicap of not having the full skill set for a new role, there are five key things to do:
1. Stick To What You’re Good At
The first thing to do is to stick to what you’re good at. The skills that got you to where you are. The experience that got your selected. When you first enter into a new role, a big mistake is to try and prove that you can do everything. The truth is that everyone expects you to be able to be able to those things that you haven’t learned yet. By trying to do them without guidance or experience, you’re just going to prove that you CAN’T do them to everyone. So, lay low on your weaker points for the first little while. For the first big game, you want to stick to your core skill set. If you’re fast on the field and can only throw with 95% accuracy within 30 meters, then stick to that.
2. Get A Mentor. Or Two.
The next step is to get a mentor. The goal is to find someone who is willing to teach you the ropes and fill out your skill set. You want someone who has been there before. The good thing about a team or a big organization is that there are a lot of people who can help you out. And don’t be afraid to approach a couple of people. Some people can help you with throwing. Some people with cutting. With positioning. With defense. Ask everyone what you need to do better in order to play better on the team. Get constant feedback, tips and improvement. The goal is to get enough tips so that when you practice, you are practicing the right things.
3. Practice. A Lot.
To fill in the skill gaps required in your new position, you need to practice. A lot. It’s all about repetition. Getting enough experience under your belt that the movements are easy and automatic. The goal is to have near-perfect execution in practice. When it comes to game time, you can focus on the important things, like reading the opposition and adjusting your strategy. This step is often the toughest, because there is no shortcut. You just need to put in the hours to gain the experience. Dirk Nowitzki’s recent NBA playoff record of nailing 24 straight free throws was a product of practice. He credited it all to a couple of late night shooting sessions during their eight day game-less stretch in the playoffs. He just put in the reps.
4. Game Time – Introduce New Skills.
After a couple weeks of practice, you have a shiny new skill set that you want to incorporate into your game. But treat the introduction of those skills as a test. If they work, then keep using them. If not, then try to figure out what when wrong and fine tune. If worst comes to worst, go back to the practice stage. Keep on working on your skills until they’re game ready. There is no need to force new elements in before they’re ready. The key is to introduce them as a part of your game, and than carry on with the swagger that you had all along.
5. Fake It ‘Til You Make It
Until you have the full skill set required, keep on faking it until you make it. Don’t show the weaknesses in your game to your opponents on the field or to your clients in the boardroom. Just keep on practicing and working the extra hours until you get those skills locked in. People always assume that if you’re on the team or in the room, that you’ve earned your way there. Don’t prove them wrong by volunteering the information to show that you’re not.
Getting the call up is exciting and terrifying at the same time. Whether you’re moving into a new role at work or on the playing field, the emotions are the same. There is the enthusiasm at the opportunity to move up to the next level. There is the fear of failing now that the stakes are that much higher.
In order to be successful in a new position, you need to round out your skill set. But you don’t have to do it all at once. The reason you got the call up is because of what you’ve already proven that you can do. You can take your time and introduce the new elements as you get more comfortable with your role and yourself.