I Did Not Get An Opportunity…

I Did Not Get An Opportunity…

Whether you are a manager, a leader or an individual contributor, many of us face this situation, perhaps multiple times in our lives and career, “I did not get an opportunity to do that”. Now, I have spent over a couple of decades in the software industry in various roles from an individual contributor to the leadership and management positions. But, having talked to friends and acquaintances I gather that this is a fairly common situation across the board. Before I present my views, I would like to clarify that this post summarizes my experiences and learnings on how I had handled such situations in the past and created some win-win, you guessed it right, opportunities! I am also going to use some real examples from my career to share some tangible thoughts. So, feel free to use this post as a reference and make adjustments per your needs, as appropriate.

For the purpose of this post, a leader is someone who takes a leadership role for a given goal. He or she may not have people reporting to them. A goal could be delivery of a set of products, a project, an event, a crisis resolution and so on. Typically, a manager would also be a leader with additional responsibilities like people management.

Do opportunities really exist?

I have always found such questions interesting. My belief is we have such a limited understanding that one lifetime is not sufficient to learn even the things that we are used to seeing in our daily lives. Let alone some complex gory topics. So, how is it possible that there is no opportunity in what you are doing? In fact, I would argue that making this statement “I did not get an opportunity…” is an opportunity in itself! But, the fact remains that people still feel deprived of opportunities and here are some common reasons for why they feel so.

  • They see other people working on things that are different from what they have been working on. In some cases, these could be new things altogether (such as a new exciting technology project). In other cases, these could be just things that are different from what they have been doing. Like the saying “the grass is greener on the other side”.
  • They have been bored with what they have been working on.
  • They (desperately) want a change.
  • At times, it could also be used as an excuse for an average or below average performance at work. But, we will skip this in the spirit of what we are trying to accomplish here.

What can you do as a leader?

These are some of the key points that I found to be helpful. Again, there are no silver bullets here. Just some learnings.

  • An important characteristic of a leader is to be a good listener. Even though you know exactly what is going on and what they are going to say, just hear them out. It will not be surprising that a simple friendly discussion could itself clear up doubts and open up some meaningful opportunities.
  • Along similar lines, have open communication and be honest. Maybe you do not have a solution at hand. Communicating it openly and clearly can often build a stronger relationship.
  • Ask for their opinion. What is it they are interested in? That does not mean you have to do what they want exactly as it is. But it is good to know if they have already thought about it and have an idea on how to take it forward.
  • Set clear expectations. As they say in the corporate world “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. As obvious as it may feel at times to you as a leader, it is not uncommon that the employee may only be seeing the benefits and rewards of the opportunity and not necessarily the challenges and the efforts associated. So, it is important to ensure the expectations that come with the opportunity are also clear. Not necessarily the “how” part (how to do it) but the “what” part (what’s expected).
  • I also like to take a project or organization-centric view in such discussions as opposed to having my biased view. That does not mean not seeing the employee’s interest. But, making sure the bigger picture is not missed. This also makes it easier to have an honest conversation with the employee, which admittedly, at times may not align with what the employee wants. But, at least, they will be able to understand your reasoning.

Let’s take a few scenarios here.

    1. The employee already knows what they want and you know such an opportunity is available, such as an upcoming project. If it is just a matter of time and there are no conflicts, it is a moot point. But, let’s say the employee is not fully ready to take on the challenge. Therein lies the opportunity! Make sure they understand what is needed for the opportunity and jointly identify a plan to bridge the gap. It could be a combination of self-learning, training, mentoring, etc.
    2. The employee already knows what they want, but there is no such opportunity. This could be a potential innovation scenario wherein there is no funding available for what the employee is interested in. But, if what they want to do aligns with business interests, it may be a matter of having a prototype (a.k.a. proof of concept) built that can then be shared with the management team. If you do go down this route, make sure the business value of the opportunity is clear and it is not just another cool project. Who knows this could not just create an opportunity for the individual, but for the entire organization itself!
    3. The employee does not know what they want, but they want an opportunity. It may sound a bit twisted but is fairly common. The people just do not know what they want. At times, even the brightest team members may run into this. All they may know is they want something different, or they see someone else working on something different and would want that or something like that. In such situations, what I like to do is get a level below what they are saying – why are they saying? Try to get an understanding of their motivation. Is it a different type of work, learning some skill or participating in something that is perceived to be more important. Once you understand that if there is a way an opportunity can be reasonably created to fulfill that motivation, by all means. Again, if that involves some additional efforts we discussed earlier, have an open discussion. And, if there is no genuine opportunity at that point, be clear about that as well. But, do not drop the ball completely. Keep an eye and hopefully, something can be done to address. Always close the loop.

These are just some of the things that can help in having a genuine and honest solution.

What can you do as an individual contributor?

If you were reading this and thinking there is nothing an individual contributor can do with regards to creating an opportunity, that is not right. You will be under-selling yourself and your role. The value of an opportunity can often be seen by an individual contributor because they are so close to the ground. They may have to just think differently. For example, if you have been doing the same job for months and years, is there a room to automate or make it more error free? Is there a way to coach other team members to be more productive based on your experience? One thing that individual contributors often fail to see is the value of their own experience. If they have been doing the same thing over and over, they have (hopefully) mastered it, which gives them the following advantages.

  • They can perhaps predict their work effort more accurately.
  • If they can spare some time to do something of their choice that will motivate them while keeping their professional commitments they can easily create a win-win with very little effort. For example, that new technology that they want to learn, but cannot directly use in the project. Well, as long as they can meet their commitment and there are no real downsides, a good leader should encourage them to pursue their interest. A simple gesture like this can go a long way.

When I was working as a Software Developer, I got to work on some “not-so-cool” projects like porting applications to different operating systems. And, I used to enjoy that. My colleagues used to ask me why do I enjoy working on a porting project? And, my response was “Why not? I get to learn 3 different operating systems in one project!” A few years later when I was working as a Software Architect, I changed gears and took a more customer facing role. This was a role that many techies did not want to sign up. And, I enjoyed the role as I saw the opportunity to learn how customers use our products and what we can do in our software to make things better. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying many times when you think there is no opportunity, there is a strong chance that there’s a very good opportunity. You just need to see it!

When an opportunity strikes

Regardless of whether you were given an opportunity or you created one the most important thing is what do you do when the opportunity strikes? Yes, that thing that you were eagerly waiting to happen has now happened. It is common that many people are actually more baffled when they are given an opportunity. You see an opportunity brings in a change – a change from what one is used to. And, that brings its own set of challenges. Here are some tips that can help.

  • Build a clear understanding as possible of what the opportunity involves, both in terms of efforts as well as expectations.
  • Discuss with your peers, seniors, and mentors who can perhaps guide you on how to best prepare.
  • Do not be shy to ask for help. We all are learning and there is nothing wrong in learning from others’ experiences.
  • If there is too much to take on, see if the overall goal can be broken into more manageable chunks that you can incrementally deliver.
  • Communicate your progress clearly. And, that includes not able to make progress as well. If you are stuck, ask for help.
  • Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the experience!

The key point is not always waiting for an opportunity, but look at ways for creating one. Granted not everyone will be able to do that. But, if you are looking for an opportunity, you are probably in the best position to define it. And, when you get one, do not lose it. Do try to keep the focus on bringing value to both – yourself and your organization.

If you like this post and would like me to write about other motivational or leadership topics, please drop me a note.

Have a good day!
– Nitin


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