A Year Later

Sometimes the best job is the one that doesn’t exist.

February 2015. Disney Channel. I was a TV scheduler by day. And a business-strategist-in-training by night. The stretch assignment I’d taken on with the business planning team had just kicked off. The buzz around the office was infectious.

The assignment: give everyone in the organization — all 550 of us — facetime with our President and General Manager.

The purpose: encourage employees on all levels to bring forward ideas to modernize and innovate our business processes.

On paper the program wasn’t sexy. But in practice, it was a hit. People loved it. “I’ve been at the company for 15 years,” said one team member, “and this is the first time I’ve been asked what I think.”

We had built momentum. But it was clear that this was only the beginning. In the end, we collected 100 action items and created 30 teams to tackle more challenging topics.

This feels like important work, I thought. We had put months into this project. The follow through was crucial. This couldn’t become “just another initiative” that died within a few months.

On a macro scale, our president and his new boss had spoken at length about these types of initiatives: employee engagement, culture and innovation.

But there was a problem. These initiatives always ended up on the plates of our senior executives… who had full time businesses to run. So these things were rarely made a top priority.

This presented an opportunity. Maybe we needed a full time role focusing on these initiatives.

So I decided to try something a little crazy. I created a job description. Pitched it to our senior execs. And told them I wanted the role.

“There’s no way this is going to work,” I thought. No one just “asks” for a job that doesn’t exist. It’s hard enough to get internal jobs that do!

Within three months I had the job. My first day was one year ago today.

Stepping into a newly created role was exhilarating and terrifying.

There was no road map. No plan. No precedent. Even today, when I come into the office, I’m rarely told what to do.

While this sounds great — and it is — it’s not how most jobs operate. My previous four years at the company were not nearly as flexible.

This freedom allowed me to research, investigate and propose new ideas often. But because my work affects the entire organization, they require sign off from our senior executives.

But getting sign off is only the first step. Steps two through completion involve consistent support from up above (and many of these projects have no end date… they’re constant). I’m only a manager. Unless our senior execs are out there telling people “this is important,” I’m just running around in circles.

This realization hit me earlier this year.

In large organizations, culture is top down, not bottom up. Leadership expert Edgar Schein says “leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin.”

It’s true. We follow the leader.

My role is to do the gruntwork. To plan. To execute. Our senior execs need to carry the torch and feed the flame. You can’t change culture overnight. It’s a long, gradual process.

Ironically, the same problem I highlighted while pitching the job still exists: most leaders realize this work is important, but get caught up in the day-to-day.

Going forward I’m adding a new item to my job description:

Be the squeaky wheel.

Discussions have started on the best way to implement this point. It may not work. But that’s okay.

If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else. And something else.

These things require experimentation.

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