What To Do When No One Tells You What To Do
Updated: May 11
I remember moving into my first grown up apartment. I had just moved from Houston, where I was a teacher, to a one bedroom apartment in Chicago where I was starting a new job working as a leadership coach for a nonprofit. My mom drove in from Michigan and helped me with a few of the basics - a perfunctory Target run, furniture placement, hanging a few pictures, etc. Then, after a big hug, she left.
I remember looking around and thinking “Okay. So what do I do now?” It was the first time I had lived by myself and while I was really excited, I was also pretty terrified. Of course, I had been preparing for living alone and had lived independently with friends, but this felt different. The collision of freedom and responsibility hit me like a ton of bricks and I remember feeling like I needed to sit down. And then when I did, thinking that I really needed to upgrade my blue Ikea couch.
I want to talk about what to do when no one tells you what to do. I work with many people - managers, Executive Directors, senior leaders, entrepreneurs - who have found themselves in a position similar to the one I felt when I moved into my first apartment. You’re thrilled, have been preparing for this for a while but are also scared and lost. No one is handing you a playbook and saying “okay, here’s what you’re going to do first”. Instead, people are looking to you to tell them what needs to be done. And you’re not sure.
I was working with a senior leader recently who, because of a confluence of factors including layoffs, restructuring, and self advocacy, found themselves in a position where they were now leading product, design and engineering. A designer by background, they were excited about the scope and learning opportunities this new position provided, but were nervous about setting the direction for less familiar functions amidst company wide turbulence.
While this is different for everyone, the path that we took, and what I advocate for others to take when no one is telling you what to do, is below:
Listen: Listen to people who can teach you things, and listen to yourself. It’s really important to resist the urge to immediately take action and instead, open up your ears, heart and mind. Talk to people who you trust, who have been in your shoes before, and who are familiar with your industry and its challenges. Think of yourself as a sponge in these conversations - your job is to soak everything in, and then choose what you absorb and what you wring out.
The part that I missed when I found myself starting a totally new function was the l listening to myself piece. Tune in to your head, your heart, and your gut - what are they telling you? What are they sensing, intuiting, and knowing? For my client, when we turned up the “self” volume, they realized that sure, these departments have different functions which are new but setting vision and direction is not. She had a sense of what needed to be done.
Write or recommit to your, and the companies, purpose: The good news about this one is that no one can ever tell you your purpose! This is yours and yours alone. I love the image below - I think it does a great job of explaining why your purpose, especially in moments of uncertainty, is so crucial. It pac - mans the little villains of self-doubt, perfectionism and avoidance that can be oh so tempting when there is no clear path.
Reflect on your purpose: What are you here to do? What do I value? What is the impact you want to have on others? On the world? Write this down and return to it as a north star often.
Do the same exercise for whatever it is you’re leading - a company, a department, a team. What are you here to do? What is the impact you want to have on others? On the world? Write this down, share it with everyone, and return to it as a north star often.
Employ your skills: People are looking to you for direction because you are great at what you do. Now is the time to use your skills and create a plan. Start first with your purpose and vision. If you had a magic wand, what are all of the things that you’d do to achieve that vision?
Then, roll up your sleeves and start doing the parts that you’re best at: If you’re a great partnership and relationship builder, enlist a small group of trusted people to facilitate a strategy session. If you’re an operator with a keen sense of systems and an eye for detail and efficiency, devise an in-depth plan that gives people a roadmap. If you’re a strategist, think of this as a problem that needs to be solved. What would you do 1st, 2nd and 3rd?
My client went back to her roots and used her design skills to envision how the end product - a combined design, product, and engineering team - would function and how people would interact with it. When she started to see this challenge as a cat dressed up as a dog, not a totally different animal, she knew where to start. She knew what to do.
Write: As you are in the process of moving from other-authoring (people telling you what to do) to self-authoring (your vision and purpose telling you what to do), write down what you’re learning. This serves the dual purpose of self-reflection and building a playbook so that the next time you find yourself with no one telling you what to do, you can tell yourself.
I know that there will be many, many more moments in my life when the playbook is less clear than I want it to be and there is no one telling me what my next step is. I’m learning to embrace this type of unknown and rely on what I do know - my vision, my purpose, my skills, my previous experiences - to help guide the way.