How to Handle “Invisible” Changes to Your Leadership Role

The pandemic has thrust leaders into new roles and responsibilities that the org chart may not address. That's a challenge, but also a chance to turn it into an asset.

“Other duties as assigned” is a notorious phrase throughout the working world, associations included. Take a job at an association in one department and you’ll likely find you’ll be taking on tasks elsewhere. In the meetings department? You’ll wind up helping the marketing staff, or doing your bit for membership. (Little did I know that taking a job as an editor at ASAE would mean serving as a “human arrow” at conferences.)

The thing about “other duties” is that they’re generally considered a part of life on the lower or middle rungs of an organization. But during the pandemic, leaders may have found that their jobs have transformed in ways that don’t strictly adhere to the roles they signed up for. A trio of scholars at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Berlin dubbed this phenomenon “invisible transitions”—the job title remains the same, but the responsibilities haven’t.

Companies seem to simply assume that competent leaders have the capacity to adapt.

Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review, the scholars point out that leaders who’ve faced more responsibilities and a different environment—such as managing remote workers and reconstituted teams—have struggled with the transition. But support has generally been absent. “Leaders are expected to handle expansions of their jobs and shifts in their roles on their own,” they write. “Companies seem to simply assume that competent leaders have the capacity to adapt.”

Based on a survey they conducted of German leaders, they found that invisible transitions are challenging for three reasons: uncertainty about authority, communication difficulties, and the need to acquire new skills. (Men and women leaders handle each of these shifts differently, they note. Men were better able to find resources to support their new roles, while women found it easier to pick up new skills.)

Because an “invisible” transition implies nobody is dictating the change in a leader’s responsibilities, the authors explain that leaders need to empower themselves to make the necessary adjustments—which is to say they need to lead on it. “Leaders who see new roles for themselves need to renegotiate their mandates with their supervisor, and discuss how the role has changed, what the implications are of the change, and who needs to be on board to make this transition a success,” they write.

Communication is also critical to managing invisible transitions. I’ve written recently about how the pandemic has put a premium on a leader’s soft skills, and the ESMT Berlin scholars back up that notion. “Especially when a new job title and a formal promotion are missing, good communication … can mean the difference between developing an effective team that trusts your leadership and an ineffective one that doesn’t.”

In addition to that advice, I might offer another suggestion to leaders who’ve found their job roles changing in the past year: Document it, all of it, in as much detail as possible. That’s partly for performance-review reasons, of course. When it comes time to talk about promotions that really will change your job title and place in the org chart, you’ll want to be able to point to ways your duties have shifted.

But it’s worth doing also because documenting those shifts will tell a story about how your organization has changed and what its true needs are. If you’ve had to handle all manner of technological, logistical, and motivational issues due to the pandemic, or manage new tools and programs launched as a result of it, those will likely have long-term consequences for the organization and your place in it. Having details on those changes will help your association decide what’s worth focusing on in the future, and what isn’t.

“Invisible” transitions weren’t invented by the pandemic. All organizations have unseen org charts that are the product of people taking on roles they weren’t officially assigned; it’s why the relatively low-level IT staffer seems to know more about your association’s tech issues than anybody else in the office, or why a meetings exec somehow has sign-off powers on certain marketing materials. It’s a natural phenomenon, but a potentially unfair one. By being clear about what’s really being done, fewer staffers will be blindsided by those “other duties.” Yourself included.

Have you experienced an “invisible transition” in your leadership role? How have you handled it? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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