Leader in training: 7 things you need to know now

Published 16 July 2013 09:49, Updated 18 July 2013 00:46

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Leader in training: 7 things you need to know now

Even if you are only new, there’s no time like the present to start working on your leadership skills.

If you want to become a leader, don’t wait for the fancy title or the corner office. You can begin to act, think and communicate like a leader long before that promotion. Even if you’re still several levels down and someone else is calling the shots, there are numerous ways to demonstrate your potential and carve your path to the role you want.

“It’s never foolish to begin preparing for a transition, no matter how many years away it is or where you are in your career,” says Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-author of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence.

Michael Watkins, chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days and Your Next Move, agrees. Not only does planning help you develop the necessary skills and leadership presence, it also increases your chances of getting the promotion because people will already recognise you as a leader. The key is to take on opportunities now, regardless of your tenure or role.

“You can demonstrate leadership at any time, no matter what your title is,” says Amy Jen Su, co-author of Own the Room. Here are several ways to start laying the groundwork.

Excel at what you do now

No matter how big your ambitions, don’t let them distract you from excelling in your current role. Focus on the present as much as (or more than) the future. “You still have to deliver results in your day job,” Jen Su says.

“You always need to take care of today’s business so that nobody – peers, direct reports or those above you – questions your performance,” Maignan Wilkins adds. That’s the first step to getting ahead.

Help your boss succeed

“You have to execute on your boss’s priorities too,” Watkins says. “Show her that you’re willing to pick up the baton on important projects.” Maignan Wilkins also suggests you “lean more toward yes than no” whenever your boss asks you to help with something new. Find out what keeps your manager up at night and propose solutions to those problems.

Seize opportunities

Make sure your “let me take that on” attitude extends beyond the relationship with your boss. Raise your hand for new initiatives, especially ones that might be visible to those outside your unit. “This will give others a taste of what you’ll be like in a more senior role,” Maignan Wilkins says.

It doesn’t have to be an intense, months-long project. It might be something as simple as facilitating a meeting, offering to help with recruiting events or stepping in to negotiate a conflict between peers.

You might find opportunities outside work, too. You can sit on the board of a local non-profit or organise your community’s volunteer day. “These activities send the signal that you aspire to leadership potential,” Watkins says.

Look for the white space

Another way to prove your potential is to take on projects in the white space. These are problems others aren’t willing to tackle or don’t even know exist. “Every organisation has needs that nobody is paying attention to, or people are actively ignoring,” Maignan Wilkins says.

For example, you might identify a customer need that isn’t being met by your company’s current product line and propose a new one. Or you could do a quick analysis of how much a specific change would save the company. When you take on a task no one else is willing to do, you make yourself stand out.

Don’t be a jerk

There’s a fine line between being ambitious and acting like you’re too big for your breeches. “Don’t try to exert authority when you don’t have it,” Watkins says. Practice what she calls “steward leadership”: focus on what your team wants to accomplish instead of putting yourself first.

Jen Su recommends “humble confidence,” showing appropriate modesty in your role while having the self-assurance to know you will rise to the next level.

Be cautious

It’s appropriate to raise your ambitions with your manager if you have a trusting, solid relationship, but frame them in a way that focuses on what’s best for the company. Jen Su suggests you lay out your accomplishments from the past year and then ask something like: “As we look further out, where do you see me continuing to make a contribution?”

Watkins warns that these conversations shouldn’t come off as being all about you. Instead, engage in a two-way conversation with your boss. If you have the kind of boss who may feel threatened by your aspirations, it’s better to keep your ambitions quiet and prove your potential.

Find role models

Look for people who have the roles you want and study what they do – how they act, communicate and dress. “Pick someone at the next level, someone similar to you, and find a way to work with them,” Watkins says.

Volunteer for a committee they’re spearheading or offer to help with one of their pet projects. Identify behaviours you can emulate while being true to yourself. “You don’t want to fake it,” Maignan Wilkins says.

It might also help to study those who are stuck in their careers as examples of what not to do, Watkins says. Are they clumsy politically? Do they disrespect the lines of authority? Do they fail to make connections between departments?

Build relationships

There’s an old adage, “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.” When you’re evaluated for a promotion, it’s unlikely your boss will sit in a room alone and contemplate your potential. He’ll rely on others to assess your ability, which means you need supporters across the organisation – people who are aware of the work you’re doing.

“If you find yourself walking down the hall with the most senior person at your company, be prepared to answer the question, ‘So what are you up to?’” Maignan Wilkins says.

“Don’t take lightly any interactions that may seem informal. Treat every situation as an opportunity to demonstrate the value you bring to the organisation and your knowledge of the business.”

Principles to remember

DO:

+ Look for every opportunity to demonstrate your leadership potential, at work and outside the office

+ Support your boss in reaching his goals

+ Find people in positions you aspire to and study what makes them successful

DON’T:

+ Let your ambitions distract you from doing your current job well

+ Exert authority where you don’t have any – use influence to prove your leadership chops

+ Openly discuss your ambitions – it’s safer to take a “show, don’t tell” approach

© 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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