As the mother of three millennials (all boys), two who have already started their careers and one that has just started college; I find myself constantly trying to give them advice about how to progress in their careers as well as in their lives. The lessons I think are important are nothing new BUT they are a constant reminder to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. My best advice to them is the best advice that I ever received – “No matter what your position or role, always be a leader”.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about being the named leader – that is just a title. I am referring to being a leader, no matter what group, team or organization you are a part of or what position you hold. This can, by the way, start as early as being that player on the T-ball (do they still play T-ball?) team or that dancer in ballet class that works harder than anyone else. It can be that kid that participates in class vs. being the kid that tries to act cool by not responding to the teacher or the kid that decides to skip the party down the street while all of his friends get drunk. It can be that kid that is kind to everyone including those that look, sound or act different. Start acting like a leader now and it will become second nature your entire life.
I read an article by Amy Galo in the HBR Blog Network, “Act Like a Leader Before You Are One” and it provided some practical advice for those that aspire to be future leaders. She offers several tips that were taken from Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master your Leadership Presence coauthored by Murial Maigan Wilkins and Amy Jen Su. Here are the highlights:
- Knock your responsibilities out of the park – this is table stakes. Do your current job well. Whatever you are asked to deliver, make sure it represents your best work. In other words, EARN the right to eventually sit at that leadership table.
- Help your boss succeed – and be willing to execute his/her priorities. Always be willing to help / lead important projects or say yes whenever you are asked to take on something new.
- Seize leadership opportunities, no matter how small – even those that go beyond your relationship with your boss. In other words, raise your hand to take on even the simplest task like facilitating a meeting or attending a recruiting event. Also consider making yourself visible outside of the company by leading a volunteer project or joining a board. These type of activities also signal your willingness to take on leadership roles.
- Look for the white space – Take on challenges or projects that no one else wants to do. It is a real opportunity to stand out.
- Don’t be a jerk – The simple advice here is “Don’t try to exert authority when you don’t have it”. Display “humble confidence” and put your team before yourself.
- Be cautious when sharing your ambition – It is OK to share your ambition with your manager but frame it in terms of what’s best for the company. In many cases it is safer to take a “show”, don’t tell approach. Be careful here in case you have a boss that may feel threatened by your aspirations . . .
- Find role models – both good and bad. Look for people one or more levels above you who have roles that you want and study what they do. Try to figure out a way to work with them by volunteering for a committee or a project. Also, look for those people that are stuck in their careers and study them for examples of what NOT to do. By the way, don’t assume that your boss is someone you should emulate. There are plenty of bosses out there (and we have all had one) with poor leadership skills.
- Build relationships – at all levels of the organization as there is NEVER a down side. It is doubtful that your boss with be alone when deciding your next move so the more people that have a positive impression of you the better.
I recently sat through a C level meeting with one of my clients where every direct report was discussed for potential, future leadership roles. I can tell you that technical competency was not mentioned once. What was mentioned was many of things that were noted above – leadership presence, willingness to take on new challenges and say “yes” as opposed to ”no”, ability to make decisions, change leadership, ability to influence others and build relationships, etc. This, by the way, was not the first time I had heard this from similar C level teams. What I find most interesting is that these are skills that you cannot teach an adult in a classroom. These are personal characteristics that are honed throughout your career. So the moral of the story is – it is never too early to work on your leadership skills because EVERYONE is watching . . . .