Embedded leader, leading from behind, leading without authority, informal leader; we have a variety of terms for situations when we find ourselves leading without having the positional title designating us as leaders. I’ve coached a number of individuals who were in similar positions. Some because of natural progression; they’ve reached the point in their technical professions where taking on a supervisory role is the natural next step. Others find themselves in a situation where, because of a lack of leadership ability occupying the “corner office” they take on informal leadership duties. Whatever the reason, most have one question in common, “how do I take the next step to become a leader in an ‘official’ capacity?”
It’s a natural question. Most of us share the desire to improve ourselves over time, to master new challenges, and to be rewarded by being given a position of new responsibility and trust. If you find yourself thinking it’s time to “make the move”, here are a few tips to increase your chances of being recognized and rewarded as a leader.
1) Keep being the best you can be. Like it or not, most companies look at present performance as an indicator of future performance in positions of increased responsibility. Why not? Engaged employees that indicate they have a vested interest in the success of the company by bringing their A-game each and every day get noticed and should be recognized.
2) Work your Boss’s agenda. Help ourselves by helping someone else? Yes, the first step to being recognized as a leader is to start thinking and acting like a leader. For that, you need to step out of your parochial interests and realize that you are simply one piece of a much larger picture. You already know (or should know) what your part is, but do you really know how you fit into your boss’s larger picture, or her boss’s? I coach people to ask their boss, “What can I do to help make you successful? What do you get graded on, what are your goals for the unit?” If you have a good boss, you may already know the answers to these questions. Maybe it’s time to politely and tactfully ask “why are these your priorities and goals?” Make it clear that you want to understand how you fit into the larger organizational picture. It may sound like politics, but people who obviously care about something other than themselves build two key leadership characteristics, credibility and trust. Side benefit: the best way to get your boss’s job is to help her get promoted!
3) No more Them vs. Us. Want to take the next step up the chain? Stop talking about “them”. I always tell folks when they take the step into a supervisory status that they are now “they.” You know the “they” I’m talking about, right? When you and your peers are sitting around the break room and someone says, “I hear they are thinking of implementing new training procedures”, “Jim told me they are going to cut back on over-time” or “Over in Sales, they don’t care what their decisions do to us in Operations.” They seems to be anyone up the chain, down the chain or over in other parts of the company; essentially, anyone who aren’t us. Your task as an aspiring leader is to stop the stove-pipe thinking of “Them and Us” and start thinking “We”.
4) Take the big picture – step outside your stovepipe. Related to the last point, if you want to be considered a leader, you should start being the voice of reason in the room when dealing with other parts of the organization. I’m not saying there won’t be disagreements and competing priorities, there most certainly will be. But you can start trying to understand those disagreements from their point of view. Exhibiting the ability to be a team player on the larger team is essential to being picked for that team.
5) Make yourself better. Recognize that leadership is a skill set that can be learned and practiced. You may be at the pinnacle of your technical career, but realize that when you get that nod towards the corner office you will be using a new set of skills. Instead of asking your boss to send you to that new technology course find education that will sharpen your leadership skills. By the way, you can see our schedule of upcoming events HERE.
6) Make it known. Make sure your boss or your career advisor knows that you believe you are ready for the next step. If asking to be sent to a leadership training course doesn’t send a signal to your boss that you want to take the next step, this one will. I’m always astounded when I ask someone in a coaching session if they’ve done this step and they tell me some version of “well, not exactly, but I’m sure she knows.” Look, bosses are human too. They usually are just as busy as you are, if not more so. While it would be nice to think that they have your best interests at heart, they may not have any idea what your career aspirations are unless you tell them. Make it a point to do so in your next one-on-one.
Leadership is a special trust and certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you enjoy leading, if you are one of those who step forward when leadership is required, and if you want to leverage this into your next career move, then I hope these tips help.