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 all the shots, there are numerous ways to demonstrate your potential and carve your path to the role you want.
What the Experts Say
"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, coauthor of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence. Michael Watkins, the chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days and Your Next Move, agrees. Not only does the planning help you develop the necessary skills and leadership presence, it also increases your chances of getting the promotion because people will already recognize 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, coauthor of Own the Room. Here are several ways to start laying the groundwork.
Knock your responsibilities out of the park
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," says Jen Su. Adds Maignan Wilkins: "You always need to take care of today's business so that nobody — peers, direct reports, or those above you — questions your performance." That's the first step to getting ahead.
Help your boss succeed
"You have to execute on your boss's priorities too," says Watkins. "Show her that you're willing to pick up the baton on important projects." Maignan Wilkins also suggests you "lean more towards 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 leadership opportunities, no matter how small
Make sure your "let me take that on" attitude extends beyond your 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," says Maignan Wilkins. 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 of work, too. You can sit on the board of a local nonprofit or organize 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 that others aren't willing to tackle or don't even know exist. "Every organization has needs that nobody is paying attention to, or people are actively ignoring," Maignan Wilkins says. For example, you might be able to 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 that 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 britches. "Don't try to exert authority when you don't have it," says Watkins. Practice what he 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 that you will rise to the next level.
Be cautious when sharing your ambitions
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 for 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," says Watkins. Volunteer for a committee they're spearheading or offer to help with one of their pet projects. Identify behaviors that you can emulate while being true to yourself. "You don't want to fake it," says Maignan Wilkins. It might also help to study people 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?
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. She'll rely on others to assess your ability, which means you need supporters across the organization — 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 organization and your knowledge of the business."
Principles to Remember
- Look for every opportunity to demonstrate your leadership potential, at work and outside the office
- Support your boss in reaching her goals
- Find people in positions you aspire to and study what makes them successful
- 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
Case study #1: Focus on solving problems, not getting promoted
In late 2010, after ten years at Citi, Heather Espinosa was promoted to managing director. She reached this executive position by continuously challenging herself — and by making the most of each of her previous roles. "I've never been concerned with my title. When I thought an assignment was a stretch, I took it," she explains. "When I applied for my previous position, the job carried the title 'project manager.' But after my first conversation with the manager, I knew it was a position that would require complex leadership skills and challenge me, so I accepted the job."
In each role, Heather embraced additional responsibilities without being asked. "I make an effort to volunteer and raise my hand where I see a need. I started taking on the responsibility of managing director with the hope that if I performed well, the title would come." And her bosses have always respected this approach. "I rarely walk into my manager's office and say I want to talk about my career or my next promotion. I walk in and say here's a problem and here's how we might address it," she says.
Case study #2: Take any leadership opportunity you can get
Mike Subelsky, the co-founder and CTO at Staq, a tech start-up that makes software for digital advertising companies, spent most of his early career in roles with lots of responsibility, but not much authority. "I held a number of positions where I felt I had a great deal of influence, but I was never the one calling the shots," he says.
Still he worked hard, hoping to someday move up the ladder. "I've always tried to be the kind of employee that the boss never has to worry about," he explains. He focused on doing the best he could in whatever role he had, and always raised his hand for projects. He also looked for opportunities to exercise leadership outside of the office. In 2004, he started a nonprofit in Baltimore. "It was a great laboratory," he says. "It allowed me to practice being a leader."
Then, last year, he and his partner co-founded Staq. All of Mike's preparation had paid off. In fact, the company received $1 million in seed funding this past month. "I always knew I wanted to be where I am now: I am hiring employees and creating a wonderful place to work."