Act like a leader before you are one

By Staff Writer
August 2013
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If you want to become a leader, do not wait for a fancy title or a corner office. Begin acting, thinking and communicating like a leader long before that promotion.


That you may still be several levels down as someone else calls all the shots should not deter you from being a leader. Demonstrate your potential while carving your path to that role.


What 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 co-author of ‘Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence’, Muriel Maignan Wilkins. And the chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of ‘The First 90 Days’ and ‘Your Next Move’, Michael Watkins concurs.


According to both of them, not only does the planning help you develop the necessary skills and leadership presence but it also increases your chances of getting the promotion because people will already recognise you as a leader.


The trick is to take on opportunities now, regardless of your tenure or role. Start laying the groundwork by using these practical ways.


Knock your responsibilities out of the park


No matter how big your ambitions, do not let them distract you from excelling in your current role. Focus on the present as much as [or more than] the future.


Remember, you still have to deliver in your day-job. “You always need to take care of today’s business so that nobody — peers, direct supervisors, or those above you — questions your performance,” suggests Wilkins.


Help your boss succeed


“You have to execute on your boss’s priorities too,” says Watkins while Wilkins suggests: “Show your boss you’re willing to pick up the baton on important projects.”

In other words, 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 would be like in a more senior role,” says Wilkins, adding, it does not 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 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 that others are not willing to tackle or do not even know exist.


“Every organisation has needs that nobody pays attention to, or that people actively ignore,” Wilkins quips.


For example, you might be able to identify a customer need that is not being met by your company’s current product line and then 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. 


Do not be a jerk!


There is a fine line between being ambitious and acting like you are too big for your britches.


“Do not try to exert authority when you do not have it,” warns Watkins.


Practise what he calls “steward leadership”: Focus on what your team wants to accomplish instead of putting yourself first. Co-author of ‘Own the Room’, Amy Jen Su, in fact, recommends “humble confidence” - showing appropriate modesty in your role while having the self-assurance to know that you will rise to the next level. 


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.


Identify behaviour that you can emulate while being true to yourself, says Wilkins: “You do not want to fake it.”


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


Build relationships


There is an adage: “It is not who you know but who knows you.” When you are evaluated for a promotion, it is unlikely your boss will sit in a room alone and contemplate your potential. They will rely on others to assess your ability. Meaning, you need supporters across the organisation — people who are aware of what you do.


“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?’” Wilkins says, adding: “Do not 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.”  PF