You don’t need to be in management or an executive position to be a leader at work, which is good news for everyone who feels stuck at the entry level. Demonstrating leadership in the role you have can move you from entry-level to management or even higher, whether at your current company or somewhere else.
As a manager, it’s my job to recognize aspiring leaders and mentor them so they can get to that next level. That means I have some knowledge of what does and doesn’t work for employees who want to become company leaders.
Before I tell you how to set yourself up as a leader at work, here are some ground rules:
1. Leadership does not equal power. Making power moves that undermine your boss, your team or anyone you work with is not a demonstration of leadership. Power moves are short-sighted and are unlikely to earn you the respect of your co-workers or your manager.
2. Leaders don’t need direct followers. It’s OK if nobody reports to you. You don’t need direct reports to demonstrate your leadership abilities.
3. Your leadership style is still evolving. Great leaders don’t follow just one playbook. They adapt to their environment. Observe people you admire in your company to see what they do to lead their teams in different situations. Try some things to see how they pan out. Working on your leadership skills now, before you have a leadership title, is actually a great idea because it gives you time to experiment with different styles and methods with little risk.
Here are some examples of how you can show leadership at work, no matter where you are in your career:
1. Take ownership of your tasks and projects. Taking ownership of a project is more involved than just being the one who does it. It means being the go-to person for the project from start to finish. That might include broadening your network and seeking advice from colleagues in a different department. It could mean late nights and weekend hours. Taking ownership means giving credit where credit is due. It also means owning your mistakes and learning from them.
2. Speak up when you think there’s a better way to do things. You don’t want to constantly question your superiors, but when you think there’s a better way to do something, speak up. A simple “I wonder why we don’t do x this way” is a non-threatening way to demonstrate your ability to come up with new ideas without undermining your boss or the company. You might find out there’s a historical or other reason for doing things a certain way, or you might get the green-light to try something new. A word of caution: be prepared to step up as the one who executes your new idea.
3. Help coworkers outside of your department. The people you work next to day in and day out aren’t the only ones who can benefit from your leadership. If you haven’t already, start networking with co-workers in different departments. Find out what their challenges are, and see if you can come up with ways to help them out.
Here’s an example. At ConsumerAffairs, several of our writers are PhDs with experience teaching at the university level. A few of them approached me with the idea of leading writing workshops for other teams, based on conversations they had with their colleagues in different departments. Those were a success, and now members of my team hold weekly office hours for people who need some help with their writing. It’s like having your college’s Writing Center at your disposal, without having to leave the building. These writers are known around the company as being the ones to go to when you can’t phrase your pitch just right or when you need something edited before a client sees it.
4. Do the things your boss doesn't have time for. Speaking from experience, your manager has a lot on her plate when it comes to keeping track of the various projects and tasks demanded of your team. Step up and show your leadership abilities by taking on responsibilities that are important for the team but that she doesn't have time for.
For instance, shadowing colleagues in different departments can help your team better understand how it is situated in the company. Taking this on as a personal goal not only frees up time for your manager. It also gives you a first-hand glimpse into how your company is run from several perspectives, which can help you in your career. Make sure to talk through your ideas so you and your manager are on the same page when it comes to expectations.
5. Be a leader somewhere else. If you're serious about moving up the corporate ladder, you need a track record of leadership. Serving as a leader for a volunteer or other organization can be a great way to gain leadership experience that you can take back to the office, add to your resume, or talk about in an interview. In addition to practicing your leadership skills, volunteering will also introduce you to people outside of your normal network, which can be helpful when you're ready to make another move in your career.
The path to leadership is never straight, and it's not always easy. Take these first steps to becoming a leader on your team and in your company. Good luck!