Leadership is one of those terms that is so ubiquitous it’s hard to define. Everyone aspires to be a leader, feels pressure to be a leader, is building their leadership capabilities. Every company is looking for leaders. Sure there are natural leaders, those with charisma to burn whose disciples will follow them anywhere. But leadership is not just the purview of those with rare talents; most people can become leaders if they take an interest and a methodical approach.
Most of the individuals and groups of young adults I work with want and need to build their leadership skills. Many are at a loss as to where to start. They know they’re supposed to be purposeful about discovering and building their careers but they feel frustrated and stuck trying to be strategic about it. Here’s my take on launching and building a career as a leader and some thoughts on how to get started.
Do an internal evaluation of who you are
Just because your college roommate is killing it in private equity doesn’t mean you will too. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to force-fit career decisions based on external expectations or goals: this role or company is prestigious, my parents will be proud, I should make a lot of money. Being effective at work requires you to know yourself and your strengths so you can focus on them—instead of spending all your time trying to compensate for your weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham says in his wonderful book Now Discover Your Strengths, while we may be able to become excellent at something we’re already good at, we are unlikely to become great at something we’re not so good at now. Why not focus on the area (s) where you have talent and work toward making a bigger contribution?
Find a job that will enable you to grow as a leader
Once you’ve done an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, do an externally-focused deep dive into career paths that attract and reward people like you. You can start with the giant government database O*Net that attempts to list every possible job to help you develop a preliminary list for further research.
Now that you have a few job titles that look appealing, try going on LinkedIn and finding people with those jobs and see if their backgrounds and the work they describe speak to you. Are they leaders, or aspiring leaders, in their field? Do the companies represented promote a leadership culture? Find out as much as you can about how these companies attract and grow leaders and try to get a sense of how your strengths meet their needs.
Develop your leadership skill story
Since the next step will be to start talking with contacts and prospective employers, it’s important to know your skill set cold and be clear about what you can offer organizations—as specifically as possible. By now you will have done your homework to understand the issues companies in the field are facing and how you can help.
Work with a partner to tell your story in a way that illustrates your skills with examples of how you’ve used those skills. If you can, be prepared with leadership examples — times when you took charge, led a team, created something new or advocated for someone else. This way you won’t get frazzled when an interviewer starts by saying, “Tell me about yourself”.
Develop and share your leadership brand
Knowing your brand – what you do better than others and how you serve your audience –is an excellent tool for getting hired and advancing in your career. It does take work to be clear about your brand, but doing the hard work upfront will be well worth it and you will distinguish yourself in your clarity. A true brand should evolve with you as you grow in your career. How does it help?
- A brand positions you, and acts as a filter for opportunities: it helps the right people and organizations discover you.
- A brand helps you promote yourself within and outside of, your company.
- A brand makes your strengths clear and more visible so you get selected more often for leadership roles.
Once you’ve developed your brand, use it consistently in all of your self-marketing materials, to position yourself for the right opportunities. Be active on LinkedIn, attend in-person networking meetings, join professional associations in the field. Seek out occasions to build your foundation as a leader and practice leadership in any realm that’s interesting to you. Let me know if you have leadership development experiences to share.