How to Develop Important Leadership Skills, Even if You’re Nowhere Near Senior Level

You don’t have to have the title to act the part.

We’ve all been there: The assistant’s assistant, the coffee-runner, the one that gets delegated the work no one else wants to do. No matter how far away a leadership position feels, it’s never too early to start developing valuable leadership (even manager-level) skills to adopt early on in your career. That way you feel prepared and confident to step into the next opportunity, rather than the trial-by-fire approach.

During the early pandemic, I took on a leadership position unexpectedly. When my department finally hired a new director, I requested a promotion to manager because I had proven my leadership skills. And you know what? I got it. You never know when an opening will arise at your current company or your dream place of work. While “girl boss” terminology is so 2014, it’s time to level up for more senior positions. We talked to career experts about how to start your path to leadership roles now.

1. Foster a support network.

Think of your career path as a team sport. “The first question you should always ask yourself, should not be, ‘How do I solve this problem?’ but, ‘Who can help me?’” says Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. “Whether that’s helping you get the promotion or succeeding in a project.”

You can also help manage your imposter syndrome better when you have people in your corner. Dufu likes to call these people her “crew.” A group you meet with regularly for emotional support and accountability.

“Imposter syndrome happens when you’re leveling up,” Dufu said. “Fear will tell us you’re not prepared, or you don’t belong here. During those times, the most powerful strategy is to have people you can share that with and who can affirm you.”

Dufu’s Pro Tip: Our family, friends and coworkers have a stake in the game. Have a crew where your decisions don’t directly impact them. You can get their input without worrying how they feel about it—like the idea of moving for a job.

2. Never stop meeting new people.

You may have heard this as an intern: When you go out of your way to educate yourself, your eagerness to learn gets noticed. An easy way to do this is to schedule one-on-one meetings across the company at all levels. Take advantage of the current virtual work environment: Consider Zoom meetings with colleagues in different office locations or accessing an executive who isn’t typically as visible in the office. Use this time to ask as many questions as possible

Sydney Ramsden, a career enrichment coach, also says, “Meet with people on your level and make connections over shared experiences. The meetings’ purpose is to give you exposure and for others to see you as someone willing to get their hands dirty.”

3. Be a team player—and have empathy.

When you eventually become a leader, don’t assume you should know all of the answers and try to figure it out on your own. Dufu suggests you do the opposite. Enable people on your team by communicating what’s at stake and inviting them to brainstorm. “You might not have the budget or staff to get from A to B, so enabling others will inspire trust to follow you,” Dufu said. Up until you’re a manager, you’re a solo contributor, but once you become a leader it’s all about achieving results through other people.

This also goes for decision-making. Effective leadership requires you to incorporate what your team, customers, supervisors, and public might feel. In regards to the importance of empathy as a leadership skill, Dufu refers to Maya Angelou’s infamous quote, “People will never forget how you made them feel.”

Consider this when you’re just starting too. Gain exposure and build relationships with teammates by offering a helping hand if you see a fire drill. They might not take it, but they see you as someone who jumps in.

4. Advocate for yourself (it’s not bragging!)

Leaders are where they are because they’ve been recognized for success and have made their colleagues aware of it. “Self-promotion is OK!” Ramsden said. “Be proud of your work. You have every right to express it.”

The most natural place is to have a formal conversation with your manager about your growth, but you’re not limited to just meetings. Talk about the projects you’re involved in and the work you’re excited about. Ramsden suggests volunteering to present the results of a business win to a larger group. While this may sound intimidating, remember you deserve recognition for what you’ve accomplished.

And don’t forget to lift up your teammates. Campaigning for yourself sets you up for upward mobility, but also remember to find ways to celebrate your teammates as much as you highlight your own work. An email shout-out goes a long way and sets you apart.

5. Always round up your value.

Now that you’ve been working hard on these leadership skills, take chances when you have them. You most likely already have the tools and skills to get what you want—whether it’s a promotion or job change—and you need to believe you’re ready for it.

You already have what you need to qualify, so don’t bow out early. Dufu said. “Have an appreciation for your worthiness and your value by rounding up.” In other words—take the chances given to you whether you have two out of the eight qualifications or eight out of eight.

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