Leadership is Action, not a Title
In my career, I have only been in jobs where there is a clear line of authority: junior staffers eventually roll up to the campaign manager, special assistants eventually roll up to the Cabinet Secretary, consultants eventually roll up to Partners. This hierarchy is of course necessary. However, I have always been amazed at how those who report to these leaders either forget or don’t understand that they can provide leadership at any level.
What is leadership? To me, it must be described as leading from the front by example. And just how do we do this? Some things have worked for me in my career:
- Show up. I was petrified sitting in my college orientation and I heard a professor saying just the silliest and most obvious thing in the world. “Go to class,” he said. How true and profound this statement turned out to be and it can be used throughout professional life. Be present. Take the time to show leadership that you are reliable, accessible and ready to work. Conference calls are an unfortunate necessity but much more is accomplished through in-person meetings.
- Know your stuff and don’t be afraid to speak up. When I worked for a Cabinet Secretary as a junior staffer in my early 20’s, he asked me to sit in on a meeting for him on an issue that I had researched, studied and knew backwards and forwards. In the Federal Government, there is a known rule that if you are a senior staffer you sit at the conference table and if not, you sit in the chairs around the room. As the Secretary’s proxy, I got many looks from long-term folks when I sat at the table. When I expressed my opposition to a point being made, a woman asked me how old I was. I responded, “23 and how old are you?” Her response was that it was an inappropriate question to ask her that. I said, “Exactly and inappropriate for you to ask me. Now, can we move on?” After showing that I was prepared and knowledgeable about the topic, she apologized. Don’t think I wasn’t terrified that I would get fired, though! If you have a good leader, they do not want a yes woman. They want someone who is willing to (respectfully) challenge their assumptions, to express their opinion, and speak up in meetings.
- Advocate for your team. There is nothing worse than someone who puts down others so they can get ahead. Don’t get me wrong that it sometimes works. But do you want to be that person? You need folks who will fight for you as a leader and it crushes loyalty when you yourself are disloyal to your team. The cliché is accurate; the best leaders do surround themselves with the best people. We have year-end reviews and I attend each one to ensure my team gets a good rating and those who deserve it get promoted.
- Advocate for yourself. Advocating for a team does not mean not showing what you have done for your organization. My first year with a consulting firm, I was in for a huge awakening. I realized that I hadn’t expressed all of the accomplishments I had performed throughout the year. I received a lower rating than I might have gotten if I had been able to communicate more effectively. It sounds silly but I keep a “Kudos” file and put all compliments and positive feedback in it so that I can remember at the end of the year and share with my counselor and other leadership. I show how these things have helped the firm and my teammates.
- Manage up. This one takes finesse and experience in doing so. Simply put, leaders are busy. Establishing leadership abilities can be done by simply expressing that you will take action items and then follow-up on them with those responsible. Once they have made a strategic decision, keep them informed of progress. Never go to a leader with a problem without a solution. This will show initiative, save time and allow the leader to know that you have thoroughly researched, thought out the problem and solution suggestions. Leaders get the big bucks to make decisions. Make them the hero and they will repay you in kind.
- Provide excellence every time. Sounds easy enough, right? I tell my teams this all the time. Don’t mail it in. When you hand a superior a work product, ensure you have Quality Controlled it at least 3 times and then hand it to a colleague so they can check you. The easiest way to lose credibility is to hand in something with a typo, missed calculation or a sub-par work product.
Regardless if you are a campus hire or someone with many years of experience, all of things can be done on a daily basis. Leadership has nothing to do with your title and everything to do with your actions.
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