7 Ways to Grow as a Leader
Earlier this year, I wrote an article on 10 things that companies and team leaders could do now to better develop the women on their teams for leadership. You can read that here.
There are so many things that our leaders and male colleagues can be doing to help bridge the diversity gap and create new and better pathways for women on all levels of leadership.
But the truth of the matter is, we still must be actively advocating for ourselves. We can’t fully rely on others to open up doors for us. If the goal for women is to be treated as equals and have the same professional opportunities as our male colleagues, then we need to do our part in creating an equal playing field and showing up every day – not looking for handouts and favors.
Like in any relationship, it takes two, and if you want your professional development to keep thriving, we women need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to create and move towards open doors of opportunity.
Even if you’re an entry level employee with little to no experience, you have the responsibility to set the bar for how you want to be seen.
We are responsible for our actions.
We shape our reputation.
We decide what opportunities we want.
We choose what we will and will not do.
We determine our growth cap.
We set the standard.
I’ve put together a list of 7 things you can be doing right now – no matter what level of professional experience you have – that will help set the trajectory for your leadership growth.
- Don’t Wait for Permission
As much as we like to think our leaders should know what we want and need, the truth is, nobody can read your mind and frankly, it’s unfair to put those kinds of expectations on someone else.
If you are feeling left out, not included, or simply bypassed for opportunities, don’t wait for permission to be invited. The proper etiquette for showing up to the party uninvited doesn’t apply here.
Invite yourself to the conversation instead of waiting to be asked.
Obviously there will be levels of what’s appropriate here, which you’ll have to navigate on a case-by-case basis, but the point is this: identify what it is you want or need and then go after it. Ask to be included in the board meeting, the decision making process, or to take lead in an area you’re hoping to grow in.
The worst thing that could happen is being told no, but even then, you will have shown initiative and done something very important: communicated that you have a desire for something more – that’s planting a seed in your leader’s mind that will not go unnoticed.
- Lead the Conversation
Years ago, the company I worked for provided me with direct mentorship with someone much more experienced in the field I was in. I will never forget one of the best pieces of advice she gave me: you get to be in charge of the conversation.
I had been overwhelmed with a weekly meeting with my boss that always seemed to pour on more work than I knew what to do with, even when I felt prepared going into it.
You see, we’d meet, he’d ask me how I was doing, then he’d talk and I’d listen. Sound familiar?
She encouraged me to take charge of the meeting by creating a brief hit list ahead of time. This consisted of the information he needed to know in a bullet-point format. I didn’t always show it to him, but used it more as a guide to help me lead the conversation well.
Basically, I would write out the top level projects or areas I knew he’d ask about and gather the appropriate updates for said project. Side note: limit this to high-level detail and avoid getting into the weeds, which is the last thing your boss wants to do.
After hitting the high-priority items, I would give him a quick update on my team (anyone who directly reported to me), and offer some positive feedback on additional projects or initiatives we were working on. If there were any pending questions or sign-offs that I needed from him, I’d mention them at this time.
Ultimately, your leader wants to be up-to-speed with you and your work and trust that you have things under control. The more you take charge and lead the conversation with your leaders (even when they think they’re the ones leading), the better you’ll be positioning yourself now and in the future.
- Plan Ahead
This may or may not come naturally to you. In fact, if you’re a procrastinator, the idea of planning ahead may make you cringe.
But, if you want to be taken seriously and position yourself for leadership, planning ahead is going to be essential.
No matter how good you think on your feet, an unprepared employee brings everyone else down and communicates that you really don’t care about your job.
Planning ahead means showing up to meetings prepared, researched, and on time – if not early. This also means being responsible for the variety of tasks and projects you oversee so that you can give a report at any given moment.
One thing you can start doing right now is to look at the day ahead on your calendar. If you have any meetings, consultations, or projects due, take some time to prepare for those events. On Fridays, look at your schedule for the week ahead. Are there any loose ends you need to tie up before closing out your week?
If you struggle with details or task-management, figure out a system that will set you up for success rather than derail you.
Work to your strengths and find solutions to your weaknesses.
- Learn From Others
I cannot stress this enough. No matter how high you climb, what position you find yourself in, or how many people you are leading, always be a learner.
As soon as you think you’ve arrived, you’ve placed a cap on your potential. Not only that, but those you lead will pick up on your know-it-all attitude and you’ll end up losing good people and loyal employees.
You may be wondering who you should be learning from and the answer is simple: everyone. Take notice of those in your organization who you admire and maybe those you don’t. Why do you gravitate towards one person over another? How does someone earn your trust?
As you start to discover the answers to those questions, notice the characteristics and leadership qualities in those around you who you strive to be like. It doesn’t always have to be someone in a higher position either. You may find characteristics and qualities in other colleagues, peers (both professional and personal), family, and subordinates.
I’m also a huge advocate for mentorship. I talk a lot about the importance of mentorship and how it impacts our lives in all aspects. You can read more about that here.
- Communicate Out Loud
I said this before, but let me say it again: nobody can read your mind.
One thing I often struggle with is sitting with a feeling too long before deciding to openly discuss my needs. I used to struggle with this more but realized that open and honest communication is always best and helps break down the barriers at work that we sometimes create in our own heads.
We all want to avoid conflict and uncomfortable conversations. I think as women, we feel insecure about expressing our feelings at work because the culture tells us that our emotions are a weakness.
That’s just not the case. Your emotions matter. It’s important to recognize them and understand what’s driving them. It’s also important to not allow your emotions to lead your decisions and actions.
This takes a lot of practice – especially if you tend to be more emotionally driven by nature. Pay attention to what aggravates or frustrates you. Are there people or circumstances that get a rise out of you? Spend time reflecting on why you may be feeling a certain way so that you can get to the core issue and unpack it from there.
Then, if needed, communicate your needs out loud. Do you feel a lack of support? Do you need more guidance, training, resources? Do you wish your schedule was different?
Communicate those thoughts, ideas, and needs and imagine nothing is off the table or out of reach. You’d be surprised at what doors will open when you’re a good leader and you communicate your needs well.
- Create Healthy Margin
If you’re anything like me, you have a drive to move forward – to always be growing and developing. This is true for most leaders.
It’s important to remember, however, that the drive to always be pushing can sometimes rob us of the healthy margin we need to thrive in every area of our lives.
The truth is, we all have families, friends, hobbies, and other people and things we like to put our energy towards. If your life becomes all about work, you’ll start to rob yourself of healthy relationships, rest, and good self-care.
Take great care in caring for yourself. Make sure you’re getting enough rest, fuelling your body with balanced nutrition, getting enough exercise, and protecting your mental health. When you create routines that foster healthy balance and margin, you will suddenly become the best version of yourself – even at work.
You’d be amazed at the level of focus and energy you’ll have toward your career when you’re applying habits that promote self-care and healthy work/life balance.
- Find Solutions
The lower you sit on the organizational chain, the further in the weeds you are. This can be tough because you’re up against a lot of problems that your leaders just aren’t aware of. But, this is a unique position that allows you the opportunity to lead up.
One of the best ways to be recognized for leadership and advance quickly is to be solution-oriented. If you recognize a problem or an area that needs improvement, take some time to come up with solutions.
Instead of going to your leader with the problem, take them your solution for the problem instead. This is a prime example of leading up and will position you to be the eyes and ears they need at various levels in the organization.
And even if your solutions aren’t adapted, don’t be discouraged. Ask questions, accept that you won’t always see what your leaders see, respect their decisions, and learn why and how certain things are the way they are. This will prepare you in coming up with future solutions and help you think more strategically and in the best interest of the company.
Obviously there are many more ways to develop as a leader but implementing these behaviors and attitudes today will have a huge impact on the future of your career path and professional advancement.