7 Ways Women Can Help Themselves Break Into Leadership

 I recently spoke with Jennifer Jeliff-Russell of the Go Find Out: The Career Switch Podcast about how women can break into leadership roles. Here are the seven approaches I suggested to Jennifer, all of which can be adapted to most organizational environments.

Find the gaps. In every organization, there are things that everyone knows could be improved. Sometimes, though, people don’t actually know what to do to make them better; other times, the necessary work might feel too time-consuming or thankless. But making the improvement, fixing the problem, or filling the vacuum can be a way to shine a light on yourself and show what you can do. Of course, you may need to let your boss and colleagues know that you’ve done it, so they don’t think the problem just fixed itself!

Take time to learn. Never assume you have all the knowledge or training you need. Whether you consume YouTube videos, webinars, or books, or you spend time shadowing colleagues or consulting with mentors, there are always new resources available for deepening your skills in the areas you already know something about—or that you’d like to take on for the first time. If you want to expand your competence and portfolio, think of your own skills in terms of vertical integration or horizontal broadening and try looking specifically at topics and spaces adjacent to the areas in which you already have expertise. 

Keep practicing. If you’re perfect at something and you keep doing it over and over, you may become even more accurate and reliable but you probably won’t grow. Look for ways to get practice in areas you could afford to strengthen or where you know there will be future opportunities in your organization. Think of practice as an acknowledgment that you have room to grow and then put in the work. You may volunteer to do something you haven’t done before or have previously accomplished only on a small scale or with different stakeholders, like giving a presentation, visiting an important customer, or chairing a meeting. Yes, you might be nervous, but this is a way to expand your presence, network, and reputation and learn even more about additional opportunities at the same time.

Don’t expect mindreading. Recognize that there are differences between you and the people you hope to lead. Even though you may all have common aspirations or values, when you’re in a leadership role or you’re trying out for one, it’s a big mistake to assume that others will perceive what you perceive, understand what you understand, or react the way you would. It’s crucial to think about other people as they are and try to figure out how the situation looks from their perspective, not yours. Then you can plan how to communicate successfully about mutual goals and purpose and give effective feedback.

Focus on working through others rather than on your own activities. Being a leader requires inspiring, teaching, supervising, and guiding others to get the work done—not just doing it yourself. Identify the various aspects of properly assigning work, training it, supervising it, measuring it, and adjusting it through dialogue and discussion rather than bearing down and going it alone or merely ordering people around. If you’re not comfortable giving up tasks so others can do them, you’re at significant risk of micromanaging—and no one who’s ambitious, innovative, or farsighted wants to work for a micromanager!

Be a host. For an interesting perspective, think about your team members or colleagues as guests at your work party. They’re not obligated to stay or even to enjoy themselves. You have to invite them in and make the situation interesting and comfortable enough for them to want to participate and feel like they belong. Sometimes the people you recruit are perfect with each other; other times, you may have to work harder at engaging them. Be sure to introduce them to each other so they all gel as a group. Helping each person feel welcome and understanding their individual needs will help keep the party appealing and make it a good time for all.

Make plans. Things often don’t work out the way you planned, so you need to be able to adjust your choices and actions as situations evolve. But if you think through a specific plan for growth and accomplishment, you’re more likely to take the steps that will help you achieve more and naturally showcase those achievements. Perhaps you have two or three things you want to learn this year or a few influencers or career-makers you’d like to meet. Getting concrete about timing and intention makes it more likely that you’ll reach some of these goals, even if the plans turn out not to be completely accurate.

Onward and upward—

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