We’ve all been there. Young leadership. Starting our first job. Taking our first tentative steps in the new world of work. Wanting to succeed. Hoping for a break.
By the time we enter the workplace, we have pretty much figured out how to succeed in the world of education. High school. College. We get the concept of report cards and class rank. We know our allotted place in the pecking order—fairly or unfairly. We know how to work with teachers, deadlines, papers and tests.
We dread the ominous “group project” where the work inevitably is done by the most responsible member of the team (while everyone else makes their excuses). All those adults who told us, “This is what the real world of work will be like…” And now we’re in that world. Oh, joy!
Well, I’m not a young leader anymore.
I’ve now worked for several decades in this world of work. And over the years, I’ve seen certain colleagues in my generation succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Then there are those who shone brightly for a season and suddenly seemed to disappear.
Researchers have identified three factors that indicate leadership potential. The best leadership candidates: 1) aspire to lead, 2) have the ability to drive results, and 3) are anxious to develop and become better.
The high-achieving leaders in my world all exhibited these qualities. But I also knew other people who had these qualities, but they did not reach the heights of success. So simply possessing these qualities is not enough.
What was the difference between the young leaders who experienced the heights of success and those who didn’t?
The successful people all had one thing in common: someone noticed them and gave them opportunity.
So how do young leaders get noticed?
The young leaders who get noticed follow a very predictable pattern. They do things that other young leaders don’t do. And when they do them, you can almost hear the seasoned members of the team thinking, “Keep your eyes on that one!”
Your dad may have told you, “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.” It’s true. When you are given a task or a project, your supervisor is entrusting you with something. Give it your very best effort. Get it done on time or even better, ahead of time. Think through ways you can exceed your boss’s expectations. Anticipate the questions or critiques you might get, and deliver the project in a way that will surprise and delight.
Young leaders: Consistent performance over time will build your supervisor’s trust. And delivering quality work that reaches beyond your boss’s expectations will result in their willingness to give you bigger and better opportunities.
2) Exhibit complex thinking skills
As a young leader, your tasks are fairly straight-forward. But if you aspire to higher levels of your organization, the ability to think about your work in more complex terms is essential. Take the time to do some deep thinking about your projects. How does your work fit into the larger strategy of your organization? Are there nuances to your customer base that would impact how you do your job? What are the complex issues that your boss is evaluating as she reviews your work?
Young leaders: Whenever possible, exhibit your ability to think in complex terms about your work. Senior leaders are looking for talented people who can deliver innovative solutions to complex problems. Complex thinking skills will get you noticed.
3) Play nice in the sandbox
Jeffrey Immelt, former CEO of General Electric once said, “It is truly your peers who determine how far you can go.” I love that quote because it points to the importance of respect, collaboration and emotional intelligence in the workplace. We all like to work with other people who are nice. We don’t like to work with people who are disrespectful, condescending or angry. Don’t discount the hard-won lessons from your more experienced colleagues. Respect and learn from them. Become aware of how your emotions affect your co-workers. Don’t let your stress affect how you treat others.
Young leaders: A good reputation with your colleagues will be essential for your future. When your name comes up in conversations around the office, you want people to comment on how great it is to work with you.
4) Say “yes” to opportunity
At some point, you will likely be asked to take on a special project or new responsibility. Always say “yes.” If you have been selected for one of these opportunities, it is likely that a seasoned leader is taking a chance on you. Take a deep breath, and then work like crazy to learn and do a good job.
Young leaders: You never know when another big opportunity might come again. Seize the opportunity. The higher exposure will often result in you getting noticed.
5) Look for roles in the center of the action
I know a fantastic leader who was “killing it” in his area of responsibility. His projects were successful. His team loved him. But there was one problem. His department was so far out of the core work of the organization that he languished for years without being noticed. One day, he ended up in a meeting with one of the organization’s senior leaders who immediately noticed his leadership acumen. At that point, the senior leader invited my friend into a role with more visibility.
Young leaders: In all organizations, there are roles that get noticed and those that don’t. Try to take on assignments that draw the attention of your organization’s senior leaders. It is tough to get noticed if what you are doing is not essential to the heart of your organization.
6) Disagree agreeably
In the world of work, it is often the front-line employees who understand how management decisions will affect customers and internal processes. As a young leader with a different perspective, you may be aware of generational shifts that would impact your industry. You might be in the best position to see elements of the organization’s grand plan that are going to be challenging or simply won’t work. Most supervisors appreciate candid feedback when they are about to make a preventable mistake. Take time to consider your words and make your case with facts. If your boss still decides to go forward after your counsel, back him up. He has reasons for his decision.
Young leaders: Most seasoned leaders will appreciate candor with kindness. Your supervisor really doesn’t want a “yes-person.” She is counting on you to bring your best thinking to the problems she is facing. Your willingness to disagree agreeably will gain the respect and notice of senior leaders.
We live in a day where leaders are acutely aware that leadership matters. Organizations want to field the best team to bring them into a better future. As a young leader, you want to be in the center of that conversation.
And to be there, you need to get noticed.
Liz Driscoll is the director of Year-Round & Digital Content for Willow Creek Association. Passionate about ideas and the local church, she carries a deep conviction that fired-up, Christ-centered leaders can change the world. She oversees content for GLSnext, the GLS Podcast, Follow the GLS blog and was the content director for the Study Guide of Bill Hybels’ most recent release, Leading from Here to There.