Are you known as a ‘go-to’ person or a ‘strategic’ leader? Someone who always gets things done or someone who will drive the organization forward? One of the great career development truths is that the very skills that get you into a senior professional or middle management position, namely your ability to execute, could also hold you back from something more unless you also demonstrate you have the chops to make an impact on a broader playing field. To be promoted into a senior level position in many companies, you need to demonstrate the ability to look into the future, anticipate opportunities and challenges, and bridge the gap between where your team is today and where it needs to be.
This challenge was mentioned recently by three separate coaching clients. Although they each approached it differently, all referred to the same development need… to move into the realm of leadership rather than ‘doer-ship’. There is more than one pathway to becoming, and being perceived as, a strategic leader, but here are a few fundamentals:
Delegate - If you’re the only one who can get things done, then you will always be stuck getting things done. Teach others to perform key elements of your job and learn to be ok with them doing it differently. They may make mistakes, but that’s what’s needed for their growth as well as yours. If you struggle with letting go, a great article is the HBR classic Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? (Oncken & Wass).
Answer ‘why’ - All the formal strategic planning in the world (SWOT analysis, anyone?) won’t help if you can’t answer this basic question… why? Why is your company in business? Why does your function exist? Why are you approaching your work or project in the way that you are? Why? Simon Sinek gets credit for heightening our awareness to this fundamental question. In addition to guiding what you do, it should guide what you say. Rather than telling others about your activities, tell them about why those activities exist; in other words tell them what those activities will yield.
Collaborate - As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others. Nothing will demonstrate your transformational leadership ability more than leading a team forward. This will not be achieved by telling others what to do, but instead by facilitating conversations with interesting questions where learning, insight, and movement take place.
Demonstrate confidence - Show up. Speak up. The difference between influential leaders and others is not that they possess more confidence, but that they push through their moments of self-doubt and keep going. Having periods where you lack confidence demonstrates humility and the ability to self-reflect. But even in those moments of reflection, you can demonstrate confidence by being present (taking a ‘seat at the table’ as Sheryl Sandberg has said). Find your voice and use it.
Act as if… - Best piece of career advice I ever received... if you want something (a position, promotion, reputation, inclusion in a project, recognition, etc.) act as if you already have it. This pertains to how you dress, who you approach for advice, what problems you try to solve and how you speak about those problems. It gets at the truism ‘you get what you expect’. By acting as if you already have it, others begin to see the thing we want as a natural evolution. It creates the conditions for it to occur. It’s the difference between hoping for it and living it.
Become a thought leader - Although there are many aspects to executive presence that pertain to your physicality (dress, posture, position in a room, etc.), it’s all just for show unless you have the goods to back it up. The goods are ideas, thoughts, perspectives and approaches that are worth paying attention to. Read, attend workshops, and approach situations and people with curiosity whenever possible. Find the space to let your mind wander. What’s happening in your field and in your industry? What’s your vision for your department and your company? What are others doing? What’s possible? Pick a topic and share your ideas. If you feel so inclined, write blogs, articles, Linked In posts, or tweets.
At the end of your ruminations, write out your present state and the desired future state in clear, visual, compelling language and then spend some time thinking about what it will take to get from where you are to where you want to be. What will it take to bridge the gap? This gap analysis would not be complete without also thinking about barriers and roadblocks you’ll encounter along the way so that how to overcome or minimize them can be identified.
Keep a log of your achievements. Mark those that are strategic or transformational in nature. Share them with a mentor, coach, or your boss. Ask for feedback and keep going. Keep the goal clearly in your sights. At first it will require conscious thought but if you work at it long enough, it will become second nature!