Does this sound familiar? You’ve worked hard over the past 5 (or 7 or 10) years to develop your skills, enhance your work experience, and strengthen your network but the promotions aren’t coming as quickly as you’d like and you’re eager to climb the corporate ladder. That can feel frustrating but the good news is, there are several concrete steps you can take to break into the leadership roles you aspire to.
1. Hone your leadership skills.
Figuring out your leadership style and sharpening your leadership skills are essential components to rising in your career. There are many different ways you can craft strong leadership experiences, even if you currently work as an individual contributor in your company.
Here are a few ways to bolster your leadership portfolio:
- Shift your view on leadership. You don’t need to have a director-level title to be a leader. Whether you volunteer to lead a project, mentor a junior colleague, join an employee resource group (ERG), or seek out a leadership development program, there are many opportunities to practice leading.
- Develop an action plan. Solicit feedback from your manager, peers, and direct reports and ask them for their honest opinion on your strengths and weaknesses. Use their feedback to develop and implement a plan for your career development.
- Consider learning part of your job. There is a tremendous amount of information available about leadership styles, case studies, and best practices. Commit to spending time each week learning about leadership strategies and techniques.
2. Learn how to manage teams well.
Learning how to manage people well is a critical skill for any leader. Strong managers unlock their teammates’ performance by guiding them to set actionable and appropriate goals, providing motivation and context for their work, managing and reconciling conflict, and planning for the future.
While team dynamics differ, there are a few universal truths that can help you become a stronger manager:
- Spend time getting to know your team members individually. Talk with them to learn about their goals and aspirations. Assess their strengths and weaknesses. Support their ongoing development. The more you know about your team members, the more effective you will be at managing them.
- Set clear goals and expectations. Make sure your team understands what you expect from them and how their work aligns with the overall company goals. Whenever possible, provide context and transparency for work assignments.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Providing frequent, clear, and honest feedback is essential to helping your team members grow. Accept that you may not always find feedback comfortable and commit to it anyway.
- Create a supportive and encouraging work environment. Your team will be more productive, more engaged, and more content if they feel comfortable asking questions and taking risks. Be intentional about creating this kind of team culture.
3. Develop expertise in your field.
Leaders who have a deep understanding of their industry, company, and products or services inspire trust and commitment from their teams. To develop expertise, understand that there is always more to learn.
Stay ahead of the curve by committing to:
- Follow industry thought leaders. Whether you identify publications, blogs, news digests, or social media channels, find a way to stay up to date on industry trends.
- Pay attention to industry conferences. Professional organizations, conferences, and events are great opportunities to network and learn at the same time. If you aren’t able to attend in person, consider virtual attendance or even simply taking time to review conference or event agendas, session topics, and keynote speakers to identify trends.
- Reskill or upskill to stay current. Keep pace with changing technology and trends by committing to consistent skill development. Consider enrolling in online courses, skill-specific workshops, or self-managed education to develop new skills.
4. Nurture your professional network.
Your professional community is one of your most valuable assets. Spending time connecting with and nurturing your professional relationships can open doors to opportunities, perspectives, and resources that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Remember that networking is important work. It’s beneficial to you, to your company, and to your industry. With that in mind, consider strengthening your network by:
- Joining local or national professional organizations.
- Following and connecting with people you know and/or admire on LinkedIn.
- Engaging meaningfully with your community by offering help and asking for what you need in return.
- Seek out mentors or sponsors to help you achieve your goals.
5. Sharpen your communication skills.
Leaders need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely with a range of constituents (think clients, peers, direct reports, senior leadership, and more). The better you’re able to communicate, the more success you’ll have as a leader.
Enhance your communication by:
- Practicing clear and concise language. Consider your audience and avoid using jargon and technical language as appropriate.
- Listening as well as you speak. Active listening allows leaders to understand what’s important to their constituents, ask clarifying questions, and develop perspective.
- Soliciting honest feedback to improve your communication skills.
6. Take control of your time.
Learning to manage your time effectively is a constant work in progress but for leaders, understanding when they are best able to focus, how they can exert influence over their calendars, and how to maximize their efficiency is paramount to their success.
Practice taking more control over your time now by:
- Setting clear, actionable, and measurable goals for each week based on the most important things you need to accomplish.
- Identifying what time of day you have the most energy for focused work and protecting that time to work on your highest level priorities.
- Carving out time each week to reflect and plan.
7. Elevate your visibility.
You’ve heard the phrase “it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you” before, I’m sure. At work, this holds true. Hard work isn’t enough, you must be intentional about elevating your visibility to elevate your rank.
Consider these tips to enhance your visibility at work:
- Articulate your unique value proposition - the intersection of your strengths, your passions, and the value you bring to your audience - and share it widely. Help others understand exactly what you bring and what you do.
- Volunteer for stretch opportunities. By taking on a project that’s a bit outside of your comfort zone you’ll learn new things, gain new experience, and demonstrate your aptitude for growth.
- Share your thoughts in meetings. Don’t let imposter syndrome keep you from sharing your ideas and perspective.
- Take action. If you identify an area where you can contribute, take initiative and speak up.
8. Treat others well.
This may go without saying, but your reputation precedes you. Take care to build and maintain strong relationships with your peers, manager, and clients and embrace the goodwill that those relationships engender.
Be intentional about your relationships and reputation by:
- Always being respectful and professional regardless of who you’re speaking to or working with.
- Contributing to a supportive and encouraging environment. Help your colleagues succeed so you can win together.
- Offering your help freely and without judgment. If you notice a team member struggling and you’re able to offer your help, do so.
- Holding yourself and your team accountable. Be honest about your bandwidth and capabilities and deliver when you say you will.
9. Embrace failure as an opportunity for growth.
Failure hurts, there’s no way around it. But if you don’t risk failure, you don’t grow.
If you’re serious about moving into a leadership role, you’ll want to develop resilience around failure. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Fail fast. Recognize that when you fail, you learn. Work on not allowing yourself to wallow in the feeling of failure and instead focus on what you learned and what you’ll do differently next time.
- Instill a weekly report habit. Take a few minutes each week to reflect on what you learned, what you overcame, what you are grateful for, and what you’re looking forward to next. This practice offers perspective on growth and helps reframe failure.
- Return to your North Star (your “why”). When assessing risk or dealing with failure, remind yourself of what you’re working toward. Let the clarity of your why guide your decision making.
10. Prioritize your personal AND professional lives
Work/life balance doesn’t exist. Strive for work/life integration; a practice that recognizes you are one person with personal and professional needs. You need to take care of you to take care of the work.
Practice work/life integration by:
- Assessing how you’re allocating your time and identifying if there’s an imbalance between your work and personal needs that should be addressed.
- Scheduling time for your personal needs just like you would your professional responsibilities.
- Establishing boundaries that work for you. For some people, not checking email outside of work hours feels empowering. For others, committing to stepping away from their desk during after school/dinner hours and finishing the day after bedtime is preferred. Figure out what you need and take steps to implement it.
- Prioritize time away from work. Whether you take a vacation, visit a museum in your city, sleep in, or stay home, recognize the rejuvenating power of taking time (an hour, a day, a week) away from work. This will help you be more productive, not less.
When you’re itching to advance in your career, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have any agency. The tips we’ve included above illustrate that there are concrete actions you can take to elevate your visibility, develop new skills, nurture your relationships, and advocate for yourself to help you make your dreams a reality.