Are you one step away from a senior leadership role? The secret to getting over the line and being promoted to that new leadership level can be one simple thing: giving yourself permission to lead.
People are often told that in order to move to their next level they need to “work on their leadership.” Except that, confusingly, the feedback they get on how they lead people and teams is already positive. There doesn’t seem to be any question of their leadership skills at all. The issue may not be how they lead others (influencing and facilitating) but rather how they lead the firm (driving the business forward).
Personality research by Joanna Moutafi and colleagues suggests intuitive people – those interested in new possibilities and new things, exploring beyond what is immediately observable – are more likely to reach higher managerial levels. We may or may not have personality dispositions that lean this way, but we can all choose to explore beyond what is immediately in our hand. We can wait until we have the right title to drive the business – but others are looking for us to drive it before they give us the title.
Here are five behaviors to increase your likelihood of promotion to your next level of leadership:
1. Don’t be afraid of doing “strategy.” We can think that strategy is reserved for those with degrees in strategy or for the C-team. We think strategically about what we’re directly responsible for, or directly part of. But when it comes to the business beyond our immediate world of work, it’s not that we don’t care, we just may not presume to engage. Giving ourselves permission to lead means we take the lid off the ceiling that sometimes only we see. Next-level leaders are proactive about generating ideas about how their wider team or organization could drive new growth, taking responsibility beyond their immediate sphere of accountability.
2. Carve out thought leadership windows. Spending real time brainstorming and working through ideas about how to take the wider business forward can feel like a luxury – not part of our “real job.” But for any professional this should be a central part of our role. In order to move to the next level we have to create these windows – in or out of work hours. It can be useful to carve out and prioritize your own regular Thought Leadership Window. Take around two hours a month dedicated to thinking about how to drive medium-long term growth beyond your immediate area of responsibility. This creates momentum and you quickly find that what begins as a conscious decision to give yourself permission to lead soon becomes a habit of thinking beyond your immediate borders.
3. Use seasonal elevator messages. We all know about the elevator pitch, but other than when networking externally or looking for a new job, do we really give it any thought? The goal with the seasonal elevator message is to be ready for any brief encounter internally where you discover a window to quickly articulate what you’re working on in this period. You can demonstrate your engagement with the wider firm objectives. So the next time someone says to you in a brief encounter, “How are things going?” rather than just “Fine” / “Great” / “Busy times,” instead be ready to describe briefly what you’re working on that will add value to the firm and help take it forward. Be relaxed and confident but specific. This could be something like, “Great, thanks. We’re looking into how differentiating between X and Y might add more value to customers. There are some interesting possibilities. You?” Suddenly, in their mind, you’re one of the people engaged with “leading the firm” rather than just someone getting on with their tasks — a safe pair of hands who is “fine.”
4. Commit to being interested. People who make breakthroughs in their field, who contribute new ideas and initiate game-changing strategies, are the ones who keep on top of what’s happening. It sounds obvious but in practice it can be hard to find time to actually read our industry news and updates when there is always so much else that requires our immediate attention and energy. But professionals who are serious about moving into more senior leadership stay on top of industry developments beyond just what they need to know. We know what we should read and listen to, but the difference between those who do and those who don’t over a five-year period can be the difference between those who lead and those who don’t.
5. Brainstorm – narrow – test – try. You might ask, “Where should I start?” “What could I initiate that could help us collectively achieve our wider organizational goals?” It’s useful to set a personal challenge of generating five or six new ideas. Scope them out, and then after exploring what’s out there now, what’s most feasible and what best helps achieve your organization’s overarching strategy, narrow down to three. Open them up to real challenge by choosing some trusted colleagues to test them out on, then select one or two to take to your leader. Offer it up for the team as a collective opportunity, but make it clear you are willing to take responsibility for the grunt work to get it off the ground.
It doesn’t matter where the best ideas come from, so long as they come. People who get promoted are regularly those who are already doing the job before they have it. People who get promoted to lead are those who are already driving the firm before it’s part of their official remit. The person holding the key to you getting promoted into leadership… might just be you.
Rebecca Newton teaches Management at LSE and is the Founder and Academic Director of Moncort.org.
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