Once in a while, a question shows up in my inbox that makes me pause, smile, shake my head and ask myself: “Why didn’t it occur to me to write about this before?”
“Dear Maria, I am struggling with the leadership step in my career. I have been a Software Developer for the last 10 years and would like to know from your experience how to make a transition into leadership.” ~M, New Zealand
M, thank you for asking this important and thoughtful question. I will answer you on two levels.
First, from a purely career-oriented perspective, there are steps you can take to prepare yourself for a leadership position, to signal your readiness for such to your management, and to make your aspiration a reality. Here are 12 steps to consider taking:
- Find a leadership role model. Identify a leader your admire, study their life and career and strive to emulate their success. Don’t limit yourself to the business world; look at the arenas of history, politics, and science.
- Explore leadership books. Choose several books on the subject of leadership that “speak to you” and read them, slowly and attentively. You are not reading to get through them quickly in order to check a checkbox; you are investigating a whole new area of knowledge and inspiration. Bonus: choose several leadership quotes to motivate and inspire you, write them down and post in a visible place, above your desk if you like.
- Get a mentor. Is there someone in your workplace that you respect, admire and would like to “be like when you grow up”? Send a note asking them to have a cup of coffee with you and then honestly explain where you are in your journey. For example, say: “I am seeking to develop my leadership potential and was wondering if you would consider meeting with me for half an hour every other Friday morning for 3 months. I deeply respect your leadership and would be immensely grateful to have you as a mentor on my journey. I know it’s a lot to ask and am very grateful in advance. If there is anything at all I can assist you with (perhaps conducting research for articles etc), I’d be honored to help in any way.” Make sure that your request has a specific suggestion – people will be much more inclined to say yes to you if you set specific parameters of your engagement as opposed to simply asking “Will you be my mentor?”
- Ask yourself what your ultimate goal is and reverse engineer your actions accordingly. If there is a leadership position in your organization that you aspire to, look at this job requirements now and get busy getting the experience and the skills needed so when it’s time to apply, you are ready.
- Request a meeting with you immediate resource manager/supervisor, share your aspirations and discuss three things: what you have accomplished that shows your leadership qualities and potential, how you would like to contribute to your organization and what you would like your resource manager do in order to help you make your vision a reality. Ask for your manager’s help, support and guidance.
- Volunteer for projects with more responsibility and leadership elements.
- Become active in professional organizations relevant for your field, attend events, network. It is also a great idea to volunteer for a leadership position at a professional organization, especially if there are few leadership opportunities currently available at your company.
- Consider thought leadership and writing. This is an important dimension of becoming and being a leader. Start exploring your ideas in writing and sharing them. This is somewhat similar to being a mentor, but here you have a mind blowing opportunity to serve a much wider community. Everybody has something important, unique to say – and you need to figure out what it is. Consider blogging and publishing on LinkedIn (read “Top 5 Reasons to Publish on LinkedIn Publishing Platform” to learn more).
- Consider public speaking (don’t hate me). Start slowly, join your local Toastmasters club (https://www.toastmasters.org/) if you can, watch the best TED talks (https://www.ted.com/), and speak in professional organizations.
- Consider professional certifications. Do you have the most relevant certifications in your field? For example, consider getting certified in Agile (https://www.scrumalliance.org/) and/or start working towards a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification (see “20 Steps to PMP” to learn how to do that).
- Consider taking your education to the next level. There are entire degrees devoted to leadership, but I would start exploring by taking a free online class or a MOOC and go from there.
- Grow! Ask yourself: are there any gaps in your skill set, are there any weaknesses you need to address? If so, get to work. But spend even more time nurturing and developing your strengths because if you spend a lifetime correcting your weaknesses, the best you can hope for is being mediocre.
Second, there is a deeper dimension of leadership to consider, above and beyond the steps above. Leadership at its core means serving people – this is where the concept of servant leadership enters the picture. Ask yourself how can you serve people in and beyond your organization:
- Serve your junior colleagues. As a software developer, you are probably already mentoring junior developers; and if you are not, it’s a great time to start. Help them grow, help them thrive, share with them the lessons you learned in your career, help them avoid the mistakes you made… Being a mentor is an incredibly rewarding and inspiring experience and it helps both people in the relationship realize their potential.
- Serve your customers. Another community you are serving is your customers, in your case probably end users. Do you get to interact with them at all? Take a fresh look at their needs, transcend the minutiae of their requests and help calls and ask yourself: “What can I do in order to help them from a big picture perspective? What do they need most? What do they struggle with most?” Get out of the reactive mode and start thinking holistically, applying a big picture view to your day-to-day work. You will need to get approval from management for any big picture ideas implementation – but even simply reorienting your day and your mindset toward “how will I serve my customers today?” will make your work exponentially more meaningful and will lead to your growth as a person and as a leader.
- Serve your department and your organization. See if there is a problem in your department that is not being addressed. Perhaps it’s a very old issue that nobody wants to touch. Brainstorm the ways to solve it, write a proposal on how to do it and approach your manager asking for a green light to tackle it.
If your efforts to get more responsibly and to serve fall on deaf ears over and over, first try to understand why. If there is a reason – for example, you manager feels you are not ready – ask them what it would take to get there, document these milestones and work towards achieving them.
But if you are dealing with inertia, laziness and “why bother” attitude, you might need to consider exploring other options. Perhaps you can transfer to another group in your organization. Perhaps it’s time to explore other organizations. It might be a scary thought because it’s always easier to stay where you are, but if you are serious about your goal then you have some decisions to make.
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