As I coach executives and mentor coworkers, it’s dawned on me how much of who I am as a leader has always just “been there.” There is no single defining moment that I can recall and say, “boom!” that is when I became a leader. Actually, I’ve always felt like a leader. It wasn’t an external thing outside of me to attain but innately in me. I don’t say this to brag, I say this in gratitude. And, I say this in thanks to my mother (pictured with me here) who since my earliest memory boldly proclaimed, “you’re a leader!”

The belief that leadership is intrinsically in me, I now realize, was an extraordinary gift.  The belief gave me a strong voice. The belief gave me confidence. The belief gave me courage. The belief gave me strength. The belief gave me faith. The belief gave me an identity. The belief gave me boldness.

Now, nearly 30 years into my career I’ve also accumulated titles that backed my belief:  Youth Advisory Delegate, Editor, Chairperson, Board President, Alumnae Class President, Manager, Director, Elder, Practice Lead. Yes, the titles help in certain circumstances… however, it’s the experiences behind them that gives me the ability to back my title with knowledge, failures, lessons learned, surprises, triumphs, relationships, and perspective. It’s the journey that builds a leader.

Recently, I began coaching a master class for emerging leaders – specifically women in the first 10 years of their career.  Several of them asked, “How do you lead when you don’t have the title?” While I think leadership is a very personal thing and each person must define leadership for themselves based on their values, gifts, expertise, and goals – I do think there are a few steps anyone can take to lead where they are.

  • Show up. This is not about “being in the room where it happened” but rather being active in the room. Contribute. Ask questions. Pose an alternate scenario. Encourage people to take a pause to quietly reflect. Ask someone who’s quiet or unique in the room for their insights. Amplify a diverse view point. Point out who’s not in the room but should be. Engage. Offer a helpful article or podcast after a meeting based on the discussion. So often I’m in meetings where participants never come off camera, never speak, never offer a chat comment, never volunteer, never joke, never share. To me, this is hiding – or worse. This is withholding your talents and is detrimental to the success of the project. If you’re in the wrong room, look for a better one – or speak with folks about how to make the room better for all participants. And if you find it challenging getting into the room, volunteer for a role in the room, ask how to get into the room, or have one-on-one discussions with folks in the room and talk to them about what it’s like and express interest around the work in the room.
  • Manage and mentor up. I learned about managing up about halfway into my career. At first, I was suspect… why should I do their work? But then a great leader, Danelle Scotka a retired Amy Colonel, showed me how—and why. She showed me that each time I “worked ahead” of the formal leader that I got (A) the experience of the work and (B) the recognition that I was ready for the next level of work. Working ahead of a leader looks like:  elevating a risk, sharing research/samples on a future product to help leadership think about it, organizing an event (I love when my team sets social events and all I have to do is show up), taking a recurring task off their plate, volunteer after a meeting (“I heard a lot of discussion on X… how about I look into this, speak to Y and Z, and circle back with you on some ideas by this date”), and giving feedback. I know the farther “up” I go, the more removed I feel from the team and day-to-day operations. Getting feedback on my work, the impact of my approach, or suggestions on what I can do with my “formal” power due to my title are critical to improving the experience, organization, and outcomes. And, if upward feedback is not the norm in your organization – offer to be a mentor. I saw a great quote this month: “If you don’t have a mentor under 30 you’re not a good leader.”  Not sure how to suggest mentorship? Try this: “I hear you joke a lot about how your brain doesn’t think like Excel – would you like a few private lessons or can I make a few templates for you?” or “Several times you mentioned how messy your Teams channels are – can I book time on your calendar to give you a few tips?” or “the firm just rolled out X, let me know if you need any help as I used this at my last job.” This shows you’re listening and want to help, as well as opens a door to a more personally relationship.  
  • Skill up. To me, leadership is a graceful combination of expertise, ability, and investment in people. It’s what you bring to the work (church, community, profession, family) and those around you. There are lots of books on good leadership habits – read them, try them on, and then select what works and is comfortable for you. In terms of your expertise, seek opportunities that stretch your skills and certifications that keep you current. For ability, think about your leadership presence. Can you command a room with our voice through compelling prose or a softly shared poignant question? Does your voice reflect confidence, passion, conviction? Do all your responses end with your voice raised in a weakening question? How many “uhs” or “likes” pop into each sentence?  Can you sit in silence with the team, or must you bust in with a joke or trifle response? Are you poised in person (stance, posture, eye contact)? Can you write well – clearly, for busy executives, for non-technical readers, for inspiration? All these things contribute to how others see and respond to you as a leader.
  • Title up. This phrase is about stepping into the next title up. Use each opportunity to ask yourself, “What would I do if I was the lead?” or “How would handle that if I was the lead?” Take what you like from leaders and work it into your current thinking, actions, and products. Take what doesn’t appeal to you and reflect on why:  Does it make you uncomfortable because you lack a technical skill? Does a behavior put a burden on the team and how would you approach it differently? Do you not understand the rationale for a decision – can you get it and learn? And finally, what can you do now to demonstrate leadership thinking, habits, actions, and outcomes?

These four things will begin to forge your leadership legacy: How you want to be seen as a leader. What value you bring as a leader. What actions back up your leadership approach. What will demonstrate your leadership brand. What you want folks to feel about you as a leader.

So, in the spirit of my mother… You’re a leader, so get out there and lead!

Leading Without a Title

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