Even the best-charted paths to leadership can be routes dotted with intricacies and plot twists. Visible upward mobility can mask a myriad of challenges underneath. Leadership is oftentimes associated with titles and power.
Early in my career, I was convinced a corner office and senior-level title were the marks of a leader. Leadership is a mindset, not a title.
So how does one become a great leader?
Leadership is an art and there’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for achieving excellence. Check out these seven simple leadership skills to add to your repertoire.
1. @ Yourself: Make yourself visible
Your social profiles might be lit, but understanding how to show up in your career is a difficult, yet critical skill for young professionals to master. Truth is, people make decisions with their eyes first, don’t believe me?
At the start of my career, I worked for a company where all senior leaders received professional headshots when they were hired; other employees were expected to be content with tragic headshots taken by the security team. My driver’s license photo would’ve been better. One day, while randomly complaining to the security team that I hated my photo, I was told I could upload my own photo. Game changer!
Wait a minute? So you mean I can change the image myself? Why hadn’t anyone ever changed their photo? The answer to that question didn’t matter to me. I took a professional image I already had and asked a graphic design friend to convert the background and boom, headshot magic! I uploaded my new headshot in the system and went about my business. Almost immediately, people started to treat me differently. It was as if a professional headshot made me more important because now I looked like a senior leader. That experience taught me how I chose to show up, and that my image was a component of visibility I’d overlooked.
Leadership is about influence.
There can be no leadership without it. Even leading without positional power, you can wield influence to your advantage. To increase your visibility within an organization, you’ll need to do more than just look the part. Taking on roles where you are more strategic than tactical will position you to get exposure for higher level and influence over corporate objectives, performance objectives, and profit and loss responsibility.
2. Communicating effectively is clutch
Learning to be visible is one lesson, but learning when to speak, when to listen, and who to listen to is equally important. The most overlooked skill in leadership development is how to effectively communicate. Truthfully, this has been my toughest area of development. It’s essential to understand how communication can help you advance your career. It’s important to learn to speak the language of business, manage your emotions and articulate your vision.
There are three modes of communications you must perfect—emails, 1:1 conversations and public speaking. Mastering tone and crafting messages that add value is a learned skill and must be practiced with every email. Knowing when not to respond—literally walking away for 24 hours—or when a simple reply like “let’s connect in person to discuss” is sufficient is an essential to maintaining interpersonal relationships. One-to one meetings are essential to establishing and cultivating rapport and influence.
Simple acts of kindness like sending follow-up emails of thanks and email summary recaps of discussions not only clarify expectations and outcomes of the meeting, but help you frame yourself as someone who is smart and attuned to the business. Speaking to large groups whether you’re presenting in a boardroom or on a stage requires practice and without mastery of this skill, it’s difficult to be taken seriously as a leader—of anything.
3. Control your narrative
In simple terms, the answer to the question of what it takes to succeed can be reduced to a single capacity: Influence.
Perhaps, the most important tip I can give about leadership is to expand your network outside of your company and build credibility and yourself as an industry expert. Your power and influence should not be tethered to the role and company you work for. Your brand and expertise should come as a package and you should freely use it to be recruited and take it with you when you leave.
If leaving a company or a role completely demolishes your career and access, then you're doing this leadership thing all wrong.
4. Invest in yourself
Learn from those who’ve come before you. The blueprint may already exist and you can focus on making it better. Build your network, engage with mentors, and attend conferences to learn and model existing leaders who boldly own their careers. The most underrated way to accomplish this is reading.
Seriously, read a book.
Generations of people have scribed their experiences and struggle, and have transformed them into rich resources for the taking. Tap into the lessons of great leaders through books and podcasts is a free way to up your game.
5. Know that everyone is the plug
Most people think it’s the high-level leader that’s critical, and while I can’t argue that it’s important to know a C-suite executive’s name, it’s their support staff who you really need to win over. Treat everyone like a stakeholder!
Insider Tip: Figure out ways to build relationships with the support staff (i.e. executive admins, chief of staff, project managers, etc.) because they are the gatekeepers for high-level leaders. It’s a simple, effective tip, but often overlooked.
You never know when remembering an assistant’s birthday could get you access to the best conference room for a key client meeting or face time with a key executive.
6. Work twice as hard or nahhhh
For decades, Black parents (well, at least mine) have ascribed to the Black tax telling their children that in order to succeed, they need to be twice as good, twice as smart, twice as dependable, and twice as talented. This thinking was nearly my detriment as Black leader. The only thing this phrase does is perpetuate bondage and burnout.
This "double shift" mentality undermines your self-worth and the self-confidence you need to lead effectively. It sets you up to be the doer, the note taker, project manger, and the professional doing all the work behind the scenes while someone else is the delegator and relationship manger with key stakeholders. Working more efficiently and effectively is the plug.
Instead, of working hard, work smarter.
Go after high-visibility projects that enhance your corporate network and propel your personal brand as one who consistently delivers effective results. It’s important you safeguard your workload. Your job is to remember your differences are your strength and to master the business. Don’t confuse being excellent with being overloaded.
7. A leader gonna lead
There’s a saying that leadership isn’t the problem, it's the solution.
If there is one thing a leader must do, it is energize the performance of others. Great leaders don’t tell you what they do, they show you how it’s done. At its core, leadership is a relationship between those who choose to lead and those who choose to follow.
At the heart of leadership is people. Any discussion of leadership must attend to the dynamics of the people relationship. As your career matures, a sign that your leadership skills have also grown is your ability to influence other people to be great leaders. Even still, leaders don’t decide who leads, followers do.