If you want to advance within your company, it’s likely that you will have to take on a leadership role. But to secure such a position, you might feel you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: It’s difficult to acquire leadership experience until you take on a leadership role, but you need that experience to qualify for the position.
In reality, there are many opportunities to develop your leadership skills, both within your organization and externally. You just need to know where to look.
Keep learning. Taking classes and seminars through professional associations or local universities can enhance your leadership abilities. These courses don’t have to be IT-related, especially since soft skills, not technical abilities, often are most important to a new manager’s success. Consider subject areas such as project management, written communication or public speaking. And if your annual performance review includes a 360-degree review, you can learn about the areas that require improvement, and use that information to target particular classes to take.
Be sure to inform your boss of any professional development activities you are pursuing. You may receive financial assistance from the company for your studies, and your supervisor might allow you flexibility to attend classes or know of internal classes that could be helpful. Your efforts also will prove you’re serious about doing more.
Increase your involvement. Instead of simply doing what’s assigned to you, volunteer for new tasks. Doing so demonstrates your willingness to broaden the scope of your position and could provide you with valuable leadership experience. But the key is to start small to make sure you can handle the new responsibility.
Also, a great way to show company leaders you have leadership skills is to take on tasks that fall outside your job description. By tackling new and challenging assignments, you will enhance your skill set and give yourself a better understanding of how the firm operates.
Opportunities also exist outside the workplace. If you belong to a computer science or IT association, offer to serve on a committee. Or volunteer with a nonprofit organization, where you can develop your leadership abilities with a group that would welcome your assistance.
Develop your communication skills. Communication skills are especially important for those in leadership roles who must be able to get their messages across to a variety of employees. These abilities can be taught, but you may also pick them up through observation and practice.
For example, you can pattern your communication skills after people you think are strong communicators, such as respected politicians. You also can develop these skills at an organization such as Toastmasters, which can help you speak clearly, avoid distracting behaviors — such as using “ums” and “ahs” — and formulate your message.
And practicing communication skills doesn’t just mean talking to people: You also must learn to be a good listener. This entails focusing completely on each conversation and resisting the urge to interrupt, even if you have valuable input. It also demonstrates to the other person that you’re taking the discussion seriously.
Serve as a mentor and/or mentee. One of the best ways to build leadership skills is to advise a new or junior employee at your organization. Many individuals can benefit from your experience and expertise, while you can enhance your communication and motivational abilities. If your firm doesn’t have a mentoring program, offer to start one yourself, or look for opportunities outside of work. A local IT group may be able to pair you with someone starting out in the industry who is seeking such guidance.
In addition to serving as a mentor, it’s also wise to get one yourself. Someone who holds a leadership position can provide valuable advice on how he or she got there. The person also can provide you with critical feedback to help in areas you may not be aware actually need improvement.
Seek out someone you respect either within or outside of your company, and find out if he or she is available to meet with you on occasion, either in person or by phone or e-mail. It doesn’t need to be a formal arrangement, just as long as you have someone you can talk to about your career.
Quality leaders are always in demand at IT organizations. You already have the advantage of experience within and knowledge about your firm, so by improving your leadership skills, you’ll make yourself even more qualified for advancement.
Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.