I see this question asked very frequently. What do I need to do to become a leader? How do I become a leader? As an individual contributor, I’ve also asked myself this very question. I read a book after book on leadership and yet I never exercised what I read. And then I realized it’s not about reading, it is almost entirely about doing. Can we learn how to play tennis by reading about it? Not really. We can learn the rules, but gaining any capability without practice isn’t possible.
It’s almost like asking how do I become a hiker or how do I become a sculptor. I think the answer I was looking for was always there, you hike, you sculpt and you lead. Over the years I realized that we become what we do on a daily basis. It is as simple as that. If you spend a significant portion of your day gardening, you can’t help but become a gardener, same goes for just about any other activity you can think of. We become what we practice.
Another misconception I discovered is the idea that we need to be given a specific title to be leaders. If I am promoted to a management position, where some number of people report to me, then I will become a leader. These perception is wrong on a number of levels.
Even though the best managers are also fantastic leaders. Fundamentally speaking, management is not synonymous with a leadership. The job of a manager is being responsible for a smooth operation of a business unit and its people, making sure resource allocation is on point with qualified people doing what they need to do well, maintaining performance expectations, hiring, and otherwise managing staff while keeping the overall business objective in mind. It is running the business.
The leader on the other hand is spearhead of change. It is a person on the frontline of transformation of some sort, a change agent. Martin Luther King Jr was a leader, as was Michael Jordan but they were not managers necessarily. Some of the fantastic leaders I have had a chance to work with are managers, but some aren’t, and yet they practice leadership each and every day.
So what can any of us do to start practicing leadership in our work, even if we are not in a “leadership position”?
The answer, at least in mind, is very simple. Start small, but as Nike said, “Just do it”. Below are a few helpful steps to start today.
1. Find a problem that needs to be solved.
What are the pain points you, your colleagues or customers are experiencing, while doing their jobs. What are the things you are seeing around you that you think should be changed or improved. (I wrote about this process in one fo the blog posts) Do you think some parts of your workflow should be automated. Do you see some processes that are inefficient or wasteful and can be streamlined? Do you see systemic issues that keep happening over and over gain? Those are perfect candidates for you to take ownership of and lead the change.
2. Create a one-pager proposal that describes what you want to get done.
The proposal should include a clear problem statement, your take of how this problem should be solved with one or two alternative solutions (may be a few words of why you prefer one solution over others), a very rough roadmap. Also include some level of effort estimate. Will it take just you a couple of days or weeks or will it require 10 engineers a year. Just a rough T-shirt size estimate will do at this point. Get a few of your colleagues with the right level of expertise to review your proposal and make any suggestions for you to address, if needed. With these reviewers the proposal will hold much more weight.
3. Present your proposal.
Present this proposal to your manager or a leadership team. Focusing on the problem you want to solve. At this point, it’s possible your team’s work for the entire year and or a given quarter has already been planned. But here is where a clear problem statement and an explanation of how this work will facilitate efficiency uplift in the work that aligns with the organization’s current objectives will be super helpful. Your energy, a sense of ownership, and a clear business case and ROI is highly unlikely to be ignored. Even in the worst case, if your suggestion is deferred for the time being, it will be looked at in a very positive light, since you are taking initiative, showing a drive to make an improvement, you are showing the essence of leadership. (Don’t stop here there a countless issues to be addressed if you continue to look)
4. Design + Implementation.
Time to go the next step and create a more detailed design of the solution, get it reviewed and do the project management of planning and executing the work.
5. Demo and Onboarding
Now that you have implemented the change, whether it’s a technical system change or a process it’s time to do a demo. A demo can be in a form of stepping through the process or, if that is not possible, presenting what you have done in a document or slide deck. Get feedback, get people excited and get people to pilot what you have created. If there is value in this change, it is inevitable that as long as people discover and learn about it, they will likely adapt it and love it. Spreading the word and doing a bit of marketing at this stage is very valuable.
Here is the important part, even though you have taken ownership of this change, does not mean you have to do it alone. In fact, ideally you should not do it alone. As a leader your energy and enthusiasm will very likely attract people to want to help in your effort. Don’t be afraid to ask. Recruit people and teams to try what you have implemented as beta users. Ask people who are subject matter experts in software development, UX, databases, documentation, marketing or any other specialization to provide their advice and expertise. The key throughout the process is keeping your management or leadership team in the loop of your progress. They are your sponsors and champions and also benefit from your effort since it aligns with the organization’s strategy and objectives. It is truly a win-win situation.
Another interesting part of this process is that your mindset changes unexpectedly quickly and you automatically start looking for things that can be solved and taking initiative, starting a conversation, trying to move the needle in the right direction, without even trying.
A side effect of this leadership mindset is getting to know people outside of your immediate circle, building relationships, building a reputation as a leader and having a lot more fun. Now waking up on a Monday morning actually sounds pretty awesome.
It can be transforming for your career and your life.
Take initiative, take ownership, make things happen. You become what you practice!