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You Can Teach Yourself How to Be a Leader

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Most people who are good at school follow a pretty straightforward strategy: study hard, get good grades, repeat. This basic approach to achievement stays the same from elementary school all the way through college.

But while school is strategically simple, business is among the most complex of games. It’s not always clear how people get ahead. When I was working at a consulting firm right after college, I noticed that the most successful analysts and managers seemed to spend most of their time pitching new clients rather than working on projects. This gave me pause. Why were the best analysts spending so little time on their current clients? Was I focusing too narrowly on my limited range of tasks? And most importantly, how was my role preparing me to do anything other than that same job?

These kinds of questions are confronted by many talented young people as they navigate the early stages of their careers. Luckily, there are steps recent graduates can take to help prepare themselves for leadership roles. But first, it’s helpful to take a look at exactly what leadership means in the world of work.

Making decisions is harder than it looks

Most people hired straight out of school are assessed primarily on their smarts and work ethic. Entry-level lawyers, bankers, software developers, marketers, and professionals in many other industries begin their careers in some kind of apprentice position. They cut their teeth cranking away at the tasks they are assigned, with relatively little autonomy. This is a tough phase, but it retains much of the strategic simplicity of school. You can do well just by working hard and doing what your manager tells you.

But after this initial stage, you have to show that you can do more than follow instructions in order to keep moving up. Once people become managers, their communication and organizational skills are weighted more heavily than simple productivity. The work is too big for one person to accomplish at that point. Managers must be able to steer the more complex initiatives with many moving parts.

Young people may be puzzled by the lack of fixed rules in many workplaces. In school, you’re expected to prove that you know how to follow instructions and give teachers exactly what they’ve asked for. Many contemporary businesses, however, rely on “innovation” to succeed. We celebrate the people who dream up new ways to form a companydeliver a product, or even pay their employees. Screw the rules.

Companies also expect workers to flex some serious decision-making muscles as they climb the ladder. The percentage of things that are already decided for you goes way down, and you must make up the difference. As the decision-maker, you are accountable for the outcomes—good and bad. This level of accountability can be stressful for even the strongest thinkers, since most of us have more experience forming opinions than we do making big decisions. Even a former straight-A student has probably never faced such a high risk of failure.

I’ve seen a lot of inexperienced managers cope with the risk and uncertainty of decision-making by hedging rather than taking a firm stance on an issue. I used this tactic a lot after I left the consulting firm to join a software startup. Being so close to the big decisions of a company at age 23 was cool, but also a little unnerving for me.

Thankfully, the CEO mercilessly called me out whenever I tried to hedge a recommendation. If I said that a candidate was “good,” he would counter with, “So you’re saying we should hire her?” If I remarked that a new feature could help our product, he’d respond, “So you’re saying we should invest in it?” After a while, the lesson sank in. Ideas and opinions were nice, but the business moved on decisions. I needed to think ideas through and make decisions rather than pass the buck. I needed to grow up.

Think like a leader from the start

Even the most intense apprenticeship phase isn’t designed to endow you with leadership skills. That’s why you should find ways to develop these skills on your own, as soon as you get your feet wet. Here is some advice I’ve given to the people I’ve managed take over the years:

Think big. Make sure you understand in a deep way how you create value for the business. Whether you’re pouring over Excel spreadsheets or doing clerical work, you should be making connections between your immediate tasks and their broader outcomes. When you understand why certain tasks matter, you’re in a better position to set priorities—which in turn will help prepare you to transition into management. Plus, you’ll get practice understanding how different roles contribute to the company’s success in a larger context. That’s a necessary skill for people who want to be effective managers and help their team members grow as individuals.

Find opportunities to speak up with new ideas. Part of being a steward of the business is bringing new opportunities and ideas to the table. You don’t need to be a manager to do that. Remember that voicing new ideas involves some risk, but part of becoming a leader is honing your risk tolerance so that you know when to hold back and when to bet big.

Start with what you know best. I increased my own confidence early in my career by identifying small improvements to my company’s software. I gradually got bolder as I internalized our strategy and understood the technology.

Don’t settle for just introducing a good idea; you need to learn what it takes to see that idea all the way through from concept to execution. Remember, even the best ideas usually need helpgetting over the goal line.

Get comfortable with debate and conflict. When I became a manager, I wasn’t prepared for how much time and energy I’d have to spend explaining and defending my decisions. Not only do you have to own your outcomes, you also have to be your own PR person. Every question and complaint now lands in your inbox or knocks on your door, and the more decisions you make, the more knocks you get. Many times I asked myself, “Why did they give me the responsibility if they’re going to question every decision I make?”

The truth is that while I was occasionally micromanaged, my colleagues often had legitimate concerns, better ideas, or were jus trying to better understand my reasoning. New managers often grumble about how all the meetings and e-mails make their job harder without realizing that, to a large extent, communication is their job.

Emerging as a leader in any organization doesn’t just introduce the possibility of conflict—it guarantees it. Everyone in a company has their own knowledge, experiences, biases, and blind spots. It is inevitable that some of your ideas will clash with the ideas of others. So early on, learn not to shy away from debate. The more practice you get navigating these healthy kinds of conflict, the less enervating you’ll find it when you start encountering disagreement more regularly.

The upshot

These tips all have two big things in common. To be a successful leader, you have to learn to consider how your work affects others, and how to work with people to get things done. The higher up you go in any organization, the harder it is to get things done on your own. So invest in building relationships every step of the way, and you’ll have more people who want to see you succeed when your time comes.

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