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Don’t Wait to Be Asked: Lead

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Ask people what they would change about their organizations, and you are likely to get an earful. The company website is clunky; it’s past time to rethink that tired growth strategy; and why oh why does the sales team continue to neglect potential customers in South America?

Someone should really do something. But who?

“There’s some magical group of people called ‘those guys,’ who are men and women we have to wait for,” says Harry Kraemer, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School. But the better path, he says, is to lose the shroud of magic around this group and simply become part of it. “The people who are really the leaders—the real, true leaders—are the people who literally say, ‘Well wait a minute. I am one of ‘those guys.’”

He offers the following roadmap to future leaders looking to change their organizations right now.

1. Lead from where you are. If you work for an organization, no matter your role, you already have all the clout you need to begin leading, Kraemer says.

“When I bring up this topic, very often younger people will say, ‘I really want to be a leader, but I’ve got this one slight problem: I don’t have anybody reporting to me. When I get the phone call that I’ve now got a couple of people reporting to me, I’m going to shove this thing into fifth gear and start leading.’”

But leadership doesn’t require direct reports, or a long tenure at an organization, says Kraemer. You are equally capable of leading “whether you’ve got 50,000 people reporting to you or nobody.”

2. Start offering solutions. See some problems? Go ahead! Take them to your boss. But make it a point to offer one or two solutions as well.

In fact, early in his career, Kraemer had a boss who rewarded his direct reports through a point system: one point for mentioning a problem, one thousand points for bringing a solution.

“If I come to my boss and say, ‘here’s an issue or an opportunity’ without coming up with at least one solution, there is not much reward. But if I bring at least one or two potential solutions, I am leading. I may be well aware of the fact that my boss has fifteen years of experience, where I may only have fifteen weeks. The company may decide to do something very different in the end, but I’m not watching the movie. I’m in the movie.”

In other words, your solutions may be terrible. They may be impractical and unwieldy. But the very act of generating solutions announces to yourself and others that you are a person who wants to get things done.

Just be aware that acting on problems, rather than simply finding them, requires a strong backbone. “It’s much, much easier to sit in the stands and talk about all of the issues,” says Kraemer. Being a leader, he says, requires adopting the mindset of, “I’ve really got to get off my duff here and be held accountable, take responsibility, and deal with the consequences.”

3. Do your research. Learn everything you can about your organization, even if—especially if—it appears to have little or nothing to do with your own position.Stay attuned to information you may not ordinarily be privy to. What programs, divisions, or special task forces might be operating that you don’t even know about?

When Kraemer was a financial analyst at Baxter International, where he would eventually serve as chairman and CEO, he was standing in the checkout line at a grocery store when an acquaintance asked him a question: What did he think of the recent acquisition made by Division A?

“I didn’t know that we had made an acquisition,” Kraemer confesses. “And my real frustration or embarrassment was I didn’t even realize that Division A was part of Baxter! I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the last day that’s ever going to happen.’”

For his part, Kraemer used to listen to a recording of the quarterly conference call where Baxter’s CEO and CFO took questions from shareholders and analysts. “I would play the question, I would stop the tape, and I would say, ‘If I was the CFO or CEO, how would I answer the question?’”

4. Build your network. As part of your research, make a point to get to know two or three people in every function, division, and business unit of your organization. What are your colleagues in IT up to? What about your colleagues in Japan? The idea, says Kraemer, is to create a “tremendous network across all areas of the organization.”

This takes time, especially when you are also conducting your daily business. Volunteering for special projects is often a good starting point. Even something as informal as offering assistance to a team member in another department can be a window into complex processes and problems facing other arms of the organization.

Don’t worry about whom you are helping or how high up they are in the organizational hierarchy, says Kraemer. “Don’t think, ‘What do I get out of it?’” Instead, simply reach out to whomever you think you can help and learn what you can about the organization in the process.

5. Encourage future leaders. As you practice active leadership, do your best to inspire others to do the same. Wherever you sit, encourage those around you to speak up, offer solutions, and take on special projects that will expand their own networks and understanding.

Of course, empowering your colleagues to lead is an act of leadership in its own right. But it also works to cement your position as an integral hub in your organization. If each of your connections is encouraged to have three or four connections of her own, fairly soon you will have access to a highly robust network.

This level of connectivity and awareness will make you better in your current role. “Yes, you’re good at your area or your function, but you also understand extremely well how your area fits into the total organization,” says Kraemer.

Ultimately the breadth of your connections—and your willingness to use them to get things done—may finally give you enough influence to match your ambitions. “Do you want to be a phenomenal human resource professional who works for your organization,” asks Kraemer, “or do you want to be one of the people running your organization who still, among other things, knows a lot about human resources?”

Jessica Love is the editor-in-chief of Kellogg Insight, where this piece first appeared. It is republished here with permission of the Kellogg School of Management. 

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