Being a business owner, CEO or manager is a tough task and it’s definitely not for the faint at heart. There’s a certain leadership acumen required to sustain success in those roles, and just because you hold those titles doesn’t mean you’re a leader. “Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading,” Monique Valcour, an executive coach and management professor, asserts via Harvard Business Review.
There’s a process where traits are developed and cultivated with training and experience, and that process is vital to truly embodying the actions of a leader. “Resisting the developmental journey of leadership is like flying to an exciting locale, but then spending your whole time there in the airport bar,” Valcour further states.
I’ve been thrown into leadership roles much of my life. As the oldest daughter, I often had to look after my younger sister and my then-timid but bright older brother while my mom worked. As a National Honor Society student and scholar in high school, there was always this drive to actively participate and remain within the top 10 percent of my class. As an adult, I’ve always had that independent streak that motivated me to seek more out of my career and life in general, and while I had a bit of help along the way, the buck, literally, always ended with me.
As I’ve grown in my professional journey, I’ve had the opportunity to manage teams small and large—at companies small and large —and one common thread that got me through it all was leadership development. It was extremely important in order to meet the sole goal of inspiring and motivating others to take collective action to achieve something innovative and progressive.
And boy, did I make a lot of mistakes. So, from those, here are three bucket-list actions to add to your leadership development journey. Each has helped me to level up in my approach, become more strategic, and continue growing and learning as a woman in leadership:
1. Invest in leadership training and education.
I never thought I’d pursue any sort of advanced degree. All of the old-school journalists and editors I’d looked up to never had them and simply did the work. Their boots-to-the-ground approach to education was what I thought would sustain me throughout my leadership journey. Wrong.
For me, getting actual training and learning in a structured environment with other entrepreneurs, managers and executives, and gaining insight from some of the country’s top leadership and management scholars helped me get over a career rut after being in leadership positions in media for over a decade. Getting my master’s degree in organizational leadership did wonders for how I approach management, how I listen and communicate with teams, and how I’m able to motivate others. The combination of science with the experience is the perfect mix for not only reversing toxic habits I’d taken on from some not-so-great past experiences with bosses, but it helps me put things perspective before impulsively mimicking the leadership actions of others.
I’m not saying every leader should go get an MBA or other advanced degree, but if you’re struggling with skills like effective communication and team engagement, strategic leadership, or visioning, investing in a few management courses, workshops, or certificate programs is the move.
Be sure that there an interactive component somewhere in there (ie actually immersion in management scenarios or the opportunity to actually put management principles into real-life action) because there’s nothing more tragic than having all the management book smarts in the world but your team still won’t listen to you or find working for you rewarding enough to do amazing things.
2. Volunteer to take the lead on more challenging projects.
Nothing stretches leadership more than taking a risk. When I was a print copy editor for a national magazine, I’d felt the tinges of boredom coming, so I decided to volunteer to lead a section that not only would add more work to my plate but one that was totally outside of the content duties I was familiar with.
Taking on the new role, I able to expand my professional network, but I got to be the boss on something totally new that I could make my own and run with. I built my own team, curated events and campaigns around this particular content, and became a leading force among a whole new audience for that particular publication. I was also able to employ additional people, work with global companies, and enhance my resume.
Was it frustrating and scary at times? Yes. Did I know exactly what I was doing all the time? No. Did I have mentors and colleagues in that space to lend a helping hand? Indeed.
Had I not volunteered, I would have been stuck in a one-dimensional role at the company. And funny enough, while it was a leadership role, the job eventually became obsolete. Having the vision to not only volunteer to handle a content area I knew had potential for growth and longevity was a smart move that helped my career in the long run.
Volunteering, even if for career advancement, still involves an element of service, which is another key factor in expanding your leadership skills and becoming a successful leader. Any time you can think of ways to not only challenge yourself but to give in a way that serves the greater good of the company you work for (or the company you’re building), you’re in a win-win situation. At that time, the company had no one who was in the role I’d volunteered for, and to be honest, they didn’t see the multi-million-dollar viability of what would become. It’s awesome to look back at the great things we were able to accomplish, the people whose careers got jump starts, and the expansion of understanding, knowledge and innovation I was able to be part of for an underserved communities.
3. Travel to new places and expand your perspective of human connection, communication, and engagement.
One key thing traveling anywhere, whether it’s abroad or between U.S. coasts, has taught me is that leadership is all about human connection and engagement. It’s both enlightening and humbling to take a step back and learn from others in different locales and within different community and business cultures.
My favorite place in the world to take trips to is Jamaica, and many activities, especially those that include any sort of interaction with a business, will test every bit of patience you have in you. And just when you want to get angry and lose your cool, you’re reminded that having great humility, gift-of-gab, and problem-solving skills can make or break a great leader. You have to be able to think on your feet, endear yourself to people’s sensibilities, delicately assert yourself when necessary, and tap into emotional intelligence. (Plus, who wants to be that entitled American focusing on annoyances and ignorantly comparing the practices and pace of two totally different countries, with two totally different business infrastructures, two totally different GDPs, and several totally different ways of doing things).
You’ll also be reminded that we’re all part of an ecosystem in which each step, action, inaction, and reaction play a unique role, and as leaders, you want to be someone who is part of keeping that system fluid, efficient, and viable. When you travel to places or spaces that are outside of your comfort zone, you’re forced to face your insecurities and weaknesses, overcome the presumptions you’ve made about others, and determine new ways to relate with those with different opinions, experiences, and perceptions. Take on that global client.
Travel and observe how others run their businesses. Attend conferences and events in a different market or zone. Take meetings and partner with smart, successful people who don’t look like you (and that includes us, my Black sistas in leadership).
Bonus: Get out of your head, away from emails, and go against the usual way of thinking in order to do leadership differently.
Sometimes “travel” might even mean getting out of your office, stepping away from those executive-only meetings, going beyond Slack and emails, past management check-ins, and actually engaging, face-to-face, with teams to talk to folk. See how they do their jobs, ask them the hard questions (or allow them to anonymously offer insights) and get to know people beyond your usual point of reference. Try a new way of doing something, empower others to think (and act) outside the box when it makes sense, and re-evaluate your processes to ensure they’re still relevant, rewarding, and efficient. Troubleshoot how you can better serve those you are leading. This has always led to great things for me.
One great example of this was when I found, while leading a content team for another major publisher, that sometimes getting fresh ideas meant taking risks on hiring people who might not be top-of-mind but had the potential to succeed. I took a chance on a writer once who had only gotten clips through a smaller niche publication. She ended up going on to do amazing things, leading content at other large publications, after her time working on my team, and she told me, “You were the first boss who empowered me, let me lead, and treated me with respect. I appreciate that.” I found another amazing writer and editor by giving someone a chance who contacted me via Twitter. Her resume was also light but she had the go-getter attitude, thinking, and tenacity to do the job at the time. (She also went on to do great things at larger pubs.)
Be deliberate in nurturing the lifelong learner in you to constantly grow and serve as a leader. The longer I remain in management, I’m constantly reminded how much more I need to learn about leadership and serving others in leadership roles. This is something I’m intrigued by, and it puts a fire under my purpose. I hope it will do the same for you.