How to Be an Entry-Level Leader

Lay the foundation early for a long and rewarding HR career.

Martin Yate By Martin Yate September 27, 2017
How to Be an Entry-Level Leader

​Illustration by James Smallwood for HR Magazine.

​Just because you haven’t made it to the executive suite (yet) doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. In fact, if you’re in the early stages of your career, you have a unique opportunity, since you cannot become a strong leader unless you first learn how to be a good follower. You can cultivate leadership skills from the very start of your career: Doing so increases your value as a team member, and, as your career progresses, it will strengthen your job security as it helps you climb the ladder of success.

Leadership savvy is a skill you must learn; it’s not a trait you are born with. Here are a few tips to support your success and stability. 

Look in the Mirror

Once you get your first job and start earning your own way, whatever becomes of your career is up to you and you alone. The people who care about your personal well-being most likely have no influence in your professional world. It is never too soon to take responsibility for planning and guiding your future path.

Begin with objectively analyzing all the skills you need to execute your responsibilities and bringing them all up to excellence. This includes not only those abilities that come naturally but also, more importantly, the ones you struggle with. Achieving success depends on seeing your weaknesses for what they are, understanding how they can hinder your growth and then turning them into strengths. 

Learn How Your Organization Makes Money

Every company exists to make a profit, and each role within an organization supports that goal in some way. 

Think of your department as a cog in your employer’s money-making machinery and understand the function your team performs in contributing to this profit imperative. Then consider how the part you play contributes to that goal (you’re a cog within a cog!) and recognize that your presence and performance, however small they might seem, are critical to the success of the whole. Take this to heart: It’s the mindset that successful people have.

Next, learn how all the different job titles within your group contribute to the common goals and responsibilities of the department. Given that the people in each function represent another gear in the machine, you’ll recognize that, for the department to function optimally, they must all turn smoothly together—and that requires teamwork. Search for, and take note of, the top performers in each area of responsibility and study their behavior and performance. Learn the role that each plays and how the execution of your responsibilities can best contribute to their efforts. You’ll develop teamwork skills and get to know those with the most influence.

Leadership requires you to first learn to successfully work with others toward goals far greater than individual performance can deliver. In following a leader’s plan for meeting departmental goals, you will come to understand how all the pieces fit together—which will give you a wider frame of reference for making your mark. 

Your awareness, quiet commitment and drive for the common good will be infectious, and you’ll bring the best colleagues along with you. Leadership starts and grows with leading by example.

Build a Network of Allies

Make a positive difference with your presence at work every day in every way you can. Do your job first; then, whenever it does not interfere with executing your responsibilities, find a way to congratulate, encourage or help a colleague. Never let good work go unrecognized. Your attention to detail and in helping to create a positive environment are all foundational to leadership.

High-performers usually appreciate a willing hand; in turn, they can have a positive impact on your opportunities for growth. Make connections with people who work outside the department but with whom you interact on a regular basis, building lasting relationships. You’ll be seen as a team player, and you will broaden your network of influential colleagues throughout the company.

Pick Up Responsibilities

Assuming leadership always takes extra time and effort, but it pays you back throughout your career. 

Cast about for opportunities until you find a job that needs to be done and would make life easier for your boss or the team. These are usually things that aren’t high priorities on anybody’s list. They might seem too small to bother with, and doing them may not bring immediate prestige, but if you can recognize a way that taking on the responsibility can make a difference to the department’s success, do it.

I call these “vacuum tasks” based on an experience I had with a former boss. One day when we were walking together down a hall, he noticed a gum wrapper on the floor, so he bent down to pick it up. “Only two people would do that: the janitor and maybe the president; they both know who I am,” he said, smiling.

My boss applied this attitude each day, and, given his other attributes, he rose like a rocket. I’ve come to call this the “vacuum theory” of career growth, and I’ve personally watched it have enormous impact on others’ advancement.

Build Foundations of Success

Achieve excellence in every aspect of your work, strive to help the department be consistently successful, cultivate relationships with your colleagues—we are known by the company we keep—and assume responsibilities without being asked when the opportunity arises. These are the foundations of leadership. As you build your network of influential allies, they will come to see you as one of them. At the same time, managers will value you for curing their headaches instead of causing them, and your career will flourish.   

Martin Yate is a former HR professional and best-selling author who delivers resume and coaching services at KnockEmDead.com. His Career Q&A column appears every Tuesday on SHRM.org.

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