How to Develop Leadership Skills in Your Entry-Level Job

By Martin Yate Jul 18, 2017
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Just because you aren't in the executive suite (yet) doesn't mean you can't become a leader. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

How can I develop HR leadership skills while I'm in an entry-level job? I like my boss a lot and we work well together. I'm thinking about asking him to mentor me. He's super busy, and I don't want to impose. I'm grateful for any advice on how to approach him and what to ask for specifically. Thanks!

It is common knowledge that you cannot become a good leader unless you first know how to be a good follower, working productively with others toward a common goal that, individually, you couldn't accomplish. You are asking the right question at the right time because this is a skill you can develop from the very start of your career: Being able to follow increases your value as a team member and, as your career progresses, it will strengthen your job security and your ability to climb the career ladder.

Leadership skills will help you advance through the ranks of management. Some managers have leadership savvy, some don't, and some develop it along the way, because it is an ability you learn, not one you are born with. Because effective management requires leadership skills, your development of them can never start too soon.

Leadership Begins with You

Leadership begins when you take responsibility for your future. Once you become an adult, get a job and start earning your own way, whatever becomes of your career is up to you. The people who care about your personal well-being most likely have no influence in your professional world. The path to success begins with taking ownership for becoming the best you can be within your areas of responsibility on the job.

First, objectively analyze all the skills you need to execute your responsibilities and bring them all up to excellence—not only those skills that come naturally, but also, and more importantly, the ones you struggle with. Success in life depends on seeing your weaknesses for what they are and how they can hinder your growth, and then turning them into strengths.

How Do You Help Your Organization Make Money?

Every organization exists to make a profit, and every job within the organization supports that goal in some way. Think of your department as a cog in the money-making machinery of the organization and understand the function it performs in contributing to this profit imperative. Then consider how the role you play contributes to that goal. Although you are a small cog in a complex piece of machinery, your presence and performance is critical to the success of the whole organization. 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. As each different title represents another cog in the money-making machine, you'll recognize that, for the department to function optimally, all these cogs should turn smoothly, and that requires teamwork.

Search for and take note of the best performers in each different area of responsibility. Learn the role each person plays and how you can best contribute as part of the team effort.

As we discussed, learning to lead requires you to first learn to follow. Here you are following the leader's plan for delivering on departmental goals. Your understanding of how all the pieces fit together as a smoothly functioning whole and how every job function contributes gives you a wider frame of reference for making your mark. Your awareness and quiet commitment and drive for the common good will be infectious and bring the best colleagues along with you.

Build a Network of Allies

Make a difference for good 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 help a colleague.

Those who are the best in their different jobs will most likely appreciate a willing hand and, in turn, can have a positive impact on your opportunities for growth. Make connections and build relationships with people who work outside the department but with whom you interact on a regular basis. You'll be seen as a team player and will broaden your network of influential colleagues throughout the company.

Pick Up Responsibilities

As you get to know the functions of the department intimately and the players who make things happen, you'll notice that some tasks that could help simply aren't being done. These are usually tasks that aren't high priorities on anybody's list, or they seem too small to bother about. Yet if you can see that, when completed, such a task can make a difference to the department's success, you have identified an opportunity to build leadership skills and get them recognized.

Assuming leadership always takes extra time and effort but pays you back throughout your career. Cast around for such opportunities until you find a job that needs to be done and would make life easier for your boss or the team, then quietly assume the responsibility and see it through to completion, without allowing it to take up formal work hours. This leadership tactic has become known as the "vacuum theory" of career growth, and I've personally watched it have enormous impact on a couple of careers.

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 all known by the company we keep) and assume responsibility when the opportunity arises: these are the foundations of leadership. As you build a network of influential allies who will come to see you as one of them, your management will see you curing headaches instead of causing them, and your career will grow.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.  

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