Becoming a Manager and Leader: How to Start

Many young professionals would like to become managers and leaders as they grow in their careers. But how do you start? Many junior level staff are looking for ways to breakthrough to the next level of supervision or management.  This article talks about how to make this jump.

Recognizing Opportunities

The first step to growing in any organization is to recognize opportunities when they present themselves. And sometimes, these opportunities might seem small – so small, in fact, they may be missed as opportunities from the start.

Let’s look at some examples. These are actual stories from leaders who tried to help junior level staff grow in their organization:

  • “I knew there were many junior and mid-level staff in my department who wanted supervisory experience. They had taken the right training and told their supervisors they were interested in that next step. However, when I announced the chance for a staff member to oversee a summer high-school intern, no one applied! I couldn’t understand why. I asked some of my younger higher achievers why they didn’t pursue the opportunity. They all responded that that seemed too small – they wanted to lead a team, not some high school student.
  • “Every year, we look for a volunteer to be our department representative for a company-wide outreach initiative. Every year, we have a hard time filling the role. People say, ‘I’m looking for a leadership opportunity, not a team member role. I work on teams every day – I am waiting for a real leadership opportunity.”
  • “I was looking for someone to lead a new project. It was a special project that had come down from senior leadership in the organization – the stakes were quite high because the outcome had not been clearly defined, but they wanted to see demonstrated progress in a short amount of time. I offered the opportunity to some talented mid-level individual contributors who wanted to expand into project management. They all said no, saying they only wanted to work on a project where they knew they could be successful. This felt too high risk, because the outcomes wanted were too vague.”

All three of these leaders recognized the potential growth that these opportunities could have had for their staff members – but none of those staff members saw it.  The staff were looking for a big step ahead and did not recognize the incremental learning and benefits that could have come from stepping up for these tasks.


Developing 10 Core Skills for Management and Leadership

Let’s use the three case studies above to identify 10 core skills that aspiring managers and leaders should focus on developing to prepare for the next step in their careers:

  1. Recognizing Opportunities/Being Adaptable: In all the case studies above, an opportunity was presented that could have led to real growth – and everyone passed it by. The opportunity to lead a high school student could lead to opportunities to define projects that future interns could do – and then the opportunity to lead that team of interns. The opportunity to serve on a cross-organization team could provide important contacts for the future. Being ready for leadership means looking beyond the request at hand to what it could be in the future.
  2. Time Management: Recognizing opportunities when presented, and being ready to pursue them in real-time takes exceptional time management. It is vital to have a good sense of how fast you work on what types of projects, and what your priorities are at any given moment. This allows you to accurately gauge the demands of new opportunities, while not compromising your current job. The saying is true: Want to get something done? Give it to a busy person. Why? Because they are the ones who generally see time as an asset, not the enemy.
  3. Group Facilitation and Team Building: One leader we know shared that she really became interested in being a manager the day she stepped in and started facilitating a meeting that was going poorly. “I couldn’t take it anymore, “ she said. “I had to step in and do something to get us back on track. That was the first day I remember really stepping up and thinking – I could lead! I informally took over the team that day – and no one seemed to mind!”
  4. Exercising Courage/Speaking Up: Recognizing opportunities, and stepping into facilitate or build a struggling team, takes another skill: exercising courage and speaking up.  Emerging leaders are willing to take calculated risks.  They also recognize that sometimes, things will go wrong – people may be upset that you tried to take something over. The project you stepped up to lead may get cancelled. Real leadership also means demonstrating the ability to be resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks. In the example above of the project that was not yet well-defined – what a wonderful chance to get in and define it yourself!  It is hard to fail when no one has said what success looks like. Instead of viewing uncertainty as risky, see it as a chance to make your mark.
  5. Leading without Formal Power: Another closely related skill is the ability to lead without formal power. Often, junior staff say that they’re waiting for management to make a decision. Or they will share the common objection, “that’s above my pay grade.” Emerging managers are willing to lead, even before it is their job to do so. They take on responsibility and authority where it is offered, and lead people and projects without the formal authority to do so. It is often said that you need to be doing a job for a year before somebody gives it to you. You must lead without power to get the power to lead.
  6. Ask for Help: A common complaint from junior staff who want to lead is that they aren’t given opportunities to delegate to others. How do you delegate when you do not have power? Ask for help!  Trust your team members with responsibilities and delegate tasks based on their strengths. When people help you, they are doing tasks on your behalf – that’s delegating, even when it is not formally called it.  Being vulnerable and asking for help gives you informal power, which ultimately leads to formal leadership.
  7. Decision-Making: Making good decisions takes experience – you must gather information, analyze it and step up with a decision repeatedly. There is no other way to feel confident, being decisive and be right most of the time.  Both confidence and good judgement are important. Emerging leaders consider both short-term and long-term consequences, and when they are not sure, they seek input from others to learn while doing.
  8. Continuous Learning: If you want to be known as an emerging leader, take on new tasks – ANY new tasks.  Even tasks that seem administrative help you access new information and new people, and broaden your skill sets in some ways. An awful lot of management includes basic administrative tasks – so get good at them early. And, on the technical side, stay informed about industry trends, leadership practices and management strategies. Attend workshops, seminars and read books/articles to enhance your knowledge.
  9. Networking: One of the benefits of taking on an inter-company project – like volunteering on a committee – is just getting to know people. Building a strong professional network will pay off in ways you can’t possibly imagine now – generally, it is a smaller world than you think.  Networking can provide valuable insights and support and can keep you alert to possible organizational challenges and opportunities ahead.
  10. Emotional Intelligence: “Self-regulation is THE leadership super power.” Start early to build your self-awareness, your ability to recognize and manage your own emotions, and the ability to read those around you. The ability to control your own emotional state and reality helps build courage, resilience, adaptability, patience, humility and everything else that will make you a strong future leader.

Leadership and management opportunities are often waiting to be found.  Look for those openings, see what possibilities they might hold, stay committed to developing yourself and those around you and be adaptable to the evolving needs of your team and organization.

Next Steps

Pryor offers a wide variety of in-person classes and on-line learning to help you develop your leadership and management skills. Here are some examples.

See more in the training category of Management and Leadership!