Think back. What was your first “real job?” Loosely speaking, mine was as a counselor for kids with behavioral disorders. I worked alone most of the time and I loved it. Like most people, I began my career as an individual contributor.

Over time, I felt a growing desire to move into a leadership position. Maybe you have sensed the same desire. Our motivations to become leaders vary. We may want a new challenge, to manage a team, to develop our people, or have a greater impact on big-picture organizational outcomes.

The road from individual contributor to leader can look like a long, winding, and mysterious road. Thankfully, the leaders who have gone before left lots of clues we can use to follow in their footsteps.

Individual Contributors vs. Leaders

Essentially, unless you’re managing a team or substantial project involving other people, you are considered an individual contributor. You’re likely playing an important role on a team or in a department but you’re not supervising employees. You’re also likely evaluated based upon your individual performance.

In contrast, leaders typically occupy an official supervisory or managerial position. In other words, supervisors and managers were hired to be in charge of people and larger projects. The world looks very different to supervisors. They are very likely evaluated by the performance of the people they supervise. The success of the team or department becomes the priority. Not surprisingly, individuals take on a different mindset when they move into leadership positions because the rules of the game change. 

The Road to Leadership

Many individual contributors make incorrect assumptions about what it takes to get promoted to a leadership position. Here are some common half-truths about the road to leadership. If I’m good at my job, I’ll eventually get promoted. It is true that we have to be good at our individual jobs, but that is typically not enough to secure a promotion. If I’ve been here the longest, I’ll be next in line for a promotion. This just isn’t true in most organizations anymore. Our level of leadership competence determines when we’re ready. If I criticize the existing leaders, somebody will see my potential and put me in charge. Granted, it is important to see problems clearly, but mere criticism won’t help us become leaders. We also have to be an active part of the solution.

In contrast, the road to leadership almost always follows a three-step process: 1) Become an excellent individual contributor, 2) Lead by example in a variety of ways, and 3) Actively apply for leadership openings. 

1. Become an Excellent Individual Contributor

The first step to leadership is to be excellent at what you do. Do high-quality work. Hit your deadlines. Perform consistently. Be dependable. Participate actively at team meetings. Take initiative. Work hard even when nobody is watching. 

2. Lead by Example

Here’s the “secret” to leadership. There are no secrets. The leaders who have gone before us acted like leaders long before they were officially promoted. Do you want to follow in their footsteps? Here is a partial list of the clues they have left us.

  • They volunteered to work on a stubborn departmental issue that needed fixing.
  • When they saw a need, they took initiative to meet that need.
  • They said “yes” when their supervisor asked them to do a project that stretched them.
  • They asked their supervisors if there were any projects with which they could help.
  • They went the extra mile to build positive relationships with the rest of the team.
  • They looked for opportunities to informally mentor co-workers who were struggling.
  • They lifted others up and encouraged people on their team.
  • They worked on their presentation skills so they could lead trainings.
  • They did what they could to help the entire team succeed.

The list is potentially endless. In short, we should look for ways to add value beyond our role as an individual contributor. These extra efforts will begin to stretch our mindset and help us think and act like leaders.

3. Actively Apply for Leadership Openings

Most of our current supervisors are quietly identifying the emerging leaders on their teams. Still, don’t expect them to knock down our doors recruiting us into a promotion. We will need to apply for openings when they come up. It takes guts and humility because we’ll be putting ourselves out there and risking rejection. Still, this is a critical step. If we have already been leading by example for a while, most of our supervisors will think of us first when an opening becomes available. If no openings currently exist, our supervisors will likely help us identify other professional development opportunities like leadership classes or special projects that will stretch our skills.

In summary, the road from individual contributor to leader can be confusing. Thankfully, the leaders who have gone before us left us footsteps to follow. Are you ready to take the next step?

Alex Lyon is an instructor for Leadership 201 and an Associate Professor at The College at Brockport.

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