Every year, surveys of CEOs find that chief executives are deeply concerned about having a deep enough pool of talented leaders. And while that sounds bad, it actually represents a great opportunity for anyone who can demonstrate that they do, in fact, have the requisite leadership chops.
The challenge, of course, is how to demonstrate one’s leadership acumen. If you’ve got profit-and-loss responsibility and you oversee the performance management systems in your area, it’s pretty straightforward to demonstrate leadership (i.e., make money and develop lots of high performers). But what if you’re more of a team leader? Or your responsibilities are cross-functional? What if you lack a management title?
There are a lot of potentially great leaders out there who lack the formal authority to implement all their fantastic leadership insights. But the good news is that there are some quick ways to show off your leadership skills, even without a leadership title.
Leadership IQ’s recent report, The State Of Leadership Development In 2020, surveyed 21,008 employees to assess leaders’ effectiveness. As you might imagine from the title of the study, the state of leadership development is in rough shape. But the study pinpoints two areas where anyone, even those without a leadership title, can demonstrate leadership.
First, the study discovered that there’s not enough alignment between leaders’ visions and the organization’s vision. Amidst a pandemic, recession, racial justice protests, political turmoil, and so much more, companies are fundamentally rethinking their visions and strategies.
And while that rethinking is necessary, the study found that employees and leaders are not aligned on those visions from top to bottom. Only 29% of employees say that their leader’s vision for the future seems to be aligned with the organization’s. By contrast, 16% say their leader’s vision for the future is never or rarely aligned with the organization’s.
This is a finding that will cause every CEO sleepless nights. After all, they’ve undoubtedly spent untold dollars and hours crafting this vision, trying to perfectly navigate the economy’s current tumult. So they are going to love anyone who is willing and able to overcome this misalignment of visions.
I know it seems like a big ask for a junior manager or frontline employee to bear the responsibility of actualizing a company’s vision, but I’m not suggesting you storm into the CEO’s office today. Instead, try this simple technique.
At your next team meeting, after your group has made some decision, just ask the following question: “is what we’re planning consistent with where the company’s trying to go right now?” And if that seems too strong, you could even soften it a bit more by saying something like, “I hate to be that person, but I’ve read a bunch of the emails coming from corporate about the new vision/strategy, and I’m wondering if we could take a minute and make sure that what we’re doing is aligned with where they’re headed?”
All you’re really doing is, first, letting your colleagues know that the CEO has a particular vision in mind, and second, nudging them to take that vision into account whenever they make a decision that might be impacted by that vision.
When you do this, you start to build a reputation as someone who considers the bigger picture. If your boss has a modicum of political-savvy, they’ll appreciate your reminder that the team should be operating in alignment with the CEO’s vision. And they’ll likely notice that you’re willing to speak up and challenge your colleagues.
Remember that most leaders tire of constantly herding employees into alignment. If you demonstrate that you’re willing to take on some of that burden, you will fast become a relied-upon member of the leadership team.
Now, will doing this make you seem like a bit of a kiss-up? Sure, in the eyes of your most negative and cynical colleagues, you may seem like a bit of a goody-goody. But first, those aren’t the people whose opinions should influence you (believe me, leaders get sick of perpetually negative employees even more than you). And second, the next technique will actually give you a way to win over even the most recalcitrant of your colleagues.
The leadership development study also discovered that a majority of employees feel that their leader does not encourage and recognize suggestions for improvement. Only 27% of employees say that their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement. And a multiple regression analysis found that the more a leader encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement, the more an employee will be inspired to give their best effort at work.
Simply put, when employees feel like their suggestions are being received, they’re a lot more motivated.
How does this give you a chance to show off your leadership skills? At your next meeting, highlight one of your colleagues’ suggestions for improvement. Say something like, “I was talking to Sally the other day, and she had a great idea for how we could process more orders…Sally, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but would you be willing to share your idea?”
Nine times out of ten, Sally will jump at the chance to share her thoughts. And not only will you have just surfaced a potentially great idea to make the team more successful, you will also have earned a big supporter.
In the unlikely event that Sally’s unwilling to share her idea, then you share the idea. In the doubly unlikely event that Sally feels like her idea was too contentious and didn’t want to be associated with it, then simply offer it generically or put a slight twist on it so it seems like your idea. And if your colleagues are sufficiently apathetic that they literally have zero ideas on how things could be better, then highlight one of your own ideas.
This technique works so well because companies need new ideas, and as you can see in the study, most leaders are doing a poor job of surfacing and capturing those ideas. But by gently exposing your boss to great ideas, you’re giving recognition to your colleagues (earning you their support) and simultaneously giving your boss the kinds of innovation that they need to advance their own careers.