Although I’m only a few years into my consulting career at Expressworks, I’ve quickly realized that leadership is a complex subject. Who is considered a leader? What does it take to become one? I’ll admit that I always assumed it was my manager, my coach, an older and wiser colleague. But that’s where I had it wrong. It’s me. It’s you. It’s anyone who wants to lead and conscientiously works to develop the leadership traits that will make them successful in persuading those around them to follow. Now that I know this, it seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts on the subject.

Sitting in my first professional interview nearing the end of graduate school, I was asked about my leadership experience. A common question that I had anticipated, I quickly answered with a story about taking the lead on a group project – how I had taken charge and shepherded my team to an A. This is a common example of peer leadership, an opportunity for someone, in this case me, to step up and direct a group of equals.

It isn’t always this easy, though. Now, working in a large hierarchical organization on projects with cross-functional implications, the concept of leadership gets a bit trickier. In organizations, it is common to automatically think of leaders as those with the official manager title – people at the top of the org chart. It’s especially easy for someone like me, in the early stages of a career, now working with both peers and superiors, to assume that I need to follow leaders, rather than trying to take on a leadership role myself.

For me, the greatest challenge to overcome has been how to push my own conceptual boundaries of leadership by building relationships, demonstrating my ability, and recognizing the right opportunities to demonstrate my leadership. I don’t have a title or the years of experience to be a traditional organizational leader, but that does not mean I can’t be a team leader or prove my capacity to lead in the future.

So, how do you become a leader in an organization, a project, a work stream, when you don’t possess any formal authority or have seniority? For young professionals, this is an especially difficult question. I like to think I have found a few ways to channel my energy and desire to become a more effective leader…

Set clear expectations

Always do what you say you are going to do – an Expressworks operating principle! I’ve worked on projects where deliverables or action items were over-promised and under-delivered. What’s more frustrating than that? When you set clear and attainable expectations with your stakeholders, this helps to build your trust and credibility. It also shows that you are capable of managing your time and your to-do list. Managing yourself is the first step to managing others – whether they are direct reports or support staff for a project work stream.

Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions; it’s better to ask than to continue on in the wrong direction. Not knowing all the answers doesn’t make you ill-equipped to lead. Quite the opposite. In fact, the best team leaders I’ve ever worked with were constantly asking questions and asking the team to contribute ideas. Anyone at any level in the organization can be the one that facilitates conversation by asking questions. Why not let that be you?

Build your relationships

Invite and encourage your team members to provide their opinions and review your work. Not only is it always a great idea to get a second set of eyes on a critical deliverable, but in my experience, people return the favor. The best working relationships I have are with those I trust to review my work and vice versa. This gives us both an equal opportunity to provide and listen to feedback, which not only makes our work product better, but also affords us valuable experience in formal management skills.

Choose your words carefully

Whether you are asking someone to do something for you or following up on a late deliverable, always consider carefully how your words will come across. When you don’t have the benefit of being in a formal leadership position, your best bet is to influence others to do what you want them to do. Be diplomatic in your requests, never play the blame game, and take responsibility for mix-ups. Doing those things will make people want to be on your team. I was once told to read emails at least three times before sending a response to make sure there’s nothing that could be misinterpreted. Best advice I’ve ever received!

Be confident

There’s a fine line between cockiness and confidence, particularly when you’re just starting out as a consultant. It’s important not to be scared to speak up when you feel your voice should be heard, but also to listen openly to other’s dissenting opinions. When you listen and advise you are demonstrating your readiness to lead.

Ultimately, it’s all about finding the right opportunities at this stage in your career. That is to say, if you’re young, less-experienced than your colleagues, and looking for opportunities to lead, the best thing you can do is to demonstrate that you possess these critical leadership characteristics. Once you get the opportunity, it’s up to you to follow through.

If your company needs help developing leaders why not get in touch?