It seems like I’ve spent a lot of my career in a classic Catch-22 situation: I needed experience to earn my next title but needed the title to unlock opportunities to gain experience. I’m surrounded by super-talented, less-experienced colleagues who are facing the same situation. Why don’t these budding leaders find the opportunities they seek? What can be done to help make that happen?
If you look at the numbers of people and opportunities, it’s pretty easy to see the math doesn’t work: There are relatively few opportunities to go around. While it may be possible to extend growth opportunities to the less-experienced leaders, it becomes impractical to do so given travel costs and razor-thin budgets. This often leads to the opportunities going to the most experienced person.
There are several things that future leaders can do. It’s important to start with a solid foundation, so it’s important to be prepared. The good news is this one is easy to do:
- Be ready to take notes and record follow-ups when you go to meetings
- Learn by asking questions
- Do your own research before asking questions
- Avoid asking the same question too many times
- Be responsive to emails
- Get your work done on time with delightful quality
It stands to reason that technical leadership is built on technical competence, and that’s what all of these items demonstrate.
Get involved. When you’re getting started, you should seize every opportunity and make the most of it. There are usually many non-technical opportunities to get you started, including:
- Recruit at your alma mater
- Help new employees get onboard. After all, you did it yourself not long ago.
- Embrace mentoring events
- Join user communities to expand your industry awareness, reach and contacts
- Volunteer for teambuilding and department committees and groups
At first, it might seem like some of these aren’t related to establishing technical leadership because they aren’t technical. That is far from the truth; they help to expand your network and with it your knowledge and insight into everything that’s happening around that network. Leadership starts with small non-technical projects like onboarding a new employee, then expands to giving technical guidance to that employee and eventually expands to directing more people and broader technical work. Leadership assignments tend to be progressive, so start small and work hard to grow your skills.
OK, great. You’re prepared and ready to go and you’ve been doing all kinds of small leadership projects but nothing is happening. What now? Go make opportunities. Right about now, you might be thinking: How can anyone make their own opportunities? Some ways include:
- Volunteering to help the people doing something like what you’re interested in doing
- Asking to be included next time a similar opportunity comes along
- Expressing your understanding that travel is limited and inquire about local opportunities
- Asking about the experience to try to gain knowledge indirectly
While you’re going through this experience, make sure to pause to really think about what emotions you’re experiencing. If it helps you to remember these, make a written list. As your work responsibilities include more leadership, revisit that list and work twice as hard to help the next generation as they work through the same process.
There’s no better feeling than helping someone else, and doing so also demonstrates leadership.
Matthew Cousens is a fourth-generation IBMer. He currently works in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he is responsible for the strategy, design and development of z/OS Integration Test workloads. He holds a Master of Business Administration with an Advanced Certificate in executive leadership from Marist College, which is the root of his passion for soft skills— leadership, communication and the like. If he’s not working with IBM clients, he is happiest working with new mainframers from across the industry.
The author wishes to thank Chris Loers and Michael Gildein for their contributions to this material.