Most people near the starts of their careers aren’t typically thought of as leaders in the workplace. Not only do they inhabit a low spot in the office hierarchy and lack experience and skills, but also many are too timid and insecure to assume a leadership role. But with the right attitude, an observant eye and a desire to learn, any young professionals can prevail early on.
The first hurdle to overcome is getting your colleagues to see you as more than a fresh-faced, immature college grad. Instead, demonstrate that you’re capable of leading without stepping on any toes. Once you do that, there are many more things you can do to become a successful leader in the early stages of your career.
Career experts and authors Al Coleman, Jr., Alexandra Levit, Ryan Kohnen, and Dr. Katharine Brooks weigh in on why senior employees don’t often regard their young colleagues as pathbreaking workers and how those newbies can emerge as leaders.
“Most people view a leader as someone who can direct, guide or facilitate because of previously successful experiences,” says Al Coleman, Jr., author of Secrets to Success: The Definitive Career Development Guide for New and First Generation Professionals. Since most young or new professionals haven’t successfully managed others in the workplace before, they aren’t always taken seriously that way.
Ryan Kohnen, the author of Young Professional’s Guide to Success, points out another challenge: “Young professionals can definitely be perceived negatively by their more seasoned counterparts [because] the culture we grew up in of video games, internet, iPods, and Twitter has contributed to shorter attention spans and extreme multitasking, which is sometimes a positive and sometimes a negative, and this can be perceived as unreliability or irresponsibility.”
Alexandra Levit, the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success, offers an additional thought: “I think older colleagues are wary of young professionals [as] a result of many years of new college grads coming into a workplace and trying to take over right away. Today’s young professionals have been humbled by the recession and come across less entitled and more eager to learn, but negative perceptions still linger.”
Assuming a leadership role without crossing any lines can be a trying task, but if as a young employee you get the lay of the land before you jump in, you can better understand what’s acceptable at your particular organization, says Dr. Katharine Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career.
Kohnen agrees: “The young professional is the new employee, going into an organization where people have a lot more experience and seniority in the organization,” he says. “It’s their responsibility to get to learn how things work in an organization and learn about the existing employees. Then they’ll find themselves in a much better situation than the traditional ‘Look at me, I’m here!’” Lesson learned: Get familiar with the culture of your new workplace to avoid rubbing your colleagues the wrong way.
While you don’t want to come off too strong, flaunt your ego, or step on any toes—you shouldn’t withhold or be too hesitant, either.
“Those who are hesitant understandably feel that they don’t yet know enough to take on a leadership role and would rather take a few years to absorb the expertise of those around them,” Levit says.
Kohnen agrees. He says young professionals are often cautious because “they don’t exactly know what a true leader is, or they are unaware of how best to take on a leadership role in the workplace.”
Kohnen and Brooks both say you have to define leadership within the context of your specific field or organization. “It doesn’t mean just taking over, or jumping in with solutions to every problem that is brought up,” Brooks says. “That can quickly result in your ideas being dismissed as ‘already tried; didn’t work.’ Many student leaders worked with clubs or organizations where the student members didn’t always follow through, and as a result some of those leaders assume that leading means you take charge and run the show yourself.
That style of leadership probably won’t work in most new work settings—unless that’s what the new employee is instructed to do.”
Rather, leadership that is more aligned with being an active part of the team, communicating and respecting others’ opinions, listening, recognizing opportunities to help out and do the necessary work–even if it’s less-than-glamorous–and offering to take initiative to get things done are more appropriate ways to “lead” in the beginning, Brooks adds.
Coleman says studies have shown that leaders in the workplace—regardless of age—enjoy lower levels of unemployment, higher salaries and more opportunities for advancement in their organizations. “All of this leads to a generally happier and more engaged employee,” he says. So you might as well assume a leadership role early on.
Here are 10 steps you can take to become a successful young leader in the workplace:
1. Start preparing before you enter the workforce
Volunteer in social or nonprofit organizations or clubs where you can develop or hone your leadership skills, Coleman says. “Start with groups such as your church, synagogue, chamber of commerce, or a neighborhood or alumni association. These groups are full of opportunities to lead at the board, subcommittee, special projects or events level.”
Do this while you’re still in college or before you enter the workforce. “If students have cultivated their leadership skills while in college or worked in the field previously through internships or other experiences, they have more confidence generally in their ability to handle situations,” Brooks adds.
2. Do your homework
While most of what you’ll need to be a good leader you’ll learn through practical experience and observation, you can’t go wrong reading books or taking professional development courses on organizational leadership, Coleman says. “There are numerous resources out there for free or low cost that will help you to gain the tools and skills to begin practicing effective leadership in the workplace.”
3. Take time to assess the culture of the organization
Listen and observe how staff treats new workers—and learn what their expectations are, Brooks says. “If you’re not sure, ask. It’s appropriate to ask your new supervisor what his or her expectations are about your work.” Note your supervisor’s style. Is she more casual or formal? Does he want details and daily reports? Is she only interested in periodic feedback? Learn and adapt, Brooks adds.
Kohnen agrees. “Soak it up!” he says. “Learn about your teammates; learn their responsibilities, roles, professional goals, and business philosophies. Be a sponge.”
4. Keep a learner’s mind
Always be curious and eager to absorb new information. “Try not to judge situations too quickly or make quick assumptions that may not be accurate,” Brooks says. “It’s okay to be a little overwhelmed at first. Just do the best you can and ask for help when you need it.”
5. Identify areas where you can provide new insight or help.
A young new worker might be savvier with social media than the older staff, Brooks says. “If so, that would be a place to offer suggestions or ideas.”
Levit says you should act as a change agent, “aiming to fix something that’s broken with your unique perspective and skills.”
Meanwhile, Kohnen suggests challenging the norm. “Look at problem areas on your team or company. Sometimes there are ‘norms’ in organizations or teams that haven’t been challenged or where people haven’t looked for a better way of doing things for a long time. Usually there’s something that people complain about. That is a great opportunity to come up with a new solution or idea for a new way to do things.”
6. Offer your help
If as a new worker you start with an ‘I’m here to help’ attitude, it can help you move into a leadership role more quickly and smoothly. “Look for ways to serve even if you’re not asked to do so,” Brooks suggests.
Volunteer for stretch assignments or committees that will allow you to acquire leadership and management skills before you officially lead a team or a group, Levit adds.
“There are countless opportunities during meetings where someone is needed to lead a project or a specific section of a project,” Coleman says. “Step up and volunteer to take it on. If it’s too large or something that you have little to no experience with, you can offer to partner with a more established leader to gain the skills and knowledge to lead on your own the next time around.”
7. Do your work and abide by the rules
Some young professionals get so wrapped up in everything else that they fail to execute their basic required tasks. “If you’re given a deadline, respect it,” Brooks says. “Try to turn in the item early if possible. Don’t ask for extensions. Find a way to get it done. It’s also important to remember that your first few work assignments will likely not be glamorous—but it’s imperative that you do a good job. If you don’t do the basic tasks well, no one will trust you with more complex tasks.”
Also pay attention to the rules and policies of the office, both written and unwritten. Show up early and stay late. Don’t be the last one in and the first to leave, Brooks adds.
8. Communicate and connect
“Take the time to meet your co-workers and get to know them as people, not just co-workers. This will take a little time, so don’t be in a hurry,” Brooks says.
You should also communicate assertively and broadcast your results in order to get your value proposition across, Levit adds.
9. Give credit where credit is due
“Ask advice when you need it, but also try to complete your work as independently as possible,” Brooks says. “If you complete a project and are complimented on it, and someone has helped you, mention that.”
10. Establish relationships with superiors and find a mentor
You’ll want to create mutually beneficial relationships with senior managers, mentors, and colleagues, and emulate their successful behavior and approaches, Levit says.
“Find a mentor who’s successfully viewed as a leader within the organization and ask for opportunities to shadow that individual or work on a project with the individual to see firsthand how they successfully lead projects or groups,” Coleman says.
Written by Jacquelyn Smith -Forbes