Contributed by Natalie Runyon
A common belief is that leaders are born not created. Today, our society believes anything can be achieved with enough dedication and commitment, and this is true for leadership. I see success all the time in my work as a leadership trainer. Leaders can be developed, yet it can be confusing to figure out how to go about it. Where do you start? How do you learn? And how do you determine what works within the culture of your organization?
In a recent cnn.com article, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, was quoted at the TED Women conference, “Women systematically underestimate their own abilities.” She is right. We often lack the confidence to give the credit we deserve. A key ingredient to great leadership is self assurance. One of the best ways to boost it is to speak up, and I mean everywhere. Every time you go to a meeting, go in with something to say. Don’t have something prepared? Ask a question, and be the first person to raise your hand and ask it. Don’t wait. Giving time and space to communicate your ideas will actually build confidence. You will also enhance your visibility, credibility and communication skills all at the same time. Establish presence by dressing the part of senior women. One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career was to dress the part of the next level up. Rather than adhering to the business casual norm, wear a suit every day. It will help you and others see yourself in that next more senior role, reinforcing your confidence.
Observe Senior Women
A well-known way children learn is through parroting—imitating words and actions of their parents. Well, it is an effective tool for finding what leadership techniques work for you too. To figure out what works within the culture of your team and company, observe what senior women do and commit that behavior to action are very effective tactics. Watching what works for others is the first step if you are confused about where to start. But, just observing is only half of the equation.
The other half is getting into action. The old saying, “practice makes perfect” is essential in this case. Leadership skills cannot be learned by just reading about them or sitting in a classroom. If one of your life goals were to run a marathon, you won’t achieve it without a commitment to a training regimen. The same is true for learning new leadership skills.
For example, two of the most important leadership skills are communicating and influencing, which means learning to read people, adjusting your leadership style appropriately, and then communicating your thoughts in a way that your audience understands to maximize its engagement. To figure out what works, listen to the language senior leaders use and watch the non verbal elements of their style. Then, try them yourself in low-stakes settings.
Attempting new behaviors and actions will feel strange at first because you have never tried them before. Once you put them into practice, you will feel more comfortable and begin to learn what works for you and what does not. In my Speaking with Power course at NYU School of Continuing Professional Studies, learning to speak publicly is one of the main challenges experienced by many of my female students, who work in analytical and technical roles within financial services. They say that senior leaders in their companies do it well, and they enroll in the class because it is key for them to advance their career and to earn the next promotion.
One of the first things we discuss is what techniques their respected leaders use. Speaking up in meetings is always in the top three, especially learning to share ideas in informal settings. Indeed, research suggests those who speak up in meetings more often are perceived as leaders and having more self confidence, according to Lois P. Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. The speaking assignments for class recreate work situations where they can practice this behavior and gain confidence the more they practice it.
Intentionally Seek Feedback
To help you to figure out what behaviors work best, ask for input from your peers, mentors, and manager. For example, if you wanted to speak up at more meetings with senior people, sometimes it can be hard to get a word in. Unfortunately as women, stating your ideas with authority can sometimes be interpreted as being too aggressive, and it can be difficult to assess how it was perceived by your audience, especially if you were nervous.
In order to determine your effectiveness, ask for quick, informal feedback. Confirmation of your own interpretation can be helpful and instrumental in building your confidence in using new skills. If they have ideas for how to improve, even better. Listen to what they say and adjust your style accordingly. In my training sessions, I suggest to students they ask for feedback regularly from their work colleagues for multiple purposes–to help them ascertain how new behaviors were received and how well they are progressing toward their goal. Most of the time, they confirm it reinforces their confidence in their newly acquired leadership abilities.
Learn to Adapt
Adaptability is one of the most important elements of your leadership skill set in today’s business environment. In one meeting, you may be presenting a controversial new idea to a senior person, and a half hour later, you may be handling a dissatisfied client. Adapting your style in such a short of amount of time can be difficult.
To improve this ability, use your newly discovered skills across a diverse set of experiences with different populations of people. With many of my clients, some of the most important lessons come from experiences which include working with people outside of the corporate environment. Working with a variety of people helps you to learn to flex your style intuitively. You will always need to make adjustments to your style depending on the audience with whom you are working.
One student commented that leading a team during an international volunteer project helped her to learn more about people than many of her years of working because she was partnering with people from various walks of life who were different from those she usually worked with. This situation enabled her to tune into different needs of the group and learn to “walk in their shoes.” Volunteering your time on a non profit board, mentoring a teen or leading a community service project are other ways to expand your leadership experience base. Likewise, doing a short or long-term mobility assignment in another country can also help to provide the similar results. The more experiences you have the better you are able to adapt. At the end of the day, it is about expanding your leadership toolkit and putting the behaviors and tips into practice across a variety of situations to instinctively improve your style.