If you’re like most professionals, you probably want to move into a leadership role at some point during your career. Perhaps you’ll be satisfied with managing a small group of employees who work closely together, like a team of copywriters or graphic artists. On the other hand, maybe you want to be the CEO of a major corporation, in change of thousands of personnel with many different jobs. Either way, you need to develop your leadership abilities to get there.
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Here are four goals you can set early in your career that will help you advance later:
1. Take your education to the next level. The majority of professionals hold bachelor’s degrees, though associate’s are common in some fields (particularly those in the area of allied health). If you want to one day move into a management- or executive-level position, take your education one step higher than what’s normally expected.
One way to do this is to simply earn the next degree level up. If most of your co-workers hold associate’s degrees, get your bachelor’s. If a bachelor’s is the standard education for your field, earn your master’s. A good example of the former is the Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN); nurses typically enter the field with an associate’s degree, so completing a BSN is an excellent way to set yourself apart. A Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) illustrates the latter case; everyone entering the business field has a bachelor’s degree, so an MBA is almost essential if you want to advance.
Another way to expand your education is to earn professional certifications. These generally involve some amount of coursework – anywhere from a few weeks up to a full year – followed by an exam. Examples include technology certificates like the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) and business designations such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP). Some certifications have additional requirements, such as a certain amount of time spent working in the field.
2. Do exceptional work. Showing up on time and meeting your deadlines will probably keep you employed, but it may not help you get ahead. From the day you enter the workforce, adopt habits that show you’re an employee of greater ability and initiative. Some of these include:
- Show up at least a little early every day
- Stay late when there’s a lot of work to be done
- Offer to help coworkers who are struggling
- Be organized and detail-oriented
- Communicate clearly and concisely
- When you succeed, share credit with those who helped you
- When you fail, take responsibility and learn from your mistakes
3. Become an industry expert. Some people work in their profession – others live in it. Employers like workers who are actually interested in their field, who put time and effort into getting involved with it outside the workplace.
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One way to do this is to join professional organizations. These are associations for individuals engaged and/or interested in the practice of a particular occupation. They are typically nonprofits, but most have dues or other costs associated with membership. Some professional organizations act as social bodies that facilitate networking among their members. Others also have official functions, such as regulating certification standards.
Publishing in your field can also show your dedication and expertise. Maintaining a blog where you share industry news, review new products and engage in discussions with other professionals is a great way to start doing this. Once you develop your writing skills, you can submit articles to industry publications. If you’re good at public speaking, you may even be able to present your work at seminars and conventions.
4. Apply for promotions. In many industries you’ll be expected to have about five years of experience before you’re considered for leadership roles. However, this is not universal; some organizations will recruit lower-level management (such as team leads and floor supervisors) from high-performing employees with just a couple years in the workforce. Apply for such positions as soon as you are able. Even if you don’t get the promotion, your application lets your superiors know that you’re ambitious and looking to advance.
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It is important to note that acting on the first three tips presented here makes achieving the fourth much easier. For example, consider two young IT professionals – both hold bachelor’s degrees, both are punctual and both meet their deadlines. But one has also earned her MCITP certification, writes a technology blog and is known for helping coworkers who are swamped. When the time comes to choose a new team lead, she’s going to have a significant edge over her competitor.
Why? Because she chose to be exceptional instead of merely acceptable, and exceptional is what puts you on the fast track to leadership.