Stop thinking you are going to be a “leader” when you walk in the door.
I’ve enjoyed serving as a mentor for the Washington State Opportunity Scholars program over the past few years. I drafted this post a while back, but sitting on some recent interviews and recruiting events prompted me to finish some reflections on what I’ve learned from the really awesome team of young employees I work with.
The typical narrative for emerging professionals is “be a leader!” Every university magazine touts the institution’s ability to train leaders. LinkedIn articles and business magazines buzz with advice about “entrepreneurship” and “innovation.
It makes me want to gag.
The most impressive and effective young professionals I work with encompass a description I learned on a NOLS course: “active followership”. They have found a leader whom they trust, and figured out how to support them really well. Their job hasn’t been leadership. My department head is the leader- leading is their job, and the best way to support them is being a person that will reliably get stuff done. Sometimes it means leading other employees, but most of the time, it means getting stuff done. This is active followership. Here is what I see them doing (and what I enjoy learning to do better):
- Ask great questions, and don’t be shy about it.
- Clarify the commitments and expectations being asked of you. Be certain of what you are trying to do, before you go try to do it.
- Be as knowledgable and focused about the outcome of your assignment as your boss is.
- Figure out how to run tasks to ground- so that you leave nothing un-done.
- Make your work as concise, thorough, and on message as it can possibly be.
- Solicit the opinions of other people in your office (and outside your project team) to provide feedback and input (something your boss might not have time to do).
- They pay attention to their peers, and actively look to learn from them. They also share what they know without hesitation.
- They have engineering “moxie”- a willingness, and interest in doing a great job.
This is not traditional leadership. As an entry level employee- or anyone working as an individual contributor, the job is only mildly about delegation, or brainstorming, or innovating. It’s about making things happen. As I slowly move into a position of delegating more, these lessons remain just as important to set others up for success.
A note on “moxie”- it’s the thing that really sets people apart, and deserves more explanation.
>Find something you are passionate about and think that you want to become an expert in. Realize that your time in entry level positions is the bread and butter of your experience- the foundation of your expertise. Get as gritty about it as you can- learn every part. For me in HVAC, that was drafting and installing, not just ideation and calculation. The earliest investments pay the biggest dividends- but they only pay if you stick with it for a long time. If you are trying out different things, do them as fully and deeply as you can- if they aren’t for you, the process will still benefit you when you finally find the thing you are supposed to do. I started my career in this field, but it took me the first 8 years to really feel passionate and invested in it. Had I been more intentional in thinking about the field as a craft and trade, and then more intentional about investing deeply, I would have done much better, much more quickly.