It must make young professionals think back to the conundrum they had when graduating: how can I ever get that first job, if every first job asks for prior experience? For many of those young professionals climbing the ladder five years later, that question becomes: how can I prove I have the required leadership skills, if I was always asked to perform non-leadership tasks?
Herminia Ibarra, in her book “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader”, offers a pragmatic answer: perform in your current job as if you are already a leader, and your mindset and title will eventually follow. How does that work exactly, and what are the other lessons from her book?
- Thinking like a leader is the product of your past experience as a leader
The logic behind her first advice, Ibarra tells us, is that the way you think is a product of your past experience. If your past experience is that of an office clerk, you will think like an office clerk. If your past experience is that of a consultant, you will think like a consultant. But if you build leadership routines into your role from now on, the more you will also think like a leader in a few weeks or months from now.
So how do you put that theory into practice? Perhaps you can observe what your boss does as a daily routine, and replicate it on your own. Your boss might list all objectives of the team on a weekly basis, and then inform everyone who should do what. He or she might spend a lot of time on the phone or in meetings, talking to other team leaders in and outside the organization. And he or she might attend board meetings, where the vision, strategy and macroeconomic environment of your organization is discussed.
Of course, you can’t do exactly as your boss does. But you can create a micro-version of it.
- Make a schedule of your to dos, organize them according to priority and report back to your boss more frequently to show your progress.
- Schedule lunches, coffee catch-ups, or ‘sweatworking‘ with peers and other people in and outside your organization, and pick their brain to get a more holistic view of the organization you work at.
- Attend lectures, courses or social events where you can educate yourself on what is happening in the outside world
After a while, that should ‘wire’ you differently: as you act differently, you will think differently. But there might be another, and in my view larger, benefit from going about your work in this way: it increases your visibility with your colleagues and manager as a pro-active employee. In other words, it’s not just your behaviour that changes, it’s also other people’s perception of your work.
- Being a leader is not the same as being a manager
Ibarra offers a number of other practical tips that should help you “act” rather than “think” like a leader. While they are all valuable an sich, the eureka moment for me occurred when Ibarra pointed out that being a manager is not the same as being a leader. It’s a simple, straightforward statement, and it’s obviously true.
But what does it imply? It implies, for example, that in the example above, that listing and distributing tasks is clearly a managerial activity, not necessarily a leadership activity. Leadership goes beyond the operational, day-to-day activities. It is about the “why” of doing things, it’s about pointing out where we are going.
To become a leader in that sense is thus more about seeing the bigger picture. It’s not about delivering great results in the next quarter or year; it’s about seeing where your industry is going in five years, and steering the team and its activities in that direction.
That is why someone who is simply a great executor, won’t make a great leader. Sure, your results are what often get you promoted, but once you are promoted in a leadership position, it’s not just about your individual performance anymore. You now have to inspire others to perform, and make sure the team performance evolves as your team evolves.
- To see the bigger picture, get out of your silo
This is a lesson Gillian Tett of the FT also draws in her latest book, “The Silo Effect.” The point is, that the more you are inward looking, the more you spend time only at your desk, or in your team’s office space, the higher the chance you will miss the bigger picture of what matters outside of your team.
As a junior employee, you are not expected to worry about anything else other than your job, your task, your piece of the puzzle. But as you climb the ladder, seeing the bigger picture does become increasingly important. To do so, you need to spend more and more time outside of your office, outside of your fix network. As Tett shows in her book, doing so isn’t only a useful tool to act, think and be seen as a leader; it can make or break your team’s or organizational relevance.
For Ibarra, those learnings didn’t just come from teaching; she applied many of them herself. It made her become not just a tenured professor at INSEAD, but one that thinks and acts like one, too. Her book thus practices what she preaches, making it a useful guide to read and apply.
“Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader”, by Herminia Ibarra, 221p, Harvard Business Review Press, 2015
Author: Peter Vanham, Media Lead, US and Industries, Media Relations, World Economic Forum
Image: Businessmen are reflected in a fountain as they stand outside an office building in Tokyo, Japan August 14, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter