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Preemptive Leadership: Equip Yourself Before Your Career Begins

A man with his back showing. The man is staring at a blue board that is covered in yellow post it notes.
Picture by Per Loov on Unsplash

How to turn yourself into someone who can do outstanding work even without a great manager.

I have previously written about preparing my two college-aged children for their first step into the professional world. You can find the six propositions I used to build on Revan's axiom - here. We concluded:

Leadership development should begin earlier, ideally before one's career even starts, to increase the odds of having a successful career.

I want my readers, most of whom are many years into their careers, to imagine diving headfirst into the deep end of the professional world, armed with a stack of leadership books and a pocketful of motivational quotes, only to discover that reality bears little resemblance to the neatly organised principles and step-by-step guides. As a flood of self-help advice on leadership renders it challenging to discern the signal from the noise, the disconnect between the idealised world of management theories and the chaotic, fast-paced reality of the modern workplace worsens. A reality where:

  • Following your passion is terrible advice that already successful people tell young people. Paraphrasing Scott Galloway, "The billionaires invited to speak at business schools to give the follow your passion advice don’t have great insights into life and careers. Your job is something you’re good at, and then you spend thousands of hours getting better - through grit, perseverance, and the sacrifice required to break through hard things to become great at it. The problem with following your passion is that work is hard. When you run into obstacles and face injustices, a common guaranteed attribute of the workplace, you’ll start thinking, “I’m not loving this. It is upsetting and hard. It must not be my passion.” This is a poor litmus test. Most people, early in their careers, should do their passions on weekends."

  • The typical graduate training program will do a good job of providing minimal training to keep you safe, make you entry-level productive and protect the employer by ensuring you follow workplace policies and procedures.

  • The average established leader is understandably so wrapped up in trying to comprehend, cope with and create value at their own level that they have little time to get involved with the complexities of projects down the food chain. So, instead of helping more junior people to adapt to and develop the leadership skills for working in complexity, many bark orders to manage the work.

  • The returns for top talent in all spheres of life have never been higher. A small percentage of professionals obtain disproportionate recognition and usually a high percentage of the spoils available.

Today's graduates face unprecedented challenges in a landscape transformed by rapid changes to business models, artificial intelligence, and automation. The next generation of leaders must adapt and innovate as never before, learning from the past and from others while forging their own path through the messy, unpredictable world that awaits them.

What would it look like if you collected lists of techniques for doing great work early in your career? I decided to find out by making it by using my knowledge gained from coaching successful executives for the past decade. Partly, my goal was to create a guide that could be used by college-aged children who will soon start their careers. But I was also curious about distilling the common themes from my work with experienced executives and presenting it so people just starting out can benefit. And one thing that jumps out is that it's not just advice saying "work harder."

Each principle I advance has had to pass three filters:

  1. I believe in them because I have done this in my past career or have helped my clients do it.

  2. They are practical and actionable and can start to be implemented without much effort.

  3. They help you to have a career where AI can't readily imitate you.

At any one time, people of equal intelligence and skill can produce unequal results due to small differences. The 12 principles provide the steps to make a difference for the ambitious, early career knowledge worker. The principles I advance do not just represent my personal opinions. They are the quintessence of what I have learned from coaching successful executives. Here are 12 practical tips I wish I’d known sooner to kickstart your leadership journey.

Principle #1: Grasp the table stakes: Deliver on spec, on time, and on budget. Consistency, even in small actions, is key. Leave strategy to others initially.

Principle #2: Invest in yourself: Say YES early in your career. View spending on learning, tools and relief as fuel for success.

Principle #3: Craft your unique story: Understand and control your personal brand. Know what words people associate with you.

Principle #4: Cultivate gravitas: Develop your presence. Gravitas can lead others to feel more confident with you, irrespective of experience.

Principle #5: Enhance communication skills: Effective communication is key. Master listening, writing, and public speaking.

Principle #6: Maintain focus: Avoid distractions. Staying focused on top priorities sets successful people apart.

Principle #7: Make better decisions: Use robust frameworks for decision-making. Recognise the trade-offs involved.

Principle #8: Engage strategically with stakeholders: Networking isn’t self-promotion. It's essential. Build relationships strategically.

Principle #9: Master managing upwards: Proactively communicate to show control. Managing your manager shows initiative and empowerment.

Principle #10: Run effective meetings: Your well-run meetings can stand out amid poorly managed ones. Free up headspace and time for others.

Principle #11: Seek out feedback: Like elite sports teams, maintain a feedback loop for continuous improvement.

Principle #12: Be a valued team member: Aim to be a collaborator, not just a leader. Working with others to achieve goals is key early in your career.

Most people want to work for great managers. Great managers are essential for your career. But you cannot rely upon the lottery of getting to work with a really good manager early in your career. Later, after a few years, you can intentionally decide to move to another team or organisation, especially if you are in a career that rewards you for your judgement to make good decisions. But initially, you may start your career working for an okay or absentee manager, so you should turn yourself into someone who can do outstanding work even without a great manager. These principles will help you to achieve that.


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