Dear Sam: I’ve been working for about six years now. I love my job as a fashion merchandiser. I really admire my older sister, Anne, who has risen quickly within her company. I want to follow in her footsteps and be a leader, but I don’t know how. Unfortunately, my current supervisor is not someone I feel comfortable going to for advice, and so far I have not seen a focus on employee development, engagement, and succession planning at my current employer. So, to develop my skills, I feel I need to look outside of the organization. What suggestions do you have for me to develop my leadership skills and advance my career? — Ashley
Dear Ashley: What a shame that you do not feel your current employer values associate engagement and career development. I find more and more companies today are investing heavily in this arena, so I assure you there are organizations out there that place associate engagement and career pathing as a key strategic priority. In your case, you have two options: (1) source leadership development opportunities beyond your 9-5 or (2) engage with a new employer that has culture and engagement instilled in their mission and vision.
According to a Gallup survey, great managers possess 5 key traits:
1. They motivate every employee and focus on associate engagement.
2. They drive results through assertiveness and overcoming challenges.
3. They foster accountability and create a culture of expectation.
4. They build relationships and earn the trust of their teams.
5. They fuel decision-making based on facts, not politics.
The Gallup survey went on to say that very few managers and leaders possess every talent, so do not think you have to engage in training opportunities for each of these areas. Focus on the areas in which you feel the most opportunity for improvement. As you mentioned, your current employer does not focus on career pathing; you will need to look externally to develop your leadership skills. To do this, there are many options you can employ, five of which I have outlined below:
1. Consider a graduate degree in a management or leadership field, providing for a formal opportunity to learn the theory of effective management and organizational leadership, while also possibly providing for real-world leadership experiences through capstone projects or internships.
2. Join an association in your field or industry and participate in their professional development forums. Much less expensive than an entire degree program, most professional associations incorporate training and career development as key benefits to their membership.
3. Seek a professional mentor with leadership talents you wish to emulate. Think of those around you; perhaps there is someone internally within your current employer that you admire. Approach that leader and ask if he/she would be willing to engage in a mentor/mentee relationship with you where he/she can share leadership lessons to help nurture your own leadership and management talents.
4. Create a list of well-regarded leadership books and start reading! There are classics such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, but feel free to also choose books that resonate with the areas in which you feel you have gaps to close. Consider making your morning and evening commutes to work your development time by subscribing to an audiobook service.
5. Listen to respected podcasts on business leadership, entrepreneurialism, and management. There are so many great choices for podcasts that are not only educational but entertaining. My favorite is the NPR podcast How I Built This in which Guy Raz interviews prominent innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and tells the stories behind the movements they built. Listening during your commute will not take time away from any other part of your life, and you will be amazed at the lessons you will learn.
I hope you find the right balance for your needs, Ashley. As you have someone you look up to in your own family, sit with your sister and talk with her about what she did to advance in her field; then take those learnings and implement what works for you while you navigate your own unique journey. All the best!