I often get e-mails from readers (which I happily reply to) asking how they can prepare to move up to a leadership position. The questions I get often are related to formal preparations including degrees to obtain, classes to take, etc. I have written about these skills on a number of occasions in my blogs, and they can be summed up as: writing, speaking, and thinking on your feet. Those skills are critical to leadership.
Perhaps more important than having the right degrees and certifications is acquiring the softer skills that enable you to move on to leadership positions. Specifically, these are the skills that allow you to recognize opportunities, evaluate them, and then take advantage of them.
The first thing to realize is that taking advantage of a leadership opportunity does not necessarily mean moving up on the career ladder. It can be simply a matter of taking on more responsibility or taking ownership of something. Often this type of opportunity has no monetary or status reward other than the personal growth that allows you to be better prepared for your next opportunity.
The second thing to realize is that leadership is sometimes not a choice — it may be thrust upon you. There can be a million ways as to how and why you are thrust into a leadership role, but the important thing is to recognize the opportunity and to step up and do the best you can with the situation you have just been handed. Be careful in these situations, because people often look upon them as "why me?" instead of taking advantage of an opportunity. These situations often mean more work, but it comes with the territory.
Third, know your organization. You won't be able to spot opportunities if you don't know what's going on around you. If you desire a leadership position, then your ears are always open and your radar is on. If you limit your curiosity to just what is in front of you, you are going to miss out on the big picture. That doesn't mean you have to go golfing with your company's CEO, but you better be danged sure you recognize him or her should you see them. This works up and down the chain. The more you know about people and what they do, the better prepared you will be to handle a leadership opportunity.
Fourth, don't be a wallflower. If people have no clue who you are, they will never think of you when opportunities arise. Find ways to make your presence known without being obnoxious about it. By the way, being good at what you do never hurts.
Fifth, make sure you are easy to work with. If you have a reputation of being hard to work with, people will avoid you like the plague — and so will leadership opportunities.
Sixth, act like a leader. Volunteer for stuff. Management is often looking for people to volunteer to lead. Just make sure you follow through and perform well when you do volunteer — no half hearted attempts allowed here.
Seventh, dress for success. You don't have to wear a tux to work, and you don't have to look like the odd ball in your workgroup, but kick your wardrobe up a notch. This can mean buying a better brand of Polo shirt or perhaps ironing or taking your clothes to the cleaners. You never know when you are going to get a chance at a first impression and you usually have only one shot at it. Also, people automatically assume that those in power are the better dressed individuals. They don't call them "suits" for nothing. Perception is reality.
Eighth, be self assured. Lack of confidence exudes an aura that can be spotted a mile away. Believe in yourself 100 percent. That doesn't mean you can't have any doubts, but always believe you can achieve when called upon.
Ninth, don't slander your coworkers. There will be opportunities in your work life where you will be called upon to criticize others or their work. Be tactful. Always criticize the work, not the person, and be constructive in your criticism. Slandering your coworkers makes you look bad and creates enemies.
Tenth, look for messes to be cleaned up. Every failure is an opportunity for success. You want to fill some shoes? Put on the shoes of someone who has failed miserably. It's a lot easier to look like a superstar when your predecessor was a dud.
I could go on, but then you would have a list that is too long to remember <grin>. If you are looking for a leadership opportunity, it won't take you too long to find one. Most of the time, they will find you. Make sure you are constantly working on both your hard and soft skills in order to maximize your chances when the right situation comes along. As is often the case, being in the right place at the right time with the right credentials is all it takes to turn your life and career in a completely different direction. If you prepare every day for the possibility of leadership, you'll be ready to seize that opportunity when it comes your way.