Leading, Unofficially

This edition of The Oswald Letter is a guest post from Elizabeth Petersen, Project Director for Simplify Compliance.
For most of us, the path to becoming a leader starts years before an official leadership title and a team of employees are granted.

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In truth, informal leadership can be a greater skill—and more of a challenge—than leading with a top-of-hierarchy job. Honing your leadership style before you enter any sort of management track is critical not only to your future success but also for your organization and colleagues to take notice and start viewing you as a star in the making.
So what does it take to lead when others aren’t mandated to follow?
  1. Find your voice. Becoming comfortable sharing your ideas and learning how to disagree—productively and appropriately—are the building blocks for any leader. This can be a difficult skill to master for introverts. To get started, consider asking to be placed on the agenda for an upcoming meeting. You’ll have time to prepare and will be speaking on a topic of your choice. Look for opportunities to present (or even coach) in both your personal and professional lives. And be prepared to power through some awkward moments—all presenters have experienced lost trains of thought, forgotten words, or stuttering.
  2. Speak to encourage conversation. We’ve all encountered the “likes to hear himself talk” type. When speaking one on one or in meetings, be mindful of your purpose. True leaders know how to encourage conversation and solicit the ideas and opinions of their colleagues. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be sure to validate the contributions of your peers (e.g., “That’s an interesting point. How do you think that could be applied here?”). Remember that listening is as important as speaking.
  3. Be authentic. Repeat after me: There is no single way to lead. Adopting the exact mannerisms of or trying to impersonate a leader you admire will not work for you. You have a set of skills and talents that are uniquely you. Even Harvard Business School offers a course on authentic leadership. (Can’t shell out the $15,000 for this course? Consider taking a StrengthsFinder assessment. The test will help uncover your unique leadership style.)
  4. Remain curious. “Intellectual curiosity” has become one of my favorite buzzwords. Genuine curiosity is the best way to learn about our business or industry and, ultimately, develop solutions. It also brings out the best in others—when we ask peers to explain something to us, we acknowledge their expertise, which goes a long way in building trust and sets the foundation for true collaboration.
  5. Dress the part. In this era of “athleisure wear,” this point may be a controversial one. Ever heard the old “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” adage? It holds water today. Wearing a T-shirt and shorts may be comfortable, but it’s hard to envision someone leading a board meeting when you’ve only seen her in very casual clothing. Don’t be afraid to be the most dressed person in a business setting.
  6. Be present and engaged. Put your cell phone down during meetings. Use your laptop only for note-taking (if you can’t stand the thought of pen and paper). Make eye contact with speakers, and acknowledge them by asking questions or even simply nodding during their presentation. Say “hello” in the hallways, and learn everyone’s name. These small gestures make people feel recognized and noticed and send the message that you’re involved and interested.

What am I missing from this list? As always, I want to hear from you. Comment below, send me an e-mail, or connect with me via LinkedIn.
Elizabeth Petersen is a project director at Simplify Compliance. Before her current role, Elizabeth oversaw Simplify Compliance’s healthcare division, HCPro. She also has held roles in HCPro’s sales, product management, and content development departments. Before joining HCPro, she held editorial positions at JBLearning and CCI Communications. Elizabeth lives in the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son and is passionately interested in corporate culture, innovation, women’s leadership, and caffeine.
E-mail Elizabeth your thoughts, questions, comments, and ideas, or connect with her via LinkedIn.

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