I came to corporate America later in life after working for 20 years as a contract auditor, and boy, was it a shock. The independence and confidence I enjoyed as a contractor was replaced by a rigid corporate culture, bosses who gave a lot of "feedback," and much uncertainty.
Starting at the bottom of the totem pole was not my idea of fun, but I embraced the goofy monthly birthday celebrations, the office gym, and endless tick marks and plowed onward. I knew my hard work, smarts, dedication, and engaging personality would help me land that management role for I which I knew I was well-suited.
Yet six years into my new life as an internal auditor, I was still at the bottom of the pole looking up and wondering, "Where is my promotion?" That's when I decided to approach my boss to let her know I was interested in the newly posted manager role, and her response shook my world: "I didn't know you were interested in management; you are so quiet."
Thankfully I had not been idle but had invested in obtaining my Certified Internal Auditor designation and joining The IIA. Around that time, I took a leadership class offered by a local IIA chapter. I listened intently, took good notes, and came away with a list of questions I needed to ponder:
- How do others see me?
- How do I evidence leadership if I'm not in a leadership role?
- Am I actively investing in myself to make sure I reach my goal?
How do others see me? Hmmm, that was an interesting thought. Remembering my manager's feedback, others saw me as quiet. Does a leader need to be loud? Maybe not, but if I wanted to stand out from the crowd, I needed to speak up.
I started pushing myself to speak up in meetings, even if I didn't have anything to add. My approach was to:
- Comment on other's statements or ask a question. "That's a great idea!" "Your finding was very insightful. How did the business respond?" Often, by making sure your voice is heard, you will find ways to add value to the conversation. Do not attend a meeting without finding a way to be heard.
- Volunteer to lead a meeting. This was a scary one! My advice is do it as frequently as you can, and it will soon become second nature. A word to the wise: Always have a written agenda.
- Present topics at team meetings. After attending the leadership class, I reported on some of my takeaways.
Get feedback from trusted colleagues on how others perceive you. Ask them if there is something you could do differently. Or, if that feels awkward, take a good look at yourself from someone else's point of view.
Be gracious when you receive feedback. It is invaluable and may shed light on a roadblock you may not have been aware of. Once you are aware of the hurdle, create a plan — like I did above — to dispel those perceptions.
How do I evidence leadership when no one reports to me? This one stumped me at first and required a little bit more creativity, but I developed a plan.
Volunteer to Lead a Team This may be inside or outside of work and could be an ad-hoc team or an organization such as The IIA. In my case, I became the vice president of our local IIA chapter and then spent a couple years as the president. The experience built my confidence, helped me hone my speaking skills, provided networking opportunities, and looked good on a resume. When asked in an interview about my leadership experience, I was able to point to some of my successes as an IIA leader.
Create a List of Leadership Attributes What qualities were important to me in a leader and what characteristics would a hiring manager be looking for? I had a lot of both good and bad examples to choose from, but I picked five that stood out and posted them at my workspace. At least once a week, I read through the list and thought about where I could improve and how I could exhibit those traits. Some examples are: confident, not gossipy, supportive, sharing knowledge, promoting company goals, and participating in corporate activities.
Be Self-motivated Look for ways to assist your leader. One of my favorite managers, as an individual contributor, made it a habit to find ways to take work off his leader's plate. She came to rely on him heavily and when a position came open on the team, he was the first person she thought of. Volunteer for those extra assignments (be the first to raise your hand!) and bring solutions to the table when the team encounters a roadblock. Don't be afraid to put in some extra hours if needed.
So why wasn't my hard work, smarts, dedication, and engaging personality getting me that management role I knew I was well suited for? Everyone should know how wonderful I am, right? Apparently not.
My problem was that I had not planned for success. I assumed things would happen organically and was frustrated when they did not. It wasn't until I actually sat down, did a self-evaluation, and dedicated time to my personal growth, that things started to change.
There is a happy ending to my story, I was promoted to a leadership position on my team and am the proud team lead of 15 outstanding employees. What I learned along the journey was to always be working towards your goal, identifying roadblocks, and creating plans to knock them down.
Development is not passive. Get out there and work at it every day. When I finally got the promotion, I was much more prepared than I had been before I started my journey and am hopefully a better leader because of it.
Dianne Greschl, CIA, is team lead, Operational Excellence Oversight at CareSource in Dayton, Ohio.
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