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Leap to leader: Make yourself heard

In his new book, Adam Bryant shares tactics that up-and-coming leaders can use to prove they are ready for the next challenge.

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For some, the leap to leader can be exhilarating, but for others, the freedom that comes with leadership can become overwhelming. The goal of my new book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, is to provide a practical guide to making that transition. To assemble that guide, I’ve shared insights, stories, and approaches from hundreds of leaders whom I’ve interviewed and advised, and some whom I now work with. The result is a distillation of best practices encouraging those with leadership ambitions to build the skills they’ll need—starting with proving yourself as a manager, then advancing to more senior roles to increase your impact, and finally making the fundamental mindset shifts that are necessary to succeed: understanding how you should be as a leader. This excerpt from the book focuses on how to get noticed and prove you have what it takes.

In an ideal world, your work would speak for itself, and you’d be recognized and rewarded for your contributions. But the reality is that many people, particularly women and people of color, encounter headwinds. There are many occasions when you’ll have to raise your hand for promotions and to make sure you get credit for the work you’ve done. And then there are all those lamentable behavioral dynamics that play out at work, like mansplaining, and people talking over you and taking credit for your ideas.

Here are some of the best tactics for making yourself heard. They can be useful for anybody, regardless of race or gender, who feels that they need to speak up for themselves but don’t necessarily know how.

If you want something, ask for it. People can get trapped in some false assumptions about managing their careers. The most common ones include, “If I just focus on doing my job well, I’ll get what I deserve and I’ll be promoted,” and “I don’t want to push too hard for a raise, because then people will start seeing me as a problem.” Because career-focused conversations have the potential to be contentious, anyone who is conflict-averse may find reasons to avoid them in the first place. But avoiding them is a bad idea. You may be holding yourself back, and a lot of the rationalizations for steering clear of these conversations are misguided.

So if you want a job, ask for the job. Jodie W. McLean, CEO of Edens, a retail real estate company based in Columbia, S.C., shared a valuable lesson with me from her years of playing sports as a teenager, particularly field hockey. “When I was about 17, I had a small moment that had a big impact on me: I didn’t take the shot that would have won the game,” McLean said. “I know it may seem silly, but I go back to that moment all the time. I didn’t take the shot, because it wasn’t set up perfectly, but I could have made the shot. The clock ran out, and we tied the game instead of winning. Worse things have happened in life. We went on to win our league, but we had a tie. We could have had a perfect record if I had taken the shot. That lives with me. You need to take the shot.”

She applied that lesson to her career when her firm needed a new chief investment officer. “I was not invited to the table when that decision was being made, but I just aggressively went after the job,” she recalled. “I sort of took the job. They were bantering about who would take this job, and all the candidates were older, seasoned men. I said, ‘I think I can do this job better than anybody. I’m going to do this job, and I’m going to change my business cards before anybody has a say in this.’ And I walked out of the room. They gave me the job.”

That may strike you as over the top and something that you would never feel comfortable doing. But I have counseled many people over the years to ask for the job and be assertive to the point of making yourself uncomfortable about saying you want the job. I always tell people to turn their guitar amp up to eleven in job interviews (it’s a reference to the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, and the priceless scene is worth looking up on YouTube) and play louder than they think they should. Yes, as you’re reading the room, you may decide that a more low-key approach would work better with the person you’re meeting. And if you find yourself being courted heavily for a job, then you should play those moments differently so that you maintain some leverage in the negotiations. But as a general rule, I don’t think you can go wrong by showing enthusiasm.

Make your career goals clear to your boss. It doesn’t have to be a saber-rattling conversation. Be explicit in expressing that you’re focused on delivering in your current role, and avoid the obvious turnoffs of seeming too impatient or unrealistic about your next step. The right tone is key, and an approach like the following should help the conversations with your boss land well: “Generally, this is the direction I’d like to take. If there were an opportunity that came up to do this, this is what I’d like to be considered for. I want to be doing assignments and things that prepare me for that.”

It’s a lesson that Jenny Ming, former CEO of clothing retailer Charlotte Russe and former president of Old Navy, learned early on in her career, when she was a merchandise manager. “I was doing very well as a buyer, but someone got a promotion over me,” Ming said. “I was really surprised, because I was never asked if I was interested in the job. When I approached my manager about it, he said, ‘I didn’t know you were so ambitious.’ I had three young children at the time, and he said, ‘You have kids.’ I said, ‘You can’t assume that just because I have kids that I don’t want to move up in my career.’ He was very apologetic. What I learned is that you can’t assume that people know what you’re thinking or what you want in your career. You have to speak up.”

Build your case for what you want. It’s not just a matter of going into a meeting and asking for a raise or promotion. Instead, imagine how an agent or headhunter would represent you. How would they make the case for you getting the job or the raise you deserve? And remember, it’s not just your boss you have to convince; your goal is to give them specifics so that they can go make a case for you to their boss and to HR. Ground the conversation in facts. What have you accomplished? How has your work helped drive the business? Can you point to concrete ways in which you’ve added value?

It’s a point that Kathy Murphy, a colleague of mine who was formerly CEO of technology company Corning Gilbert, makes often to executives she advises. “I try to orient people around thinking about their purpose. If the company is paying me $1 today, did I give them $2 of value?” she said. “Or better yet, $3 or $5? Because at the end of the day, you are there to add value. You want to be noticed for the contribution you make, and that will lead to the kind of career advancement you want.” This is ultimately the key to negotiating—take the focus off of what you want, and point instead to external scoreboards and measurements that show what you deserve, based on what you’ve done. Or point out how the company needs to raise its game in a particular function, and then make the case for what you would do in that role and why you’re the best qualified to help. And remember, you’ll get people’s attention if you’re willing to take on a tough challenge that others have avoided. Do such a good job that your work should speak for itself, but be willing to add your own voice when the message needs to be amplified.

Don’t be afraid to rock the boat. There’s a mental loop people can get caught in that might keep them from pushing for more money, whether negotiating for a raise or for a pay package that comes with the new job. “I don’t want to rock the boat,” they say to themselves. “I want to make sure things start on a positive note. I’m grateful for the opportunity.” As a result, they settle too quickly. But for more senior roles, the person on the other side of the table is expecting you to push, and they’ve probably built in some negotiating room for when you do start pushing.

Rather than thinking less of you if you negotiate for more, they may respect you more. Ask yourself: what is the worst-case scenario if you do push? Are you worried they’ll rescind the offer? Remain calm and persistent, and make your case. The moments in your career when you have real leverage are few and far between, so make the most of them. If you settle too quickly, will you start regretting the decision over the next two years? Those nagging feelings can affect your performance at the margins, so do everything you can to push for an agreement that is somewhere between “this is what I want” and “this is what I can live with.” You don’t want to be saying to yourself, “I should have asked for more. They didn’t give me what I am worth.”

Learn the art of horn-tooting. Here’s another area where people can create unhelpful narratives about themselves. They may take pride in saying, “I don’t like to brag. And it feels too political to take credit for my ideas. I let my work speak for itself.” The impulses are admirable but unhelpful. There are ways to let people know about your contributions without saying, “Look what I did!” For example, make the most of your one-to-one meetings with your boss. You can say, “Here are the things that happened this year that I feel pretty good about.” Or add some topspin to an accomplishment by saying, “I learned a lot from getting this project done.” Be sure to set your formal objectives with your boss for the year ahead, and then follow up with documentation showing what you accomplished during your regular performance reviews and business updates.

You can also give credit to your direct reports while making your role in the work clear. “The way you do it is to say, ‘The team I have working for me now and I came up with a plan to do XYZ,’” said Valerie Salembier, another colleague of mine and a veteran publishing executive. “So you’re including the team, but you’re also saying you were the strategist. That’s tooting your own horn but in a non-bragging way. People have to be comfortable to take credit when they should.”

Finally, if you want to move up quickly, develop a reputation as a problem-solver. Companies have problems. Bosses have problems. Be ready to take on those problems—or “challenges,” if that’s what you’d prefer to call them—and you will move up quickly.

Companies have problems. Bosses have problems. Be ready to take on those problems, and you will move up quickly.

It’s the advice that Clark Pettit, a current colleague and former CEO of the Association of Business Information and Media Companies, has shared with many people he has mentored over the years. “I often hear from people who say, ‘I’ve shown up, I’ve done a really good job, I’ve knocked it out of the park, and I’m not being promoted to leader, and others are,’” he said. “One of the things I learned in life is that when I am promoting someone, I am solving a problem through that promotion. If I’m a good leader, I’m also quite aware of the journey, development, and opportunity of that individual and their capability and their desire. But that’s not what I’m solving for. What I’m solving for is, ‘Somebody take this thing off my plate and fix it, please.’ And if you show up to me as, ‘I did my prior job, I did it really well, I am now ready for you to ordain me and give me your personal capital and raise me up and teach me and promote me and hold my hand and introduce me and give me a job description and everything else,’ you are not the candidate that I want. What I want is someone who says, ‘Could you get out of my way, boss? I want that job. I’m ready for that job. And I have everything it’ll take for that job. All I need you to do is say yes, and I’ll take care of that problem.’”

In my own career as a manager, I came to think that the three most beautiful words in the English language, at least in the context of work, are I’m on it. Make that your mantra—you may not know right away how you’re going to fix the problem, but you are confident that you are going to fix the problem. Do that consistently, and you will be promoted faster than you expect.

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