Future Leaders Network

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5 tips to help future leaders reach their potential

In the years since University education became the norm for a majority of young people, employers have found yet another thing to moan about when it comes to young people and their readiness for the ‘world of work’. In addition to the now time-aged platitudes about a lack of practical skills and common sense, amongst many other things, employers now moan about graduate’s expectations, that they “think that a University education entitles them to higher salaries, faster progression and more responsibility than everyone else”.

It is of course true, that more people graduating means that the average employer now requires a degree for entry level roles – graduating from University has become less prestigious and much more common. Yet the mismatch in expectations has as much to do with the expectations set by the previous generation (for whom graduating DID guarantee a well-paid job), as it does with young people not understanding how the jobs market has changed in the last two decades (not that they stand a realistic chance of doing so, given the desperately poor careers advice available to them).

Yet there is another, more troubling, consequence of this paradigm. That is, that young people with aspirations of reaching the top of their field, are often blocked in their formative years by employers that can’t tell the difference between a graduate looking for the pay and opportunities they think they deserve but are not yet capable of justifying, and a young person with burning ambition, looking to improve their chances of reaching their potential, that doesn’t need the promotion or the title, just more support to develop themselves.

As a result, it is becoming more and more difficult as a young person to forge a path towards a position of leadership.

Here are my 5 tips to help you do just that, gathered from my journey along this path in the last decade.

1/ Never be afraid to start small

I always look at this as having to build your own ‘power-base’. You can’t rely on others affording you a platform for advancement – certainly not in the early days. So start by taking roles on the side that are relatively meaningless in the context of your future ambitions – or working on projects that are small. For me, this was creating an online magazine and working on it for very little reward in the hope that someone eventually wanted to read it (!) – I also took a role as a school governor and as Chairman of my local political party. The advantage, is that this kind of activity is obtainable for you, that it gives you more experience and therefore it makes you more interesting – you suddenly have something interesting to talk about. The lessons I learned from those roles remain invaluable to me today – how to chair a meeting well, how to manage difficult characters, how to work effectively with many different people, from many different walks of life, the basics of building a business. I learned these early, so when I obtained more substantial roles later on, I was able to focus on other areas of my performance and I presented myself as calm, capable and self-assured , rather than young, flustered and out of my comfort zone.

2/ When you ask for the ball, make sure you can catch it

This one is about ensuring you can competently fulfil all that you claim to be able to. This can be tricky to judge as, if you’re anything like me, the experience of being dropped in the deep end and learning to swim quickly is what actually gives you the cutting edge. Tough call, but what you need to consider is how deep the deep end is – you need to be sure that you can navigate the waters with comparative ease, as you won’t be rescued if you start to drown. It’s quite easy to spot a young person that is over-reaching, so be sure that you are up to the challenge if you ask for it. There’s no greater challenge to a person’s credibility than an inability to follow through on their promises, so take smaller but more frequent steps to help you reach your longer-term targets.

3/ Beware of the middle management curse

In my opinion, this curse is the biggest barrier to the advancement of a young person and therefore to social mobility more generally in the UK. The first management opportunity for most people is one where you are reporting to a member of the senior management team, or the MD/CEO directly, but have a couple of very junior reports yourself. Here’s why it’s such a barrier:

-          You are responsible for the performance of junior staff that are developing, yet senior management often have greater expectations of junior staff than is reasonable. The consequences of this mismatch of expectations lie squarely with you however, not your report;

-          Your reports are also likely to be hungry to move up the career ladder. You are directly ‘in their way’, so are they more likely to work with you, or try to undermine you? Go figure;

-          You are also going to be inexperienced at management yourself – this will be apparent to both your reports and your line manager. But the above factors mean that this won’t be taken into consideration in terms of your performance;

-          It’s so easy for your reports to blame you and so easy for your line manager to blame you – so both parties will – it’s frankly often an impossible situation to navigate, particularly in management structures that are taller than they are wider.

What should you do about this? Well sometimes there’s not a lot you can do, but here are a few tips:

-          Don’t take such a role until you are sure you are ready (see both the above and below points);

-          Make sure that you exercise control and instil confidence in both your reports and line manager from day one – you have some responsibility now, take it seriously and lead;

-          Ensure that you maintain a smooth flow of information between your line manager and your reports. If you become a blocking factor, they will bypass you and that’s the beginning of the end;

-          Leave time aside to manage your reports – 20/30% of your week in fact. Set your reports clear objectives, monitor them regularly, report this to your line manager and be clear about the actions you are taking. Meet with your team regularly and always have time for them. Learn to delegate effectively too.

4/ Learn to lead

Leadership skills can be innate, but broadly speaking must be learned. Employers rarely take the time to teach you, so go out and seek external opportunities to do so, join networks like the Future Leaders Network that offer courses and experiences to help you develop. Then make sure you apply what you’ve learned when a leadership position comes along. As per the previous point, set time aside to apply these techniques – make it a key part of your job – don’t get lost in your work.

5/ Never lose your ambition and desire, never forget your beliefs and motivations – it’s harder than you think

Hang on to your ideals and keep your ambitions close to the front of your mind. It’s far too easy to lose sight of who you are and what you believe in when you get stuck into your career and the next challenge. Personally, I re-assess everything I’m doing at least once a year and I follow through on making the changes to my life that are necessary to help me stay on track. Consider this in the same way you would an annual or bi-annual strategic review, as would happen in a corporate body – why should you think of yourself any differently if you’re serious about your future?

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