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How to be recognized as a young leader

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I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my e-book.

This question from Nicholas:

What are some good ways to get recognized as an emerging young leader in your organization without sounding like you’re trying to toot your own horn?”

My mother always told me if you just kept your head down and did good work, you would get ahead in your career. While there is certainly some truth to that advice, there’s a lot more to it when it comes to getting noticed for your leadership potential.

I’ll share some insider information with you as to how most organizations look assess for leadership potential.

According to research by the Corporate Leadership Council, performance was found to be more of a “gatekeeper” to being even considered for promotion to the next level. That is, 90% of “high potentials” were strong performers. So, yes, being great at whatever you are doing matters. If you’re a poor or average performer in your current role, you’ll never be considered for higher-level responsibilities. While we all like to think of ourselves of being a top performer, the reality is, most of us are not. So step one, especially early in a career, is to establish a consistent track record of strong performance.

However, only 29% of high performers have what it takes to succeed at the next level. Other factors come into play when it comes to predicting success at the next level, including aspiration (willingness to take on new, higher-level responsibilities), engagement (your commitment and willingness to go the extra mile), and ability (a combination of innate characteristics and learned skills).

The good news is, many of the abilities that organizations look at to evaluate leadership potential can be learned. According to Development Dimensions International, employees that demonstrate the following abilities have a strong chance at being successful in a senior leadership role:

  1. Propensity to lead. They step up to leadership opportunities.
  2. They bring out the best in others.
  3. Authenticity. They have integrity, admit mistakes, and don’t let their egos get in their way.
  4. Receptivity to feedback. They seek out and welcome feedback.
  5. Learning agility.
  6. Adaptability. Adaptability reflects a person’s skill at juggling competing demands and adjusting to new situations and people. A key here is maintaining an unswerving, “can do” attitude in the face of change.
  7. Navigates ambiguity. This trait enables people to simplify complex issues and make decisions without having all the facts.
  8. Conceptual thinking. Like great chess players and baseball managers, the best leaders always have the big picture in mind. Their ability to think two, three, or more moves ahead is what separates them from competitors.
  9. Cultural fit.
  10. Passion for results.

So, I’d suggest evaluating yourself against these characteristics and see where you stack up. Of course, there are limits to self-assessment (we tend to be clueless as to how we are perceived by others), so it’s even better if you can get some candid feedback from your boss or others.

Then, identify one or two things you need to get better at and create a development plan to address those areas. I’d recommend sharing it with your boss, for a number of reasons. First of all, to get feedback, and secondly, to get additional ideas and support. Finally, going back to the “aspiration” component of potential, to show that you’re interested in leadership development and willing to do what it takes to learn and grow.

Just one more thing when it comes to “tooting your own horn.” That’s something many of us are not comfortable with, and no one wants to be seen as a self-promoting blowhard. It’s always better when other people toot your horn for you. That is, your boss and decision makers are hearing good things about you behind your back, from your peers and others.

Given that, managers, as much as they should, are not always aware of every one of their employee’s accomplishments. It’s up to you to humbly let them know on a regular basis during your regular meetings, and especially during your annual performance review. A lot of managers will ask for performance review “input” — this is the one time per year that you are allowed to loudly toot that horn.

It’s the lucky few that can just consistently shine and get picked for one plum role after another. The rest of have to work hard at it, do a little self-promotion, and have the confidence to ask for it when the opportunity presents itself.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.