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Unwrapping 5 gifts of leadership

Executives reflect on their careers and offer advice for aspiring leaders.

6 min read



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Last week, 27 high school seniors filed into their school auditorium to learn more about their passions and how to use them to shape a thriving career. I had the pleasure of conducting a training program with them and was joined by my son, who had graduated from the school four years earlier.

I asked my son to field student questions from his perspective as a recent college graduate and as a young professional beginning his first job. Who better to talk to the students than someone who had traveled the same path, I thought. The students, I reasoned, would be much more likely to ask what they most wanted to know if given the chance to speak with someone to whom they were closer in age.

My instincts were correct. The students peppered my son with all kinds of questions: How did you choose the university that was right for you? How hard was it to settle on a field of study? Do you really believe that you can do anything you set your mind to accomplishing? 

On and on the questions flowed until one student’s query struck me as deeply profound.

“What would you tell your younger self,” the student asked. And that’s when the conversation got really interesting.

I thought about how I might answer that question if I were advising a person who hoped to aspire to a position of leadership. What are the most important insights to share with someone at such a pivotal moment in the early stages of their career journey?

I decided to posit that same question to a number of accomplished leaders in different industries. They offered enlightening gifts of insight and experience, from which any young professional with leadership aspirations can benefit.

Gift 1: Prepare for success

Many of the leaders I spoke with highlighted the importance of remaining curious. They emphasized the value of learning as much as you can from colleagues and contacts, staying abreast of industry and competitive trends, and understanding how true value is created in your business. This is the depth of knowledge that positions you for success. It’s also important to prepare through formal education and by leveraging the leadership training offered by your organization.

Jocelyn Johnson, global director, value propositions and insights, at GE Healthcare, advises: “Get into any leadership programs you can. I wish there had been a program like GE’s Commercial Leadership Program when I was first starting out. It gives you a leg up (in your career) that others don’t get.”

Gift 2: To find your passion, start within

A recurring theme in many of the responses I received highlighted the importance of developing deep self-knowledge in order to discover and follow your passions. Beyond this, knowing yourself well supports you in exhibiting authenticity as a leader and staying focused on the present moment, so you’re able to experience the greatest work fulfillment.

“I have come to learn that my leadership manifested itself more naturally and effectively when I was positioned in the roles that indeed were self-gratifying,” said Leroy Jackson, managing director, Accenture Technology. “This revelation has now helped me to realize the importance of being diligent upfront with seeking and accepting opportunities that are truly aligned to my passion. This alignment will certainly benefit me … but more importantly … it will favorably impact the members of my organization who count on my direction and guidance.”

Gift 3: Plan, but with an open mind

The natural tendency of anyone pursuing a leadership career is to carefully plan the path that they think will lead them to a desired position. Yet, the reality of the journey they experience is often starkly different from what was expected. But different isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Don’t waste too much time planning your career,” says Marc Howells, vice president and head of HR, North America Commercial, for pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. “The only certainty is that it won’t follow that plan — and if you stay open-minded it’ll take you somewhere far more interesting!”

Gift 4: Contribute more than expected

“In order to make the most valued contributions, it’s important to think beyond what’s in the position description,” says Madelyn Jennings, former senior vice president of HR for Gannett. This may sound counterintuitive in industries where employees complain about 70-hour work weeks, but this is about working smarter, not harder. Look for ways to deliver greater value in every assignment you take on. It’s how you’ll differentiate yourself and advance to leadership levels.

Gift 5: Nurture your network

Nearly every leader I spoke with reinforced the importance of building and nurturing a strong network. Not only is your network a source of information and support, but the people in it can influence the trajectory of your career. So, strive to build strong relationships with everyone with whom you interface. And remember, your extended network and colleagues are rich sources of support and insight when tough challenges need bold solutions. Soliciting their input can make a huge difference in your success.

Karen Seymour, vice president, Challenger, Gray and Christmas, and an outplacement and career specialist, advises, “Never try to solve a significant problem without collaboration.”

In the spirit of the season, I encourage you to make a positive difference by sharing the gift of your leadership insight with the next generation. Happy holidays!


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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