The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership
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The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership

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The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership

Adam Bryant is senior managing director and a partner at the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. He has interviewed more than 1,000 CEOs and other senior leaders for his LinkedIn series and for the New York Times “Corner Office” column he created. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and leadership offsites and is the senior adviser to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership at Columbia University.

Below, Adam shares five key insights from his new book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership. Listen to the audio version—read by Adam himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership By Adam Bryant Next Big Idea Club

1. Leadership is a mindset, not a title.

You can be a leader now, regardless of what’s on your business card. So, what does it mean to be a leader, and how is it different from being a manager? Managers start with a clear set of outcomes that they are expected to deliver on—here’s the goal and here are the resources. You’re starting with a playbook that somebody has handed you.

To be a leader, you have to do the job that’s expected of you and do it really well, but you need to go above and beyond. What are the problems that you can take off your boss’s plate? What are the opportunities that the company may not even see for itself?

Doing something new and different takes courage and a willingness to take a risk and own the outcome. Wherever you are in your organization, try to see the world through your boss’s eyes and the CEO’s eyes, and always be thinking about what is best for the organization and what it needs to do to win. Every company is going through some kind of transformation right now, and you should see yourself as a driver of transformation in every role you have. How can things be done better, faster, differently?

2. Do you really want to lead?

If you think you want to move into a leadership role, you should spend time reflecting on why. Because a lot of people think that they want these jobs until they get these jobs, only to discover they are much harder than they thought. In leadership, you’re dealing with people problems all day long, making decisions for which there is no obvious answer, and facing new challenges all the time that can feel like a mountain of Rubik’s cubes.

“Companies too often just move people along, assuming that they want promotions.”

Some people are excited about those challenges, and they like having an impact by lifting their organizations and helping people on their teams develop new skills. But others can find these roles draining, and they might be better off in an individual contributor role. Companies too often just move people along, assuming that they want promotions. A lot of people are enticed by the bigger titles and greater financial rewards. We need to have more conversations about whether people really want these leadership jobs, and that conversation starts with yourself. Be clear on your “why.”

3. First, be a great manager.

If you want to make the leap to a big leadership role, you first have to prove yourself as a great manager. You have to show that you can build a loyal and effective team on a smaller stage before you can move to a bigger stage.

So, what are the fundamentals of being a good manager? I think all bosses can be put into one of two camps; those who are more selfless or more self-centered. For bosses who are self-centered, it’s all about them and their career goals. They see the people who work for them as assets to help them achieve their own goals. You can always tell at a gut level that they don’t really care about you. The other—and better camp—are bosses who are more selfless. They have their own goals and personal ambitions, but their focus, their center of gravity, is more about coaching and developing people on their team. They see a career trajectory for you that maybe you don’t even see for yourself, and they care about helping build the organization. If you start there—being more selfless than self-centered—you are much more likely to get a shot to take on a big leadership role.

4. Win promotions without asking for them.

To have your greatest impact as a leader, you need to be promoted quickly into a senior leadership role. How best to do that? It starts by asking, “How do you set yourself apart, and do such a great job, that you keep getting promoted without having to lobby for a bigger job?”

I know that can sound unrealistic and the fact is, women and minorities face a lot of headwinds in the workplace. Unfortunately, those headwinds aren’t going away anytime soon. You probably will have to speak up and advocate for yourself.

“Women and minorities face a lot of headwinds in the workplace.”

Start with the goal of doing such a great job that your work should speak for itself, so that your bosses want to bet on you to take on additional responsibilities. Focus on doing the job you have really well, and figure out ways to transform the role and add value beyond the job description. Make sure you have a great “do to say” ratio—which means that you always do what you say you’re going to do. That will build your reputation as being reliable and dependable, and someone who always delivers.

5. Who are you as a leader?

To make the Leap to Leader, you have to understand both the internal and external work of leadership. The external work includes setting strategy, building high-performing teams, and setting the culture of the organization. But it also requires a lot of internal work to understand who you are and who you want to be as a leader.

We’re hearing more and more about how important it is for leaders to be human, authentic, transparent, humble, and self-aware. But what does all that mean in practice? It starts with being clear about your personal values and what you stand for as a leader. I always encourage people to spend time thinking about the three or four values that really define their leadership philosophy. It’s not enough to just come up with three or four words or phrases. You need to think through the answers to follow-up questions that people on your team might have: Why are those important to you? How did they become important to you? How have you lived those values?

You may go through your entire career without anyone ever asking you, “Who are you as a leader?” But if you know the answer, you will be a better leader for it, because being clear on your personal leadership values will act like the centerboard of a sailboat for you, keeping you on a steady course as you navigate all the difficult challenges you will face in your career as a leader.

To listen to the audio version read by author Adam Bryant, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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