How to position yourself for the next step in your career

Does success simply require being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people — a matter of luck or circumstance?

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense via Flickr

What does it take to break through to a higher level of leadership, to move from being an individual contributor to a team leader, or to advance from being a manager who takes direction to a leader that devises the right direction to go? It’s the fundamental career question for aspiring leaders or mid-level managers who want to grow their responsibility and take on the bigger challenges of real leadership.

Answering that question will typically raise others for you. Does success simply require being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people—a matter of luck or circumstance? Is it a matter of natural talent, available only to some gifted few? Or are there steps that anyone can take to strengthen leadership skills, and actively create your own transition to the bigger challenges and responsibilities you want to have?

Over the past two years, as part of our research for developing the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook, we talked with over 40 senior leaders about these questions, combed through dozens of HBR articles about career success, and reflected on our own decades of experience in helping leaders advance.

Based on what we learned, we’re convinced that any successful manager, with the right ambition and commitment to self-improvement, can step up to greater leadership. Yes, luck and talent will always play some role, but if you’re willing to face the challenges, accept and learn from inevitable failures, and keep practicing to get better, more leadership will almost certainly be in your future.

Becoming a leader however is not a sudden transformation, but rather a life-long and ongoing project. That said, our research and experience suggest that growing your leadership will always benefit from four specific and practical steps. Pursue them intentionally and you will surely accelerate the trajectory.

1. Be clear about what it means to be a leader

Begin by understanding what leadership means. “Leader” has come to mean too many things—perhaps someone who simply has a C-suite title or a higher paygrade; maybe one of your unconventional colleagues who makes a point of boasting about “out-of-the-box” approaches; the person who gives the best presentation or speech in front of the boss; or your eager-beaver colleagues who are always raising their hands for an extra assignment. Yes, perhaps, maybe — but cut to the core!

The real definition of a leader is someone who creates a significant impact by building an organization of people working together towards a big common goal. As management guru Peter Drucker wrote many years ago, “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked. Leadership is defined by results, not attributes.” Leadership doesn’t happen however only in traditional corporate hierarchical structures but wherever there is a shared human endeavor that brings people together.

Leaders are needed in teams (consider any good one you’ve been part of), networks, “movements” (think Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi), religious and social service agencies, political entities, or alliances such as what Amazon or Walmart have created with their thousands of retail and supplier partners. What matters is how leaders bring together talent, foster inspiration, and facilitate coordination so they and their followers achieve major goals together.

2. Identify the core practices that you need to master

You might have to get good at a lot of things to be a successful leader — but there’s real value to prioritizing your development around six absolutely fundamental “practices.” In the HBR Leader’s Handbook, we detail these six fundamental practices that are always part of creating impact through collective effort. We call them “practices” because you build the critical knowledge and skills of these by hands-on experience, learning and improving over time and then reflecting about how to get better. These practices include:

  • Building a unifying vision: setting out broad goals and an inspiring picture of future success to provide a sense of purpose, motivation, and ownership for the people of the organization (or network, association, team, etc.);
  • Translating that vision into strategy: working through choices about where and how to move the organization towards shared goals, what to do and not do, how to deploy resources, and how to create distinctive value; and then planning and coordinating action to make that happen;
  • Getting great people on board to execute the strategy: recruiting, engaging and developing the best possible talent through a “social contract” that promises growth, reward, and relationships in exchange for people’s work and achievement;
  • Achieving results in the context of the strategy: establishing and following disciplines and accountabilities to ensure continual high performance by all members of the organization, leading to tangible progress towards the goals;
  • Innovating for the future: maintaining a dual focus on present performance and future trends and opportunities, to keep the organization adapting to change and ahead of competitors; and Leading yourself: developing self-understanding, ongoing renewal, and self- preservation in order to keep improving as a leader.

To reach the next level of leadership in your own career, take stock of your own capability in each of these areas. Then construct your own personal development agenda. Where have you had some experience and success with these, either on your own or as part of working with others? Where do you need considerably more “practice” and opportunity in order to hone your skills and increase your confidence? Which leadership practices come naturally, and which will require conscious effort or external coaching?

3. Take the initiative and find your own opportunities to practice leadership practices

Once you’re clear about your leadership learning priorities, look for situations where you’ll be able to get real experience and learn by doing, reflecting, possibly failing, and trying again. But don’t wait for these opportunities to be handed to you – go out and find them. You might begin by helping your boss or another more accomplished leader in doing some of the practices, for example by supporting some aspects of strategic planning or recruiting or market innovation. As you get more confident, you might volunteer for a project that gives you an opportunity to take on one or more of the practices on your own.

At the same time, take a hard look at your current responsibilities and think about whether you can exert more leadership there. Can you create a unifying, inspiring vision for what your unit or team will try to accomplish in the next two years that supports the broader vision of your department or division or company?

What steps can you take to strengthen your current team – to upgrade talent, raise the bar on performance, or increase teamwork? Remember that leadership emerges out of good management, so you need to demonstrate that you can get results as a manager first before jumping to broader leadership.

Finally, if you don’t see opportunities within your own organization, consider volunteering in a local non-profit, a religious organization, an election campaign, a professional association, or even a neighbor association or club you belong to.

All organizations are hungry for leaders and can provide potentially significant (and often lower-risk) opportunities to hone your skills and build experience. And the more you practice, no matter where, the more you’ll learn, grow, and build the kind of confidence that employers look for in leaders.

4. Pay attention to the needs of others so that they will follow you

Finally, remember that leadership is ultimately not about you – it’s about bringing people together to achieve common goals. To do that, people have to trust that you are not in it only for yourself and for your own advancement, but that you also will help them to be successful, both professionally and personally.

So, while it may seem counter-intuitive, one of the best ways of building your own leadership trajectory is to help your colleagues, teammates, and other co-workers to advance in their careers. You can do this by collaborating on joint projects, sharing credit for accomplishments, giving them assistance on their assignments, and helping them think through their own aspirations and plans.

In essence, remember that leadership is not a zero-sum game of winners and losers. The real leaders are those who make everyone around them successful as well.