A Message to Junior Leaders: 12 Things I Wish I Knew 12 Years Ago
I often use my morning runs to consume podcasts, especially one of my favorites, The Learning Leader Show with Ryan Hawk. He always interviews the most impressive people and, without fail, every conversation is engaging and compelling. (This is not a plug for the podcast, I promise).
But in every episode, Ryan asks the guest an interesting final question: What is one piece of life advice you would give to the young 20-somethings listening who are about to finish college or enter the working world? And during my run today (when writing this), I found myself wondering, “How would I answer that question? What stands out to me most after 12 years?” And so like a mental rolodex, I began flipping through all the things I wish I’d known a dozen years ago when I was entering work for the first time and what I would ultimately share.
So, instead of answering Ryan’s question outright, I am going to highlight the 12 things I wish I knew about leadership and work 12 years ago. For all my new or junior leader friends and audience members, I encourage you to take pause and think how you may align to them in your work, your attitude, your behaviors, and your words.
Advice can certainly be a monster, as Michael Bungay Stanier argues, but I also believe there is power in perspective. I hope these 12 lessons, reflections, or whatever you want to call them offer a little perspective to help fill the experience gap for our mighty new, junior, and emerging leaders.
1. There is no right way, only your way. I spent the early years of my career afraid of being the “wrong” leader, and I wasted so much energy trying to fit some mold that I thought I was supposed to fill. I was lying, hiding, faking, and pretending to be some expected model of a leader. But I finally learned the power of leader authenticity. People will see when you’re not being you; you’ll lose credibility and trust. At the end of the day, you simply need to be present and be yourself. I don’t think you can go wrong when doing those.
2. Your job is to add value. It’s not about the job you’re given. It’s about how well you do in the given job. I’ve had numerous jobs that I thought I’d hate or would hurt my career. It was those exact jobs I most enjoyed, that I had the most impact through, and that significantly contributed to making me a better leader. No matter our job or circumstance, we are called to add value to others and to our team. What are you doing to add value to your customers, to your teammates, and to your whole team at large? Focus on adding value to others around you and you will never go wrong. Use your resources, abilities, and position for good.
3. Make your higher headquarters better. Our loyalties should flow in a particular order: our larger organization first, the immediate team we lead next, and ourselves last. I think a lot of junior leaders invert this model placing their immediate team or, worse, themselves, first. I certainly did this years ago. The mark of a professionally mature leader is a commitment to doing what they can with their resources to help make their higher headquarters better. In doing so, you’re expanding the value you add (reference back to #2) and still help make your immediate team better, too. Leaders know how to lead up.
4. Do what your boss wants first; that discipline will create freedom. I maintain three enduring priorities as a leader. I (1) do what’s right, (2) do what my boss wants, and (3) then do what I want given all remaining resources and capacity…in that order. But what I’ve found in following that model has been quite surprising. I’ve found that by doing priorities 1 and 2 first, and doing them well, my bosses have actually given me a lot of trust, latitude, and space to allow me to do priority 3 how I want. This has enabled me to accomplish a lot of great things within my teams, especially in the realm of leader development. Having the discipline to do what’s right and consistently achieve your boss’s intent well first, you’ll almost always be given the freedom to pursue your own priorities too.
5. Reflection is required. We cannot simply be tossed from one experience to the next like a wave without deliberately taking time to make sense of those experiences. Leaders must be intentional in reflecting – making sense of and growing from their experiences. Reflecting is the only way we can achieve clarity from those experiences, extract the lessons learned from them, and determine how we will improve from them moving forward. Leaders need to better understand personal reflection, explore the best ways we individually reflect (preferred activities, times, etc.), and ensure we dedicate regular time and space to pause and think.
6. Mentorship is a must…but it’s hard. Mentorship is essential; it is one of the most developmentally impactful activities or relationships we can engage in. Mentors offer us challenge, support, goal progression, coaching, feedback, perspective, and more. We need mentors in every stage of our growth. Yet, I didn’t have a real mentor until seven years into my career. But in looking back, I realized that was because I had a narrow and unrealistic definition of mentorship. I was looking for a senior leader to meet with me every week and hand me development on a silver platter. That’s almost never going to happen. Mentorship can come in many forms to include peers, short-lived relationships that may last a day, or even virtually through various online resources. We need mentorship, but we also need to scan a wide horizon of opportunities for mentorship to enjoy its benefits (not waiting seven years like I did).
7. Know, own, and employ your “leadership superpower.” What is your leadership superpower? What are the one or two things that you do really well, better than anyone else in your organization? Spend time identifying those. Then, own them. Don’t be ashamed, shy, or timid about them. These are skills you use for good – for the benefit of others. So, do that! Employ those superpowers for good, making your team and others better because of them.
It took me way too many years to find that my superpowers were (1) communicating perspective to help others understand their circumstances, (2) bringing energy and optimism to my team, and (3) connecting with others to help them feel seen, heard, and valued. But in knowing that now, I don’t brag or flaunt those abilities. I employ those humbly, dutifully, and with love to make my people and my team better every chance I get.
8. Know the power of your optimism, energy, and attitude. Often, the greatest thing I bring to the teams I lead is not some skill or power. It’s usually my energy, my optimism, and my consistently positive and collected attitude. Those things will lead to very tangible impacts across your team. Never underestimate the power of your optimism, energy, and attitude.
9. Care for others first. People will follow you for one of two reasons: because they have to or because they choose to. And I’ve found that one of the most powerful ways to lead that transition from must to choose is by simply caring for others first…and always. Before I ever demand something from a teammate I lead, I ensure I’ve earned the right to lead them by first caring for them personally and genuinely. Who are they, what is their story and background, what are their goals? Do they have a family? What is important to them? How do they enjoy spending their time? How can I help them achieve their goals or enable them to enjoy their hobbies?
I still fully believe in the lesson that my mom instilled in me growing up: No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. Genuinely care for others first and you’ll be amazed by the mountains they will move for you in return.
10. Manage your cup. I love referencing my wife’s favorite sweatshirt every chance I get. It reads, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” It is such an important message. Who is pouring into your cup? Are they the right people? Are they pouring in good, clean fuel into your cup so that you can in turn do the same to others? You can’t inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself. How are you remaining inspired? Ensure you have enough sources pouring into your cup. However, know that we cannot simply standby waiting for someone to come by to pour into our cups. We must seek and establish relationships with others for them to pour into our cup.
11. How you treat others matters. People will most remember how you made them feel. How people are treated at work directly impacts their views of team fairness. How you treat others matters. Be kind. Be positive. Be curious, intentional, and thoughtful. Assume positive intent. Make people feel seen, heard, and valued. Be present. Being a good person to others, regardless of their rank or role, will send waves across your team and cultivate a desirable team culture. And how you treat others should not be conditions based. Everyone is worthy of respect and kindness.
12. You have never arrived. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduced the idea of living life in crescendo – that our best work should always be ahead of us. Leadership is not about what you have accomplished in the past. We do not rest on our laurels. Leadership is the business of making things and people better. We come in, make the team better, and then we move on, having left it all on the field. We always have the next team, problem, or project ahead of us that deserves our best.
This also applies to leader learning and growth. We have never arrived or reached our potential as a leader. We always have more to learn, self-awareness to discover, behaviors to refine, and potential to reach.
Junior leaders – you give me energy every day. I hope that my humble perspective and experiences here can return the favor in some small way. Lead well, every day, with intention and passion. Thank you for what you do.