Having worked in the tech space for 30 years (hard to believe it’s been that long), I’m often asked to share lessons learned and secrets to success. I’ve been apprehensive to do so because the first step is to be able to say, without tooting my own horn, that I’m successful.
In the interest of getting past this inner turmoil, here are five steps to accelerate your path to leadership. Some are remarkably obvious, yet it’s surprising how often I don’t see these behaviors in employees and up and coming leaders.
1. Be a Leader
You don’t need to wait until you’re managing people to be a leader. At one company I worked for our mantra was “Everyone is a Leader” and we meant it. You can be a leader in your first job post college. How? By being interested in what’s happening in all parts of the company, not just your role. Help colleagues succeed if you’ve got experience or a skill they don’t. Volunteer for extra projects. Be open, collaborative and a great team player. It’s really that simple.
2. Be Strategic
This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in a certain field or technology. It means putting the customer first, the company second and your team/yourself third. If you take this strategic approach you’ll effectively be ‘punching above your weight class’ to use a phrase that many of my male colleagues like. You’ll quickly get a reputation for doing the right thing for the customer and the company and that will open many opportunities. It was for this reason I was given the chance after the acquisition of Business Objects by SAP, to lead the overall integration on the Business Objects side rather than just the Partner business which I led. I got the opportunity because the CEO of our company felt that I would do the right thing for the combined company and not focus on how to get the best outcome for myself or my colleagues.
3. Communicate better
We’ve all been around colleagues who talk too much. They take five minutes to say something that should take one. They may be smart, but over time they drive other employees crazy and eventually, people shy away from them. I encourage anyone I mentor to ask trusted colleagues for feedback. Do you talk too much, do you wander or do you make your point clearly and concisely? Not talking enough is equally damaging. You don’t want to leave a meeting and have others wondering why you were there. In both cases I’d suggest checking in with friends/colleagues you trust to provide open, direct feedback. For large groups, I spend a lot of time preparing for presentations so I know the content inside and out. Everyone who sees you present should feel like you are someone they’d like to have on their team.
4. Be flexible and positive
There are a lot of things to be unhappy about. Every company has areas they can improve and when you go through an acquisition there can be even more to feel negative about. You want to be known as a person who focuses on what’s positive about the latest acquisition – the additional market it opens up, the new skills it brings to the company, the great products they have. Too often I see employees take an opportunity when meeting with a senior leader to focus on what’s wrong rather than what they’re excited about. If you have time in front of a senior leader you want to be remembered for the insight and positive attitude you showed, not the problem you pointed out (which the leader probably already knows about anyway and would fix it if it was easy). Be the team player who helps your colleagues move forward and focus on the positive.
Trust is the foundation of every relationship and it includes both competence and character. You need both to be trusted. Strong trust drives collaboration, speed, agility and employee engagement which in turn leads to innovation, organization success and improved financial metrics. I can’t say enough about trust. Make it part of your brand and know that you’ll need to keep working on it throughout your career. Teams change, circumstances change and people change. Don’t take it for granted. Trust is the ultimate leadership and relationship currency and always keep it at the top of your list to be aware of and work on.
While the aforementioned tips might seem simple to pull off, all of them remain a work in progress for me. The good news (or bad depending on how you look at it) is that we are a work in progress throughout our careers. Be open to feedback to ensure you continue to be the leader you want to be in the future.
Janet Wood is global head of Talent and Leadership at SAP.