How to Get Noticed as a Leader– Before You've Led a Team

Last week “John” shared his “No Diaper Genie!” frustration in the middle of our high-potential leadership development program.

Yeah, I get that I’m here… and the company is investing in me and all that. But my boss keeps saying, “You’re not ready to be promoted, you’ve never led a team. I can’t recommend you for that particular promotion now, give it time”

but the truth is, my job is 18 times more complex than any front-line supervisor. I’m neck-deep in a complex organizational structure doing really strategic work and making an impact. How do I get noticed?”

Flashback to about 20 years ago, when I looked at my boss, Mary Ann, and said almost EXACTLY those same words. I had a masters degree and most of a Ph.D., I was gung ho working really long hours, thinking strategically, and contributing in any way that I could.

And she said the words I found remarkably frustrating and stupid at the time…

Karin, “What’s for you won’t miss you. We’ve got a lot of old-fashioned ways of thinking and being around here… but you’re bigger than all that. Stay the course. Show up as the leader you think the guys three levels up should be.”

And so I did. And as it turns out, Mary Ann was right. It didn’t miss me.

Five Ways to Get Noticed As a Leader Before You’ve Led a Team

Be so good it’s hard to notice. Here are five ways to make a leadership impact before you have a team.

  1. Master the art of the tough conversation.
    Be the guy that can give tough feedback to peers, project team members and even your boss in a way that makes them feel valued and grateful. People will then seek you out as a trusted advisor). Here’s a tool that can help INSPIRE feedback model for project managers For some additional inspiration, you can see part of my Managing the Art of the Tough Conversation keynote here.
  2. Rock your role.
    Yes, yes, you’ve heard this from me before (see related advice here).  But I can’t tell you how many people come to me each week frustrated that they’re not at the next level, and when I ask about their current performance they shrug that off because “they’re bored and ready for more.”  Not a chance. I would never promote you if you’re not showing up consistently as a high-performer, and neither should your boss.
  3. Be sure every meeting you attend is better because you were there.
    You can pull that off in a variety of ways: help keep the team on track by separating “Where are we going?” conversations “How will we get there?” discussions; help to clarify and summarize action items, “Who will do what by when and how will we know?” Invite softer spoken team members to offer their contributions.  See more ideas for running effective meetings here.
  4. Keep your boss informed of your strategic contribution.
    When done well, it’s not bragging. It’s useful– and when you’re adding more value, so are they. Here’s a free huddle planner to help you have more productive one-on-ones with your boss.
  5. Practice Two-level thinking.
    When faced with a difficult business problem or when you’re asked to do something that feels challenging think, “Why is this important to my boss’ boss?” If you can’t come up with a good answer, ask your immediate manager to help you think it through. Everyone wants to have team members who “get it” and want to make a more strategic impact on the business.

If you want to stand out as a leader, don’t wait until you have a formal title. Leading without authority is the best way to stand out “as a natural” and get noticed for what you bring to the scene.

giving employees another chance

Jack, Jill and a Slippery Hill

Antoine was an accomplished millennial retail sales professional  considered “a bit rough around the edges.”

His no-BS approach created a natural bond with entrepreneurs and mom and pop companies, that left some managers scratching their heads. But, heck it worked.

Antoine was maxing out his compensation and winning the big recognition trips year after year, but he wanted more.

He went back to school at night and got his degree. He waited until he was selling more from the store than his counterparts in the business channel, and then applied for a job with the business sales manager.

Rejected. He applied again. Rejected.

His mentor, Jill, encouraged him to shave his scraggly goatee and begin wearing suits to work. He applied again. This time he didn’t even get an interview–just a call from HR saying he “wasn’t quite ready.”

So Jill called up the Jack, the hiring manager, and described an ideal candidate she’d like to refer to him. Jill described everything about Antoine without using his name. Jack salivated and asked for the resume ASAP, after all Jack didn’t want to risk losing a candidate like that.

Jill sent over Antoine’s resume.

Embarrased, Jack gave Antoine a chance in a junior role–a level down from the position to which Antoine had applied. Within six months he was promoted, and began teaching his new peers his secrets to success.

“Job fit” is more complex than it looks. Discrimination comes in many forms.

Do you have an Antoine who deserves a chance?

For whom could you be a Jill?

8 Questions You Should Ask Your Boss

Every time “Elizabeth” asks her boss, Carol for feedback, Carol tells her she’s “doing great.” But this is Elizabeth’s 5th year in the same job and she’s starting to wonder. She’s watched peers who don’t seem any more qualified get promoted or selected for special assignments.

Her performance reviews are always solid, but never outstanding. She likes her job and the people she works with, but she’s beginning to feel like she’s treading water. Her mentor tells her, “just ask your boss,” but every time Elizabeth’s tried to approach the subject, she’s chickened out.

Elizabeth needs to set up a meeting with her boss just on this topic, rather than trying to squeeze it in as a footnote to some other meeting. She should also do it outside the context of a formal performance review. Let this be its own event. Here is an approach, I’ve developed to help Elizabeth– maybe you will find it helpful too.

Questions You Should Ask Your Boss

Start by sharing how interested you are in her insights. A little flattery can never hurt in this arena 😉 Express your desire for deeper feedback that will help you be more effective for the company. Ask for specifics that will help you identify some new behaviors to increase your effectiveness.

Take it all in and step back and consider the possibilities from the conversation. You don’t have to agree with it all, but if you want to open the door for richer insights, it’s important that you respond well.

Of course, you don’t want to bombard your boss with all of the these in one sitting, but here are some options to get the conversation started. It matters less what you ask, then just getting the dialogue started.

  1. What’s the most important priority for our team this year? 
  2. What do your peers say about me?
  3. If your boss were to give me one piece of advice, what would it be?
  4. Who should I be working with more closely?
  5. What could I be doing to make your job easier?
  6. To what do you attribute your own career success?
  7. How can I be more effective in that area?
  8. Which parts of my style concern you the most?
  9. Specifically, what do I need to work on to be ready for ___________ (insert the job or assignment you are most interested in here).

You have more power in your career than you may think.  Take the time to invest in yourself by starting a good dialogue with your boss.