To distinguish yourself as a young leader, build your knowledge, focus on results and relationships, and speak up.
You’re a young leader with responsibility for a small team and you want more responsibility. And there’s nothing more frustrating than being told, “Not now. Give it time. You’re not ready yet.” (And if you manage a young leader, please don’t use those despair-inducing words.)
There are several areas of your leadership and work where you can invest to give yourself the best chance at that bigger responsibility: your knowledge and wisdom, the results you achieve now, relationships you build, and opportunities to speak up.
Knowledge and Wisdom as a Young Leader
We rarely know as much as we think we do. One of your most important tasks as a young leader is to learn everything you can about the business and yourself.
1. Get to Know Your Business
How does your business make money? How does your organization make a difference to your customers, clients, or constituents? As you learn the answers to these questions, focus on how the work your team does makes a difference. What are the vital outcomes? Not just the process you follow or the output you have to produce. Look beyond that—why are you doing what you do? What’s the end goal—the reason for the work?
These questions help you think strategically. You’re not just doing what you’re told—you’re doing what matters most for the business and your customer. The ability to think strategically is one of the most important abilities you’ll need to cultivate if you want more senior levels of responsibility.
2. Ask “Why?” with Respect
There will be times as a young leader where you don’t know how an assignment relates to the big picture. You might be tempted to just ask your manager, “Why do we have to do this?” Hopefully, your manager takes the question the way you mean it and gives you the context. But many people interpret “why” questions as challenging or argumentative. To avoid this unhelpful misunderstanding, try this instead: “I want to ensure we’re fulfilling all the objectives here. Can you help me understand the big picture goal here?”
3. Understand what Matters Around Here—especially for the role you want
You just earned an advanced degree – congratulations. That was a lot of work! But it doesn’t automatically mean you should get a promotion. Unless you’re in a business where that credential automatically comes with more responsibility. Sure, an advanced degree might be a requirement, but it’s not the only thing you need.
We’ve seen many a young leader achieve a degree or other visible certification and immediately seek promotion, only to get frustrated when it doesn’t happen. Often, they hadn’t paid attention to the organizations values and what behaviors and outcomes matter most.
What matters most in your organization? Are there trusted relationships you need to build? A consistent track record of results you need to show? Do you need to demonstrate a particular kind of knowledge or ability? Be sure you know what matters most – and how you can invest in those areas.
4. Ask for What You Want and Listen for What You Need
Are you a young leader who’s concerned about whether or not to let your manager know that you want more responsibility? Assuming that your team is doing well and you’re achieving the results you are responsible for, we would encourage you to ask.
You can use our Development Discussion Planner to prepare for the conversation. Take time to think about your current role and the role you want. Let your manager know you want to have the conversation and give them the planner you completed.
Show up the conversation with genuine curiosity. What do they see or know that you don’t? Are there additional skills or experiences they recommend you gain? Listen carefully and take notes. Then, as you work together, you can both look for opportunities to learn those skills or get the experience.
5. Learn If You Want to Manage
While you may be hungry for a promotion, take an honest look at your management and leadership responsibilities. Do you enjoy them? Do you like helping a team of people achieve more together than you, or they, could do individually? If so, you’ll be able to deal with the challenges that happen with every management and leadership position.
And if you don’t enjoy this work, that’s important to know. If you don’t enjoy leading a team, why would you want to do more of that? It only gets more challenging. If leading and management aren’t for you, there’s no shame in that—and it’s good to know now. Find a role more suited to the work you enjoy.
Results Focus for a Young Leader
To distinguish yourself and be ready for more responsibility, take responsibility for the outcomes that matters most.
6. Be Good at Your Work
One of the most common frustrating conversations with a young leader is when they want a promotion, but they’re not getting results now.
What results are you responsible for? Are you achieving them?
No excuses. If your answer starts, “I would, but…” then please don’t go ask for a promotion. Your first qualification is being good at what you do now.
Focus on your team’s current responsibilities. How can you help your team excel at doing that? If there are problems with vendors, challenges with another department, equipment, or other reasons for subpar performance, how can you solve them?
If you want more responsibility in the future, take responsibility now for the challenges in front of you. The skills you build to solve these problems will help when you face thornier problems.
7. Take Responsibility for Outcomes
One of the best opportunities to distinguish yourself as a young leader is to own the outcomes. You’ve learned why your work matters. Now, look at whether your team’s output is having the desired outcome. If not, how can you help make that happen?
A common problem for young leaders is that they’ll “do the work” or follow the process, but stop there. If “I did what they asked” doesn’t achieve the needed outcomes, you have an opportunity to lead.
You don’t have to solve it all yourself. Include your team. Clarify the goals and have an honest discussion about what it will take to get there. Once again, you’re honing the same leadership skills you’ll at higher levels.
8. Make Mistakes, Once
You should be making some mistakes. You can’t possibly know everything and part of your eventual knowledge you’ll gain from experience. And experience is a fancy word for “hmm, that didn’t work – what can I learn from that?”
There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake if you are trying to do the right thing. The key is to make the mistake only once. Learn from it, incorporate that knowledge, and open the door to the next level of learning.
9. Master Management and Communication Fundamentals
Start with these Six Core Competencies You Can’t Lead Without. Build your muscle memory now and everything gets easier.
Show up to your work with confidence and humility. Focus on results and relationships. Help your team know the habits that lead to success, practice consistent communication, check for understanding, and schedule the finish. These core leadership and management skills will scale with you and prepare you for future roles.
Conversely, if you get more responsibility, but lack these skills, you have farther to fall and less time to learn. Master them now and you’ll have them when you need them.
Relationships Focus for a Young Leader
Investing in relationships inside and outside your organization will help you in many ways.
10. Prioritize Peers
One challenge you can face as a young leader who is hungry for success and promotion is resentment from your peers. In addition to building relationships and supporting their success, be aware of some of the common mistakes that can sabotage your collaboration.
Be aware of unbridled tenacity, over-advocating for your team, and not sharing what you know. Help your peers succeed as you invest in your career and you’ll be there together—or they’ll trust you more when you get that next promotion.
11. Build Your Network
When you invest in more relationships, you’ll have more opportunities, solutions, and wisdom. It’s helpful to build relationships inside and outside your organization.
Internally, look for those sponsors and mentors, but also pay attention to how you and peers can support one another. You can be an encourager to someone who is a technical advisor to you. Or you can be an advocate for someone who challenges your thinking.
12. Practice Constructive Conflict
Building effective relationships at work doesn’t mean you roll over and agree with anything or anyone. Mastering productive conflict will help you be a more effective young leader and qualify you for future roles. Productive conflict are the discussions where you help a group of people improve their thinking, make better decisions, and collaborate.
Here are twelve phrases from our book Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict (HarperCollins May 2024) that will help you navigate any challenging conversation.
13. Build Leaders on Your Team
The most effective leaders constantly invest in others and build more leaders. One way to be ready for a promotion when it comes is to have someone who can immediately lead your team. Building leaders on your current team makes you more promotable.
14. Get Consistent Feedback
One easy way to distinguish yourself is to ask for, and act on, feedback from your peers, your manager, and your team. You can do this once or twice a year to choose one specific area where you want to grow. Use our Do It Yourself 360 process to have these conversations and get the feedback to help you be your best.
People will notice your follow-through when you build a reputation as someone who seeks, and implements, advice.
Speaking Up as a Young Leader
Whether it’s proposing a new solution to a vexing problem or raising your hand to volunteer, choose yourself and exercise your voice.
15. Share Ideas and Solutions
What are the problems and pain points that keep your manager or their boss up at night? Can you make a meaningful suggestion that has a chance to solve the problem? Or maybe it will spark someone else’s thinking and together you come up with a new answer.
Use our I.D.E.A. Model to vet your ideas and give them the best chance to be heard and get traction. They won’t always choose your idea. But you’ll establish yourself as a critical thinking and someone who cares.
16. Get Good at Accountability
One of the most promotion-worthy skills you can build as a young leader is comfort with accountability conversations. Build on a foundation of character, trustworthiness, and your skill at doing your current work with the ability to give and receive feedback.
Our I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method is a practical way to navigate your performance feedback conversations.
17. Attend and Speak at Conferences
Conferences are one of the fastest ways to challenge your assumptions, broaden your perspective, and understand your work in a larger context. You’ll meet people with similar challenges, but different solutions. Or different approaches you can use. In addition, conferences give you a chance to build your network and better understand your industry.
Another opportunity conferences give you is to speak. Offer to share what you know. You’ll get experience speaking, presenting, and meet people. And when people start to say nice things about your thoughts and presentation, you can take those back to work and they positively reflect on your organization.
When Positions aren’t Available
If you work in a smaller business, a flat organization, or a large, very stable, slow-growing business, you might be ready for more responsibility, but openings are rare.
In these circumstances, you have a couple of choices. One option, if your team is humming along and able to do its work well without you, is to look for different assignments that expand your skills and understanding. It might not be more responsibility, but a different responsibility. The new challenge can be refreshing and continue your growth.
And, of course, you may need to look outside your current organization if you are ready, but unwilling to wait for an opening to come along. In this case, be sure to secure your next job before quitting this one.
When you’re a young leader who’s hungry for a promotion, take the time to invest in your understanding, focus on results and relationships, and speak up consistently. You’ll establish yourself as a caring, committed, strategic leader. Do these consistently and you’ll be on short lists for new roles.
We’d love to hear from you. What advice do you have for a young leader who’s hungry for success? Or, if you are a young leader, what have you found helpful?
You Might Want to Check Out These:
- How To Get Your Boss to Appreciate and Recognize Your Genius
- How to Not Screw Up Your Brand Even When You’ve Been Screwed Over
- Drive Your Career Success with Ed Evarts (podcast)
- How to Be Less Negative—and Still Be Yourself
If you’d like more specific, practical phrases and approaches for common sources of workplace conflict, check out our newest book (available for pre-order now) Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict – What to say next to destress the workplace, build collaboration, and calm difficult customers.