One of the main lessons I've learned over the years while working at Cisco is that leadership isn't about having a title, it's about leading by example and through influence. This concept, known as informal leadership, applies to both your work life and personal life, and while to some this practice comes naturally, it is also something you can develop if you put effort into it. The below tips can help anyone begin branding themselves as a leader and paving their way to influence in the workplace.
An informal leader is someone whose peers will follow regardless of their position or title, simply based off of their perceived experience or their personal brand. Being an informal leader at work is directly related to your professional progression, not just when you are an individual contributor and trying to show your readiness for management, but even if you're a VP looking to make a move into the c-suite. Here are some tips to becoming an informal leader!
1) Make an Impact Beyond Your TeamInformal leaders lend their expertise to teams beyond their immediate reporting structure. You don't have to be the best at everything, but focus on something that you are good at and share that best practice outside of your team. Maybe you saw amazing success with a project and you have a repeatable framework worth sharing to help other teams replicate this success. Maybe you learned a valuable lesson on something that could have went better, whatever it is, help others learn from your experience. Referring people into the workforce is also a great way to help make an impact beyond your team. It is challenging for companies to find good talent, so leveraging your network to help your organization connect with top talent can go a long way.
2) Be Vocal and ContributeDon't just sit in quietly on team meetings and conference calls, speak up and lend your opinion or share your experience. To build influence and lead, you have to contribute. When you have an opportunity to provide feedback, do so. Businesses have a hard time soliciting feedback from people, and they truly want to shape the business around it, so when you have the chance, chime in. If there is an opportunity to join groups within the workplace, this can be another valuable way to share your thoughts and let your voice be heard. Also, next time your manager is scheduled to take PTO, speak up and let them know you are happy to help cover while they are out. This will both give you hands on experience in a position a step up the ladder from yours, as well as continue to build your leadership brand within your organization.
3) Coach OthersMy personal favorite way of being an informal leader is by working with my organization's early in career program. These individuals are typically very coachable and eager to learn. If your company has a similar program, mentoring or coaching these employees is a rewarding way of shaping the future of your company's workforce. Also, don't feel you need to be in a more senior position to help your peers. I love asking my peers who I work with day in and day out what their career goals are. You'd be surprised how many things you do on a day to day basis where you could help develop your peers if you simply know what their aspirations are. Helping them get to where they are trying to go gives you the ability to function as a leader even if they don't report to you... that's the whole point of this article right?
4) Demonstrate Thought LeadershipThere are many ways to demonstrate thought leadership. Joining advisory boards or professional affiliations is a way to learn as well as share ideas and brand yourself as a thought leader. In my day to day role, I work extremely close with some of the country's largest retailers, so to stay ahead of vertical trends and increase my business relevance, I joined the Dallas Retail Executive Association. Not only has this helped me better support my customers, but it gives me additional knowledge to share with my peers throughout my company. Also, with online tools like LinkedIn, we have the medium to shape our personal brand or influence how we are perceived by others. Use these types of tools to share relevant information with your connections and demonstrate thought leadership.
5) Be a Respectable PersonLastly I'll end with this... if you aren't a good, genuine, and respectable person, other people aren't going to want to follow you. It can be easy (sometimes) to get people to follow you if they report to you, but getting people to follow you when they don't is a true demonstration of your influence in the workplace. If you want to lead it is important to welcome other people's thoughts and ideas, as the strongest leaders recognize the best idea might not always be their own. Be a team player and know that "your" wins are ultimately team wins, and when your team or peers see success, embrace it and learn from it. If you have the opportunity and ability to help someone at work then do it. Stay positive, don't surround yourself around negativity, and take time to give back to others. These building blocks are essential to all aspects of leadership.