When you start an entry-level job, you might feel like you have a long road ahead of you to move up the ladder toward a leadership role. But there's more to being a leader than having "manager," "director" or "vice president" in your title. And conversely, you don't have to have one of those titles to be a leader.
In an article that was published by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, clinical professor of strategy Harry Kraemer said that junior employees should "lead from where they are" and take the initiative to become a leader within their current roles, regardless of how long (or short) their tenure has been thus far.
"We often equate leadership with management, but true leaders don't wait for permission or a promotion to start leading — they just do it," said Justine Jordan, vice president of marketing at email marketing analytics company Litmus. "If you spend your time waiting for approval, you'll have little time to innovate or make an impact."
Similarly, Jonathan Wasserstrum, co-founder and CEO of TheSquareFoot, said that if you can demonstrate leadership in your current capacity, management may be more likely to trust you with a higher-level role when the time comes.
"Furthermore, it's a good way to find out what you're really made of. When you're [entry level], you have some room to learn ... your strengths and weaknesses as a potential leader before the stakes get too high."
If you're ready to start building and demonstrating your leadership skills as an entry-level employee, here are four steps you can take right now. [See Related Story: 4 Big Challenges New Leaders Have to Overcome]
Pay attention to leadership styles in your organization
No matter where you are in your career, you can learn a lot just by observing the leaders in your company. Catriona Harris, CEO of Uproar PR, advised junior employees to pay attention to current leaders to see what works, what doesn't and what they might want to emulate in the future.
"An entry-level employee might not be leading anyone, but they should be noticing and taking notes on characteristics on effective ... leaders within the organization," she said. "This is the time to start visualizing how you will handle certain situations, so when the time comes, you are ready."
Volunteer for projects outside your regular duties
Jay Deakins, founder and CEO of ERP software company Deacom, advised entry-level employees to investigate opportunities to help easy a manager's heavy workload.
"While being respectful of their own processes and responsibilities, offer to take on some of the tasks that they may consider unappealing or annoying," he said.
"Help your colleagues if they’re buried under work or struggling with a project," added Wasserstrum. "If you’re collaborating on a project, be the one who sets the progress update meeting [or] proposes next steps after the meeting. These are the kinds of things that can build trust and affinity between you and your colleagues."
Richard Jalichandra, CEO of Bodybuilding.com, agreed, and said that as a senior executive, he's always looking for junior employees who volunteer for additional responsibilities outside the scope of their jobs.
"[These are] people who proactively reach out to me, their managers or other leaders in the organization and offer their efforts on ... special projects or initiatives, over and above their main job responsibilities," Jalichandra said. "By doing so, you not only show people that you're willing to work hard and take risks, but you also usually get to do cool work, too! [A]t some point, leadership comes looking for you because they know you're up to the task."
It’s important to note, however, that these assignments should never hinder your existing job performance, Deakins said, so accomplish these new projects during free time after work, on weekends or when your day-to-day responsibilities are completed.
Share your ideas
One of the best ways to contribute to your company — and get noticed by the company's leaders — is to speak up and share thoughtful, intelligent ideas.
Jordan emphasized the importance of knowing how to advocate for these ideas properly and effectively. Know your audience — who they are, what they care about, and why they should care about your idea, she said. From there, you can frame your ideas in a way that reflects their goals.
"You can make your case with as much data and numbers as you wish, but if they don't align to your audience's goals, they're likely to say no. How does what you're asking for help them?" Jordan said. "Advocating for yourself can be a tricky thing, but if you never ask, you won't receive."
"Don't be afraid to speak your mind," Wasserstrum added. "Smart companies respect good ideas and thoughtful dissent, regardless of where in the organization they come from. But at the end of the day, your actions speak louder than words. If you do the work, do it well and are unafraid to own the results, people notice."
Set the standard for your current job
Harris said that her agency constantly evaluates junior employees to look for signs that they are ready for a promotion. One of those signs, she said, is that the employee takes the initiative and is proactive in his or her current role.
"If an employee is able to complete their day-to-day tasks successfully and still be coming up with new ideas, we see that as an early sign of leadership," Harris said. "Instead of being bored and only doing what is on the job description, they are going above and beyond to make the team successful."
But even when your ultimate goal is working toward a leadership position, the most important thing is to excel in the job you were hired to do, said Deakins.
"Sometimes people get [so] distracted by career ambitions that they let their day-job responsibilities take a backseat," he told Business News Daily. "Don't lose sight of what your current position entails and strive to be the best at it. You will know that you have reached this level when managers consider you to be the example for all new employees."