I often meet young professionals who share with me their hopes and dreams of changing the world of business. I love hearing their stories mostly because I too have ambitious aspirations just like them. However, I am always a little surprised when they share with me how they plan to achieve success. You see, many young professionals want (even feel they deserve) fancy titles, lucrative paychecks, and corner offices right out of college, yet they fail to understand that leaders are not developed overnight. In an instantaneous, satisfy-me-now kind of culture, we have very little regard for process. What we fail to understand, however, is that the process is the very thing that forges leadership.
My background is different than most of my peers. I took a large gap of time off between high school and college. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure who I was and didn’t feel a college degree was key to defining that question. I traveled the world, met some amazing people, and discovered things I am passionate about. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I buckled down, grew up a little and attended college. I’ve always believed that degrees and accomplishments should never define you but rather provide you with opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world around you. By the time I did earn my undergraduate degree, I was nearing thirty and entering a job market with a bunch of twenty-two year olds. Something I learned to do early on was leave my pride at the door; after all, it has never gotten me anywhere.
Post graduation I spent months job hunting, networking and interviewing at agencies all across my city. I interviewed well, but it always came down to experience (or lack thereof). Disheartened by the fact that I may never get a job (kidding!), I knew I just needed to get my foot in the door somewhere. I had been keeping my eye on this sexy start-up tech company that was making huge waves in the financial technology (#fintech) industry. I couldn’t get away from how unconventional its company culture was and how they were committed to disrupting the norm. I was offered a position; however, it was not in an area I was initially interested in, nor was it doing something I had a strong desire to do- customer service. I had two choices: accept the offer and see what opportunities may unfold or turn up my nose and be offended by their inability to see my ‘potential’, aka- entitlement. For me, the choice was obvious: dive in and see where it leads. I am so glad I did, too!
A good friend/mentor once gave me golden advice: “wherever you go, keep your head down and learn as much as you can”. Although customer service had nothing to do with marketing (or so I thought) I was determined to learn as much as I could; this was my only game plan. As a result, what I have learned from embracing opportunity- even when it is masked in humility- has been invaluable.
Just like Sheryl Sandberg says: “Sit at the table“. Don’t relegate yourself to something less just because you’re not at the top. Be involved; take ownership; care deeply. You have more to offer than you give yourself credit for. And remember: regardless of the position or title that you hold, your voice and opinions matter. No system is perfect and there is always room for improvement. So look for solutions- you just might have the best idea for a problem no one else has been able to master.
Fear and intimidation are not your friends
Let’s be honest- you are not always going to feel qualified, so get over it. Opportunities are going to come your way that you might not feel ready for, take them! If you’re like me, you prefer to have experience with something before you dive into a role. That’s just not always realistic. At some point, your superior is going to hand you a project that you have no idea how to complete. No grade will be hanging in the balance- just real people, budgets, and deadlines.
Stop comparing yourself to others
Do yourself a favor early on and stop comparing yourself to others. You are not them; you never will be. What they’re great at doesn’t mean you will be too, and vice versa. Give yourself credit for the strengths and traits you do possess and focus on excelling in those areas. No one wants you to be another version of Jack or Diane, so stop trying! Lastly, favor comes when you are the best you are, wherever you are.
Finish what you start
Many start but few finish. Be one who finishes well. I’m never impressed by someone who starts something. I am, however, impressed when someone can carry an idea from origination to completion. That shows dedication, commitment, and a strong work ethic. Furthermore, you most likely learn a thing or two about failing forward. Make it your mission to finish fully, whatever you set out to do. Leadership is more than toeing the line, it’s outlasting the crowd.
Steward opportunity well
Stop glorifying future opportunities and start stewarding the ones in front of you. Look around- every single person got to where they are because of an opportunity; you are no different. Whatever comes your way, be diligent and work hard. You never know who is watching and what door may open next as a result.
A leader is not defined by a title but rather by their actions. Many follow but few truly leader. As a young professional, my advice to you is set out to lead, not to follow. And understand this: a true leader must first learn to be a good follower. Take this time to follow others. Remember your journey now because one day you will look back on it for advice. And lastly, humility and passion will take you where arrogance and pride won’t.
Have you learned anything about leadership as a result of serving customers? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below or send me a tweet!