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How to show your leadership skills even if you're not a leader

I am currently working towards a promotion to Senior Consultant and as part of the process I have needed to demonstrate my leadership skills and abilities.  Working solo on an engagement with a client who won’t let me go, I have not been in an actual team lead role, and this has made it challenging to demonstrate team leadership skills.  I figure that others might be in a similar position, so thought it worth sharing some of my lessons.

When your manager hands over the reins of a project to you, it’s a sure sign you are a safe and trusted pair of hands.   Here’s your opportunity to highlight your leadership skills and abilities. But what if you’re put in charge of leadership responsibilities without a formal title, or worst you’re not in charge at all but have to prove your abilities in this area?

I did some research on how you can demonstrate your leadership skills and abilities without a being officially in the role, and found some interesting articles around this topic.

Let’s discuss some critical areas that we should all consider when in a position of influence and leadership to other team members in a way that enables  them to trust and follow you throughout the journey.

Lead by doing something practical as an example

Irrespective of role, everyone has the ability to demonstrate leadership skills and abilities by doing something practical.  Demonstrating leadership may involve taking on something complex to support other team members, defusing a conflict, making difficult decisions, having tough conversations etc.

But remember, it’s not just about ‘what you do’, but also ‘how you do it’ and the ‘outcome of the activity’.  Some examples will be  measurable by your manager/team lead, and others may be more subjective.

On one of my engagements, some practical examples I have undertaken have included picking complex PBI’s, helping the team lead with complex decisions, doing this in a way that he didn’t feel I was interfering (using subtle influence techniques to get him on-board), but at the same time he could see I was the one who helped him get there (reinforcing my value to the client).

Consequently he started to trust me little by little and our relationship became stronger day by day. These days he is confident in letting me drive the direction of the project based on my knowledge of the client, project and its requirements.  Later on, he specifically called me out when feedback about the success of the team. The flow on effect of this is that other team members became aware of my success, strong relationships and increased influence, and this resulted in a noticeable shift to the level of respect team members showed towards me and my decisions.

The team also started coming to me to ask my opinion on how to do ‘stuff’.  Aside from being able to demonstrate my leadership skills and abilities, the feeling was so amazing and unbelievable that I started to realise what a great achievement was this.

Listen first, talk last

This is very critical in a sense that sometimes we think we should take control of the meeting and talk and talk for hours so others will know how awesome we are and how much we know, or because we think they need to hear what we have to say.

However, throughout my experience and with help of some internal training on soft skills, I realised that one of the most required leadership skills is to encourage dialog.

By doing this you show you respect everyone equally, you get a diverse set of ideas and opinions, you will learn something about the people, their business, and/or the project, it will help you avoid assumptions, and you will have time to think about everything being said.

As they say, if you’re busy talking, you’re not listening. You can guess that by respecting others this will help you gain their respect.

Don’t take sides

If you’re in a role which requires you to assign tasks to others, it’s important that you don’t deliberately or accidentally assign the favourable tasks to your close friends or the people you get along with the most, whilst assigning less favourable ones to others.

It’s important to ensure that all team members have a good mix of tasks where practicable and tasks are assigned in a way that everyone feels happy or at least that it has been a fair process, and is motivated to do a great job to deliver the desired outcome.

By doing this you show that you are fair and trustworthy,  and this helps to keep the environment as harmonious as possible. Let me give you an example to elaborate more on this:

I was working with other local developers on a project. I had already built the trust so that was my chance to assign tasks between ourselves in a way that everyone feels good about it.

Since one of them was a back end guru, but, didn’t have any experience at front end development, I suggested to assign the UI task to him and the rest to others as we were already engaged in previous similar tasks.

He was a bit hesitant at first but by explaining my goal on how much fun he would have working on the UI side and also how he would able to build his experience in this area, he accepted the decision happily.

I was constantly supporting him by giving guidance and support as required, and he was enjoying the sprint. To be honest I had never seen him as happy as he was after he had successfully completed the work.

On the other hand, others were happy as well since they had a chance to work in the different areas and explore the patterns we were using. A total win win situation you might say.

Pull your weight and even more

We discussed how you should assign the tasks in a way that keeps everyone happy or at least feels fair; however, you should always demonstrate that you are ready to get your hands dirty (do the hard and less favourable stuff), and help others along the way if they need it.

I’ve been always ready to pick the toughest PBI’s and the ones that nobody was willing to do.

For example, converting a legacy app or fixing a bug that was there for a long time and nobody knew why it was happening.

Whilst others see the negative, I identify the silver linings. This has helped me showcase my strengths and that I care about the team and its success. You’ll exert the most influence when others see you leading by example and working as hard – if not harder – than they are.

Take responsibility

This point is as important as any of the above points. After completing a project or any milestone there would be always moments where the team can receive both positive recognition and constructive feedback to help them grow.

The most important part is that no matter what, how, and when something went wrong a true leader will take responsibility and support his/her team rather than apportion blame.

A leader should show everybody that he or she can be depended upon, that is a reliable person. Avoid pointing fingers and  call out a blaming culture if you see one. The same thing is true about when everything goes well and there is praise.

You should remember how you got there and always acknowledge the contribution of others.  In the case that a specific person has done a great job, ensure they  receive the right level of recognition for their contribution.

I have had the chance to express someone’s good efforts as well as other times when I had to admit that my decision was not the best one and take responsibility of my choices.

Admitting that you were wrong and could have done better is a great sign of strength, maturity and leadership.

Keep developing your leadership skills

Some people are born leaders, but most of us have to learn it the hard way.

The best way to boost your leadership skills is via on-the-job training, with regular feedback and coaching to help you to continually hone your skills.

In my case I didn’t have a chance to be a lead; however, I have proactively arranged shadowing opportunities, requested peer and client feedback, and arranged coaching.

This has not only helped me improve my skills, but also demonstrate my skills and abilities, the progress I have made, gain trust amongst my peers, leaders and clients, and build a reputation which enabled me to be the lead behind the scenes.

There are other ways like researching, reading books and articles on the subject, classroom or online learning, and also learn from those around you how to be able to be a good lead.

Being entrusted with a team project is an exciting opportunity to demonstrate your leadership skills. Even though your official title hasn’t changed, there are many ways you can show your client and colleagues that you’ve got what it takes to be a leader and earn their respect.

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