MOVING UP IN the office can be full of “Working Girl”-esque backstabbing and power trips. It can be a demoralizing prospect. But you don’t need to wait around for Harrison Ford to notice you. All you need is to brush up on your leadership skills.
“Leadership” means everything from public speaking to handling one-on-one situations, and they’re not just for job applicants. They’re important to hone while on the job as well, especially if you’re eyeing that corner office. But don’t worry: You don’t have to act like “The Office‘s” Michael Scott or be permanently tied to your BlackBerry — heck, you don’t even have to own one of those clicky Newton’s cradle things — to turn yourself into the pied piper of your workplace.
Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.com, says the definition of leadership is broadening. Volunteer work, class projects and even athletics show experience working with others, which is important for all leadership styles. In short, ruthlessness is on the way out.
“Many people think you can only be a leader if you’re running a team or if you’re wearing a management patch,” she says. But, it turns out, employers are often looking for people who can work with others on group projects, not just take charge.
Kristin Ferragut is the education director of the Marcia D. Smith School, a Montgomery County facility for students with mental disabilities. Early last year, Ferragut attended the Nonprofit Leadership Institute at Montgomery College. She went in thinking leadership involved “a very charismatic [person] who leads in a telling-people-what-to-do way. I left thinking that leadership is more of a collaborative process.”
Since completing the course, she’s focused on trying to make sure her nine employees feel like they have a voice during the “many meetings” held at the school.
Another way to take charge is to ask for help. “People love to be asked,” says Tim Kime, CEO of Leadership Greater Washington. “Business is about working with people that you care about and that you trust.”
Leadership Greater Washington brings executives from D.C.-area companies together to encourage them to work together on projects. Kime says he’s had the opportunity to observe all kinds of leaders, and there are no specific characteristics. He has seen outgoing and take-charge leaders and others who are quieter and lead by example. “I wouldn’t put it all in one particular box,” he says.
But there is one thing good leaders have in common: self-confidence.
Kime says anything that boosts confidence will improve leadership, whether it’s taking a public speaking class through Toastmasters or chatting with company executives around the water cooler.
“Charisma is, I think, a little bit learnable,” says Barbara Bird, Ph.D., an associate professor at American University‘s Kogod School of Business. “Some of us are never going to be Barack Obama, but we can be just an eensy bit more [compelling].” And talent isn’t that important, Bird says. “An aptitude [for leadership] doesn’t mean you will become a leader, and it doesn’t mean you can’t develop aptitude.” In other words, stop worrying if you don’t think you’re a natural-born leader, and work on building concrete skills.
Angela Garzlaff decided to enroll in a class offered by the Texas-based Leader’s Institute after a recent promotion at her company — the Fairfax, Va., division of Spinal Motion — put her in charge of the whole office. Although the class lasted only two days, Garzlaff says it boosted her self-confidence.
“They taught us 28 effective communication skills,” she says. “Now I will have the challenge of implementing those guidelines in my everyday work habits.”
Although a corporate restructuring has taken place since she attended the workshop, Garzlaff says it served as a good reminder to show enthusiasm and establish trust with employees.
“I think building on your leadership skills and improving them will help you to gain the confidence of others,” Garzlaff says. “If you exude that confidence, they will accept that you are the expert on that topic, and they’ll come to you for questions and advice instead of being hesitant and going elsewhere, or maybe not doing it at all.”
Written by Express contributor Rachel Kaufman (additional reporting by Express contributor Emily Barton)
Photo by Lawrence Luk for Express