If you want to get ahead in your career, just start doing the job that you want to have. Go rogue, in other words.
That’s the advice of Tom Henschel, a coach who has groomed leaders from some of the world’s best-known companies.
“Just start doing the job when you want that next promotion,” he says on the phone from his office in California.
“When you want to be seen as a leader, one way is to just take it on. Be effective on your own behalf.”
Part of that is to start behaving like a leader, looking beyond your own responsibilities to the organisation as a whole. It may also mean growing into new area and morphing the role – while being mindful of the office politics and encroaching on other people’s responsibilities.
In order to look the part, aspiring leaders should also be able to “see from a higher altitude”, he says.
This means being less self-centred in your view of the world, to be able to think of the employees, the customers, the shareholders and the environment.
“Take the initiative, be creative and advocate for what you believe in.”
Crossing the line
Henschel says that this will sometimes mean that you “step out of bounds”, but that might be a risk you are prepared to take.
Asking for forgiveness, rather than permission, is a tactic that works well in some companies, but it depends on the culture.
Henschel cautions that it would not be tolerated, for instance, at one movie studio that he works with: “They don’t want people going rogue. They want a high degree of collaboration.”
Henschel is a former actor and director, who coaches on the look and sound of leadership, working with executives from companies such as Toyota, BP Indonesia, Citigroup, Lockheed Martin, Symantec and Warner Bros.
When it comes to the “look of leadership”, it is different for women and men.
“I don’t think it is a level playing field,” he says.
“There are certain things that come out of the mouths of men and it sounds OK, but it does not sound OK for women to say it. I don’t think it is fair, but it is the reality.”
While women need to be careful that they are authentic about how they project themselves, some of their fears about being perceived as a “woman leader” rather than just a “leader” can be overblown, he says.
“There’s a woman I coach who is brilliant. She’s 37, she has an enormous amount of responsibility in a public company, which is predominately male in terms of its leaders,” he says.
“I think she has a bigger responsibility in the company than any of the men – and then she got pregnant with her second child and she told me: ‘This is going to kill me’.”
The executive told Henschel that, in a male-dominated company, her growing belly would be a daily reminder of her difference.
“I am going to be seen as a girl again,” she told him.
However, when Henschel did a survey on the issue around the company, no one had considered her gender as an issue, he says.
“It was her concern. It was no one else’s concern. But I think women do worry about it.”
Dealing with over-communication
Whether male or female, leadership requires different abilities today – especially when it comes to dealing with the onslaught of over-communication and uncertainty.
“People are swamped with emails,” he says, adding his clients have an average 300 emails to plough through every day.
“That’s not manageable. You can stay up 24 hours and still not get through 300 emails.
“That becomes a leadership problem, you can’t be informed about everything.”
Henschel says that it may not be so much that it requires a certain sort of brain to cope, but it is “simply people who don’t complain”.
“They shoulder it and they can tolerate the knowledge that they can’t get everything done and that they can’t control everything. They have really broad shoulders.”
Henschel’s top three tips on how to look like a leader are:
- Be appropriate to the culture: If you are too aggressive for the culture of the organisation, it will not be tolerated.
- Communicate vision: You must be able to do the “vision, mission, values” talk, which is more important than ever thanks to the acceleration of the pace of doing business and the need to motivate and lead people remotely.
- Have executive presence: You need to be able to inspire trust, and it helps if people like you. Henschel says that, while Barack Obama is very intellectual and well liked by the public, he can’t get anything done in Washington because he has not built relationships with senators who like to have their egos stroked.
Workplace affairs writer Fiona Smith blogs on the HR and career issues that make Australian companies tick at BRW magazine. This article was first published on the BRW magazine website.