How you can take charge of your career and live out your leadership aspirations—even without the formal title
By Gwen Appelbaum
With the pandemic regularly taking options off the table in our personal and professional lives, the concept of control has felt like a missing ingredient in the menu of this past year. As director of the UB School of Management’s Career Resource Center, I often have tough conversations with students and alumni about navigating the obstacles impeding career progress, as so many feel a loss of control in their decision-making.
My role has always been to encourage an individual’s hunger for self-authorship, or drive to define one’s own identity and path. Today, self-authorship is more important than ever because despite any uncertainty or challenges we face, our reaction to those circumstances remains under our control. Simply put, it’s always the right time to take charge of your career development.
A big part of the career development conversation regularly involves the pursuit of leadership. For me, the message is the same: Self-authorship is key. From determining what kind of leader you want to be to achieving your leadership goals, there are so many opportunities to be thoughtful, intentional, authentic and self-paced.
So, why don’t we do it? Why are there too many cases where we put our leadership destiny in other people’s hands or let time slip away, waiting for something to happen, waiting for opportunity to come to us?
By the way, I’m guilty of this too. I began my career with the idea that if I put my head down and worked hard, others would notice and good things would come. I still believe in hard work, but especially in my role now, I see firsthand the importance of looking up and recognizing that no one will be as devoted as you in your success. We can make excuses—lost time, missed opportunities, chances we didn’t receive—but in the end, it’s exciting to open yourself up to the possibility that the impact you crave is within your reach.
Designing your life as a leader
To take charge of your career and live out your leadership aspirations, you might find inspiration by turning to the frameworks of life design, based on design thinking pioneered by IDEO and applied by authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in their book, Designing Your Life. Life design can help you shed “dysfunctional beliefs” that hold you back and embrace mindsets for an innovative approach to your leadership development. With this in mind, here are a few of my takeaways:
Accept and empathize with where you are. One starting point is getting to know yourself. Uncover your strengths, beliefs and values, and determine what kind of leader you want to be, not what you think others want you to be or what you are supposed to be based on an archetype of success. After all, if Emma Chamberlain had limited her view of leadership to traditional models, she might not have reached 8 million followers on YouTube as a teenager or become CEO of her own coffee business by 20.
Avoid anchor and gravity problems. Designing Your Life encourages you to focus on problems you can solve and not preconceive a solution, avoiding the pitfalls of anchor or gravity problems.
What is an anchor problem? One illustration would be saying, “I want to be leader, but my boss isn’t retiring any time soon, so I can’t be a leader.” In this example, there is an assumed solution baked into the problem statement: The only way you can be a leader is by taking over your boss’s position. Clearly, this calls for reframing the problem to allow for a range of solutions. Of course, real-life problems aren’t always that obvious, so it’s worth thoughtfully and honestly reflecting on limitations that may be holding you back.
Gravity problems, meanwhile, are not actionable. You can’t “solve” gravity—it’s a force of nature. As Burnett and Evans would tell you, “It’s not a problem, it’s a circumstance.” In either case, anchor or gravity problems demonstrate the value of spending time to define the actionable problem you want to address.
Brainstorm potential paths. In life design, we talk about diverging before converging, meaning consider divergent ideas before converging on a focus. Before you aim for a singular leadership goal, a single job or position, try to ideate many options and possible directions. The more you brainstorm, the more you may expand your horizons and discover, for example, you don’t want to be a people leader, but rather a change leader, thought leader or results leader.
Experiment. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to test your leadership ability. In life design, it’s helpful and risk-reducing to experiment or “prototype” ideas of greatest interest from the brainstorming process. For example, tap into your personal, professional or social networks to manage a side project, find volunteer work, identify mentoring opportunities, or voice your own thought leadership in areas aligned with what’s important to you.
Build your leadership brand. It may seem obvious, but have you gotten the word out about who you are and what you want? Do others understand your leadership aspirations and, more importantly, why you deserve to achieve them? Leverage your networks in a way you truly enjoy and that recognizes both the help you need and the help you can give, leaning in to the Give and Take that Adam Grant so powerfully emphasizes in his book by that name.
“Never ask anyone’s permission to lead. Just lead.”
Throughout her 2020 campaign, Vice President Kamala Harris became known for responding to questions about her career as a woman in politics by saying, “Never ask anyone’s permission to lead. Just lead.”
I often have that refrain in my head when thinking about what holds us back from actively pursuing career and leadership goals. And many times, one of those obstacles can be the fear that someone tells you that you don’t deserve to be a leader.
So, be prepared for that possibility, but also keep in mind another quote Harris said to the Associated Press: “There are always going to be doubters. That’s not new to me.” But the way you overcome these doubters, she said, is “you win.”
Gwen Appelbaum is assistant dean and director of the University at Buffalo School of Management’s award-winning Career Resource Center. In addition to providing strategic oversight for the CRC, Appelbaum specializes in life design and personal branding for students, alumni and professionals to support their career development.