Published on February 19, 2018, at 4:09 p.m.
by Maret Montanari.
You landed an entry-level job out of college and are well on your way to success, but how do you achieve your dream career exactly? The path to growing through leadership positions in college is often clearer than in the professional world. What some recent grads and young professionals might not realize is a job title does not have to determine the leadership behaviors you display.
In fact, there is an important difference between “Leadership” and “leadership.” Leadership with a big ‘L’ typically comes with a title, staff, budget and decision-making power; leadership with a small ‘l’ is the kind any individual can exhibit at any stage of their career and is essential to building the kind of personal brand that opens the way to bigger and more formal Leadership roles. Leadership is not just for the executives who sit at the top of the public relations pyramid, however. Commitment to company and growth reflects more on an employee’s leadership capabilities than the title following their name on LinkedIn.
A large gap exists between the perceptions of leaders’ performance by leaders and their employees, according to The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ Report Card 2017. The Center suggests minimizing the divide that lies in increased power sharing by understanding and utilizing leadership behaviors at all levels.
Young professionals’ moment to change the dynamics of leadership in the industry is now. With so many opportunities, though, rising PR pros may find it difficult to close the gap and take the lead.
Mark Harris, professor of practice at The University of Alabama and former vice president of communications for IBM Global Business Services, shares his view on displaying leadership early on.
“The opportunity to lead is always available, even for those just stepping out of the college classroom into their first job,” noted Harris. “This is what I consider leadership with a small ‘l.’ It’s everything from how you present yourself to mastering every task assigned and building your own body of work to how you affect others around you, and ultimately, the personal brand you build for yourself.”
Your title does not solely justify your ability to lead. Harris advised professionals to display leadership skills at all stages of their careers. The road to growing as a leader has no end and starts early. It is part of the process of demonstrating your capabilities in areas like judgment, attitude and work ethic.
Focus on the job at hand to become known for certain things, but do not pass up opportunities to expand your role. An employee can show initiative by volunteering for projects no one else wants to tackle.
Harris recommended establishing a reputation for results, judgment, maturity and even stamina that indicates to others you are equipped to take on those bigger roles with more responsibilities. Yet, there’s no set formula to guaranteeing future leadership positions, especially with the evolving industry.
“No matter what your job is, you want to consistently exhibit excellent levels of professionalism,” advised Harris. “It’s simply the case that every day is a test, and every day you are forming the impression that suggests to people higher in the food chain that you’re able to take on a bigger role, or tells them they can’t take that leap of faith on you. You really can’t ‘game’ that one. It’s all a demonstration of results and personal brand.”
Delivering superior work and establishing a brand cause people to believe that is the kind of person who can lead and manage a team. Taylor Shelnutt is proof of this method as she was promoted from account executive to senior account executive at FleishmanHillard Dallas in one year.
“It can be harder to be perceived as a leader when you’re an intern or entry-level employee,” said Shelnutt. “I do believe it’s possible, though, in the quality of work you put forward and the way you communicate with your team members.”
A recent study by a professor at The University of Texas in Austin indicates young professionals who voice their opinion and bring confidence to the workplace show aptness for future C-suite positions.
To be seen by co-workers as someone to go to for help, tap for expertise or serve as a support system is essential to achieving leadership in early roles, according to Shelnutt. Leadership does not always have to center around being in charge of the team; instead, it can emerge from an employee’s attitude.
“If you are a go-getter and are driven from the beginning, your team will pick up on this,” voiced Shelnutt. “They’ll begin to view you as a leader.”
As Shelnutt has grown at FleishmanHillard, she has gained more responsibilities and is held to higher standards.
“It’s not necessarily that the definition of leadership changes [as my titles do],” said Shelnutt. “You lead in different ways. As I’ve grown in my career, I definitely mentor more to help others grow and lead office initiatives.”
Both Harris and Shelnutt advocated for learning how to lead from other leaders. Finding a mentor in the industry can help one develop leadership skills necessary to achieve success.
A title determines one’s responsibilities, but it doesn’t have to limit one’s opportunities. Take advantage of every chance to practice leadership. Think like a CEO whether in an entry-level or mid-level position. Displaying leadership qualities early has the potential to pave the path to the C-suite office.