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Cultivating Leadership Skills Wherever You Are in Your Career: Advice for Rising Professionals

Abstract photograph representing the cultivating of leadership skills

By Maureen Huminik and Terri Rutter

In a recent AAMC panel on career advice for emerging leaders, Lindauer Vice President and Managing Director Maureen Huminik and Assistant Vice President Terri Rutter tapped their extensive experience working with leaders and executives throughout the nonprofit world to look beyond a person’s title and provide insight into what it takes to be a true leader in an organization.

In the minds of emerging leaders, the conventional notion of successful leadership often conjures images of top-tier positions and C-Suite roles. As a rising professional, however, you don’t have to wait for a promotion to become a leader. Instead, there are practical, proactive steps you can take within the parameters of your current role to position yourself for future leadership opportunities.

While titles can signify experience and seniority, what we look for in leaders, regardless of title, is evidence of what we see as leadership thinking—proactive problem-solving and a commitment to growth, strategic learning, and making holistic contributions to your organization.

Wherever you are in your career and whatever your role, there are proven methods for cultivating leadership skills that will advance your professional goals and demonstrate your value to an organization.

Mapping Out Your Leadership Journey

“Know your story and how everything fits into it.”

— Maureen Huminik

A key aspect of demonstrating leadership is the ability to plan ahead and envision your next steps within an organization.

Start by mapping out your career trajectory, identifying both short-term goals and long-term aspirations. Reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth and build relationships with your manager or other trusted colleagues who can act as mentors through this process. This career map is the scaffolding upon which you will build your leadership story and make strategic career decisions.

One common misconception we often hear is that getting experience as a leader requires climbing a rigid career ladder, relentlessly pursuing promotions and higher titles. However, this kind of executive leadership is only one style an organization needs in order to be successful and does not have to be the end goal for every professional. Instead, consider the breadth of your contributions and the depth of your impact in the present.

When recruiting for a senior leadership role, executive recruiters generally look for signs of a steady progression of responsibility in a candidate’s work experience, of which increasingly senior titles is just one. As recruiters, we also see long-term impact and growth within a single organization as an important variable to take into consideration when evaluating candidates. While your leadership journey likely will and should include lateral moves and advancements to different employers, we see the resilience to remain with an organization through changes in leadership and other transitional periods as a strong indication of a candidate’s preparedness for a more senior leadership role.

Taking Initiative

“Take on projects, move things forward, support other people, and contribute to problem solving. These are things you can do from any seat.”

— Terri Rutter

One of the most fundamental traits we see in leaders is the ability to take initiative and demonstrate self-motivation. In prospects for leadership roles, we look for a proven ability to recognize and take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

You can show initiative by taking ownership of projects, setting ambitious goals, and holding yourself accountable for delivering measurable results. And then go further—if opportunities for growth don’t naturally arise, take initiative to create them within your current role.

In particular, we recommend looking for leadership opportunities in two areas: managing people—identify interns, volunteers, administrators, or students in your organization with whom you could build a leadership relationship—and solving problems—take a critical look at your current responsibilities and identify areas where you can make a tangible difference in your organization. Work with your organization to find opportunities for internal advancement that align with the leadership growth you are looking for.

Learning Everything You Can from Everyone You Can

“Anyone can contribute to your leadership path. Be open to taking contributions from anywhere they come.”

— Maureen Huminik

Leadership is not a solitary pursuit; it thrives on collaboration, mentorship, and continuous learning. One of the lessons we have learned time and again is that regardless of your position, there is valuable knowledge and expertise to be gained from colleagues across departments and levels.

Embrace a growth mindset by actively seeking opportunities to learn from others. Cultivate meaningful relationships with colleagues across departments and levels of the organization. Engage in informal conversations over coffee, shadow colleagues in different roles, and participate in mentorship programs. Stepping out of your silo exposes you to different working and leadership styles and will help you to more fully understand all the functions for which you might one day be responsible.

The most successful organizations we work with value and invest in leaders with a wide spectrum of leadership skills and experiences. By expanding your understanding of various areas within the organization and honing your problem-solving abilities, you’ll become a more versatile and effective leader.

Knowing When to Stay and When to Move On

“Advancement isn’t always linear. Sometimes you must move sideways before moving up.”

— Terri Rutter

In the dynamic landscape of career growth, the decision to stay at a job or pursue new opportunities can be complex. While the temptation to seek upward movement may pull you away from your organization and into the job market, we believe that remaining in a position during periods of transition and challenge is often correlated with key leadership qualities that employers are looking for in their executive teams, including commitment, resilience, and change management.

Demonstrating leadership is about more than just chasing the next promotion; it’s about making meaningful contributions, supporting your colleagues, and weathering adversity with composure. Consider the long-term impact of your decisions and prioritize opportunities for growth and development. Embracing change within your organization and demonstrating flexibility through conflict position you as a forward-thinking leader capable of navigating uncertainty and driving positive outcomes.

However, long-term doesn’t have to mean forever. We understand professionals leave jobs for many reasons. The decision to explore fresh opportunities is often the result of a combination of personal, professional, and contextual factors.

From a recruiter’s perspective, what is important is that you can narrate these changes within the framework of your leadership journey. What did you take from that experience? What did you do to make it work before leaving? Show intentionality, contribution, collegiality, and growth.

The Bottom Line

Leadership is a multifaceted journey characterized by continuous learning, strategic planning, and a commitment to making a positive impact. By embracing these principles and actively cultivating your leadership skills, you can thrive and excel in any role, contribute to the collective success of your team, and position yourself to achieve your career growth goals.

Maureen Huminik is Vice President and Managing Director and Terri Rutter is Assistant Vice President for Lindauer.

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