Earlier this year at LinkedIn, I was fortunate enough to step into an exciting individual contributor role as a content marketing evangelist in our solutions organization, supporting customers across North America to help them get smarter about and more adept at content marketing.
A question that has come up several times since is how I’m adjusting to being an IC versus having a team to lead, because to far too many people, leadership is exclusively tied to your title and rank on an organizational chart.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, I relish the chance to take a step onto a different path, get into the field with our customers, get closer to the sales team and learn about new areas like employer and talent branding that haven’t been part of my experience to date.
Leadership is a character trait, not a title. And I still operate from a place and mindset of leadership even as an individual contributor in a large organization.
Here are a few of the skills I think are most important to being able to lead from within, whether or not you have formal authority on an organizational chart.
In modern organizations – perhaps more than any other time in the history of business – getting things done requires people who can form alliances, connect cross-functional teams, build consensus, and influence decisions with benevolent intent for the greater good of the business.
The faster things move, the more important these bridge-builders are, and the relationships they forge are the currency of organizations who don’t always manufacture goods and services but whose value is delivered in much more complicated ways. I’m still learning who everyone is and meeting new people every day, but I’m paying very close attention to the cross-functional partners that not only make my team and colleagues successful but who embody the spirit and strategic mind of our company.
The people who can identify stakeholders in an emotionally intelligent way and learn to work with a wide variety of people are important. The ones who can bring them together to work with each other are indispensable.
Much has been written about the increasingly important role of empathy in business and leadership. (I’d say that’s a thing that’s always been there, but that’s for another post).
If you don’t have a team to manage, you can play a critical role in building trust from within the workforce and demonstrating leadership through active, empathetic listening and what I call “soundboarding”. It sounds a little woo-woo, but it’s about establishing yourself as a safe resource to approach when a colleague needs some input about a project, or a career decision, or a client relationship.
It’s not usually because you have all the answers, but instead because you’re able to deliver the art of listening in a tangible way: ears open, heart open, mind open. Willing to hear more than you talk, offer thoughtful responses and questions, and give colleagues around you a place to be maybe a little less-than-polished while they sort through feelings, thoughts, and challenges.
Interpersonal skills and the ability to establish trust are absolutely mission-critical in a knowledge and ideas economy.
Subject Matter Expertise
Yes, there are times when you can and should use what you know.
The debate over generalists vs. specialists will ever rage on, but realistically everyone has strengths in something. Maybe you’re the guy who knows how to build randomization models in Excel, or the person who has been in the field so long that you can recite customer stories and examples all day long that don’t live in any case study files. You might have a specific skill or a half dozen of them, but it’s highly likely that somewhere in your organization people need what you know, whether it’s in your job description or not.
The most powerful scale play of a knowledge worker is to impart that knowledge to others, and make other people smart about what you know and do so that more people can be good at it.
No, that doesn’t make you obsolete or irrelevant if other people know your thing. It makes you amplified. They’ll never have your unique flair and the subtleties of your experience that shape your expertise.
And in a modern business, scale is the hardest nut to crack but one of the most powerful on every level. Use it.
Passion & Enthusiasm
I’m not sure when it became cool to be cranky about work.
But the people who stand out aren’t the ones who are constantly pointing out what’s broken. There’s value in pointing out weaknesses to help the company improve and grow, but I’d argue there’s an equally important role for people who can recapture what it means to be enthusiastic and passionate about your work.
“Too cool for school” is sort of tired.
Instead, be the person who lets their passion and love for their work shine through. It’s contagious. It shows people that you haven’t checked out, and that you aren’t jaded by the establishment, “the man”, or whatever other cliche experienced professionals tend to throw around.
I don’t mean sycophantic false enthusiasm stuff, I mean the real deal. Letting yourself smile and laugh. Get bouncy in a meeting when a new and great idea hits the table. Feeling excited when the big deal closes. Hugging a colleague when the big project hits deadline.
We’re magnetically drawn to people who exude energy and passion, and you’re never too experienced – or too new – to show that you’re excited about coming to work every day.
Curiosity & Smart Questioning
Leaders are never satisfied with operating exclusively in the now.
Even if it’s working, they’re looking around corners to see what challenges and opportunities lie ahead so that they can skate to where the puck is going. You don’t need a title to ask great questions, and consistently demonstrate that you’re aware of what big pundits might call the “operational value chain”, or what regular joes like me call “the stuff that matters”.
Whether it’s a competitor’s acquisition or a market shift that might impact your company or your customers, you never need formal authority to be the person to pay attention to the things that matter and not only use them to shape your own work, but highlight them in the discussions and projects that might benefit from the knowledge.
What would you add?
Have you been in an individual contributor role before where you demonstrated exemplary leadership from within, or have you worked with people who have? I’d love to hear your additions to my list, and what you’ve learned through your experiences.