7 Steps to a Future in Leadership

Prioritise Self Awareness and Personal Skills

Self-awareness is a vital trait for leaders and, in the early stages of your career, can also help you to determine the best career path for you, and zone in on what you need to do now to get there in the future…

Here, in the latest article from the new Barden & Chartered Accountants Ireland Career Guide 2023, Julia Rowan, Principal Consultant, Performance Matters, gives us her 7 steps to a future in leadership.

“Your priority could be, ‘I love the role I’m in, I want to be an expert in this area’, you might want to specialise even further, becoming a partner in a firm, or to set up your own business a few years down the line,” says Rowan.

“In all cases, I would be saying to people, particularly young accountants who already have a high degree of technical knowledge, don’t overlook the importance of personal skills— how you get on with others, and how you show up at meetings. These are the skills that will move you up the ladder”.

Learn to Lead at Any Level

How you treat others has an enormous effect on whether or not you are perceived as leadership material, regardless of your seniority. “You can be a leader at every stage in our career, regardless of what you do, and it’s important to be aware of just how important it is to be respectful of everyone you meet and work with,” says Rowan.

“Young professionals can get stuck when they come across something that isn’t working: an approach or process. They may say nothing – or perhaps talk about it as ‘ridiculous’. “This won’t come across well, because we need to be respectful of everything and everyone that has gone before. “Even when we think something is ridiculous, we need to find a respectful way to deal with it.  For example, we might instead say something like, ‘I’ve been thinking about this and I have an idea, would you like to hear it?’”

Find Your Own Voice

A big part of impression management in the workplace comes down to how, and how much, we engage, and communicate with, those around us. “My advice would be to trust yourself. If you have a question, ask it.

If you have an opinion, share it—and trust yourself to ask for help if you need it,” says Rowan. “Sometimes, young professionals feel ‘I need to prove myself, I can’t ask for help’, but what you will find is that most people are delighted to help.

“Creating these good habits early in your career will help you to find your own voice and show up as yourself, because you don’t want to be a carbon copy of anyone else, no matter how senior or successful.”

Work Out What You Want

Once you have determined what you want to do with your career in the long-term, you can then begin to take the steps to make it happen.  “I’m a big believer in people working out what they really want to do. It means that you can have the right conversations with your boss or managing partner when opportunities arise,” says Rowan.

“It’s amazing, when we ask for what we want in a gentle, respectful way, how often it will happen for us. It could be as simple as saying, ‘I would love the opportunity to lead this project or be involved with that client’.  Think about it carefully, work it out, and ask for it.

“I often talk to people about humble confidence. It’s where you can say, ‘I trust myself enough to push myself, take the risk and ask for something, but I also know that I need to keep learning and listening to the feedback’.

Develop the Right Mindset

Don’t get into a negative mindset whereby the peculiarities, ways of working and politics of the organisation you are working for start to bring you down.  Instead, rise above it and always look at the bigger picture.  “You have to think intentionally about the habits you want to create—the habits that underpin strong leadership,” says Rowan.

“It can be challenging when young professionals come into an organisation with its own established rules and regulations, systems, processes, and templates. They might not even make sense, but you don’t want to get into the habit of moaning, gossiping, or complaining.

“If you find yourself doing that, it’s a signal that you’re feeling disempowered and you need to say to yourself, ‘okay, I need to stop and find a better way to deal with this’. How you learn to view yourself, your current role, and your potential to grow and advance, is critical.

“When I’m coaching senior leaders, they will often tell me, ‘I’m still seen as the young graduate, the trainee, or the new hire’,” says Rowan.  “They think that is how they’re viewed within their organisation, despite their rise up the ranks, but what they are really telling me is, ‘this is how I still see myself’.”

Keep a Learning Journal

To get ahead of this problem and promote healthy self-perception, Rowan advises young professionals to consider keeping a learning journal to help organise and understand their thoughts and progress.  “Doing this can help you to be more conscious of your thoughts and feelings at and around work,” she says.

“It can help you to recognise your strengths—where you are feeling good, easy, and comfortable—but also the aspects of your work that make you feel less comfortable.

“When we write things down, we get them out of our head, and we can engage with them in a better way.

“It’s generally the negative stuff that buzzes around in our minds, so, if there are thoughts which are unhelpful like ‘they still see me as a graduate’, writing it down can help you to engage with it and find a way forward.”

Develop Good Habits

Above all, it’s important to be aware that we can change thoughts, perceptions and assumptions that might be holding us back, helping us to better plot a course forward and position ourselves for success in our future career. “Aristotle said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit’.

If we are able to shift our thoughts and change our habits by examining how and why we do things the way we do, we can change our future,” says Rowan.

“It’s about consciously creating good habits, like making to-do lists, being focused, speaking up, asking questions, so that we don’t feel in our later career that we have learned to do things in a way that has held us back”.

Source: Career Guide 2023 by Chartered Accountants Ireland and Barden

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