I will soon start an online Foundational Leadership Training program as part of the Young Professional’s Program that I am on. And, also, I have barely 4 months to graduate from the program. The end of the program is kind of finishing probation. So yay!
Anyway, the Leadership Training is an in-house program. It promises to be exciting. The program is ‘designed to build personal leadership skills which are critical to the success of staff at every level, giving tips, tools and practices for effective communication, feedback, influencing, problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration which can be applied in any situation.’ It includes personal leadership coaching. God knows I have been needing a leadership coach for a while now. So all the more reason why I am thrilled.
Here is the thing though, I’ve been taught to aspire to leadership by being in the driver’s seat, a position of authority. In primary school, I was the school prefect. In secondary school, I was the head girl. In college, I served as Church Secretary and in the national executive of a Union for Young Politicians. After college, I was president of Rotaract, a youth arm of Rotary, in my hometown. I had a lot of affirmation, growing up, of my leadership abilities. I learned to speak in public, I learned to engage effectively and with empathy with people. I learned to work in teams, to negotiate with people that have opposing views and to rally people behind a purpose. I developed strategies and oversaw their implementations. The most intimidating was to make phone calls to invite preachers to speak at Sunday service in college, I don’t know why hearing a hello on the other end of the line from a man of God was so intimidating for me, yet this is where I got a lot of confidence to strike conversations with any stranger today. I also learned a little about playing bad cop, especially as prefect in primary school, writing down names of latecomers at the car park (what was that about, I swear, the teachers sent me).
If I worked in corporate, I’d say my goal was to be CEO,
All this experience is vital in the formative years. I recommend trying out various leading roles in clubs, societies, or your faith gatherings. My own experience ushered me into the working world prepared to take over. I never doubted my ability to grow in the ranks of an institution. In fact, earlier in my twenties, It was always the plan. If I worked in corporate, I’d say my goal was to be CEO, to be in a position where I call the shots. But I work in development, and so my ambitions were somewhat interrupted. Here’s how.
My first job was in a small institution. The whole organisation’s country office had just about seven people. My second job was in yet another small institution. And so was my third. Although in my third job, there was a little room to change jobs within the institution, unless you compete to move from the country office to the international offices. My fourth job was similar. My fifth role (yes, I changed jobs a lot back then) was an international job, so that was a big move. But again, the organisation had just over 250 people. I was an officer, and in order of rank, my department had two managers next level to mine, one program lead and then a Director at the helm. It was clear that to move upwards in the institution, either one of the two managers had to create a vacancy. You guessed it right, you can wait a lifetime for that.
So working in development quickly showed me the parallels of leadership as I knew it. In the non-profit sector, which is where I started out, the path to the equivalent of CEO is narrow. Your job is your job and unless you move to another organisation with a vacancy at a higher level, you will be an officer in the organisation for a long time. You have to zig-zag your way upwards. This was a different experience from my stroke of luck with leadership in my formative years, where among my peers, I usually emerged to be the one in charge (by vote or by appointment). So, the fact that there was little room for rising the ranks at work tempered my expectations of leadership in the workplace.
And that is why I am reflective about this topic again today. I now work in an institution with over 10, 000 employees across 120 or so offices. My first gig in a big institution. Here, unlike the smaller organisations that I worked in before, the opportunities to rise the ranks of the institution are many. And at some point in a career here, there will be a promotion. The path is nearly clear on how to rise in the ranks. Because as expected, 10,000 people means that there are constant job openings here and there. Plus, I found out that projects are organised among teams and each team has a task team leader, calling the shots. Next to a big promotion, say to be a manager, being a task team leader is the coveted position. So almost as soon as you start, the race to being a task team leader begins.
So, finally, I am in an organisation that has several opportunities for growth in the ranks
and promotion and even at a more attainable level, leadership within a team. My younger self at the start of my career would really want this chance to rise in the ranks. I can imagine how invested I would be, trying to be the one in charge of things. Yet here I am, and I have different aspirations.
Having been in charge of things outside of work, and having not been in positions of authority at work, I have come to appreciate the beauty of both worlds. And while I respect the responsibilities that come with being in the fore, I actually love the challenge of leading people and leading on strategy; I have a deep appreciation of the art of following. I have wondered, that if I never have to make the organisation’s management team, what opportunities would there be for me to influence the policy decisions of the strategic direction of the organisation I work for. And in my current role now, where I am not a task team leader in charge of things, I often ask myself if I feel equally invested and responsible for the projects I and my teammates are working on. And wonder, whether I am effective as a team contributor in the same way I would be if I were the team leader. How well do I champion the organisation’s vision, even where I am somewhere in the middle ranks of 10,000 employees?
Which is why I excited about this leadership training program. The thing I really want to learn about leadership is leading by following. When I am not the one in charge, to be able to effectively influence those who are.
When I am in a team, to drive the task with the same enthusiasm as a team leader would.
In fact, to drive the energy of the entire team too. To feel equally responsible for higher level decision making in the organisation, even when I am not sitting in the board room with the big wigs. In a way, to feel like I am a part of the whole, even though I am only a spoke in the hub. To occupy very little space, but to make the most impact. Kind of like a dynamo.
That’s my current leadership goal.