A Memo to Aspiring Young Leaders

I’m going to tell you a secret. One that can have a profound effect on how you are perceived in your organization and – as a result – how quickly you advance. Are you ready?

The secret is that you don’t need decades of experience and a fancy title to be a leader. Regardless of your age, background or newbie status, you can build and exhibit your leadership skills through the simple act of community service.

That’s right. Good, old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves volunteer work. And I don’t just mean picking up trash on the river every once in a while. I mean really digging in to a cause you’re passionate about and offering to lead a work team. It’s the right thing to do anyway, but there’s also an added career benefit. Namely, if you can successfully manage a group of volunteers, then those skills will most definitely translate to the workforce.

Think about it. Say you participated in a Habitat for Humanity build in college and were inspired by their mission to provide housing for low-income families. Your job is in marketing, so you contact the organization and volunteer to serve on their communications committee. After a few meetings, you’re asked to co-chair a fundraising event which allows you to network with potential sponsors (growing your contacts), pitch the media (growing your skills), and rally a team (growing your leadership IQ).

Opportunities like these also let you test-drive your management abilities outside your day job, meaning you can make rookie mistakes in a comparatively safe learning environment. You may discover, for example, that your raw passion for an idea doesn’t play well when the entire team must come to a consensus. Or that a failure to delegate has you doing the heavy lifting at the eleventh hour…again.

As you’re working with your committee, try to take a step back and objectively evaluate your performance as a leader. What are you doing right? What are your improvement areas? To use the examples above, how could you have obtained more buy-in for your idea or distributed the work more effectively?

If you really want to get the most out of this process, be sure to put your answers on paper and check in with your team occasionally as well. You don’t need to have a roundtable discussion, simply pull a member aside once in a while and ask how you’re doing. Let them know that you’d like to hone your leadership skills and you’re looking for honest, constructive feedback. Most people are happy to oblige.

Next, make sure the work you’re doing is high-profile enough to earn a few stripes with your “real” boss and colleagues as well. Perhaps you’re quoted in a newspaper article, given the opportunity to present at the local Rotary, win an award, or one of your committee members raves about you in front of your supervisor. Granted, most of these examples may seem outside your control but, trust me, if you work hard enough it will happen.

In fact, the more the momentum you can build behind your volunteer work, the higher your profile in the community and, as a result, the more valuable you become to your employer. You may even find that you are viewed with slightly more respect at work, i.e. you are no longer a mere rank-and-file associate, but a potential leader on the rise.

I call this “strategic altruism.” You can call it success from day one.

Note: This article was written for Volume 2 of Launchpad: Your Career Search Strategy Guide by Chris Perry of CareerRocketeer. Purchase the full guide on Amazon here.

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