Why do some people rise up through the ranks and others don’t?

Why do some people just seem to effortlessly float from role to role while others struggle to map out their destiny and make it happen?

How come some people get headhunted for roles and others don’t?

Why do some people get asked to head up special projects and while others are left on the sidelines?

Carla has been in Sales in the same organization for 16 years. The Sales Manager position came available and was filled by an internal candidate. When I ran into Carla, after the position was filled, she was upset and hurt that no one approached her to ask if she was interested in the role.  

“Did you apply?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she answered. “I figure my work speaks for itself and I shouldn’t have to ask.”

“What have you done over the past few years to demonstrate your leadership skills? Have you led any special projects? Have you showed up in team meetings with the attitude and perspective of the sales manager?”


Is doing your best work enough to be considered a good leadership development plan?

Is Doing Your Best Work Enough?

I was speaking with a Senior Project Manager in his mid 30’s about his career trajectory. “I have gone where the jobs were the most interesting,” he reflected. “I didn’t plan anything. I wasn’t striving for a particular job title or location. I just did my best work and when an opportunity presented itself to move to another location for a bigger project, I jumped at it.” 

He was now being presented with an opportunity for an Operations Manager role and he didn’t believe he was ready. 

“I feel like there is more I need to learn to competently step into that role.” 

“What more do you need to learn? What would make you believe you are ready?” I asked.

“I would have sought out opportunities to mentor with some great Ops Managers, to learn, to see how they handle the people side of the business,” he answered. 

“Had I really thought seriously about my career path, I would have created a stronger leadership development plan before now.”

In this person’s case, doing his best work did get noticed. 

What was missing was his confidence that he had properly prepared himself to competently step into those next set of leadership shoes.

Whose responsibility is your Leadership Development?

Many people rely on their organization to offer up a development path and help them craft the best way to move along that path. 

When we were in the office, this path often included chance (but not really by chance) meetings with key leaders in the organization to increase your visibility and build relationships in a more casual way. 

It included casually asking people for feedback on what skills we should be working on as we chatted at the coffee machine or perhaps after presenting at a meeting.

 It included relying on your manager to shine the spotlight on your achievements at the upper management table and giving you suggestions on where they could see you moving next and what skills they felt you needed to develop.

With many more people working from home (and in need of products to excel in home offices) those ‘chance’ meetings and conversations are a thing of the past.

 No longer are you necessarily chatting casually with your manager or overhearing new opportunities that may be coming down the pipe or getting the opportunity to shadow a more senior leader.

Interesting, there are both more challenges in gaining visibility and crafting a leadership path in the WFH space and more opportunities to craft a leadership path that is actually broader than the possibilities seemed when our thinking was confined by walls and a specific street address.

Some organizations have excellent leadership development programs and yet the fact is that no one is more interested and committed to your leadership development than YOU! And no one should be more responsible for your leadership development than YOU!

Mapping out your Path

Here are a few steps that can put you in the driver’s seat on your path to become a better leader and open yourself up for new opportunities.

Know Yourself – Analyze your Current State

Ask yourself the follow questions…and here’s the big thing…BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF!

  • What are my strengths? 
    • What do I see as my strengths? What things am I naturally good at? What comes easy to me?
    • What words do people often use to describe my leadership style?
    • Thinking about roles I’ve had, what are the components of the roles I really enjoy? Is there a theme from role to role?
  • What are my weaknesses?
    • What do I wish I were better at?
    • Who are the people I admire and what are the things I believe they do better than me?
    • Are there specific themes in the feedback I have received over the past few years about areas to develop?

Explore where you want to be as a leader

What’s your vision for your leadership? Are you living that vision currently?

What would you have to be doing to be more aligned with that vision?

What values do you hold true? How does that show up in your leadership? 

Your path might include a short- or long-term plan, or combination of both. This could include 1, 2 or 3 different paths.

Some people aspire to a particular position or job title. 

  • Are you where you thought you would be at this point in your life? Personally? Professionally?
  • What’s missing?
  • What are you still longing for?

Some people are driven by what they are good at and love doing. This can feel more challenging as they may not have a particular job title or role in mind.  For those people the question is:

  • If you got to spend 80% of your time doing what you love…what would the components of that be?
  • How can you share these components with others to explore roles that might be a good fit?

Some people are driven by the kind of company they want to work with or the impact they want to have.

  • What’s the impact you want to have? With your team? In your org? In the world?
  • How close are you to having that impact?
  • What’s missing?
  • If we were talking in 10 years, what would you want to be sharing that you are most proud of?

Understand the Real Gap

Understand the gap between where you are now and where you want to be as a leader is key to spending time and energy focused on the right things.

Helen is a great people manager. Her direct reports give good feedback about what it is like to work on her team. The use words like caring, direct, clear, positive, and challenging them to be better.

Helen aspires to be in the C-suite. She longs to have a bigger impact in the organization. She feels her career has been stalled at her current level and she doesn’t understand why?

As we explored the broader leadership skills required in a C-suite role she landed on some important information. Words that Helen doesn’t hear as much to describe her leadership is strategic, big picture, and focused on interconnections between groups.

Helen’s new leadership development plan now includes these 3 key areas: strategic planning, big picture thinking, and cross-team collaboration.

As she interacts with others, she now asks herself these questions:

  • How can I ask more strategic questions or give a more strategic response?
  • How can I demonstrate more big-picture thinking?
  • What connections do I need to make with other teams to engage a broader audience?

Feedback Loops for Success – Even if you think you know, ASK! 

You may think you know your gaps and you may think you know what it takes to get to that next level of leadership. The best way to be sure you are aligned with what your organization is thinking is to ask for feedback.

In Helen’s case, once she landed on what she saw as her strengths, goals and gaps, her next task was to get feedback. 

Here’s the plan she set up:

  • Talk to my manager and ask for his honest assessment based on sharing what I ‘think I know’
  • Do ‘information interviews’ with people sitting in the role I want to explore the skills they see as most valuable to be successful in the role
  • Ask my peers in other areas of the business what they see as my collaboration strengths and weaknesses

Asking for feedback can be a very stressful proposition. Let’s face it, none of us really wants to hear that we are not doing something well enough!

To get the most valuable feedback there are 2 keys:

  1. Be specific about the kind of feedback you want to get. 
    • DON’T ASK, “How do you think I am doing as a leader?” This is so vague for the person, they are likely so busy thinking to themselves, “What is she looking for? Why does she want this info? What if I say the wrong thing?” that they can’t focus on giving you the feedback that will be of most value.
  • DO ASK, “I am working on a leadership development plan and I am analyzing my gaps. What do you see as my strengths and development opportunities when it comes to how I approach strategic planning?”
  1. Be a good receiver of feedback! This is a very key leadership skill. Saying you are open to feedback and behaving like you are open to feedback are two different things. There is nothing worse than asking someone for their honest opinion and then when you don’t like what you hear you discount what they just shared. Here are some tips:
  • Notice your emotional reaction – Does the feedback trigger something in you? If so, what is getting triggered? Is it the person delivering the feedback or is it the message itself? Are they hitting a nerve on something in which you already feel a bit insecure?
  • Take a deep breath or two – This will give you a moment to regroup. Deep breathing helps your body and brain achieve a state of calm.
  • Get curious, ask questions – Even if you wholeheartedly disagree with the person’s feedback, ask for more specific information to fully understand their point of view. In coaching we have a concept of ‘the 2% truth’. Every piece of feedback has at least a little bit of truth in it and that piece of truth can be a great gift.
  • Say ‘Thank You’ and mean it – Even if you disagree with the feedback it is the act of listening to the person without getting defensive and thanking them for being courageous enough to bring this to your attention that builds and deepens true connection.
  • Let them know what you are going to do differently as a result of their courageous conversation with you – if you do nothing with the feedback, you have just given that person a very strong message…this is where the Distance increases!

What Method of Development Works for Me?

There are many ways to develop your skills. Pick methods that most align with your learning style, methods that you will enjoy.

  • Reading, listening to audio books, watching videos
  • Taking subject specific courses – if you have a few development areas, make the most of your learning and dollars by being specific about your learning
  • Mentoring – pick leaders who exhibit the skills you most admire and the skills you most want to develop
  • Job shadowing
  • Special assignments – look for opportunities to stretch your leadership skills
  • Volunteering – offer to lead in internal group, join the board of a volunteer organization

In our WFH environment there may actually be more opportunities to get involved in projects and assignments that otherwise may have not seemed possible.

In your plan add ‘development opportunities’ into your weekly calendar. Treat them with as high a priority as your highest priority meeting. This is your future you are creating!

And speaking of calendars, creating a timeline for your leadership development is essential to keep you focused, committed and moving forward. 

Robin Sharma introduced me to the 1% per day improvement perspective. His philosophy is that if you just focus on improving 1% per day it doesn’t seem like a stretch so is doable. After 30 days you have improved 30%, after 365 days you have improved 365%!

Keep Yourself Accountable

  1. Timeline – Create a realistic time frame to develop your skills with actions, due dates and supports needed to be successful. 
  1. Measure results – set your own KPIs, identify milestones, how will you know you are being successful?
  1. Accountability Partner – enlist the support of an accountability partner. This could be your manager, a peer, a coach, a mentor or preferably all of the above! Create a schedule of regular check-ins to keep it high priority for you. 

Once you have created your leadership development plan, read it every day. Reading it every day will keep it high in your consciousness. When it is in your consciousness you will be amazed at the opportunities that will present themselves to support your success along your leadership development path!

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decided to be!” 

You are in the driver’s seat! You are the only one who can map your own path to success!