Making leaps without leaving your company

In an extract from his latest book, The High-Potential Leader: How to Grow Fast, Take on New Responsibilities, internationally respected business advisor and author, Ram Charan, looks at how leaders can test themselves by consistently showing their best qualities in the workplace and finding new opportunities to evolve

Ram CharanYou’ll know when it’s time to make a leap. Your learning curve will flatten. You’ll crave new learning, new challenges. You’ll be bored and anxious to make a greater impact. At the same time, you’ll be doing the job in less time and getting great feedback from others who are telling you that you’re doing an excellent job. The key here is hunger for a new challenge, yet excellent performance in what you’re doing. Trying to jump the wire without succeeding in your current job first is nothing more than blind ambition.

Demonstrating readiness

If you’re on a high-potential leader (“hipo”) list, or have the kind of boss who stretches you, the next opportunity may come to you. More often, you will have to find ways to extend your runway by advocating for jobs or tasks that will challenge you. Seek them out and demonstrate your readiness in meetings where your bosses, peers and subordinates see how you think and lead. If you conduct yourself well, other people may put in a word to support you or talk about you in positive ways. In those situations, humility matters. Demonstrate your best qualities and let people infer what more you can do.

You don’t necessarily have to take on an entirely new job or a job at a much higher level. Jobs at a similar level but in a different part of the business can be huge learning opportunities. Employers who know that you fully understand the product and the industry may be more inclined to move you from finance to marketing, say, or from Latin America to Asia.

A lot of work is project-based, so your best growth may be on an ad hoc team that arises around a new initiative or to resolve a key challenge. These opportunities often involve cross-business-unit issues that don’t fall in anyone’s current domain. Fight for them. They will give you a chance to exercise your skills in seeing and integrating diverse perspectives.

A new perspective

Don’t play it safe by choosing projects where you can expect sure success. Instead, seek the ones that involve complexity or ambiguity. Your potential grows by taking on the ‘wicked problems’ that stretch your thinking, demand ingenuity and literally force you to shift your perspective.

Even without a task force or team you can take it upon yourself to solve the organization’s biggest problems. Your fresh view on the situation might actually lead to a breakthrough. As CEO of GE, Jack Welch put Jeff Immelt in charge of air compressors precisely because he knew nothing about them; the theory was that, because Immelt carried no baggage, he would objectively sort through the seemingly intractable problems in that business. Welch was right. Immelt did and later became Welch’s successor.

You can get ideas about what these intractable problems are by reading the CEO’s messages and other corporate communications, or by asking around. In this age of openness there’s little to stop you from seeking information and solutions and finding people who will be receptive to your ideas. Be sure to focus on the substance of the issues and your sincere desire to learn and accomplish something. Self-promotion won’t fly.

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As you search for opportunities look for a good boss or mentor. Your immediate boss can be your best ally or biggest roadblock in making a leap. Even kind and supportive bosses can hold you back if they become too reliant on your current skills and don’t want to let you go. Life is too short to work for someone who restricts your potential. Instead, find the talent magnets, the bosses with a reputation for advancing their direct reports. You may already know these people. If not, do some networking to find out who they are. They’re out there.

A chance at growth

In his article “Secrets of the Superbosses,” published in Harvard Business Review in January–Febraury 2016, Sydney Finkelstein tried to explain a pattern he had observed, writing: “If you look at the top people in a given industry you’ll often find that as many as half of them once worked for the same well-known leader.” One reason Finkelstein gave was that the superbosses gave their protégés chances to dramatically compress their learning and growth: “Chase Coleman, a disciple of Julian Robertson, says that his former boss ‘was good at providing a steep learning curve for people who excelled at their first task.’ In fact, just three years after Coleman joined Tiger Management as a technology analyst, Robertson sent him off with $25m to start his own fund. Larry Ellison took a similar approach, says Gary Bloom, a former executive VP of Oracle who later became CEO of Veritas. ‘One thing Oracle was incredibly good at was on a continual basis throwing new responsibility at people,’ Bloom notes.”

You may be able to make a leap by taking on volunteer work. A board position in a local nonprofit, for example, could expand your strategic leadership skills. The reference book Global Leadership: The Next Generation, by Marshall Goldsmith and colleagues, lists scores of ways to expand your skill sets in the areas most needed by current and future global leaders and may lay the foundation for a leap.

Take heart in knowing that top leaders are seeking talent and that data bases are being constructed that will whittle down the bureaucracy and opacity around job promotions and leadership development. You’ll have more opportunities to be noticed and individual bosses will have less control over your fate. Politicking and loyalty will give way to the substance of leadership.

About the author:

Ram Charan is an advisor to many of the world’s top CEOs and corporate boards. He is author or coauthor of twenty books, including The New York Times bestseller Execution. He has taught at Harvard Business School and GE’s John F Welch Learning Center, and is a member of six corporate boards.