Career Development 101: Manage your Leadership Development

Ah yes, the perpetual question: how much of a person's career progression depends on the institution, and how much depends on the individual? It may come as no surprise to my readers, but I am strongly in the latter camp. Leadership development is very personal and I would say begins with the individual.

This is the 3rd post in my series, Career Development 101, tailored specifically for professionals with MBAs, doing their MBA, or thinking of doing an MBA.

That's not to say that the company you work for shouldn't provide opportunities for leadership growth. What I'm saying is two things. One, you need to take a proactive approach to leadership development to be even able to identify and take advantage of the opportunities your company offers. And two, companies only want to develop those they identify as potential future leaders. 

I think most people would generally agree to the above at a philosophical level. But how do you put those thoughts into action in your every day work life?

Do a Damn Good Job in Your Current Role

This is easy to say but hard to execute. If you're tasked to do A, and you deliver A, that's not what I would consider a good job if you were leadership material. However, if you are tasked to do A, and you deliver A, B, and C, and B and C will take your company to the next level strategically and competitively, then that is a good job. 

To put what I'm saying into a picture, see below:
The first key here is to have a strong understanding of the long term strategy of your business unit and related business units. The second key is to gain a strong understanding of the current situation. This will allow you to understand the current gaps that exists. The third key is to figure out a way how your work is relevant in getting the organization to where it wants to go in the future. Below are more details on the work needed to achieve the third key, and is the motivation that drives you to excel every day.

Key 1: Understand what your vertical leadership and their lateral peers want to achieve

Whether it is setting up 1:1's or getting yourself access to materials that can describe what the strategic goals of the organizations are, this is the key first step. At those national or regional meetings with your business unit, this is what is being shared with the organization. Many of these are lofty and may not directly impact your daily work as a new hire in the company. 

However, this helps answer the question, how is my work directly related to that strategy? Because if you can't make that connection yourself - then it is going to be hard to convince others about the value of your work, and will make networking very hard. 

Key 2: Understand where the organization is at now

After a few months in your current role, this should become very evident through talking with colleagues, customers, and other partners. It will also be helpful to look at market research and to think deeply on your own experiences and observations to get a realistic picture. This is important because it allows you to think in the right ways and put extra fire underneath you to excel. It also ensure that your work is aligned to the organization's key strategy:

Key 3: Apply your work to align to the strategic vision of the company

This is really the most important piece - with an understanding the "gap" that is the dotted line above, you need to find a way to identify how your projects align to that strategy and can result in movement for the company in that direction. This way you can: 1) think about topics and apply your time and energy into meaningful contributions, 2) motivate others to contribute to your project when they have competing priorities, and 3) communicate the importance and results of your projects to stakeholders within the company.

Network, Network, Network

I've said this many times on my blog, but once you figure out how to apply the above framework in your daily job, then it is about communicating that to key decision makers in your company. The great thing about Corporate America is that all networking is based on performance. In other words, senior leaders are busy, and they will make time for you only if you have something meaningful to discuss.

I think networking within a company is driven by two things: 

One, it is to gain valuable feedback, advice, and perspectives

I always identify people to talk to based on how relevant it is to my current work or my career goals. It is meaningful to both parties if the discussion revolves around something relevant to somebody's or everybody's work. 

Two, to share progress on your work directly impacting their strategy

It's always great to share relevant progress with someone, but it's not just for your benefit. As a senior leader, you hold a key position in terms of the information network within a large group of people. (see this Forbes article for the importance of being a link between multiple clusters of information) As a leader, it's always good to see what other teams are doing and how much progress they have made. It's also an opportunity to find ways to help out. By sharing your progress with leaders at appropriate times when you hit milestones (check with your vertical first), it is beneficial to both parties.

Be a Life-long Student

Look, you can say the above in many ways, things like "always be curious", etc. It just comes down to always be reading articles, blogs, books, and going to talks to understand what is going on in terms of human resource management and leadership development that affects the world today. How are generational gaps affecting human resources today? How about diversity? If you don't care about these topics, how will you manage an increasingly diverse and multi-generational team?

I remember taking a class during my MBA that taught human resource management. I thought that if I were going to lead a big group of people later in my career, I should at least know something about the latest theory on it. As I returned to the workforce, I realized that these are the issues at the heart of many decisions leaders have to make every day. 

Sure, it will be many years before I will lead teams. However, as MBAs, we need to think long term, and not just focus our time and energy on things that will allow us to succeed in our work now. 

There are abundant ways to allow your curiosity on these topics to turn into growth opportunities. There should be many organizations in your companies surrounding human resource development today (i.e. groups that support women in business, other diversity initiatives, etc). In addition, there are a lot of articles and books on the subject. 

Final words: keep your head up and look forward

All these things I've described can take a lot of your time each day. It's always easy to get distracted in the moment, but sometimes we need to stick our head up high and make sure we're still headed in the direction that will take us where we want to be in 10-20 years. 

These frameworks, while simple, need to be considered. That's what I mean when it is on the individual to ensure they are in the driving seat when it comes to their own leadership development.

This is the 3rd post in my series, Career Development 101, tailored specifically for professionals with MBAs, doing their MBA, or thinking of doing an MBA.

Here are some other posts I've written about leadership on this blog:

MBA Internship Leadership Learnings (8 posts)
Advice to First Year MBAs: Focus On Leadership Development
How the Duke MBA Makes Leaders (For Prospective Students) (4 posts)


  1. Be a Life-long Student
    A leader will not be able to lead if they do not keep up.

    1. Absolutely. I think the key differentiating quality that great leaders have is their ability to learn from people who are better than them and bring them into their spheres of influence. It sounds easy but is hard since you must be very humble and see the big picture.

  2. Leadership development is playing a vital role in our career development. Therefore, we all need good leadership skills to develop our strategies and build a suitable career. It is really tough to develop our leadership attitude overnight, it requires more and more positive circumstances such as; dedication, determination, positive attitude, decision-making ability, and a strong personality. In this way, we are able to improve our leadership attitude and boost our career success.

  3. Great post and considerations for career development. I've always coached new hires at my company that the key to promotion is ensuring that your job description no longer encompasses your activities and key impact areas for the company. :)

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