Do you, really, want to be a leader?

When I made the decision to join the team at ActiveCampaign, I did so for two primary reasons.  The first is to help growing businesses become more successful through the use of technology. The second is to create a team and an environment capable of providing career shaping opportunities for people. I want to help people build skills and acquire experience that will help make ActiveCampaign successful, but will also make them more successful as their career continues.

Throughout my life I gained experience by taking part in as many things as I could and have been incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to work with and for some truly amazing leaders. I’m very grateful for the people from whom I have learned and for those that I continue to learn from.

It is the people who’ve guided me and the lessons I have learned that have inspired me to start a new blog series.  My intent with this is simply to share my observations and experiences so that more people can benefit from the valuable lessons I’ve learned from coaches and mentors, avoid mistakes I’ve made, and hopefully create some great experiences for employees on other teams at other companies.

I hope you enjoy and gain some value from this series. If you have comments, feedback, topics you want to hear from me on, or if you’re interested in contributing to the series please reach out on twitter @aajohns22 or find me here on LinkedIn. If you feel any of the content is worthy, consider sharing it with your network.

First, one question: Do you, really, want to be a leader?

No matter if you work in a large corporation or small start-up, chances are you’ve spent at least some time thinking about your career path. What’s the next move? Where do I go from here? First of all, that’s great — you should be thinking about where you want your career to go. If you’re not asking yourself these questions, my first piece of advice would be to start.

I still think about it now, but especially as my career was getting started I thought a lot about what the future may hold; I specifically thought a lot about whether or not I should pursue leadership. I’ve had many conversations with mentors, peers, and people seeking advice on the same decision for themselves. There are some common things I’ve heard in conversations related to this career decision: ‘it’s the logical next step for me’, ‘I’ve been an individual contributor long enough, it’s time to go into management’, ‘I want to start making more money’, ‘I’m the best person on the team, I guess I should be a manager’. These things make people think of it as their ‘logical’ next step. Spoiler alert, my experience has shown that these are not the right motivations to make you an effective, successful leader.

If you’re reading this and finding you have similar thoughts, I would say before you start pursuing your leadership career you must first answer one question — do you really want to be a leader?

In order for you to appropriately answer that question, you must first define what leadership really is, which is no easy task. Every environment is different, teams are different, company cultures are different, and what’s required to be successful in a particular role is different. You need to make sure you genuinely understand the leadership role you would be taking (assuming you have the opportunity to take one).

The best way to figure out what leadership is about is to observe and ask questions. Take a look at your leadership’s calendar:

  • What kind of meetings are they having?
  • How busy are they?
  • What hours do they normally work?
  • What is the travel schedule like?

Find a leader that you trust and admire, and see if they’d be willing to mentor you and give you the chance to ask questions about what their job is like. Finding a strong mentor is critical regardless of your professional aspirations and I’ll be focusing an upcoming post on finding, leveraging, and being a mentor.  It’s important to develop this understanding of what leadership roles really consist of because personal ambition will only get you so far and, on its own, is not enough to guarantee your success, or happiness, as a leader.

One of the best sales professionals I know is also a good friend who I worked with closely for years. I learned a great deal sitting next to them (and I like to think they may have picked up a thing or two from me as well). We were both ambitious, excited to advance in our careers and, ultimately, we ended up going into leadership at around the same time. At first, they were excited. They were making hiring decisions, running team meetings, helping their team members; they initially felt as though their ambition and hard work had led them to where they should be… into leadership.

The newness of that faded pretty quickly for them. They soon realized that having eight to ten 1:1’s a week wasn’t their favorite thing to do. They also realized that they was probably going to make less money than they would have by crushing their quota as an individual contributor.

The moral of this story is that most of the reasons people think they should go into leadership are actually the wrong ones.  

People sometimes let ambition push them into a role, or situation, they don’t actually want, and that ends up making them and the team they are leading unhappy. Now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my friend finds their way back to leadership at some point and does amazing things; timing and circumstances are also variables in this equation, in their case it was just simply not the right moment to make this move.  This is a testament to the value of having strong, experienced mentors that will give you the straight goods. Find someone who has some road behind them, will tell you the truth, help you identify gaps, and discover your best path; try to avoid gravitating toward the people that will just tell you what you want to hear, they are not helping you move forward.

I remember a conversation I had with a mentor of mine when I was offered a management position for the first time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was performing well, going to President’s Club every year, and making good money. I knew I wanted to be a leader one day, but wasn’t sure if it was the right time.

I sat down with them, explained my dilemma, and waited for them to figure it out for me. Surprise… they did not. They told me, “You have to face your alarm clock every morning, not me. If you want to manage, manage; if you want to sell, sell. Just do what gives you energy.” However simple, this turned out to be a pivotal conversation as it gave me the confidence I needed to make career decisions based on what was going to keep me engaged and motivated, and the the confidence to not do things based solely on ambition but also based on fulfilment.

Ultimately, when I made the decision to move into a leadership role it was because I decided to prioritize my desire to help others, to have a positive impact on their development and their careers that led to the decision not just focus my drive to advance, which could have been done as an individual contributor.  

When you get to the point that the idea of making other people successful is what gives you motivation and energy, then you, really, want to be a leader. If that is not the case, the realities of leadership will very likely drain your motivation and energy.

The final piece of advice is to strongly consider the people who you’ll be working for and learning from. You will inevitably pick up traits and patterns from the people you work for and with; ensure that they are people who you would be excited to emulate, at least in some capacity. Also, note that becoming a leader does not immediately make you all-knowing and all powerful. You will undoubtedly make mistakes if and when you become a leader; you want to work for and with people who are interested in your continued development as well.

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