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Practice Management > Building Your Business

10 Steps to Become a Leader

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If you’ve worked in an office, or any business with more than a few employees, you come across people who just seem to be destined for advancement. Yes, sometimes it is because they are good looking or have connections or went to the right schools or butter up the boss. However, those instances are far less common than you might think — and more often are just rationalizations that people tell themselves to feel better about being less qualified.

While it’s true that some people are better at some things than other people, the reality is that there are many ways to become a valuable employee. Some of those are natural abilities such as intelligence, a good memory (not the same thing as intelligence), being good with people, etc., but in our experience, even many of those innate talents can be learned — as can the single most important characteristic for career advancement: Leadership.

We all know people who seem to be born leaders: They stand out, seem to be self-confident, usually make sense — and people listen to them. Not everybody likes them, perhaps, but almost everybody respects them. Yet as effortless as many leaders make it seem, they almost always have to work at it on some level.

Being a leader doesn’t mean that you always have to lead the charge or even stand out, but it does mean that people have to respect you, look up to you and want to follow you. The people you work for can see that. If your goal is to have a job where you manage people, you’ll be a lot more successful if you learn to be a good leader. Here’s how:

1. Do a good job. I know, sounds obvious, right? But these days, there are a lot of people who don’t seem to get it. Mostly, they are focused on their friends, their romances, their outside interests or their online interests. They see their job as a necessary annoyance and try to spend as little time as possible thinking about it or working at it. The good news is that these people make standing out easy. Today, anyone who even tries to do a good job often looks like a superstar. If you are actually good at your job, you’ll automatically be on the fast track.

2. Learn your job. This is a bit different from doing a good job, yet learning what is expected of you at your job will make you a whole lot better at it. Most employers — at least the good ones — will clearly explain your job and train you to do it. However, after you’ve done your job for a while you’ll come to realize that it’s about more than you’ve been told.

For instance, if you’re an executive assistant to the firm owner, you’ll realize that your job is more than answering the phone and keeping the boss’s schedule. Your real job is to take as many petty tasks as possible off your boss’s desk.

Admins at small businesses such as advisory firms who are good at their jobs often end up running the firm as chief operating officers. The same is true for most other jobs. Once you realize what your job really is (and often, it’s simply making the clients happy), you’ll be much more successful.

3. Make your job better. Once you see what your real job is, you can start thinking of ways to do it more effectively, more efficiently or both. In advisory firms, often no one has done your job before, and if they have, they didn’t think about it very much. Consequently, you can make a significant contribution to the success of your firm by making your job better, which can often make the jobs of the people you work with better, too.

4. Be persistent. If you believe you’re on to a good idea, don’t give up if it gets put on the back burner or you get some pushback. Don’t be aggressive or get in people’s faces, but make it clear you think your idea will be beneficial. Often, good ideas need a champion, but be careful not to turn people off. Good leaders are so reasonable that it’s hard for others to disagree, but not so annoying that other people simply cave in.

5. Don’t become a “problem.” In your enthusiasm to make your job better or make a bigger contribution to your firm, understand that it isn’t all about you. Often your boss or the firm owner has a broader perspective on what might work and when would be a good time to try it. So listen to what they say and take direction. Maybe you can tweak your idea to include their concerns. Or wait for the timing to be better to re-suggest your ideas. Making a significant contribution to your firm is important, but so is being a team player. Most successful people, and good leaders, are both.

6. Learn other people’s jobs. Be the person in the office who knows what everyone does: the client service people, the financial planners, portfolio managers, rainmakers, the back office and the owners. Be the person who knows how everything works: the phone system, the tech platform, the CRM, the copy machine, scheduling, etc.

The more you know about how everything in your firm works, the more qualified you will be to run it — and the more visible your contributions will be to the firm. Good leaders take an interest in their firms, and work toward its overall success in any way they can.

7. Help your co-workers. Leaders make other people better. Good leaders realize that they can’t do everything themselves and that their success depends on others being successful. That means helping everyone around you be good at their jobs, too. We’ve all seen people with great ability, but who are so self-centered that their careers stall. Don’t be one of those people.

Offer to help, make gentle suggestions, volunteer and step in when needed. You’ll probably have to be a bit careful with this to avoid stepping on co-worker’s toes. They won’t want another boss, and nobody likes a know-it-all. Learn how to make suggestions in ways that sound helpful rather than bossy to show you’re working together toward the success of the whole firm.

8. Understand the business your firm is in. One of the things that really makes an employee stand out to their boss — the firm owner — and their co-workers is an obvious understanding of what you all are trying to accomplish. When you see how all the pieces fit together, it makes succeeding at any job much, much easier. It also makes decisions easier, and it makes you a better leader.

So try to look at your firm as a whole. Most advisory businesses are built to provide the best possible service to their clients. Some also sell certain financial products. Almost all firms want to attract more clients — usually a specific kind of new client.

That means the activities of everyone in the firm should be directed in some way toward achieving one or more of these goals. Employees who do this most often will be the most valuable.

9. Study your boss (and the firm owner, if they are different people). Watching what your firm leaders do and how they do it will give you a virtual Ph.D. in advisory firm management. Experience is definitely the best way to learn, but nobody said it has to be your experience. They won’t do everything right or always be successful, but try to understand why they took the actions they did. Judging by their results, decide whether you might try something else under the same circumstances. You’ll be better prepared when you face similar decisions someday.

10. Finally, love your job, or at least the business you’re in. It’s much easier to do a good job and be a good leader if you love what you are doing. Having a passion for what you do is infectious and inspirational. It’s easy to get excited about the independent advisory business — you are helping people in one of the most important, complex parts of their lives. If that doesn’t do it for you, do yourself a favor and go find something that does. But if it does resonate with you, get in touch with that passion to make you better and to inspire your coworkers, too. That’s what great leaders do.

— Read “Confidence Is Biggest Factor in Career Success, Women Say” on ThinkAdvisor.


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