Career Resources and Coaching for Smart Women

Put On The Big Girl Shoes: How To Go From Follower To Leader

I remember a time in my career when I was doing well, things were running smoothly, and I felt like I was on track for success, but hadn’t really made the next big leap and was just focused on keeping my head down and trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself next.  Instead of being focused that closely on my career, I spent a lot of time online shoe shopping and thinking about my dream job (judge on America’s Next Top Model. Please don’t judge me…ok, you can judge a little!).

Anyway, I was running late to a meeting, my boss pulled me aside and said: “You know you are a senior leader of this business, don’t you? We really value you and your efforts. I want you at our next leadership meeting.”

And then she was off, running to her next meeting. It felt kind of like a drive-by feedback-ing, but with me left wondering what had just happened.

I stood in the hallway, leaned against a wall, and asked myself: “What is different about me today, that wasn’t here yesterday?”

Basically, I was confused.  Yesterday, I hadn’t been a senior leader, but today, in a hallway conversation, I suddenly was?

I wanted to pull her aside and ask: “Wait, why? I’ve not really been caring that much about my career recently at all. Why now? And what DOES THIS MEAN?!!”

And I also sort of wanted to curl up and die because…well, I felt like a complete fraud.  Her telling me I was a leader didn’t make me a leader.  How was I supposed to become one? When I got invited to the leadership meetings how was I going to show up as a leader? Would they be able to see inside my head and learn that I felt like I had NO IDEA as to what I was doing? That I felt like I was making it up as I went along? That I felt like I was being handed a role I had to create?



I realized I was also terrified.  I was going to be the youngest person at these meetings, the least experienced, and the most likely (in my mind) to say something completely stupid. What did I need to do? Should I talk more? Make some bold statements? How could I make sure like I showed up strong and in control, and worthy of the position of leadership team? WHAT SHOULD I DO???!!

Friends, it was not a shining moment.

So I did what I always do – I panicked, stared uselessly at my computer for awhile, and then went and bought expensive shoes on my way home (taller heels say better leader, right?).

And then, after wasting a bunch of time wondering if I needed a second pair of heels to really hit the point home, I finally got my head in the game.

I realized a couple of things:

  • The first and easiest way to fail was to believe that I couldn’t do it.  Telling myself I was a fraud, and a little girl in big girl heels was not going to make me come across as someone others would want to follow.
  • The things that I admired in the leaders that I knew were things I could easily do.  I noticed that people I considered great leaders didn’t have all the answers, but they always had great questions.
  • They also didn’t feel like they had to speak – they most often listened. And when they did speak, they didn’t focus on the problem, they focused on the opportunity.
  • And, the good leaders trusted their gut, and when they spoke (after much listening), they did so with the knowledge that they had something to share that was worth listening to. A belief in themselves that was magnetic.

And most importantly:

  • At some point, they had been just like me – someone who was a follower who was just learning the ropes of leadership.  They had all been in my shoes.  And I could find my own way of being a leader that fits me (and my heel height!).

It was not always a seamless transition, but telling myself that I had something to offer when I spoke, trusting my judgment, and spending most of my time asking great questions and listening with intent made a huge difference in my early career.

So – next time you are wondering how to make that next leap, start with yourself. How much do you believe you can do it? (I believe you can do it!).  What opportunity do you see for yourself, for others, for your company?

It’s out there – now go and find it!

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