Should Aspiring Leaders Stay “in the trenches”?

How long should an aspiring leader stay in “the trenches”?
Making the leap from “doing” to leading can be a challenging.
Here are three ways to plan for a smooth transition.

Question:
“My biggest question is about the dividing line between rising into a formal leadership position and ‘staying in the trenches’ long enough to gain sufficient credibility, particularly in a technical field. I have 1.5 years experience as a programmer.” – Software Engineer

Answer:
Great question!

Making the leap from “doing” to leading can be one of the most challenging transitions in a person’s career, so you’re wise to think ahead even in these early stages of your career.

I know many leaders, and while some made the leap into a pure leadership role early in their career, there are others that waited much longer, grounding themselves in the hands-on work of being a technical expert before beginning their first forays into formal leadership.

There’s no hard and fast rule, but I do have a few observations to share with you on your own journey:

1.) Develop your technical chops

There is never a wrong time to develop expertise in your field. I would recommend that you spend at least a few early-career years in technical roles, because it will help you to earn the future respect of technical teams you lead if they know you have some “technical chops.”

2.) Broaden your exposure

In addition to developing your technical expertise in engineering roles, consider spending some time in project management, program management, or technical sales roles as well. These are great roles for learning and practicing the critical leadership skills of “influence without authority”.

What’s more, seeing the bigger picture for how your technical expertise fits and contributes to your company’s overall strategy and success will never go to waste.

This exposure to broader base of skill sets will also help you work and lead more effectively with others from different departments such as engineering, program management and sales, who don’t always see eye to eye, but need to function together as a business. You’ll add tremendous value by being able act as a communication bridge between them.

3.) Don’t stay too long in the trenches

A final word of caution: Beware of staying too long in the trenches. While it may sound counterintuitive to suggest that being highly valued in an entry-level position can hurt your career, it’s not always as helpful as you’d think. It can become hard to “unlearn” the “just-do-it” mentality that goes with being a high performing individual contributor. Ultimately, if you get so entrenched in doing all the work yourself, it can become all the more difficult to step away from doing the work to actually leading it.

The Takeaway

To summarize, I would recommend that you stay in your technical career path for a while longer, but create a strategy to broaden your career path, before you plan to make the leap into leadership.

In closing, Tara Jaye Frank, who rose through the ranks at Hallmark Cards, Inc. and is currently a Vice President, says, “Don’t wait for positional authority. If you lead from where you are, with everything you’ve got, the authority will come… position or no position.”

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Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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