How to Gain Leadership Experience When You’re Not the Boss

I speak with a lot of young professionals and during those conversations, I’ve gathered that a career ambition for a lot of us is to eventually lead and manage a team. But in order to be placed in a management position, one must demonstrate that they’re qualified for the opportunity. However, this is the catch-22. How does someone showcase that they’re qualified when they haven’t had the opportunity to develop the skills to ultimately be, well…qualified?

So I guess the real question is how do I start on the path to a management position?

Leading and managing brings its own unique set of challenges. Being an extraordinary individual contributor doesn’t necessarily translate to being a rockstar manager. If your goal is to eventually step up from an individual role into a team role, you will need to close the gap between your current capabilities and the requirements needed. The good news is that this can be done without a formal management position. Leadership isn’t formal authority; the opportunity to lead isn’t limited to employees with a specific title.

I want to discuss a few ways you can be intentional about your leadership development. I am hoping these thoughts will inspire you to think about how you can start developing the skills to be an effective leader.

Expand Your Current Role

One of the best ways to show that you’re ready for a leadership role is to find small ways to manage people and projects through your current position. This will build your management skills, but you will also start being viewed as a team leader. I think there’s no better way to learn than by doing. I suggest creatively thinking about how you can expand your current role to create opportunities to gain experience. Some ideas include:

  • Join or develop a stretch project, like redeveloping your team’s onboarding program and taking ownership in orientating all of the new hires
  • Raise your hand for a project that your manager asks someone to take the lead on, such as researching a new technology tool
  • Ask your manager if there are any managerial tasks you can take off his or her desk such as creating the agenda and leading your weekly team meetings
  • Volunteer to manage the summer intern and get involved in the recruiting process as well to develop talent identification and acquisition skills
  • Whenever your manager goes on vacation, ask if you can take on some of their responsibilities while he or she is gone. This will give you an inside into their role and begin to build trust that you’re capable of taking on more

Formal Education

Although I believe most of your managerial and leadership skills will need to be learned on the job through experiences, supplement and expedite the learning process through formal education. Create a formal learning plan and review it with your manager. There are many ways you can do this which include:

  • Seek out free webinars, online workshops or training programs from vendors or clients your company works with, your college alumni center, local community centers or clubs and industry conferences and associations
  • Visit your local library, and check out management and leadership books
  • Read articles or listen to podcast from creators such as Harvard Business Review
  • Go back to school, and consult your HR department about your company’s tuition reimbursement program. Most programs offer non-traditional class options such as online or night classes

Remember to bring these new concepts back into the workplace. Have discussions with your manager and other organizational leaders, and test some ideas out if you get a chance.

Seek Out Opportunities in Your Personal Life

You can learn a lot through your career and school to aid you in becoming an excellent manager, but we often forget about the value of different experiences in our personal life and how these opportunities can help with our professional development. Here are some ideas:

  • Find a cause that matters to you and join a local nonprofit–it could be a great place to manage projects, lead events, or even be part of a board that makes critical decisions
  • Take on a leadership role within your own community, from being involved in your city’s local politics to stepping up to help organize community events
  • Coach a children’s sports team (if anything will give you a glimpse of dealing with personnel issues, coaching a 5th grade soccer team should do the trick)

I’m not sure you will ever be totally prepared for the challenges that managing people will throw at you, but immersing yourself in some of the opportunities above should give you a glimpse of the challenges ahead and what skillsets you need to continue to hone. Becoming a leader doesn’t happen through a single course or experience. It is an arduous journey that will continue throughout your career. Finally, remember that the first person you can successfully lead is yourself. Take ownership in your development.

What are your thoughts? How can inexperienced professionals prepare themselves for a career into management? What skills and experiences do you look for when identifying emerging leaders? Leave a comment to share advice.

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Want to connect further about personal coaching, speaking opportunities or other engagements you think I could help you with? Connect with me or send me an email at As always, thanks to my editor and partner Gaby Deimeke.

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