This is Part I of a six-part series on debunking misconceptions about leadership and speaking with authority for engineers preparing for their first professional leadership role.
Starting out in any endeavor you lack experience. In business, in relationships, in your technical pursuits – doesn’t matter. You enter into everything you do for the first time without experience and the only way to get the experience is to go out into the world and just do it. As it is in every undertaking in life, so it is with leadership.
I didn’t begin feeling entirely confident in leading others until well into my military career. It wasn’t that I lacked the theory of leadership or mentors or the opportunities to lead while in college ROTC. My lack of confidence in my leading ability came from one gap: experience. The training I had while at college prepared me by providing me with a body of knowledge about leadership. The hands-on experiences leading other people and projects came many years later.
If you’ve not lead other people or a project before, you’ve still been exposed to this “experience gap”. You’ve got the knowledge; you just lack the boots-on-ground aspect. The good stuff that comes from experiencing it first-hand.
Before getting into the four components that helped me bridge the experience gap, a quote that’s stuck with me from early in my career:
Don’t let a lack of experience keep you from speaking with authority.
No idea where I picked this one up, but it stuck. At first blush the quote hit me as pretty arrogant – do I really want some in-experienced person talking like they know what they’re doing? As an engineer, I sure don’t! But after further reflection, the quote made more and more sense when applied to anything I was attempting for the first time. Leadership for the first time? If it’s a true leadership position, you have the responsibility and the authority. You definitely need to be speaking with authority or else someone else will on your behalf! Attempting a horizontal alignment for a suburban arterial? Yup, need to be speaking with authority here as well. The deeper meaning of this quote is this: speak with confidence. You might be right, you might be wrong, but a leader lacking experience needs to be confident in their actions and words.
If you trip, you can get up and take another swing.
Now, on to the four components that helped me bridge the leadership experience gap.
How do you make up for lack leadership experience?
The answer to this gem of a question can be found in four simple words:
Humility. This wasn’t the first word that came to mind when I was learning the theory of leadership. In fact, I don’t recall ever being taught that humility was the first step in building leadership experience. But I learned it first hand through the mistakes I made in the interpersonal relationships with my subordinates. Humility doesn’t mean you must act meekly, it simply means that you can’t believe your own hype and that you must be open to listening, learning and observing. Overcoming a lack of leadership experience starts with a good dose of humility.
Listening. Communications is a key skill for effective leadership but all too often the focus is on the output components: talking and writing. Over the past decade the focus of communications in leadership has shifted towards listening as the ultimate communications success principle. Again, when I was learning about and practicing leadership early in my career, all focus was on delivering effective presentations (talking) and generating effective papers (writing). I didn’t receive any formal training on the critical input component: listening. In a leader’s world, listening is more important than talking or writing. You overcome lack of experience by listening to those on your team, your peers, and your boss or client.
Learning. It almost goes without saying: the best way to overcome lack of experience is to learn. Learn about your team members, your peers. Learn about the technical aspects of your position or project. Learn about how you lead and how others respond. Learn theory and then learn through experience of applying your interpretation of the theory. Learning is a dynamic process that will continue throughout your professional career. Anyone who’s been delivering their leadership art for years knows that they will never know it all!
Observing. A close companion to listening is observing. One item from my leadership training that stuck with me from ROTC was the need to observe other leaders in action. From the very beginning of my career, I paid attention to the way my bosses led. Doing this allowed me to see styles and tactics in action and to gauge the results. Some of what I observed I adopted, modified, and made my own. Some of what I observed I highlighted and underlined as what not to do. Observing the leadership styles and tactics of others in action is an awesome way of quickly amassing experience.
Lacking leadership experience doesn’t mean that you don’t have the potential to lead, that you can’t lead, or that you shouldn’t lead until you have more experience. In order to get experience, you have to be out in the world, doing it. Embrace your fear and speak with authority while listening, observing, and learning with humility. Do this and you’ll quickly bridge the leadership experience gap.
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” ~ John Wooden
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To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PMP
Engineering Management Institute