How to Be a Leader at Work, Even When You’re Not “At Work”

Every MBA hopeful is, or should be, considering how he or she can step-up and lead at work, no matter your title or even role. This has been an essential differentiator for those hoping to demonstrate what many b-schools call a “habit of leadership”. But in the current work from home environment, some of the traditional ways that early career professionals used to find those coveted leadership opportunities are harder to come by. Right now it’s not as easy to get pulled into a meeting, be at the right place at the right time, or use your elevator pitch (in an actual elevator) to network, share your opinions and get that opportunity to “take a crack at” something (ok I’ll stop with the business jargon). 

But, with applications to the top MBA programs likely increasing dramatically this fall and winter given the state of the economy, for MBA hopefuls, this is not the time to wait for things to go back to normal. Whether you are applying or not, likely, this is a time that your teams and organizations need people to step-up more than ever, and sometimes senior leadership doesn’t even have time to ask. So, here are a few ways that you can potentially step-up as a leader at work…from home. 

  1. Raise Your Hand. I had a boss once who said that if you’re a junior person at your firm then you shouldn’t leave work until you’ve gone around and asked each senior person if they need anything else. Maybe that system is antiquated now (I’m not that old, by the way), but it’s a good practice in the current environment. A director on your team can’t step outside of his or her office and physically see you to remember that you do good work, so you should be reaching out to them. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Ask if there are special projects you can lead a part of or help with. 
  2. Be Visible and Vocal. Most likely, the senior leaders on your team are in Zoom meetings all…day…long. Stay in front of them with status updates, which means frequently sending emails giving overviews of what you’re doing and where it stands. Make sure the senior people on your team are hearing from you every day, as long as that’s appropriate for your team’s culture. For example, if you’re in an industry that’s impacted by the current economic shock in some way (which nearly all of us are, unfortunately), continue to stay on top of current events and developments and share those with your team as appropriate. And, continue to offer to take on more and be proactive. Be specific if you have a recommendation for something you can do proactively like “I saw that we’ll need x analysis – I was going to start working on that – does that work for you?” Emails like that are gold to a senior leader right now:  you can be a hero.
  3. Be Positive. I know it’s been a hard few weeks and months for many. If you are finding yourself starting every meeting with “did you read the news last night about…”, then you need to find a way to hit pause on that; and try not to enable others to go down dark paths either. Be someone who listens to others – let them vent and genuinely listen to what they have to say. And then bring light to the conversation. Whether that’s comic relief in the form of a joke or offering to “host” a happy hour for the team and get everyone to play Pictionary, be the person who helps redirect people into a positive space as often as possible. The people who can do this well are truly the team players and leaders that everyone wants and needs, in a crisis or otherwise.
  4. Be a Do-er. Maybe you’re the youngest, most junior person on your team and you’re not used to making decisions or running with an idea. Well, this is your moment because there are a lot of seemingly little ways you can act right now that may help everyone around you. If appropriate, this a good time to decide to do something that you know is productive, even if no one told you to. Create a trivia question of the week, send your hilarious jokes every Monday to your team, create a Google sheet to help people get organized:  whatever you see that could be helpful, if appropriate within your organization and team (or with appropriate approval if needed), make your bias towards action. A lot of people are panicking right now – we need do-ers who are putting one foot in front of the other and acting.
  5. Focus People on What They Can Control. There are a number of ways to support those in need right now. Most cities are organizing meal drives to feed healthcare workers and other similar things that you can do from home at your computer. Find and share those opportunities with your colleagues – help give people a feeling of power, even if small, to make a difference in this time. 


Of course these suggestions aren’t isolated to those applying to b-school, but for those MBA hopefuls who are reading this, being able to describe how you acted and led during this time will be very important to your applications. Consider what you’d be proud to tell the admissions committee you were doing to lead and step-up during this time, and make that a reality.

Times are turbulent right now, but turbulent times and how you navigate them are where real leaders emerge.

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