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

Updated 4.21.21

Every MBA hopeful is, or should be, considering how he or she can step up and lead at work, no matter their title or role. Highlighting an array of times you’ve led is an essential differentiator for those hoping to demonstrate what many b-schools, notably Harvard Business School, call a “habit of leadership”.

But in the current work from home environment, which many companies are expecting to extend until the fall, some of the traditional ways that early career professionals found coveted leadership opportunities are harder to come by. 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. 

With what looks to be another competitive application cycle on the horizon, this is not the time to wait for things to go back to normal. Whether or not you are applying, this is likely a time that your team and organization needs people to step up, so much so that senior leadership may not even have time to ask.

So, here are a few ways that you can step-up as a leader at work…from home. 

1. Raise Your Hand.

An old boss once said that, if you’re a junior person at your firm, you shouldn’t leave work until you’ve asked each senior person if they need anything else. Maybe that system is antiquated (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 reach 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 if that’s appropriate for your team’s culture.

If you’re in an industry that’s turning on a dime right now, stay on top of developments and share them with your team. Continue to offer to take on more and be proactive. Be specific if you have a recommendation for something you can do like “I saw that we’ll need x analysis – I was going to start working on that – does that work for you?” Offers like this are gold to a senior leader right now.

3. Be Positive.

I know that the work from home situation has gotten old. Trust me, you’re not the only one losing motivation now that the weather is getting nicer and it’s becoming acceptable to socialize in person again. However, try not to let this attitude pervade your team. Be the person who helps redirect people into a positive, productive space as often as possible. The people who can do this well are the leaders everyone wants and needs, in a crisis or otherwise.

4. Be a Doer.

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.

5. Harness the Lessons Learned

Among many things COVID taught us as a society, it demonstrated the power of communities coming together to help those in need. Just because some of the pandemic panic has waned, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t organizations in dire need of assistance.

Young students who have been out of the classroom for a year are likely in need of some summer tutoring to catch up. The restaurant industry is still struggling to make ends meet and recoup some of the devastation it experienced during the shutdowns.

Find and share opportunities with your colleagues. Remind them that, even if things are looking brighter in their small universe, the same is not necessarily true for others. Even if in a small way, it is possible 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 step-up during this time and make that a reality. Turbulent times are where real leaders emerge.

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