ATD Blog

Critical Steps You Need to Follow Now—to Become a Leader in the Future

Monday, February 9, 2015

Whether you have just started your first job or you are several years into your career, it’s not too early to pave the way for a leadership role ahead of you.  In fact, if you don’t start thinking about how you can become successful in the future, success may elude you down the road. That’s because there are certain career path essentials that you need to consider and skills you need to acquire to achieve a top position in your industry.

Four essential actions will position you now—so that you will be qualified to lead in the future:

  1. Develop the right skills
  2. Optimize your performance reviews
  3. Cultivate executive presence
  4. Act like a leader.

Develop the Right Skills

Developing the right skills isn’t easy; you have to figure out what skills you need and how to get them. Here’s how.

Review leaders’ skillsets and experience. The only way to ensure you know the qualifications that leaders possess is to study exceptional executives in your industry. Although you can examine top management in your company, it’s also a good idea to broaden your search to include other industry leaders outside your organizations. Consider these questions:

  • What are these leaders good at? What experiences or job postings have lent to their abilities to do their jobs?
  • Is turn around experience necessary to manage a major division? You might notice that your division leader worked on turning around a troubled product line before she was promoted to her current position. But look at other leaders to determine if this is an industry-wide requirement.
  • What education and training do the upper tiers of managers have?
  • Do leaders typically have international experience? 
  • What specific department boasts the most leaders in the industry? If it’s a technology firm, maybe the top brass were all engineers. If you’re in the consumer product industry, maybe the marketing department churns out most of the executives.

No two successful leaders will have identical backgrounds, but if you can identify patterns and trends, you’ll gain an idea of the skills and experiences you will need to thrive in your industry.
Build your skill arsenal. Now that you know the types of skills you need, it’s time to begin to look for opportunities to develop them. Ask for projects that will stretch you professionally. Often, the “king-maker” assignments are company “problems” that most people don’t want to tackle. Will your current position allow you to gain some of the skills you need or has your learning curve plateaued?  

If you can’t learn much more where you are, identify assignments in other groups and ask your manager if you can volunteer for them—as long as you complete your other responsibilities. If cross-group project work isn’t possible and you’ve learned as much as you can where you are, you may need to make a change within your company or outside of it.


What’s your special power?  Most everyone has at least one skill at their job that they completely rock. Oftentimes, though, they don’t know what that skill is. That’s because when we do self-analysis, we think too big. For example, you may not be amazing analytically or the best salesperson, so you think, “What do I have to offer?”

Drill down on little tasks that you’re especially good at performing—maybe even better than anyone else in your group. Is it your ability to engage comfortably with your teammates? Is it your clear understanding of the group head’s requests? Is it your skill at ensuring presentations are free of errors? Is it your creative additions to the scope of a project? 

Ask yourself, ask your colleagues, and ask your manager what they think you do well. If you’re afraid of sounding too self-serving, ask how they think you handled XYZ, or ask if they could give you feedback on ABC. You’re bound to start hearing the same good things about what you bring to the table. Once you know what that special power is…exploit it! Seek opportunities to assist your manager and colleagues in ways that showcase your talents. It’s a win-win for your company and you.

If your goal is CEO, you need to gain line experience. In any company, most of the top managers have gained line experience or have been responsible for a P&L. These professionals are called “line managers” because their jobs are associated with revenue generation. Examples of line positions are easily found in manufacturing, brand management, and sales, to name a few.


Alternatively, staff positions are those with clients internal to the company. Examples of staff positions are accounting, legal, and human resources. The path to the top of a staff department can land you at a very senior-level position within your company, such as head of human resources. But typically, there is little mobility outside of these departments.

Be sure to assess your goals to discern if you want to be “running” the organization a few years down the road. If so, it’s best to gain line experience.

This article covered “Developing the Right Skills,” the first of four essential actions to position yourself to lead in the future. Join me for my webcast, Prepare Now to Lead Later, on February 20, 2015, at 12:00 p.m. EST to review the next three actions: optimize your performance reviews, cultivate executive presence, and act like a leader. 



About the Author

Terri Tierney Clark, a graduate of Smith College and Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, is the #1 best-selling author of Learn, Work, Lead: Things Your Mentor Won’t Tell You. She was among the first female managing directors in investment banking on Wall Street and was elected to Merrill Lynch’s first women's steering committee. Terri has presented to corporations and colleges on a variety of professional topics and has been published on F orbes, Business Insider, Newsweek, Huffington Post, The Muse, Wall Street Oasis, Resume Edge, and several college career websites. You can find Terri at and @TheNewCareerist.  

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