Wow, I am just coming up for air. My last two blog posts about The Only Way for Women to Win (Part 1, Part 2) has provoked a lot of hot conversations, both on and offline. I think I need a short cooling off period. I was recently asked for advice about how to get on the fast track for leadership.

So today I thought I would offer three power-tips I give both men and women who want to increase their leadership “zoom” factor. By that I simply mean how to get noticed, how to have more impact, and how to inspire others.

The single most important factor in establishing leadership credibility is to clearly demonstrate that you understand the strategic context of the business and that you can link it to your expertise. 

To get a shot at leadership, you must understand that you “get it.” And “it” has three dimensions:

  1. External and social technological change. You simply must know and demonstrate that you know what is going on in the world that affects your customers and the wider society. The key is to consistently think about how changing events and trends present threats and opportunities to the success of your employer. This means you must not only be curious, but curious with a certain point of view. This is what makes you a strategic thinker.
  2. You simply must know what the competitive forces are that threaten your company’s growth and profitability. This means you’re familiar with your company’s competitors including their produces and services. I recommend that you active Google Alerts to keep you informed of what your competitors are doing. (Something to consider: Sometimes young leaders sprout a few facts trying to act smart in front of senior executives. I have frequently seen this backfire because you simply don’t know what you don’t know. So you look naïve and superficial instead of deep and knowledgeable, which is not good. And that leads to number…
  3. The best way to deal with this risk is to turn your shallow knowledge into questions. Turn your organization’s leaders into instant mentors. Start with your boss, then approach your boss’ boss, and then branch out to any leader you see in the hall, cafeteria or the parking lot. Simply tell your boss or other senior leader that you were recently reading something you thought was relevant to your organization and that you have a question about it.

If you do this regularly, say at least once a week, you’ll quickly get the reputation of a hungry learner, someone vitally interested in the health and prosperity of the enterprise. This behavior sends a clear message that you’re interested in learning and growing and making a difference. Those are all things leaders look for when searching for talent.

One last thing. 

When people in middle management ask me how best to supercharge their promotional opportunities, I tell them, “The more you tell, the more you sell.” (That’s an old quip from direct marketing.) It works like this. All of us appreciate great results more when we understand the great effort taken to produce excellence. Excellence is never easy. Never. Yet some of us have the mistaken idea that consistently superior work will be eventually rewarded. The truth is that today’s leaders are so busy with pressures and problems they don’t often pay much attention on the heroic efforts of others. In fact, it can become an expectation.

Here’s what I have found does get noticed. Turn your achievement process into a hero’s story.

Joseph Campbell popularized the insight that the human brain is wired to be moved and motivated by stories that have the structure of the ‘Hero’s Journey.’ The structure is deceptively simple. It begins with the person who believes they are ordinary, but is suddenly faced with an extraordinary challenge. Instead of shrinking away, the hero exercises courage and overcomes obstacles and tests to ultimately achieve victory.

This is the framework of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the latest Academy Award winner, 12 Years a Slave. It is also the story of every successful life. It’s also the path of nearly ever successful work project. People who relate the details of their efforts to overcome the lace of resources, shortage of talent and unrealistic time frames to achieve work success tap into a primal appreciation for the exceptional efforts necessary for excellence.

Like anything else this can be overdone. You’re not a hero every day and not everything you do is amazing. Even when you do something extraordinary, your efforts should be communicated with earnestness and modesty otherwise it can come across as chest pounding.

To overcome sounding whiny by telling your boss how hard it was to succeed, focus on relating what you’ve learned. 

Learning and mastery is the payoff of the hero’s journey and it’s the payoff that legitimizes the story. Please do not interpret my advice here as being manipulative. I advocate turning the story of your work life into a hero’s journey.

I have observed that people who are noticed get opportunities. And there are certain ways of being noticed that lead to bigger opportunities fast. 

True life storytelling is simply exercising emotional intelligence. I have a very interesting week coming up attempting to help some leaders summon courage to face that everything they have been doing will no longer lead to success. As Peter Drucker observed long ago, unlearning old successful habits that no longer work is one of the most challenging tests for human beings. I’ll let you know how it goes.