5 Ways Millennials (and anyone else) Can Stand Out as Everyday Leaders

I wrote this post with the intention of focusing it on millennials. After all, millennials are for the most part either just entering the workforce or are in lower positions from which they want to rise into leadership positions. But then I realized that the lessons here are applicable to everyone.

Regardless of where you are in your career, or even in life, you still want to stand out as an everyday leader. There are many ways that you can stand out from the crowd, but I wanted to give you five ways that you can change your habits (or reinforce existing habits) in order to stand out from the rest of the crowd as a leader.

1. Take responsibility

If you are a human being, at some point you are going to do something wrong. Chances are that you’re going to make a major mistake within the first month of starting a new job. If you’re anything like me, you’ll make a major mistake before you even start your new job.

I was starting a new job as a political assistant when I was invited to attend a meeting of the Board of Directors of the organization. Since I was going to be working closely with the Board, President of the Board wanted to introduce me to the rest of the directors and executive before I even began working there.

So, one Tuesday night I was spending time with my family when I got a phone call from the President of the Board asking me where I was. It took me a moment to realize that I had missed the meeting.

My first instinct was to think up an excuse so they wouldn’t think I forgot. I could tell them that something came up or that I thought it was a different day or even that I was feeling sick and had tried calling but couldn’t get through. But then common-sense kicked in and I told her the truth. I forgot.

True, I didn’t say it quite like that. I believe my words were more like, “I am so sorry, I completely forgot about that. This is my fault and I take complete responsibility. It will not happen again.” My soon-to-be boss was surprisingly forgiving and went back to the Board and actually stood up for me, telling them that I had taken responsibility and she thought I was worth taking a shot with. I ended up keeping my job and made a lasting connection with some very influential people on that Board.

Excuses are common. If you want to stand out as an entry-level employee, or any level of employee for that matter, stop making excuses. Excuses are for the weak. It takes a leader to take responsibility, and at the end of the day that’s really what your employer is looking for in their staff: leaders willing to take responsibility for their actions.

2. Work harder, not smarter

You’ve probably heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” It even makes sense sometimes. After all, if you come up with an innovative way to save time, money, and effort, people will take notice. But at the end of the day, your work ethic will set you apart from the rest.

When you enter the job market, you have to remember that you are not the smartest person in your labour pool. There are people you are working with, or competing with for a job, who have read more books than you, gotten a better education than you, and have more life experience than you. You will not outsmart these people, but you can outwork them.

Let me make one thing very clear: you need to think smart. I am not advocating that you check your brain at the door. You have life experience, education, and general knowledge that are unique to you; this knowledge is part of the reason why your boss hired you. Use that to your advantage. You should be bringing innovative ideas to the table and suggesting creative solutions to complex problems, but don’t count on your intelligence winning you that promotion.

Hard work is not just something that looks good to an employer, it’s also an important part of being successful. Nobody ever became successful by waiting on their butt (unless your parents are rich enough to buy you success). If you want to be successful in life or in your job, you have to work harder than everyone else.

When I was in high school, I played on our school’s basketball team. During the preseason, my coach would schedule two practices a day: one in the morning, before school, and one in the afternoon/evening, plus weekends. We were a small school and we played in a single A league in Canada, so the competition was nothing close to bigger schools in bigger districts. As far as our league went, we were the only team to be practicing this much. We worked out butts off.

Every once in a while, my coach would huddle up our team and explain why we had this ridiculous practice schedule when our opponents were practicing maybe half as hard. He explained it this way:

When you’re sleeping in, catching up on your beauty sleep, there’s someone out there who isn’t sleeping. He’s out there working hard so that when the time comes, he can beat you.

If you aren’t working hard, someone else is, and that person is getting an edge on you. Winners work hard. That’s the bottom line. So if you want to win, whether in life or your job, you have to work.

3. Tough is not Enough

This is another maxim from my high school basketball days. My basketball coach had warm-up t-shirts made up for the team with “tough is not enough” written across the chest. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much you keep getting back up, or how much blood, sweat, and tears you shed; if you are not effective, you are not going to win.

You need to have skill. If you’re an accountant, you need to be good with numbers; a writer, good at writing; a salesman, good at sales; a marketer, good at marketing; a basketball player, good at basketball. It does not matter if you work harder than anyone else if you have no skill to put with it.

I have two older brothers, both of whom played basketball at the same high school that I did (they graduated before I started the program). They were both better at basketball than I was. I worked hard; I wanted to be good. But at the end of the day, I was never the star of the team like my brothers had been, because I was not as skilled as they were.

To be fair, both of my brothers are also naturally athletic and they have a talent for basketball. But they also put in their time. They practiced their shots, their dribbling, and their passing for hours every day. I worked just as hard as they did — sometimes I even worked harder — but I never reached the level of skill and talent that they had.

Now, we need to make a quick distinction between skill and talent. I think that Will Smith said it best when he said the following: “Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.” Lebron James is a talented athlete. You only have to watch him play basketball to know that he could probably beat you at any sport you tried. But he is also a skilled basketball player. He has put hours upon hours into the game, building his skill, so that the combination of his skill and talent make him one of the best basketball players in the world today.

You may have natural talent, but you will only get so far on talent alone. You need to work at your skill, as well. I also had a teammate who was naturally talented at basketball, but he didn’t like to work at it. So even though he was a naturally gifted basketball player, he ended up on the bench a lot because other players, who may have been less talented, worked harder, and that work turned into skill.

What this all means is that no matter how hard you work, if you aren’t building your skill, you’re not going to get anywhere. It’s easy to work hard just for the sake of working hard. But if you can work hard and get better at your craft, you’re going to set yourself apart.

Building skill requires hard work, but hard work does not require skill.

4. Come with solutions, not problems

Leadership can sometimes feel like all we do is put out fires. Everyone brings problems to leaders and expect solutions. If you want to stand out, don’t bring problems, bring solutions.

I used to oversee a young staffer, let’s call her Ellen (not her real name), who worked under me. She was an intelligent girl but lacked confidence and initiative when it came to making judgement calls. She spent more time asking me for help and getting my advice than actually doing work. Not only did it mean that neither of us got much work done, but it also meant that I was essentially doing her job for her. That is not the impression you want to leave on your supervisor.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ask someone for help. By all means, if you’re stuck, ask for help. But gain a reputation as a problem solver. When you come across a problem, come up with a solution. That way when you bring the problem to your supervisor, you can also bring a solution. Your solution may not always be the right one, but it is better to have a suggestion than nothing.

5. Act like you’re in control, even when you’re not

Your reputation is based on people’s perception of you.

If you act frantic and unorganized, people will assume that you are frantic and unorganized. If you act like you are in total control, people will assume that you are in total control, even if you are actually about to fall to pieces from the stress.

Work is stressful. School is stressful. Relationships are stressful. Even your leisure time can be stressful if you enjoy doing things that involve risk. The point is that people all around you are stressed. The way to stand out in a sea of stressed-out people is to seem completely at ease.

On a more work-related note, things will go wrong in your workplace. Maybe you will get an assignment that you don’t think you can complete, or you are overloaded on projects, or someone has said or done something to stretch you to your breaking point. Whatever it is, do your very best to hold everything together.

You never know who is watching your reaction to something, so act like you are in control, no matter what.

Your boss is always looking for leadership qualities in her staff (or at least she should be). There is nothing that screams leadership like someone who is constantly in control, or at least appears to be.

Dynamic lessons

The five tips I gave for millennials to stand out in the workplace are as follows:

  1. Own up to your actions and take responsibility for when things go wrong. Or when they go right!
  2. There is no substitute for hard word. The harder you work, the more you will stand out.
  3. Building your skill is vitally important. You can’t just show up; you have to work at getting better and becoming excellent in what you do.
  4. Everyone has problems. Leaders don’t bring problems to the table; they bring solutions.
  5. Your reputation is based off of people’s perception of you, so act like you are in total control of the situation, even if you might be freaking out on the inside.

If you are a millennial or anyone else working their way up, building their leadership skills, what do you think of this list? Did any of them work for you? What other tips do you have? I want to hear from you, and so does everyone else, so leave a comment!

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