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How young leaders can take charge of their professional growth

By Sunny Bonnell
Posted on 07/22/23
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Legendary WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge knows what it takes to be a great leader. For one thing, leaders have to be self-aware. “Every good leader I know has to be tough when they need to and tender when they need to. The sweet spot is in the middle,” he said. “Ridge also believes employees choose leaders, not the other way around. “You need the will of the people. Help them want to choose you,” he said.

That can be daunting if you’re a young leader and a handful of years into your managerial career. When you’re still figuring out who you are as a leader and struggling to get the ragtag Rebel Alliance of your department to follow you like you’re Obi-wan Kenobi, how do you show up authentically while trudging through a training program designed to squish the originality out of you like a Cabernet grape?

We’ll say right now that automatically taking the Rare Breed-esque route—shrugging off your corporate professional development regimen—isn’t always the play. Could the development track your bosses have you on serve your short- or long-term goals? Some organizations are champs at professional growth, such as Deloitte, which sends people to the immersive, experiential Deloitte University, where each intern and new hire can access their mentoring team. Before you bounce, consider if there are opportunities to develop and still be yourself that you’re missing.

But say you’re not at one of those enlightened companies, or you’re immersed in a culture that expects you to become a clone of the folks upstairs.

You have two choices:

  1. Stay where you are and change the rules of the game.
  2. Leave and try your luck somewhere else.

The second choice is easier in some ways, so we’ll leave it for another article. Let’s assume you aim to stay in your current gig. This is the time to figure out your “Kobayashi Maru Score,” or KMS.

Hardcore Star Trek fans nod vigorously, while non-Trekkers say, “What the huh?” Let’s explain. In the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru test was given to young officers to assess how they dealt with a no-win situation: a crumpled starship, the Kobayashi Maru, that could not be saved. But Captain James T. Kirk, ever the clever and independent thinker, changed the rules of the game by reprogramming the computer before his test so it was possible to save the ship. In the context of your development as a young leader, the Kobayashi Maru Score has two parts:

  1. How willing you are to change the rules of the game—to buck your organizational culture and the expectations of superiors—to be your authentic self and further your ideas of what makes a great leader.
  2. How receptive your organization will likely be to someone who chooses that path?

To stay where you are and pursue your original, iconoclastic leadership course, you need both Kobayashi Maru Scores to line up. Not only do you have to be willing to defy the norms of your organization’s leadership development process, but the people running the show have to be willing to let you do it. If your KMS and that of your company are both high, you’re in good shape. But suppose your KMS is an eight on a 1-10 scale, while your organization’s is a 3? When you tell your superiors, “I’d like to opt out of the usual development curriculum because I have some ideas of my own,” you’re more likely to be seen as insubordinate than imaginative. Can you take charge of your professional growth even if you’re in an organization that insists on conformity? Is that a threadable needle?

It is if you approach the challenge with finesse and patience. When we opened Motto® in South Carolina, we needed both. We were two young, edgy women barging into an advertising and marketing environment dominated by conservative, middle-aged white men. We knew we’d be unwelcome. If we became a threat, we figured we’d be sabotaged, and often were. But we’ve always had a vision.

We couldn’t tout our maverick ideas too enthusiastically, or we’d scatter off clients. Instead, we took control of how others saw us—told our story before others could do it for us. Inexperienced, wild-eyed young girls? No. We breathed fresh air in a heat dome of stale ideas. When we got clients, we relied on our skills and talent and let the results speak for themselves. If your KMS is high, you’ve got what it takes to change the rules of the same while staying with the organization where you’ve already made progress.

Here’s how to do it:

Don’t ask permission.
Would Captain Kirk ask permission? Of course not. He’d act. Don’t give leadership, or anyone, a heads-up that you’re planning to swim against the culture or professional development curriculum. It’s more effective to bend the rules, get results, and apologize later for any toes you may have stepped on.

Take charge of your image and story.
You already have a personal brand within your organization. It combines what others say about you, your background, personality, and performance. Take that identity from accidental to intentional. What do you want people to say about you? How do you want your superiors to view you? Everything shapes your image and story, from your social media feeds to your appearance to the challenges you take on. Start planting the seeds of that new personal brand every day.

Find the cracks and crawlspaces where the rules are bendable.
Some aspects of corporate culture are set in stone, whether training requirements, CRM protocols, or what have you—no sense pushing there. Instead, look for the areas where the rules are unclear or nonexistent, which jibe with your skills and interests. Perhaps your company has a history of non-designers presenting “wild” design ideas. Maybe its sales “book” is less a book and more some accepted norms that everybody follows…until they don’t. Go digging.

Get adopted by a few stellar leaders.
Daniel had Mr. Miyagi. Luke had Yoda. Everybody needs mentors who think outside the box. Look for people whose eyes light up at the mention of dangerous ideas or who seem quick to contradict accepted wisdom. Invite them to lunch. Pick their brains. Over time you can build a brain trust of masterminds who will help you navigate your path.

Take advantage of the existing program to hone needed skills.
If the company pays your way to develop next-level chops in IT, communication, conflict resolution, finance, or whatever…take that opportunity. The more you grow your talent, the more valuable you become.

Look for the unopened door.
Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru game worked because no one had ever tried it. Even in a conservative organization, the quickest way to rise and blaze your trail is to do something of value no one else has seen or been able to do before. Where’s the unmet need in your organization? Where’s the opportunity nobody seems to notice? What’s the challenge no one else appears willing to take on? That’s your ticket.

Build a cohort of loyalists.
Leaders today have to be retention magnets. You become more valuable if you can keep talented subordinates from leaving the company. So find the people who “get” you, even if they don’t have a skill set that’s immediately useful. Connect with them. Share your story. Be vulnerable. Help them achieve their goals. You’ll wind up with a group that’s got your back.

Push quietly against the status quo.
Rebellions start small for a reason. You want to log a few wins, increasing your support and credibility. So don’t seek headlines. Find an area where you can explore a new challenge or solve an intractable problem, and do it. Work late. Work weekends, if necessary (within reason). When you have results to show, let your bosses know what you’ve been up to.

Results trump everything.
The point of all these previous tidbits is to prep you for showing off what you’ve accomplished. You’ve bent some rules, but look at this new product prototype! Check out those sales numbers in that previously untapped market! When you show tangible results, it’s much easier for your superiors to cut you slack—and even give you a pat on the back—when you’ve gone out of your way to demonstrate powerful outcomes.

Sunny Bonnell profile picture
By Sunny Bonnell
Founder & CEO Motto®