I’ve worked in many teams. How do I get to be a team leader?



Dear Anonymous

You can begin by connecting with your supervisor about your interest in a team leader role.  Maybe you’ve already done so, and got a rejection or a non-committal “I’ll think about it.” This means that your supervisor didn’t think you are team lead material.  You will have to change his/her perception of you.

To change his/her perception, you need to be noticed by your management.  And noticed in a good way.  That is, you need to be recognized as someone who has the expertise, experience and people skill to guide and run a group of people. In this Pandemic time of Zoom video conference meetings, it’s harder to be noticed.  You will really have to work at it.

So how do you get noticed?  I am generalizing here, but in a US business environment, individuals have to market themselves.  You need to speak up and call attention to yourself. This may be culturally difficult for many Asians. In many Asian cultures, individuals generally wait their turn and will get to lead via seniority. Even in the US, each US company/organization will have its own culture, and I have found the tolerance for employee self-promotion varies quite a bit. You have to observe your company for examples on how hard to push.

So how do you market yourself? Let’s start by assuming you have the competence already and it’s a matter of self-marketing. By self-marketing, I don’t mean you should be sleezy and try to take credit for other’s work. I mean you should be more assertive and voice your opinions and suggestions. You should contribute to the team results in a more visible way. Don’t be a meek silent contributor. To do this, you need to project confidence.  For example, ask to help present the team results to management. If management never sees you, you’ll never be appointed team lead. Be aware that exposure is a good thing, unless its bad exposure. This is hard but you must put on a good show when you get a chance. It may be very hard to get a second chance.

What about people skills? Even if you are confident, experienced and have good judgement, you may still not be appointed team lead if you have poor people skills. There’s no easy answer on how to develop good people skills.  You should be inclusive, solicit and listen to ideas, set targets, plan and integrate ideas/work, reward good work and communicate. A lot depends on your personality as well. A good step forward may be to ask your supervisor to sign you up for company supervisory training.

What about competence? Let’s come back to this one. To enable you to be more assertive and voice your opinions and suggestions, you need to do your homework. I find that many people have too narrow a view of their company and the industry they work in. By homework, I mean study and really understand the business you are in.  Where is your company among its competitors? What are the key issues and trends facing your industry? Be able to see how your project fits in the big picture. When you present to management, you are in their world.  They are concerned about the broader business and are unlikely to get into the project minutiae. They will be thinking about issues inside and outside the company. Does the team result have any external competitive impacts? Are there any interorganizational impacts? If you can answer these questions, then you will come across as someone who should lead.

Good luck.