Many students and professionals dream of a vertical leadership career. Even when studying or training, the vertical career was often preferred to the horizontal career and many dreamed of one day leading their own employees as a team or department manager.
But the way there is difficult. Because, on the one hand, leadership is increasingly being dissolved in the course of agile methods, so that teams make decisions themselves and Scrum Masters and Product Owners tend to support them. So there are fewer real disciplinary leadership roles than there were a few years ago. On the other hand, these few spots are often still over Vitamin B awarded or it is often assessment centers (mainly in large companies) necessary, which take a lot of time.
Of course, some factors such as vitamin B, skill, luck, and much more are necessary for a leadership role. You must also mature into a natural authority as a personality. However, I would like to address an important component that emerged in my last study on executives. In doing so, I will point out that people without management experience often do not get leadership because they have no experience. Conversely, you cannot collect them either, because you never lead. In the following, I will show you how to break the vicious circle.

Teufelskreis Führung
Figure: vicious circle in leadership

About a flagship project for a leadership role

The majority of the executives I have in the Study by Lindner and Greff (2018) questioned, took on a very difficult lighthouse project in the company before starting their job as a manager as a project manager or employee. You can recognize such a difficult lighthouse project by the following features:

  • It has absolute management attention
  • It has insufficient resources and is often over the deadline (or starts over)
  • It’s highly political
  • It is making a lot of money for the company or has already devoured a lot of money
  • The current status is unclear and the project threatens to fail

Due to these facts, established project managers do not want to take over this project and, in the absence of alternatives, young people with little experience are often given the chance to take over the project. For you, however, this means a great risk, as the chance of failure is very high and a lot of overtime will be incurred. So be prepared for stressful times. But you will also come into a lot of contact with managers and the company’s board of directors as a result of the project. You will also continue to mature as a person and gain a lot of experience.
It is now a matter of showing what you can do. Private life should also take a back seat during this time. While you have a high chance of failure, there is also a lot to be won. Some employees will certainly view you with skepticism. However, there is the chance for you, for example, to bring a project to an end that has devoured money for many years or to lead a profitable project to success with too little time and resources. This strong reference in the company is then often known to the board of directors.
Now you have the best arguments to ask for an initial leadership role. Then the work really begins. At least this was the result of many conversations with managers from my study, as well as my observations in my own environment.

The first leadership role is the hardest

After the project you will often get the status of “Rising Star” in the company. But you deserve this after a stressful project. After all, you have shown that you can achieve a lot in a difficult environment with minimal resources. The tip is: seek an interview with the supervisor. Often there are the following options afterwards:

  • Establish a project in the company
  • Restructure the existing area
  • Build a new area

You will either continue the project as a team leader (the project will become a permanent team), you will be given a new area (build area) or you will have to restructure an established area that is no longer running well. Certainly there are more options, but usually you will logically get these offers.
If you still pass this challenge, you have “arrived” as a manager, so to speak. Of course, your journey never stops and new challenges will constantly arise. You should also now remember that mentors have helped you and that you can now pass on your knowledge to others.

Conclusion: show what you can do!

Of course, that’s not all, and there are other ways to become a leader. Neither did I mention important factors such as personality, ability and relationships. However, the opportunity to take on a lighthouse project can help you show what you can do in the company. It serves as a kind of honest reference that you are able to achieve a good result with little experience and few resources. I think this is a good path, but it also takes a lot of courage to take on such a big challenge. Here are further articles with tips on leadership:

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I blog about the influence of digitalization on our working world. For this purpose, I provide content from science in a practical way and show helpful tips from my everyday professional life. I am an executive in an SME and I wrote my doctoral thesis at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg at the Chair of IT Management.

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