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How to land a leadership role in a small company without prior leadership experience

Written by
Femme Palette
Published on
June 18, 2024

When pursuing professional growth, some of us aspire to move into leadership positions. However, lack of formal leadership experience can often seem like a major setback. Good news though - securing a leadership role in a small company without prior leadership experience is not only possible, but also becoming increasingly common. Small businesses value versatility, initiative, and the ability to adapt quickly—traits that can be demonstrated through various experiences even if they don't come with a leadership title. This guide will show you how to leverage your existing skills and experiences to land a leadership role, build your case for a promotion, and navigate the environment of small companies.

Leadership in small companies

The dynamic environment of small businesses

Small businesses operate in a fast-paced and dynamic environment. Unlike larger corporations with rigid structures, small companies often require their leaders to wear multiple hats and adapt quickly to changing circumstances. This can create unique opportunities for individuals to step into leadership roles based on their potential and demonstrated skills rather than just their previous titles.

How leadership in small companies differs from larger corporations

Leadership roles in small companies differ significantly from those in larger organizations. In a small business, leaders are closer to the day-to-day operations and have a more direct impact on the company’s success. They often engage directly with employees, customers, and other stakeholders, making personal relationships and effective communication skills vital. In other words, being a leader in a small company is overall a much more hands-on experience, and often involves partaking in individual contributor activities as well as team leadership.

What do small companies look for in leaders?

As is apparent from what we just learned about the specifics of leadership in a small company, these organizations tend to require a pretty comprehensive profile from their managers. Let’s take a closer look.

Relevant skills

Small companies prioritize versatile skills in their leaders. Key competencies include project management, team collaboration, problem-solving, and effective communication. These skills are crucial because they directly contribute to managing teams, driving projects to completion, and resolving issues efficiently.

For instance, strong project management skills ensure that tasks are completed on time and within budget, which is critical for the survival and growth of small businesses. Similarly, effective communication fosters a positive work environment and ensures that everyone is aligned with the company’s goals.

Examples of transferable skills

If you have experience managing projects, collaborating with diverse teams, solving complex problems, or effectively communicating in your current role, you already possess essential leadership qualities. Here are a few examples of how these skills translate into leadership capabilities:

  • Project management: Leading a cross-functional team to complete a project on time demonstrates your ability to manage resources and deadlines.
  • Team collaboration: Working well with others and facilitating teamwork shows you can build and maintain productive relationships.
  • Problem-solving: Resolving a challenging issue effectively indicates you can navigate obstacles and find solutions.
  • Effective communication: Clearly conveying ideas and listening to others proves you can inspire and guide a team.

Building your case for leadership

Identify transferable skills

Start by identifying the skills you have that can be transferred to a leadership role. Consider your achievements in project management, teamwork, problem-solving, and communication. These competencies are the foundation of effective leadership.

Be visible

Visibility is crucial when positioning yourself for a leadership role. Speak up in meetings, share your ideas, and volunteer for projects that allow you to demonstrate your leadership potential. Taking initiative rather than staying in the backseat shows that you’re ready to step up.

Showcase your achievements

Your achievements are a testament to your capabilities. Highlight your successes, particularly those that involved taking initiative or leading a team. Quantifiable achievements, such as increasing sales by a certain percentage of successfully managing a major project, can significantly support your case for a leadership role.

Have discussions with your manager

Let your manager know you’re serious about moving into a leadership role. Have active career conversations with them regularly, ideally quarterly, and let them know that this is your intended next step. Ask your manager to involve you in opportunities where you can learn and demonstrate leadership skills, such as taking ownership of a project or leading a meeting.

Gaining leadership experience without a formal leadership role

Volunteer for leadership opportunities

Volunteering for leadership roles within your current organization or in external groups can provide valuable experience. Look for opportunities to lead projects, organize events, or head committees in non-profits, community groups, or professional associations. These experiences can help you develop and demonstrate your leadership skills.

Seek mentorship

Mentorship can be invaluable in your journey towards a leadership role. Find mentors who are experienced leaders and learn from their insights and guidance. Approach potential mentors by expressing your career aspirations and seeking their advice. A good mentor can provide you with the knowledge and confidence to navigate the challenges of leadership.

If you’d like to look into working with a mentor, check out our Femme Palette Mentoring Program for Managers. You’ll be matched with an experienced leader who will guide you on your path and share their own experience with landing their first leadership role.

Pursue continuous learning

Investing in your education is crucial for developing leadership skills. Enroll in leadership courses, obtain relevant certifications, and attend workshops. Resources like Coursera, Udemy, and other online platforms offer numerous courses on leadership and management. Additionally, reading books by respected leaders can provide you with theoretical knowledge and practical insights.

In conclusion, landing a leadership role in a small company without prior leadership experience is a challenging but achievable goal. By understanding the unique environment of small businesses, identifying and showcasing your transferable skills, gaining experience through volunteering, seeking mentorship, and continuously learning, you can build a strong case for yourself as a capable leader.

Persistence and resilience are key. Even if you face setbacks, continue to demonstrate your leadership potential and strive to improve your skills. Remember, many successful leaders started without formal leadership experience, but they earned their roles through dedication, hard work, and a willingness to learn and grow.

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