5 steps to take when decision-makers have a hard time seeing you as a leader

When there are not enough visible and influential leaders in your organization who look like you, decision-makers or influencers will most likely not envision you as a leader. They tend to promote those with backgrounds, experiences, and characteristics similar to theirs into leadership roles.

The reality is that you’ll often be perceived differently. This, of course, has nothing to do with you but is instead a consequence of the unconscious biases and negative stereotypes that still permeate our workplace culture. It’s important to expect this on your leadership journey and turn this challenge into an opportunity to educate them.  

However, you need to be strategic and intentional about getting them to see you as a leader. 

There are five steps you can take when decision-makers or influencers have a hard time envisioning you as a leader.

Become essential to the success of your organization

Gain visibility by the value you create towards the success of your organization—not just in your role but also toward the success of your boss as well as your boss’s boss. The more differentiated your value, the better. 

Intentionally bring positive energy to your team and your boss especially when times are tough. I will never forget the handful of people who would ask how they could assist the team and me whenever we were going through difficult phases—whether it was losing a key deal that was needed to make our targets or when we were faced with workforce reductions. Unforeseen circumstances are a given in our workplaces. Yet the quarterly business outcomes have to be achieved so when you show up to go the extra mile during such times, you get noticed. 

Build a personal leadership brand

Just as companies invest time and resources to create a deliberate branding strategy, so must you. As I rose through the ranks, I got a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the gravity of two things: how you’re known and who knows you. Intentionally build a personal leadership brand so when your name comes up, the attributes associated with you are those of a respected and admired leader. Decide how you want to be talked about and grow into that person in business expertise and personal characteristics.  

Every impression you leave forms your personal brand. So show up as a leader at all times—no matter the situation or who you are dealing with. People and circumstances don’t determine your personal brand, your responses and how you show up do.  

Build meaningful relationships that will support your leadership ambitions 

Every relationship in the workplace matters. However, some are essential for your leadership ambitions. Intentionally build relationships with your peers, boss, mentors, and sponsors. Your boss represents you to the leaders of your organization. Your relationship with them is essential for you to be considered for a leadership role. Find mentors who will lend their expertise for you to develop as a leader and will guide you on your journey into leadership roles. Earn relationships with sponsors who will put their credibility on the line and advocate for you behind closed doors. These relationships will elevate your profile within your organization and increase your chances of becoming a leader. 

Ask for challenging leadership roles

To ensure the decision-makers and influencers witness your capabilities as a leader, you must proactively ask for roles that require their engagement. Take on a complex project that will unlock tremendous value for your organization and require their engagement either to grant approval or lend their expertise to solve problems. Let them see you in action.  

Such roles require you to take a chance on yourself and step outside your comfort zone. It forces you to learn new competencies, which demonstrates your growth potential. Taking a chance on yourself also reflects self-confidence, self-trust, and a growth mindset—all required leadership competencies. The world takes you at your estimate—when you take a chance on yourself, so will the decision-makers and influencers. 

Strategize to earn a promotion

On top of the traditional obstacles that come with promotion to a leadership level, there are additional layers of complexity when decision-makers and influences don’t view you as a leader. You will neither be tapped on your shoulder for a leadership role nor be invited to compete when a role opens up. You must become strategic and intentional about earning the promotion. 

Assume there will be many contenders and only one promotion so you want to not only be prepared by acing the first four steps, but you also want to approach it in a way that will maximize your chances of getting promoted. 

Set up a meeting to encourage your boss to be your partner in this journey of getting promoted into a leader. Your ask should not come across as a sense of entitlement but as an opportunity to listen, learn, and become the best possible candidate. Express your desire to earn this promotion and ask the following questions: 

  • When do you expect there will be an opportunity for me to be considered for a promotion? 
  • What are the decision-making criteria? 
  • What is the decision-making process? 
  • What do I need to demonstrate to be considered for a promotion? 
  • Are there any skill gaps I need to fill? 
  • Who else will be the decision-makers for the role? 

Ask any clarifying questions you have. You mustn’t make any assumptions, and you have complete clarity. There’s no room for error here. Every organization, every role, and every leader does this differently, so you must understand every detail of it. 

Create a personal promotion plan based on the discussions in the meeting. Have your boss review it and gain an agreement to track progress. Keep working on the plan until you get promoted into a leadership role. 

On your leadership journey, there is a bonus: when you become a trailblazer and are given a leadership role, you will make it easier for the next person who reminds the decision-makers and the influencers of you.  

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