Soon after I got the very first promotion of my career, I noticed something odd. I felt different. I was acting differently, too — in my interactions with my peers, the way I allocated my time, how I tackled projects. With a more senior title, I realized, I’d subconsciously started acting how I believed a more senior person should act.
I liked the change in myself. At the same time, though, it was also frustrating to realize how much influence my job title had held over my behavior. If I’d just acted this way to begin with, I remember thinking, I could have gotten that promotion much faster. I also didn’t love that I had let external feedback control my internal image of who I was. I had waited for the external validation of being promoted to determine who I was as a leader rather than relying on my internal self-image.
Every chance I could, I used my internal dialogue to remind myself I was a senior leader.
So I decided that going forward, I would pretend. Since my promotion had helped me to act the way I wanted to, I would force the same effect by mentally adding one level to my job title at all times. In other words, as long as I was a “Level 2” manager, I would mentally tell myself I was a “Level 3” manager. Repeatedly. Over and over again. Every chance I could, I used my internal dialogue to remind myself I was a senior leader.
It’s a funny little thing, but it made a drastic difference in my behavior. When I’ve suggested this trick to my mentees at Amazon, many have come back saying it changed their career trajectory for the better.
Of course, it’s not terribly useful to say, “Just act more senior.” Here are steps to take to understand that goal and then create a plan to accomplish it.
Observe senior leaders
To get yourself in the right headspace, pay attention to the people above you in the workplace hierarchy. I don’t mean taking mental notes on how to impress them. I don’t mean focusing on what they’re telling you to do. For this to work, you need to adopt the mindset of an objective observer, studying the details of how they behave. What types of questions do they ask? How do they interact with others? What are they worried about? Over time, I began to understand what differentiated the leaders at my workplace from everyone else simply by noting the types of things they focused on.
- Long-term vs. short-term success: Senior leaders are willing to spend extra effort focusing on long-term trajectories. They invest early to ensure later success. A more junior manager might say, “Susan isn’t ready for promotion this cycle, so there’s no need to review her in this meeting.” A senior leader might say, “Let’s review everyone we don’t expect to promote within the next 18 months and discuss why we don’t believe that person is on track to grow.”
- Execution vs. strategy: Senior leaders are more concerned with the big “why” questions than the “how” questions. A more junior employee might ask about an execution problem, such as “How do we change the refresh rate of the data on that screen?” A senior leader might ask, “Why do customers use this dashboard? What are they trying to accomplish? Is this the most useful way to present this information?”
- Doing the right thing vs. hitting goals: Senior leaders care about doing the right thing for the company’s future more than declaring success based on previous forecasts. A junior leader who feels the need to prove themselves by hitting targets might say, “If we cut that feature, we could hit our launch goal for our new app.” A senior leader is more likely to feel secure enough to say, “We’re going to launch when we’re ready, not a moment earlier.”
- Collaboration vs. winning: Senior leaders believe success comes through teamwork and that business is not a zero-sum game. Where a more junior employee might feel territorial over their team’s project, a senior leader would welcome ideas and offer to pitch in from elsewhere in the company. They know that personal career success comes from driving overall business success.
Be confident enough to make mistakes
In all of this, confidence is a key element — not just that you can do the work, but that you can mess up at it. Confidence that you can miss a goal without being fired. Confidence that you can focus on the long-term success of a product or project even if the short term is less successful than you’d hoped. Being in charge means feeling emboldened to take risks, which means accepting the possibility of failure.
Confidence comes easier to some than others — for example, women tend to struggle with confidence more than men — but it’s not a fixed trait. It can be cultivated. Here are a few suggestions for how to build your own path toward confidence:
- Find peers who will support you on controversial decisions. Knowing you have an ally can be a big confidence booster. More than once, I’ve talked with peers before a meeting and said something along the lines of “I’m planning on pushing back on the launch date due to those quality risks we’ve been talking about. What do you think? If you agree, I’d love backup in the meeting.”
- Have open discussions with your manager. I regularly say things like this to my manager: “In that last meeting, I pushed back pretty hard against Sam’s proposal. I don’t know if I came across as too harsh or if I otherwise put my foot in my mouth. What feedback do you have for me on that discussion?” I’ve received gold mines of advice from my manager, and having an open channel of communication will allow you to know where the line is. If you know you’re in a safe place, you can be brave.
- Practice in private. It’s hard to state a controversial opinion in a room with 15 people, but it may feel less daunting to do the same thing in a one-on-one conversation. If you have a thought you’re nervous about sharing, set up a private meeting with someone above you to go over it. You can simply say, “I was not confident enough to say this in a big room, but I really wanted to discuss it.” Showing vulnerability can be a great way to build connections with others.
Remember that power can come from anywhere
I believe one of the more common misconceptions about power is that it’s determined by hierarchy. A person can be powerful at any level because a person can be generous at any level. Generosity means leaving room for other opinions, lifting up your colleagues, and listening. It means you can feel confident you’re adding value without believing your coworkers have any less value. It means you can push for what you believe is right while acknowledging you could be wrong. It means you can respect the decisions of your management chain while striving to influence them. In short, it means acting like a leader — someone concerned with the well-being of the organization as a whole rather than their own striving. Become someone like that, and it will be much easier to believe you deserve to be peers with senior leaders.