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CEO and sole owner of Next PR, an award-winning, full-service public relations firm with offices across the U.S.
If my career were a ladder, the spacing between steps would be uneven. The first significant surprise came while still adjusting to my role as senior account executive. A box of my new business cards arrived — only they read “Vice President.” I thought it was a mistake; it wasn’t.
While it was exciting to be promoted quickly, all accelerated promotions bring some form of friction. In my case, I was now in charge of those in a position I’d barely held myself. My new role required me to navigate blind spots and acknowledge them. Confidence isn’t about having the answers; it’s trusting yourself to find them.
Another large jolt in my career ladder came in 2015 when our deeply loved CEO, Steve Simon, passed away unexpectedly. Yes, I was the company’s president at the time, but I expected to be in that position for much longer. This shift in roles required me to lead at a time when my team was in shock and grieving. Honesty and transparency became the pillars of my leadership style.
What I learned most throughout these experiences is that leadership transcends the title level. Don’t wait on the promotion to hone your skills — it’s better to have them before you need them. Regardless of where you are in your career, these five strategies can help you achieve a leadership role and arrive with the respect and support of your peers intact.
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1. Lean into the hard stuff.
When you’re eyeing career growth, it’s natural to want to take the safest route. Easy tasks make for easy wins and reduce the risk of failure. But you’ll actually build a stronger reputation as a leader and problem-solver if you lean into the hard stuff and stretch out of your comfort zone.
I’ve always been energized by tough situations — the first to volunteer for having difficult conversations with clients when issues arise. It might feel uncomfortable and make me sweat, but I revel in the resolution. Jumping in to solve the problem that no one else wants to touch makes you an invaluable asset to your team.
2. Always be your authentic, true self.
Some leaders never show weakness and certainly never admit to their mistakes. It’s a power play: It makes them feel like they’re beyond reproach.
I once got the timing for a client’s press release distribution in Europe very wrong because I mixed up the time zones. It was for a major launch, so the client was understandably not happy. But I owned it, apologized and moved on. I’m not afraid to share this story with my team — it’s important for them to know everyone screws up; it’s part of what makes us human. Admitting it helps build connection.
3. Learn to trust yourself.
When Steve passed away rather suddenly, it was a huge jolt. I’d already been serving as President for seven years, but Steve provided a massive safety net — he was someone to turn to for wisdom when needed. Now, that safety net was gone. I had to trust myself that I could do it. It wasn’t easy.
For several months, I had a recurring dream that Steve had gifted me 50 puppies (uncoincidentally, the same number of employees at the firm). In the dream, I would lie on my back and the puppies would scramble all over me. It was such a heavy weight on my chest! The metaphor was clear: I was suddenly responsible for the lives and career paths of this entire team. But after years of leaning into the hard things, I felt confident in my leadership skills, my vision and the potential I saw for the company.
As an aspiring leader, you need to have confidence that your experience and knowledge will guide you in making the right decisions. Be honest and authentic in what you’re trying to achieve.
4. Be your own best advocate.
In my career, I’ve known some really talented people who did amazing work but didn’t get the recognition they deserved because no one knew about it. I see this getting better generationally, but women especially have been taught to be humble and certainly never to toot their own horn. But if you don’t, who will?
Some may even take advantage of it: I once had a coworker who replaced a stellar account executive’s name with her own on the run items report before turning it into our boss, completely stealing the credit for the hard work.
While I’m not recommending grandstanding or boasting, there’s also no shame in advocating for yourself, for reminding people that you did great work. Being your own advocate will keep you from getting overlooked simply because you didn’t speak up.
5. Build team resiliency and cohesiveness.
Career advancement doesn’t have to center around cutthroat competition. In fact, it’s most effective, and rewarding, when it’s based on cooperative competition: working together to compete against your external industry competitors.
You must recognize and respect that every person brings value and skills, and that working together is much more effective than competing internally. In our organization, we achieve that cooperative competition by incentivizing peer recognition and teamwork.
Respect has to be earned long before you achieve the title you’ve been working toward. No matter what level you’re at today, learning to lead with authenticity, honesty and a team-centric approach is the key to successfully rising through the ranks and having your entire team on board when you get to the top.
Forbes Agency Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?
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Author: Heather Kelly, Forbes Councils Member
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