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Formal Leadership: Putting Aces in [Presumptive] Places

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Did you become a formal people leader because there was a clearly-defined path for you to get there? You had intentional coaching and mentorship? Because you were asked if that was what you wanted? Because you were in an environment where you could – early on – say “this is where I want to go with my career”? I’m earnestly curious.

I have worked with several Fortune 500 companies that invest a lot into their leadership development programs.

Organizations know that it is imperative to build into, sustain, and grow leadership skill as means to achieve overall results for the long term. But I have wondered something else: those high-performing employees that get earmarked as emerging leaders or future leaders of the organization…do they always get a say? Is that the only place for them to go: people leadership? It feels too straight a line for me. Let me first be clear: I well know how critical it is for organizations to have strong, inspiring people leaders. They cast vision. They hold themselves (and others!) accountable to the behaviours that will bring continued success and growth in an organization. And most importantly, the best leaders release the potential of others. This is a huge role to step into – I get it. But is it the only place for high performers to land? Is there a presumption that every “high po” wants in on people leadership? Do high performers feel this pressure and accept people leadership as a next step when maybe it’s just not right? And lastly – if there is a kernel of truth here at all - are organizations following that straight line and therefore – at times – putting some people in the wrong place? What does that do to results? Turnover? Engagement? I do know that there are organizations that understand the power of informal leadership and are carving paths for new kinds of opportunities to exist for people – I’m just not sure enough are.


He broke down and cried in our very first meeting, my friend. He was feeling lost and I wanted to support him. He is an SVP of Sales and Marketing in a global organization and interim President. The first question I asked of him was, “How are you doing all this and doing it well?” He looked shocked and teared up. “Susie – I am doing all of it, but I fear I’m not doing it well. And honestly – I don’t even know if I want to be a people leader.” BAM. That took all of ten minutes. I knew we had some real things to talk about – good things. Things that will help him make some life-changing decisions. I hear this out-loud musing more than you might think. So, I always go back to this: are organizations putting proverbial aces in presumptive places? Is there an unintentional blind spot here because the people leadership position is considered the natural “next thing”? Are (some) organizations at the mercy of doing things a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done?


To my friend and others that I’ve coached along the way: there is beauty in people leadership if that’s what energizes you every time the sun rises. By all means, do it. Goodness – we know how much impact great leaders have. BUT ALSO - you are the leader of your life and career. If people leadership isn’t for you, it is okay to say that out loud. It is okay to ask for a different career trajectory that makes sense for YOU. There is so much potential within informal leadership roles…but they can be more nebulous for (some) organizations. You have the ability to take the reins, think creatively and offer options to those who can help you grow and progress in your organization. Your career progression is not a one-way road where you wait and see if a next promotion comes. You have to take ownership, too. Don’t let that career progression line stay straight if it needs to curve more to get you to the right place. When you grow into the right role for yourself, organizations benefit: you are less of a flight risk, you offer discretionary effort/ideas. You build into and engage those around you. You absolutely impact the bottom line and you do it joyfully while staying true to you.


SparksResults Lead Consultant, Susie Parks, brings to the table over 17 years of experience in leadership development, job development, employment counseling, recruitment, outplacement, and executive search services. Results-driven and people-focused, SparksResults helps clients ignite their personal brand to achieve results in their careers.

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