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When Life Hands You a Coal Mine, Make Diamonds: How to find leadership opportunities where there aren’t any

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How to Create Leadership Opportunities Where There Really Just Aren’t Any Up for Grabs

Finding good opportunities is really hard work. It takes a lot of dedication– and navigation between of avenues that may end up being either worthless or very high return.

How do you know what will payoff in the end? Unfortunately, you can’t know anything with absolute certainty. But you can, if you allow yourself, sense which opportunities in life will have positive ends. You might analyze the situation and come to your conclusions, or you may just be intuitively drawn to it. Your passions end up pushing you in the direction that matches your interests and professional goals. And after years of trying, you develop an eye for these things.

But how do you start?

The first objective for any leader is to know what you want to lead. Where are you looking to create change? Are you looking to inspire change within your team? Entire systems? The world? It’s important to start small, and think big about where you want to be, and think critically about how you will build the path of least resistance.

Think honestly about why you deserve an opportunity. What can you leverage that another individual can’t? It’s about putting in time, resources, and showing you’re dedicated to core values that set you apart.

Look for Trends

Every leader has a sixth sense pulse in finding innovative ways at tackling large issues. Leaders look to define and create human dialogue around things that aren’t addressed yet and show real need.

How do you do this? An easy way to start is to look for patterns. Discovery through self-reflection and research reveals a lot of patterns within our everyday systems. Do you have proof of your intuition? Seek ways to justify it through conversations, or some kind of qualitative evidence you can point to in the case your conversations need backing up. Random magic and feelings are not the same when you are trying to convince someone you are trusted person to lead the charge. Take a look at the HCD Toolkit. What do you see in the world around you? Find your evidence, and build the business case with your supporters. Don’t have “supporters”? Try talking about your finding through about your findings through a local Ignite event. If you talk more about what you are discovering, people will eventually connect with you.

Live in a small city? Don’t feel there is an ecosystem to tap? Start something in your community. Become a TEDx licensee. Start Pecha Kucha talks. Anything that brings people together to discuss new ideas in a relaxed format. Go old school, think Jeffersonian Dinners and Lunar Society style format where you have the ability to connect with others in a personalized setting. Focus on creating value.

Invest in Relationships

Can’t find a problem to address? Find the connector in your team who deals the most with other teams. Most project managers are ideal targets. Take them for a coffee. Find out where the gaps are. Try to understand their role and how they assess the capabilities of different teams. Thank them graciously. Don’t know any connectors within your job? Try perusing sites like Grub With Us, Escape the City, Trabblr to see who is hosting events in your city around topics and interests you already love.

Startup communities cultivate great opportunities as many entrepreneurs are actively seeking support, and are willingly to take risks with their team in the first few years. Interested in a career in a different field but don’t want the risk? You should try asking for help on a part-time free basis in order to test the waters to ensure it’s the right opportunity for you. Entrepreneurs tend to be very well connected and obsessed with new ideas. They are familiar with problems other companies are having facing, and will refer to help others if you ask.

Apply social capital into the businesses you want to show leadership in: ask your friends to support them. Women 2.0 was a fabulous source for me looking to engage with female entrepreneurs even when I wasn’t interested a startup but looking to meet interesting ladies within the space.

Social causes are a great way to find new avenues of creating connections, and hone your leadership skills to motivate and manage others. Most NGOs and charities have an advisory board that consists of volunteers or active supporters. Considering joining something that puts your passion and purpose to the test, and builds a stronger relationship to the person you envision for the future. If you are looking for a short term project, Catchafire is a great option.

Look for Problems– and how you can solve them

Take a lesson from the One Red Paperclip book of wisdom: Life is not going to hand you a house. You are your own paperclip. Think of opportunities as a process of constant creation and construction. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at where you want to be, but the best solution is to start helping other people.

Look around your office. Listen to what problems people are discussing over lunch. Try offering solutions. Go out of your way for people, at times they need it most. Don’t aim for ordinary gestures. Help them with a project they are swamped with when you have nothing to do. Circulate the office and see what people in other divisions or departments are having issues with. Using your trend skills to bridge the divide and become an intrapreneur for your company. Speak up. Think like the janitor from Cheetos. Make astute observations, and place problems in a larger cultural context that is relevant for the management.

Be the Glue you wish to see in the world

It can be difficult to understand the role a leader plays, and what it means. One of the best exercises is to think of your group of friends, the kind where you all know each other on equal levels. Who communicates the most often? Who organizes meetings? Who opts out completely? Every group tends to have the gatekeeper who ties the relationships together and makes sure everyone is communicating. Yes, that friend. It’s usually the person who devotes the time and energy to keeping in contact with everyone. These people are the glue of our social lives. They are indispensable to us because without them it would fall apart. Aim to be the glue in all your work, and soon you will find opportunities that you made yourself more than anything.


Erin Little is currently a fellow with LGT Venture Philanthropy based out Mumbai, India. Previous to this she led CHICAGO+Acumen and running a startup. Catch her adventures at her blog or follow her @teetertother.

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