Beginning as early as grade school, we're assigned titles. When we're younger, they're labels: smart, popular, athletic, etc. But as we transition to adulthood, they become a little more formal: specialist, supervisor, manager. Titles indicate power and authority.
So what if you don't have the title you want, or feel you deserve? Are you feeling powerless, defeated and destined to be a cog in the machine until someone recognizes your brilliance, bestowing a midlevel management title like "director" or "supervisor" once you have five to seven years of experience?
Enter the concept of "informal leadership." In short, informal leadership is leading without the formal authority -- i.e., a fancy title.
How do you utilize your talents to become an informal leader? Here are a few tips from my own experience:
1. Be dependable. It's not a sexy leadership word like "visionary" or "inspiring" or "innovative." But it is the foundation of building trust with your colleagues, the most important tool in the informal leader's toolbox. Do what you say you will do, be where you say you will be. And help people out when they need it -- even if it's not your job. If you aren't seen as dependable or reliable, why should people follow you?
2. Don't be a doormat. When you're dependable, it can be easy for other to take advantage. Find the balance: Don't just do what people tell you to do; push back (when appropriate and with respect), or you'll forever be the one people go to for help with mundane tasks they don't want to do themselves. Helping people help themselves -- and making sure they have what they need to achieve on their own -- is also a way to be dependable, without doing it all yourself.
3. Ask. This is a two-parter. First, ask questions. If colleagues feel you are trying to understand them or their problem, they will respond much better than if you simply come in and act like you run the place (remember, you don't run the place -- yet). Asking questions for better understanding or to help people find their own way is at the heart of diplomacy in the workplace. Second, ask for more. Ask for a special project. Ask people if they need help. Ask for a raise (once you feel you've earned it). The worst that can happen is hearing the word "no."
4. Be humble. As an informal leader, you may start getting those special projects you asked for, and you'll probably knock them out of the park (because you do what say you will do). So you'll probably starting getting some recognition, along with added responsibilities. Don't let it go to your head -- you're not doing it all on your own, and arrogance breeds resentment. And being humble means you continue to respect those who DO have the title.
With informal leadership comes a feeling of taking back control of your career, without relying on the title. And someday you'll have the title to match your abilities.
Alyssa Young is the director of campus relations at Drake University and treasurer of Lead Like a Lady, a women's leadership organization. She is also vice president of volunteers for Greater Des Moines Habitat Young Professionals, serves as communications chair for the national Habitat Young Professionals Advisory Council, and was recently named to the Business Record's Forty Under 40 Class of 2017.