A serious confusion is assuming that “the fellow at the front of the line” is the leader. Read Dilbert cartoons more closely and ask “how are decisions being made?” … Often it is Wally (the do-nothing co-worker) that is setting the pace, sometimes Alice (the highly competent, and assertive co-worker), and of course never the manager – at least for any useful suggestions. (Now I have to go write on the board, 100 times, “my manager does not have pointy hair”.) The best managers actually know that leadership “comes from the side” – their best employees have ways to help the group move forward, stay on task, surface good ideas, and acknowledge contributions.
Where to develop leadership skills?
So where do you get a low-risk environment where you can try things out, take the lead, collaborate with individuals that have diverse leadership styles, and not encounter a CLM (career limiting move) ? – professional society activities of course. Since our activities are lead by volunteers, driven by enthusiasm and energized by new ideas, it is an ideal place to give things a try. With groups like Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD), Women in Engineering (WIE) and the Professional Activities Committee (PACE) you will find a diverse range of opportunities in addition to technical programs. Volunteer groups are forgiving, they have to be. (If you find a counter example, please give the offending person a copy of this and have them contact me, it won’t help … but what can you do with volunteer leaders?)
Besides learning a diversity of styles and having a chance to encourage, cajole, persuade, enthuse, and otherwise find paths towards team success within IEEE Computer Society groups. There are formal opportunities from student branch officer positions to IEEE Board of Directors that add to both your resume and practical experience. (Many IEEE & Computer Society groups actively solicit GOLD members to participate in high level committees to both get insight from the next generation, and to surface & groom the leaders we need for the future.)
Few companies can afford to ‘try out’ leadership positions on ‘newbies’ – but having run local or technical Computer Society activities, you move beyond the ‘inexperienced’ role, and have references to prove it!
Effective Communications and ability to work with teams are two skills that top the list for technology employers – even higher ranked than your technical competence. Professional society activities help you build your capabilities here via examples, via specific training (PACE) and with opportunities for direct performance/experience