“Management Experience Required”?

By Amy C. Waninger

Are you interested in moving into your first management role? You have probably noticed that most management positions require previous management experience. How can you get that experience without getting the job, and vice versa?

Understanding Management and Leadership

Before you apply for a management role, take an inventory of your strengths, interests, and underlying goals. If your motivation is money or status, you may end up in a job you hate. Ask yourself the following questions, and be honest with yourself.

Do I enjoy getting attention for a job well done? If so, you may become frustrated leading a team. Leaders need to be able to give credit to their teams when things go well.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” –Lao Tzu

When things go wrong on a project or in a team, am I ready to own the problem? As a leader, you will be in the spotlight when results miss targets, projects are behind schedule, or morale is low. Are you prepared to speak for the team, without blaming anyone but yourself and without making excuses? Think about the last time your department missed a deadline or goal. Did you stand up to accept responsibility for the problem?

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” –Arnold Glasow

Do people regularly seek my advice on their work, their performance, or their careers?

Am I comfortable doing completely different work than I do now, starting over in a role where I know nothing?

Do I effectively manage my own morale and boost the spirits of the people around me?

Do I enjoy managing conflicting ideas, priorities, personalities, and goals? 

How to Get Relevant Experience

Still interested in a management role? The good news is that leaders are needed in lots of unexpected places. There are limitless opportunities to find out if you like leading, to prove to yourself and others that you can lead, to boost your credibility, and to build your professional network — all at the same time!

Lead At Work

  1. Talk to your manager. Are there aspects of their job that they could delegate to you? For example, you may be able to compile operational reports, run a meeting, or handle part of a politically-sensitive project.
  2. Talk to managers in other departments. Ask how you can help them by taking on a stretch assignment. (Get your boss’s permission first!)
  3. Look around. Does your office engage in charity drives or community events? Does your company offer Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), social event committees, or mentoring opportunities? These are great opportunities to take a leadership role.
  4. Does your company have a Toastmasters Club? If so, you owe it to yourself to be a member. The Toastmasters program provides experiential learning in communication, public speaking, listening, leadership, providing feedback, and so much more. If your company doesn’t have a club, see if you can start one!

Lead Outside of Work

Successfully leading volunteers is the hallmark of a good leader. Why would someone follow you if you don’t have control over their pay, vacation time, performance review, employment status, work assignments, etc? Lead volunteers to find out!

  1. If you have school-age children, consider volunteering for a Parent-Teacher Organization. Leading a fundraising campaign or organizing a community event can highlight your financial management, organization, and project management skills.
  2. Join a professional organization relevant to your industry. Not only will you expand your professional network, you’ll have the opportunity to lead others in your field and have an impact on your industry. Establishing yourself as a leader among your peers can get the attention of hiring managers in your company and beyond.
  3. If your company doesn’t sponsor a corporate Toastmasters club, and if they are unwilling to do so, join a community club. Community clubs are open to anyone. They are a safe space to practice your communication and leadership skills, and they are almost always looking for people to help lead membership campaigns, organize contests, or serve as officers. (You may get sick of me talking about Toastmasters, but it really is the best value in professional skills development.)

When you take on any leadership role, set specific goals for yourself and your team:

  1. Financial goals, such as how much you will spend or how much you will collect from a fundraiser
  2. Time goals, including how long the initiative will take, key deadlines that must be met, and how people will coordinate their tasks to those deadlines
  3. Other measurable goals, such as increase in membership, the number of people in attendance, or survey feedback results
  4. Non-measurable goals, including publicity generated, unsolicited feedback from customers or high-level stakeholders, and feedback from your team

Before you apply for a management job, revisit the questions above about leadership. Are you sure you’re ready? If not, try on some more volunteer roles! Repeat as needed until you feel confident in your ability to manage others.

Update Your Resume

Once you’ve completed your initiative or leadership term, you will have some accomplishments to list on your resume.

  1. Use the “Skills and Experience” section to highlight your successes on special assignments or as a volunteer.
  2. Prepare the stories you will share in interviews about the struggles you had and lessons you learned as a less-experienced leader.
  3. Practice telling your success stories, and don’t forget to take a little less credit than you feel you deserve!

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