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How to Be a Leader in Any Career

How we act around others, how much space we take up, and even the tones of our voices affects our ability to impress our bosses. Subconsciously, our bodies are responding to others and what they say; that may just be the reason you’re not getting promoted.

Communication in the workplace isn’t just limited to memos, emails, and board meetings; it also extends itself to the nonverbal messages you send to your superiors through body language, the way you speak, and your facial expressions. We spoke with Sharon Sayler, body language expert and CEO of the strategic communications firm Competitive Edge Communications, regarding new employees—specifically women—in the workplace and what their body language says to their bosses. Sayler shared eight tips to help you get the step up for which you’ve been working so hard.

Find a Mentor
The people you are surrounded with at the office are the people who will teach you how to be a leader. If you don’t want to be an entry-level helper anymore, then find someone in a position above you to teach you the ropes and answer any questions or introduce new ideas to. Many companies value mentorships and offer this to employees through a formalized process. You may have to do some digging around in smaller companies. “There is value [to having] a mentor in the workplace,” Sayler says. “Seek out mentors, people that can champion you. Having those people that have been there a while and know the culture will help you." 

Sayler suggests starting out with a list of skills that you want to obtain and finding a person within the company who can teach you those skills. This also allows you to remain a step ahead of those without a mentor. Many companies have a certain way of doing things, so the earlier you adopt the company's "way," the more likely you are to get noticed. With a mentor, you get to see things from another perspective; one that's been around the company longer and can share their exeperiences with you. Look for someone who you trust and can communiciate openly with regarding work; ask questions, take your time absorbing everything they teach you, and be thankful for the experience. 

A key thing to remember when seeking out a mentor is to keep it professional, especially for women with a male mentor, or vice versa. Keep it formal and make sure it looks like a mentorship to the outside world, because if it doesn't, it could hurt your career. If you can't find someone within the workplace to mentor you, seek out other options through alumni associations or networking groups and affiliations which focus on your area of interest. 

Take Initiative
Sayler suggests doing research on the company, the people, and the initiatives they have in mind for success. This will inform you more about the company and their values, as well as put you above the competition when it comes to being informed about what’s going on with the company. “Don’t be afraid to mention elephants in the room,” says Sayler. “You’re seen as a leader when you call out new ideas or mention new plans.”

This is where your mentor will really help you out. If you’re constantly asking questions and taking the initiative to find solutions to problems that arise in the office, your mentor—and other higher-ups—will take notice.

Speak the Language
If you want to move up a rung on the ladder, act as if you’re already there—but not to the point that you think you know it all. “Pay attention to how the higher-ups speak,” says Sayler. “Always use the vocab and language of the group above you. Listen to their speed, their volume. If you’re speaking in tones of the lowest rung, they won’t think that you’re ready to move up.”

To do this, Sayler suggests keeping your language in check. All those college speech classes will come in handy with this task. To be seen as someone who can lead, Sayler says to speak without using softeners like “you may want to consider …” or “possibly” or “perhaps.” Most offices don’t use them, but if they do, then have at it. The reason Sayler says to decline from using them is because they make you look uncertain in your decision making. While softeners may make you more relatable, it often makes you look, well, soft. And that’s not one of the qualities of a leader—this is especially important for women to follow. If you want to lead, you have to show you’re capable.

Dress to Impress
Not only should you emulate the language of your superiors, you should also take a cue from their closets. If you’re lounging around the office in jeans and a T-shirt while everyone else is in slacks and button-up blouses, you won’t be taken seriously. You may even be mistaken for the lunch delivery person. “Dress like the person above you,” says Sayler. “If the associates have a particular dollar figure of dress, dress like the next level up.”

If you can’t afford to dress like the associates above you, the least you can do is find a discount store that offers similar styles that are more within your price range. If you’re dressing to impress, then you will most certainly stand out among the competition.

Keep it Classy
By classy we mean keep the details of your weekend escapades to a minimum. Sharing your life story with coworkers or those above you puts you at risk for future misunderstandings when it comes to the blurry lines between friends and coworkers. So keep it professional. “A critical thing for young people to understand is the value of a professional relationship,” Sayler says. “Often times it’s not personal, but it’s personable. Don’t share your personal trials; if it gets too personal in the workplace, you’ll have trouble managing that person. Be personable in the workplace, not personal.”

Go ahead and share that you spent the weekend at the lake cabin with some close friends. Skip out on telling them about the drinking games around the bonfire and the 3 a.m. skinny dipping session—if that, in fact, happened. This goes along with sharing your life happenings on any social media. If your Twitter and Facebook profiles are public, it's time to lock them up or to rethink your posts. If you're friends with coworkers on social networks, it's best to share positive and thoughtful posts rather than updating your status about how you skipped out on work to grab a drink with friends. Always put your company and the people it employs in the best light, you never want to explain why you were complaining about the person in the cubicle next to you. 

Take Up Some Space
A huge factor in nonverbal communication that grabs attention is the amount of space a person takes up. We usually equate big men with power, but a woman is trained to be small—usually by crossing her legs or arms in front of her body. Don’t do that. Take up as much space as you can. “The more space you take up, the more powerful you seem to be,” says Sayler. “Uncross your legs, keep your feet flat on the floor, put your arms on the armrest of chairs, spread out your paperwork.” Your body says more about you than you could possibly know, so training yourself to keep your feet flat on the ground or to keep your arms rested by your sides rather than folded in front of you, will make people take heed and pay attention.

Find a (Happy) Neutral Face
You can pick up someone’s thought process in a matter of seconds just by looking at their face. We are hard-wired to pick up on facial expressions related to emotions like joy, anger, fear, disgust, confusion, and more. So, if you’re not getting what’s going on in the board meeting or you disagree with a coworker’s stance on a topic, you’ll want to keep your eye roll in check. “Know what your neutral face looks like,” says Sayler. “Video tape yourself talking to a friend and see what your neutral face is. Really be aware of what your face is doing.” We’re not suggesting you walk around grinning from ear to ear; that would be painful. But, we are suggesting that you keep your brow furrowing, eye rolling, and even your smiles for times when they are appropriate.

Lower Your Voice
While you don’t need to speak a complete octave lower, it is best to keep your voice under control—especially women because high voices tend to be taken less seriously. It also has to do with the stretching of the vocal chords. “Women are shorter,” says Sayler. “We raise our eyes, head, and chin to make good eye contact. The problem with that is it stretches our vocal chords; it changes the quality of the voice and it can be high or shrill. People are turned off by that vocal quality.”

Rather than extending your neck and possibly raising your voice, Sayler suggests everyone sits so discussion can take place on the same level. If you’re standing, Sayler suggests taking a step back so you’re not tilting your head up. The goal is to always keep your chin parallel to the ground—keeping your vocal chords relaxed.

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