how can I get a job with a leadership role?

A reader writes:

I’ve been working since I was in high school –  retail gigs, etc were the norm for me until I went to jr. college and started temping in offices. It grew a bit from there, as I learned all the new programs, and because I was a fast keyer, was cast in roles like accounting.

Finally, in 2006, I took the reins on my work world and pursued a bachelor’s degree in HR/Business. From everything I’d read, I thought for sure I could land a job as an HR Manager right after graduating. Not the case at all!

I graduated in July 2009 and have yet to find anything permanent at all. I’ve been temping this entire time, anxious to finally “land” somewhere again! I want a leadership role, and need to know HOW to get experience doing that.

I was in toastmasters for two years, and led committees, took roles no one else and served as an officer twice. I’ve done informal training, etc. I’m back in school again to pursue my MBA. After 20 years of office work and knowing everything I know and doing a bit of everything…what should I pursue???

It sounds to me like your expectations might be a little unrealistic, which is making you feel like you have to keep changing paths.

For instance, it makes sense to me that you wouldn’t land an HR manager job right out of school. Degree aside, they’re looking for people with real-life HR experience. Targeting a lower-level HR job and giving yourself time to work your way up would probably get you better results.

Leadership roles, too, generally require experience. The best way to get that experience is by seeking out leadership opportunities in a current job — stepping up and asking to take on new responsibilities in a way that will be a help to your employer while giving you experience that will pay off later.

For instance, when I’ve seen employees who I thought had the potential to be great managers some day, I’ve eased them in by having them start small: managing interns, managing an assistant, being the leader of a team project, and so forth. Those are all things that you can volunteer for, and many employers will be grateful that someone is actually excited to do it. Meanwhile, you’re expanding your skills, proving yourself to your employer and colleagues, and establishing a track record of doing well in this area … which will pay off for you down the road when someone has a higher-level opening and remembers being impressed by you. (That assumes you do a good job so, uh, do a good job.)

Also, if you can target a position in a smaller company, you’ll generally have more chances for these types of growth opportunities.

The above is always a good way to go, but it’s especially true in a job market like this one.

What advice do others have?

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Kim Stiens*

    I agree with AAM 100%. I have a degree as well, and those are definitely worth having, but especially in this job climate, experience is everything. Why would a company hire you as an HR generalist or manager when they could hire someone who has 5 years of HR management experience already? Yeah, it sucks to take an entry level job when you've got student loans to pay off and you feel like you've already paid your dues. But that is just what you'll have to do.

    It's also worth noting, as I know AAM has in previous posts, now might not be the time to be going back to school. It's tempting to think that additional credential is going to make the difference, but every hour that you spend in school is an hour that you're not working at a job and building your resume. Plus, there are gazillions of kids coming out of business school right now who are no more employable than you are. It's a trade off that you have to carefully consider.

  2. Karen F.*

    One good practice would be to lead a team in a complex project or a task…the kind no one else wants to do because they say "it's too hard."

    It's important for you to learn how to handle stress, how well you work under pressure, how well you answer to other people's demands, and how to address the demands of the people you are leading. Every project has a scope, a set of limitations, a budget. Accumulating that kind of experience can help you become a more attractive candidate for a leadership role.

    Karen F., The Resume Chick (on Google or Twitter if you need me)

  3. ET*

    I also agree with AAM and Kim Steins – I think your expectations are too high. I work in HR and out of college the only type of HR job I could get was an HR Assistant position. I'm in a management role now, but it certainly didn't happen overnight – it took 7 years of post-college work experience and I know many people with just as much, if not more HR experience than me, still working in non-leadership HR generalist and specialist roles.

    I also agree that pursuing an MBA may not be your best move at this time. Even with an MBA you aren't going to qualify for most HR Manager positions without actual HR experience. You'd be better off actually working in HR at this time.

  4. Anonymous*

    Yes, you can't be a 'manager' of tasks or people until you've actually done that work yourself first. So you've got to start at a assistant or generalist level and work your way up.

    My experience has been slightly different than AAM's though with regard to business size. For example if the company only has one HR person, there's no place up to go. The job you are hired for is the one you will always be in at that company. If they have two or three HR people, then you likely have to wait for the other people to leave the company for a promotion to open up. The larger the company, the more opportunity you have to advance. But that's just my experience.

  5. Rachel - former HR blogger*

    Stop temping! If all you've ever done is temp then you don't look stable at all. I don't care if you take a receptionist job, just do something consistently. You'll never climb up if you can't show that you can put down roots.

  6. Anonymous*

    First of all, being a leader does not equate to being a manager. There are a lot of leaders that are not managers, and a lot of managers that are bad leaders.

    You got to differentiate the two. Management will always require *years of experience* + *leadership*.

    On the other hand, if you want to be a 'leader', you can do so with any role you have, be it an assitant role or a regular office job etc.

    Take initiate, be proactive, be a teamplayer, network, volunteer, and have a good strong work ethic. That's what will get you the experience and skills you need.

    lastly, I'd recommenend you not broadcasting too much that you want to be a manager. I'm not sure if you are but I thought of just saying it anyway. Only mention it to bosses/mentor etc when they ask you about your future career goals. In my observation, whenever anyone *wants* a management position without doing the dirty work, others are rubbed the wrong way and will potentially lose respect for you. The reason why is because you are essentially saying *I want to have power without doing the hard work*

  7. Amy*

    What industries were all these other jobs in? Maybe you can revisit some of the companies you've worked for and see if they have any HR openings. You'll have a bit of an edge because you already know their company and some things about the industry, and you can work your way to an HR leadership role from there. For example, I spent many years in retail management before transferring to an HR job within the same retail company. I had no formal HR experience outside of dealing with my store staff but I had quite a bit of longevity to offer, and the job required knowledge of the field organization. So, my retail HR career started in a kind of back-door way.

  8. JobFree4Me*

    Sounds like a member of the "entitlement" generation.

    Work & get some experience and maybe you can be a manager in 10 years or so.

  9. Anonymous*

    Right, because all entitled people are part of a specific entitled generation.

    But as long as we're going to sling generalizations… Remember who's going to be picking out your nursing home.

  10. Anonymous*


    Instead of being negative, did you ever stop to think how great it is for the OP to strive for a higher role in the job world? Yes, s/he needs to start small to gain big, but I think it's great to see someone new to the workforce with some ambition.

  11. Anonymous*

    pssst, JorFree4Me… did you notice the part where the OP says she's been working ofr 20 years?

    Just curious.

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