How to Get Management Leadership Experience When You're not a Manager

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Manager. Five to ten years of experience required. Proven track record of effective management.

It’s hard to land a management position when you don’t have the title “manager” on your resume or can't provide specific examples of your management experience.

So what’s an aspiring manager to do without holding formal management positions? Plenty! If you are interested in becoming a manager, here are five ways to get management experience without being a manager:

Lead a Project

The skills required to be an effective project manager are very similar to the skills required to be an effective manager: planning, organizing, setting goals, managing budgets, leading people, and juggling multiple priorities. If you have never managed a project before, start by volunteering for project teams. It doesn’t have to be a huge project. Start small. Perhaps volunteering to be a part of the office Thanksgiving food basket drive. Hopefully, you’ll get to see what a good project manager does. Or, watch what an ineffective project manager does and do the opposite. Then, once you’ve established yourself as a dependable team member, step up and volunteer to lead a project.

Take a course in project management, read a good book on the topic, and interview successful project managers. You can even get certified as a project manager, but that may be overkill unless you are planning to make a career out of project management.

Train, Teach, Coach, and Mentor

A big part of being an effective manager is developing your team. To do that, a manager needs to know how to onboard and train new employees, coach experienced employees, and eventually, mentor employees.

Of course, to be considered for an opportunity to train new employees, it’s a given that you’d need to be very good at your job, or whatever it is that you’re teaching. Beyond being good at something, it’s important to learn and practice the skills of training, coaching, and mentoring. The best way to learn is by doing! Volunteer to develop a training program; volunteer to mentor underprivileged kids or coach a sports team. Learn the art of coaching – learn to ask great questions.

Hone Your Interviewing Skills

Many organizations use selection committees, hiring teams, or will involve others when interviewing job candidates. Again, volunteer for these opportunities. Don’t just “wing it” when it’s your turn to interview a candidate. Develop a list of great interview questions, practice active listening and asking probing follow-up questions, and learn how to establish rapport quickly. Being able to screen, interview, and select great employees is an essential management skill and can be learned and practiced! For more on how to interview, I’d highly recommend Alison Doyle’s Job Search site – it’s the best there is.

Learn to Manage Conflict, Have a “Crucial Conversation,” and Give Feedback

Yes, dealing with those sticky “people issues” is the most challenging part of a manager’s job. We all face challenging people issues – with our co-workers, family members, and friends. Life is “target rich” when it comes to opportunities to resolve a conflict. Learn to do it in a positive, constructive way.

I’d recommend reading the book "Crucial Conversations" and look for opportunities to practice and get good at it.

Being able to provide specific examples of when you were able to handle conflict, provide difficult feedback, or address a sensitive issue will demonstrate that you have the willingness and capability to handle the “people” aspect of a management position. And believe me, there are plenty of experienced managers that won’t or can’t deal with people issues, so it really will set you apart.

Create and Manage a Budget

As a manager, I would love it if one of my employees volunteered to create and manage a budget for me! While some managers enjoy the number crunching aspect of management, it’s my least favorite part. If you’re good at Excel, you can learn to create and manage a budget. A good place to start is with your home budget.

If you can’t convince your boss to let go of the budgeting responsibility, you can still do what you can do learn finance, budgeting, and accounting. Take a course, learn to do a cost-benefit analysis and ROI, and learn to speak like a bean-counter (A Finance and Accounting Glossary for the Non-Financial Manager.)

There are a lot more skills you can learn to prepare for being a manager, including presentation skills, communication skills, leading change, and strategic thinking. It’s important to be able to talk about what you have done, not what you could do. The suggestions listed above will give you that practical management experience needed to help land your first management position.