8 Ways Millennials Can Build Leadership Skills

College students studying at table

By Laura McMullen

So 'leader' isn't in your job title.

No one is asking you to manage a team or take charge of a multimillion-dollar project. So what? Even young, green employees can boost their leadership skills by learning from others and volunteering for small-scale assignments. And they should learn to lead now, given that 73 percent of the nearly 800 participants in The Hartford 2014 Millennial Leadership Survey said they aspire to be leaders in the next five years. Continue for eight expert-approved ways young people can learn to lead.

1. Observe and learn.

"Be consciously aware, and intentionally observe what other leaders are doing that's working or what they're doing that's not working," says Kevin Eikenberry, co-author of "From Bud to Boss: Secrets to a Successful Transition to Remarkable Leadership" and chief potential officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a leadership consulting company. Note how leaders in your office present their ideas, influence people and communicate. Think outside your workplace, too. "We can put the leadership filter on our life experiences," Eikenberry says. Observe the leadership styles of coaches (professional or peewee), CEOs, religious leaders and politicians.​

2. Find a mentor.

Ask that leader you observed to be your mentor – or if she simply has 30 minutes for you to buy her coffee and pick her brain. When you meet, ask direct questions and listen, says Lindsey Pollak, author of "Becoming the Boss" and The Hartford's millennial workplace expert. "There are reasons why people have risen up the ladder," she points out, adding that their decades' worth of wisdom is invaluable. (If you're not sure whom to approach, check out "How to Find a 'Just Right' Professional Mentor.")

3. Study up on the classics.

Head to the library, and check out Pollak's short list of classic leadership books: "How to Win Friends and Influence People," "The Effective Executive," "The One Minute Manager" and "The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People."This reading will be helpful guidance andhelp you communicate with higher-ups, given you'll be "speaking the same language," Pollak says. "You might not have 30 years of experience, but you'll have a commonality in having read some of the same books," she adds.

4. And see what's online, too.

E-newsletters, blogs and social media can be sources of leadership advice as well. On Twitter, Pollak advises following a diverse range of leadership experts who vary in ethnicity, gender and generation. Eikenberry adds to search the #leadership hashtag.

5. Fill your gaps.

As you read advice about leadership, also tackle areas of business where you lack confidence. Can't figure out Excel pivot tables for the life of you? Wish you were a better public speaker? A little rusty on budget management? "Anything that's standing in your way that you don't know how to do, fill that gap," Pollak says. The courses offered through these free websites may help you do just that.

6. Oh, and lead.

"Being in the leadership role will teach you more than all the books combined," Pollak says. When you do begin to lead, Eikenberry stresses that new leaders – well, all leaders – should avoid an entitled or demanding approach, and instead "come from a place of learning, growth and serving others." He adds: "It's not about a power grab – it's about how do I help a group of people achieve a goal?"

7. Volunteer to lead where you can

So, your manager isn't exactly begging you to lead the next major project. Make your own opportunities. "One of the smartest things you can do early in your career is volunteer for something no one else wants to do," Pollak says. That weekend assignment, the annoying client, the pain-in-the-butt project – give 'em a try. "Step up," she says. "People will notice that, and you'll learn so much."

8. And lead outside the office.

Don't limit your leadership opportunities to the workplace. "A leader is someone who steps up, someone who takes action," Pollak says. "Be the one who steps up at work and in your personal life, too." Host a potluck, start a book club, coach a T-ball team or organize a holiday gift exchange. After all, "practice makes perfect" applies to leading as much as anything else. As Pollak puts it: "The more you lead, the better you get at it."

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