Career Fortitude



Leadership is an art.  It’s a skill honed through experience, observation, and introspection.  This is why you don’t need a degree to be a successful leader.  While management schools provide a strong foundation in organizational theory, financial analysis, and operational frameworks, they often fall short of cultivating the nuanced qualities that define effective leadership.  The soft skills required to be an effective leader that inspires teams to achieve great things are almost exclusively learned on the job in real-life situations.  The nuances of team dynamics and working with an array of personality types are not something that can be replicated in a school environment, so on-the-job leadership development is a crash course for those graduates who obtain a leadership role directly out of college.

For those without a degree that aspire to lead others, build successful teams, and see their career opportunities grow there is no reason to hold yourself back from working on advancement into a leadership position.  Chances are if you have the drive and motivation to be a leader you’re already displaying some leadership skills in your current position.  Whether you have a leadership title or not, you might be already taking on leadership tasks.  While utilizing your natural leadership talent in an associate-level role is great for gaining experience and showcasing your talents, it can be frustrating to take on extra responsibility without the benefits of a leadership role.

My Experiences Getting Hired And Not Getting Hired For Leadership Roles

In my career, I have experience promoting into a leadership role without a college degree that started my trajectory toward landing a management position with the skills and experiences I learned on the job.  When I was 25 years old I was in a supervisory position being groomed to be a future manager although I only had a high school diploma.  Years later I decided to move across the country with no plan of what I would do for work and income.  Luckily I was able to quickly find a similar leadership position in my new location.

The skills I had been learning and the leadership grooming that I was experiencing helped me obtain the job.  Although I had learned a lot about continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, and various other skills through the years, I didn’t have any certifications.  I still only had a high school diploma.  After a few years, I had the desire to earn a higher salary and started to search for leadership roles that would give me a nice salary increase.  I didn’t have any luck, with most applications going unanswered.  I became interested in an Operations Manager role at a specific company, but the job posting stated a degree was necessary to apply.  I applied anyway but never heard back.

I decided that in order for me to have a chance at the job that was currently unobtainable, I would need to start earning a degree.  At the time I moved across the country, I had told myself that after getting settled into my new home I would go back to school and get a degree.  So, it seemed like the time was right and the stars had finally aligned in my life to go back to school and earn a degree.

I started taking classes in the evening at the local community college and two and a half years later I had my associate degree.  The day I finished my associate degree I updated my resume and uploaded it to job posting websites.  The next week I received a call from the company I wanted to work for and had applied for back before I had a degree.  I hadn’t even reapplied for the position, a recruiter found me.  I interviewed for the role I had dreamed about getting and I got the position.  I was thrilled!  I accomplished what I had set out to do and also felt satisfied with all the effort I had used to work full-time and attend school at the same time.

The school curriculum I worked through to get my associate degree had very little to do with me interviewing well or providing examples of my leadership.  Considering the time, energy, and money schooling took I really wish I could say it’s what propelled me to get that job.  But that’s not the case.  The skills and knowledge I had that made me a great candidate for the job had already been gained from my experience working in leadership roles.

FYI, I continued my education by enrolling in a business college and earning a bachelor’s degree.  The company that hired me as soon as I got my associate degree has since removed the degree requirement for the management position I held.

Obtaining A Leadership Role Without A Degree

There are plenty of professionals who have similar paths that I took by entering the job market directly out of high school and returning to school later in life to earn certificates or degrees.  There’s also a considerable number of professionals who didn’t return to school but still obtained leadership roles without certifications or degrees.

If you want to advance your career by obtaining a leadership role, there is definitely a path forward to achieve this.  More companies are forgoing the need for a bachelor’s degree for certain roles and focusing more on the skills and experiences the candidate has.  I believe in most cases this is great progress and it helps to level the playing field for those professionals who have achieved growth and development through real-world experiences.

Skills learned on the job have a significant impact on the growth and development of someone interested in progressing their career to have a bigger impact and earn more.

Here are five essential leadership skills that are typically not taught in management school:

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Adaptability
  • Communication
  • Visionary Thinking
  • Resilience

Company-Sponsored Development Programs

It’s important to remember that to succeed as a new leader in your role, you’ll need support and grooming along the way to prepare you to make the leap.  Preparing for a chance to enter the leadership realm requires dedication, resilience, support, and a realistic plan.  For those that work in organizations that offer coaching and mentorship programs the path to achieving your leadership goal can be obtained with the guidance and support of your direct leader and peers.  Some companies have in-house leadership development programs and some companies bring in consultants to support development.  In some cases, these types of programs can be extremely beneficial to both the company and the employee.

Individual Coaching

Those aspiring to make the leap into a leadership role who don’t have a structured development program at their current employer or whose program doesn’t provide enough support should look elsewhere.  If you can’t see a path to your goals with the current development support network, investing in the services of a coach can be the individualized approach to efficiently kickstarting your development journey and obtaining career advancement.  You don’t need a degree to be a successful leader, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped with all the necessary tools to make the journey on your own.  Leadership coaching is a partnership that creates guidance and support to ensure you’re making the right moves to progress to your career goal without a degree.

Where To Focus Your Energy For Growth

Be prepared to start small as you begin your leadership development journey by sharpening your leadership skills while working in your current role.  Consider aspects of your current role that can showcase your growth in emotional intelligence, adaptability, communication, visionary thinking, and resiliency.

Don’t assume others will notice your high level of engagement and the extra efforts you’re making in these areas.  Let those you work with know your aspirations of growing into a leadership role.  Once others around you know they can provide feedback, cheer you on, and provide guidance along the way.  Ensure your boss knows where you expect your career to go and clearly state what support you need from them.

In some cases, you might find that your support system might be too small or working for a company with little activities around internal development.  Don’t let these situations keep you from working towards your goal of obtaining a leadership role.  There is always a path forward.  Here are some areas where you can focus your energy to keep your growth and development moving in the right direction:

  • Acquire Relevant Experience
  • Demonstrate Leadership Skills
  • Seek Mentorship and Guidance
  • Continuous Learning and Skill Development
  • Build a Strong Professional Network
  • Emphasize Transferable Skills

You don’t need a degree to be a successful leader, but there’s a lot of work to be done to get yourself into the position you’re dreaming of.  True leadership is an ongoing journey of self-discovery and personal growth.  It’s rooted in emotional intelligence, adaptability, communication, visionary thinking, and resilience.  By recognizing the importance of these skills and actively cultivating them, aspiring leaders can unlock their full potential and achieve more.

Link to my FREE Career Satisfaction Worksheet

Philip Hilt – Leadership Coach




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