How I Became a Leader

By tracking my own growth and owning my development process, instead of depending on my employers

growth

This is a guest post by Niraj Kumar. Niraj Kumar currently serves as Director of Business Engineering at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Louisiana leading a team of Managers, Engineers and Analysts. Previously, Niraj led sales enablement initiatives at Rackspace, a cloud computing and IT hosting company. Prior to this role, he held various management positions in manufacturing, supply chain, operations, business analysis, and product development. Niraj is passionate about business startups and entrepreneurship. He has mentored and judged startup competitions for many years. Niraj also served as a guest lecturer to business students, sharing his knowledge of team building, branding and project management. Niraj blogs at www.leadproje.com, combining his expertise in project management, business and leadership.


I still remember that fateful day at work. I was extremely upset when my training request was declined. I could not wrap my head around it. Don’t “they” (my bosses) understand that it’s important for me to grow? If I grow, they will get more performance out of me. Simply put, investing in my development and growth will result in a positive return for my employer. Do they want me to just do my job but stop learning? I felt as if someone had hit me in my stomach. When I went home, I had a frustrating headache. I did not sleep well that night. The next day, I resolved to remove that ache forever. I was on a mission to find a way.

It has been ten years since that incident, and I am in a very different position now. Assuming you are interested in developing and growing yourself, let me pose a question for you: what would you do in the scenario above? While you think of your own ideas, I will share from my own experience what you can do to continue self development and growth:

Get some perspective and Own your development process

Ten years ago, my employer had announced training cuts across the company. Until then, I had relied on employers to fund my leadership training expenses. The same employer had told me a few years ago that they take leadership training very seriously. Was that just a recruiting talk? I felt betrayed and first blamed my employer for my frustration. A few days later, I went from blaming my employer to blaming myself, “I should have known this. Why did I not see it coming? There were signs.” Our manufacturing costs were going up, and the highest selling product was facing more competition.

After observing structural changes in the market, e.g. movement of manufacturing to low cost offshore locations, I started getting the bigger picture. I sat down for some self reflection. My sense of betrayal was later replaced by an objective understanding of my employer’s actions. When a market undergoes transformation because of structural changes, business leaders take actions to keep their business afloat. Those actions sometimes include training budget cuts.

Don’t take it personally if your bosses don’t invest in your development and growth. A good business leader looks at things through the lens of her customers. Let’s look at it from a client’s (or an employer’s) point of view. Your supervisor is your customer; she does not owe you money for training. Oscar Wilde nailed it when he said, “The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” Your employers have nothing against you. They are just running their businesses the best way they know how. It took me months to master this mindset. Once my mind had clarity, I became responsible for my own self development.

Businesses go through cycles of ups and downs, but I did not depend on that cycle for spending on my development. I continued to find ways to grow myself, even during downturns in my industry. Nowadays, I spend my own money to learn a new skill I want to learn during nights and weekends.

You own your development. Your employer might want to invest in your training in a certain area for say, a year. Your personal goal might be to get to a very different place in your life in say, five years. Your goals might not converge with your employer’s goals. Your employer might not have money in the budget right now; they might be going through a tough time in business. If your employer cannot support your growth needs, take control of your self development. Don’t let your employer or client dictate your path to your better future self.

Apply one concept from every book or course

I became creative in terms of sources for self development and found multiple ways to grow myself. For example, I enrolled in virtual courses that were far less expensive than face to face classes. I started visiting the local library and utilizing the resources paid for by my taxes. Libraries have videos, audios and books. I bought books if I could afford them; otherwise, I borrowed them from the library. Books are a highly undervalued source of development and growth. Many authors have condensed their lifelong learning into a book.

I read self development and business-related books, and started applying one idea I learned from a book. Yes, just one is enough. After reading What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith, I implemented one idea from that book: I stopped adding “too much value” and let others contribute and speak up. That simple application of one idea changed my work life. My team members initiated process improvements that I could not even imagine.

Then, I started tracking my behavior, along the lines of suggestions from the author Darren Hardy. I was surprised when just after two months of tracking myself, I realized that I was sleepwalking through choices. Once I became aware of the choices I had, I started using my time to do something fulfilling, like working out or spending more time with my wife. I also started using tracking to ensure I plan and execute my development goals. Click here to download a guide to track your leadership growth.

Most people don’t read books that can help them. When they do, they don’t apply anything they learn. Please don’t do that to yourself. Apply just one thing you read about, practice one skill you learn; just one will go a long way toward building a better future.

Ask and Negotiate

I learned a simple principle for business, which I now share with others, “In business, you only get what you ask for. You get nothing if you don’t ask.”

When my employer was unable to pay for my full professional certification examination expenses in advance, I used the negotiation skills I learned during my MBA. I asked them if they would pay a partial amount provided that I pass the examination. The result? I had an incentive to work really hard and passed the certification exam on my first attempt. I got the certification fee reimbursed.

I believe you should ask for what you want in business; you might get it. You are only speculating if you don’t ask. Stop reading minds. Go ahead and ask.

Be strategic and add training expenses to your salary early

I negotiate a little additional money during salary negotiations for a new job, and use that additional money towards my own training. I see it as being strategic about investing in yourself. I take care of my self growth funding early, so I won’t have to deal with it later. I have done this multiple times now. I don’t depend on my employer’s or client’s cash flow statement to fund my training. It is built into my personal expense plan; just like buying groceries.

If your prospective employer really wants to hire you, they will probably give you an extra three percent. Learn to negotiate your salary, and then use that additional salary towards your own training bank account. Don’t touch that money for anything but self development, e.g. seminars, books, workshops, evening classes etc.

Implementing the advice above will help you become a leader in your field. I suggest you create goals to develop yourself, and then follow the strategies and tips above to ensure you stay on track. Click here to download a guide and a checklist to help you on your growth journey.

Question: What is your experience of initiating your own personal growth and development?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • I love the idea of adding one concept from every book or course. It’s amazing over a career how much these can add up and make a difference. I have an entire book of singular principles from books, seminars, and leadership sessions.

    • Niraj Kumar

      David, I agree. The value of this action is what you get when life accumulates, e.g. two years into the practice, you find yourself a different person. Thank you for chiming in!

  • Excellent advice. It takes a wise person to try to see the other side an issue, especially when it effects us personally. And that’s why you’ve found success.

    There is no greater investment than the one we make in ourselves.

    As a business owner I can testify to your words. I find them refreshing and encouraging.

    • Niraj Kumar

      Floyd, Glad you found the ideas helpful and refreshing! Let us spread this wisdom to other business owners and leaders, and we can grow one person at at time. Thank you for taking the time to write the comment!