Should I Take That Informal Leadership Role?

How to make tough decisions about unpaid informal leadership opportunities and what companies should consider when offering informal leadership opportunities.

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Opportunity knocks is written on a cellphone someone is holding
Retrieved 7/22/2022 from Unsplash, image by Dylan McLeod.

These days I get many questions about how to grow a career strategically. The pandemic has changed the way we think about work and broaden our perspective about how we might want to grow our careers more thoughtfully. The most common questions include when to say yes (vs. no), take calculated risksseek more education, or let go of an opportunity. 

There is always a cost-benefit analysis you must make when considering all the highly compelling opportunities out there and the more thoughtful you can be, the more confident and satisfied you’ll be with the outcome.

One of the toughest challenges is whether to take on an informal leadership role when the opportunity arises.

By “informal leadership”, I mean leadership opportunities within an organization roles that add to or expand your job scope and responsibilities, but which do not come with additional compensation because they are not (currently) available as an official job or role.

The decision to take an informal leadership role should be made strategically by individuals and should be offered thoughtfully by companies.

When Informal Leadership Roles are a Problem

A Harvard Business Review ((HBR) article on the downsides of taking on informal leadership roles described how draining these roles can be, especially if/when informal leaders aren’t acknowledged for the work. 

Beyond the additional energy it takes and possible lack of recognition, there are additional considerations for women, particularly women from marginalized groups (e.g., Black and Latina women), who often take on more informal leadership roles with little to no additional compensation, resources, or support. 

Retrieved from Unsplash on 7/22/2022; image by Brooke Lark.

This isn’t always their personal preference. Women have historically been expected to assume “office household chores” (i.e., uncompensated additional office labor), such as leading and overseeing office celebrations (including set-up and clean-up), taking meeting minutes, or coordinating office-wide cleaning efforts.

These roles might look like leadership opportunities but if they do not create a leadership career track, then they might actually reduce availability to take on true leadership opportunities.

(With increased availability of virtual work, some of these “office chores” have been eliminated but may have been replaced with other demands, like childcare during work hours for working parents.) 

Some of these uncompensated roles now also include being asked (or volunteering) to help with major organization-wide changes, such as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Unless it’s part of the discussion about the role expectations, these roles may or may not help with creating a leadership career track.

In too many of these situations, when organizations and managers are not thoughtful about how they structure an informal leadership opportunity, the potential benefit is minimal compared to the cost. 

Instead these informal roles perpetuate and exacerbate inequities and lead to burnout and resentment. 

When Informal Leadership Roles are Strategically and Mutually Beneficial

Certain informal leadership roles can be quite strategic and help one’s career tremendously. This includes:

  1. Stretch assignments. This is when you are placed officially in the capacity of learning how another department, business line, or even company works. It’s a win-win: you learn a new business line skill and get to network with new people and the company benefits from cross-training and developing talent for future needs.   
  2. Serving on committees, boards, or task forces that have decision-making capacity. Let me emphasize here: There must be decision-making capacity. That means company decision-makers are at the table and the group is developing policies or procedures that connect with the company’s strategic goals and have organizational impact. Another win-win: You are helping the company achieve its goals while becoming visible as a leader. 
  3. Leading projects that are highly aligned with your goals as well as with company goals. Opportunities come and go and not all should be taken. Keep your eyes open (or even pitch an idea) for opportunities where you can lead a project that is both aligned with your own interests and those of the company. However, note this major caveat: Take stock in what it will actually take to accomplish. Even if you are passionate about the project, you can still burn out without sufficient support. Make sure you have secured the time to do it and the resources needed to complete it successfully. 

How to Make the Decision

If you can say yes to most of these questions, the informal leadership role is likely worth it:

  • Will I be learning something new that I want to learn?
  • Will I be building my network?
  • Will I have an opportunity to develop relationships with leaders and decision-makers, especially those who don’t know me yet?
  • Will I have the opportunity to demonstrate my skills and in a way that’s visible?
  • Is this a short-term commitment (1 year or less)?
  • Can I be efficient with my time so that this doesn’t interfere with my success in my other tasks?
  • Can I negotiate my role in a way that highlights my strengths and helps me best manage my time? (For example, could I ask for an assistant to help support me?)

What Can Formal Leaders and Companies Do Thoughtfully Create Equitable Informal Leadership Opportunities?

In addition to individuals being equipped to strategically make a decision about these informal leadership roles, here are three tips for what companies can think about to ensure these opportunities are fair and equitable.

  1. Evaluate how often women are recommended to take on informal leadership roles compared to their male counterparts – is there a disparity?
  2. Evaluate whether an informal leadership role should be compensated: Does the position require more than 25% time? Are the expectations of the role more in line with the work of a director of a full program that requires its own funding line and resourcing? If so, it’s time to create a compensated position. 
  3. Consider offering additional support resources for engaging in the work. Can an assistant, scheduler, or project manager support the work? Is there a team that can help? Can a mentorship team provide additional support and guidance?

All rights reserved, Mira Brancu.

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