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Before You Apply: Get Ready to Lead 
by Rich DeMatteo, Corn on the Job

Have you felt stuck in middle management for far too long, or do you think you can do better than your current position? If you’re feeling restless and ready to take on more responsibility, then it’s time to go after that new job or promotion. However, before you start spiffing up your resume and asking for bigger things, you need to make sure that you’re ready to lead.

Get Some Credentials
One of the common characteristics of effective leaders is that they never stop learning. Some people get into leadership by luck or sheer force of personality, but for most, having some credentials is absolutely essential. If you have work experience but need to beef up the education portion of your resume, then go back to school. With so many universities and industry groups offering online courses, there’s never been a better time to head back to school.

If you want to get into a top management position, nothing helps like earning an MBA. You’ll get more than just coursework from an MBA program; you’ll get to tap into your school’s extensive network of current students, alumni, and faculty. If an MBA isn’t right for you, look into the certifications that matter in your profession. Earning certification can boost not only your chances of getting hired but also your paycheck once you are hired. You can also take continuing education courses that will help you boost your skills.

Network With Other Leaders
If you’re going to get a leadership position, you need to know people who can vouch for your abilities. Start going to leadership-oriented workshops offered by your current employer, or head out into the community to network with other business leaders. Also, attend conferences dedicated to your profession, where you can meet interesting people and learn something new. You should also remember online opportunities, such as joining LinkedIn groups or other forums relevant to your industry.

Additionally, never underestimate the importance of informal networking opportunities around your workplace. If you’re riding in the elevator with the CEO, and she asks you what you’re working on, then you need to have an outstanding answer.

Start Speaking Your Mind
You should never start trying to give orders when you don’t have any authority, but you should look for opportunities to become an influencer in your company. When you speak up in a meeting or give advice behind the scenes, focus your advice on what the team needs to accomplish instead of putting yourself first.

Also, look for what Muriel Maignan Wilkins, author of “Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Match Your Leadership Presence,” calls “the white space” in your organization. White spaces are opportunities that others haven’t seized, or they’re problems that other people haven’t been willing to tackle. Start talking about the white space and how you, as part of the team, can make a contribution.

Lead Outside of the Workplace
Taking a leadership opportunity outside of work can dramatically hone your ability to lead at work. Find an organization within your community that you care about, and either become an officer or volunteer to lead a project. If you see an opportunity that no one else is tackling, then go to a community organization or to the social responsibility department at your company. Tell them your plan for seizing the opportunity, and ask for their help.

Test Yourself
In addition to telling your current manager that you’re willing to lead a project, look for leadership opportunities in other parts of your company. By taking on a leadership role outside of your department, you give people a taste of what you’d be like in a senior management position. However, when you do ask for the chance to lead, avoid blabbering about your ambitions to anyone who will listen. Talk to bosses about how you can make a contribution to the company, not about how you can grab more prestige.

Ask for the Job
Being a leader is about a lot more than polishing your resume and looking for higher-paying work. It’s about buying into what an organization wants to do and seeing yourself taking the helm. Before you start sending out resumes, ask yourself whether you’ve proven that you’re ready to lead. If you haven’t, then hold off on applying until you’re leadership material.