I have had an interesting run, career-wise. After a single tour in the Air Force as an Electronic Warfare Specialist, I accepted a position in electronics as a contractor near the bottom of the technical career ladder – Digital B Technician for Ford Aerospace.

From Military to Contractor

Back in 1990, there were two career ranges separated by the BS degree. Similar to today, these two ranges were technician-level and engineer-level. Modern examples of the technician level would be help-desk, tech support, that sort of thing. Engineer-level roles are things like software developer, hardware design or mechanical engineer, and so on. The primary line of separation between these two career paths is the BS degree or, if allowed, a lot of experience.

After transitioning out of the military, I started as a contractor very near the bottom of the technician level. Twelve years later, having moved up and through both technician and engineering levels, I was told that I would be the Engineering Manager, in charge of all engineers and technicians.

As I grew in my career, I learned some truths along the way. As you transition from a performer/contributor to a leader, your mindset must also change if you want to be effective. As your career progresses, you will likely move up the corporate/career ladder to roles with more importance, more influence, more risk to the mission and contract, and more impact on the mission(s) you support. Here are some things to consider as you make this transition or seek to perform in a leadership role. 

Individual Performer at the Bottom of the Ladder

At the bottom of the ladder, you do good work and just want to get noticed. But how? One year in. Two years in. You are still slogging away. No problems, steady work, but then the guy next to you makes Digital A-Tech. You start to wonder, “What did he do that I did not do?” Who knows? At this level, it could be anything or nothing.

I remember conversations and strategies that the dozens of us near the bottom would kick back and forth. “Maybe we need to start wearing slacks and a tie.” “Dude, we work on line printers and RM05’s! I’m not ruining my nice clothes!” We finally decided that if management knew your name (for whatever reason), you would have a better chance of being promoted. In my experience, there could well be some truth to that.

For sure, if management does not know your name, you are less likely to be promoted to higher levels. This is why I call this phase of your career, “Hey, look at me!” There really is more to it, of course because at this stage, you need to be learning and excelling in every facet of the job. Learn it all and do it well with consistency. Take note of the requirements of the level you want to be at and start checking those off.

Getting Noticed at the Bottom of the Ladder

Volunteer for additional responsibility. Start sharing what you know and freely teach others. After 6-12 months of this, you have become the person with the answers that others come to in order to get things resolved. At this level, you must demonstrate your ability. You are in AAA baseball and how you stand out is based on how you perform, your consistency, and your numbers. If you are on a help desk, then work on having the best stats like first-call resolution and least amount of escalated calls. These are all great things to do. Determine how you are measured, then lead those stats.

Pro Tip: Another way to advance out of this level is to begin acting like the leader we talk about in the next section. Share your information and knowledge, promote others, and figure out how the team can best meet mission goals. When you exhibit the qualities of leadership, it makes it easier for a manager to see you in that sort of role.

Team Leader is No Longer About Self Promotion

So, you made it! You are now looked upon to lead a team to accomplish goals. If at this level you are still concerned with self-promotion, you will not be optimally effective, and you could very well fail. To give yourself and your team the best chance at success, you will need to transition your mindset from individual performance to focusing on your team and making others better. Consistency and demonstrated proficiency can get you to this level, but if you want to succeed here, you will need to develop new skills such as a good understanding of human nature, personality types, team dynamics, customer management, and communication skills. You need to get away from the “Look at me” mentality ASAP. Holding onto it will jeopardize team performance. 

If you are at this level and continue to hold onto your me-first attitude, you will be that toxic leader who takes credit for everything the team does, downplays contributions from the rest of the team, and gets rid of anyone who could potentially threaten top-dog status. A leader will sometimes emerge into senior leadership positions with this kind of narcissistic mentality. Don’t be one of these clowns. Be the type of leader who makes everyone around them better, grows new leaders, and encourages the team towards mission goals. 

Key Difference in an Effective Team Leader

Bottom line, there is one major difference between individual performance and healthy team leadership. It is a transition in thinking from self to team and mission. This transition manifests in multiple ways. It is no longer about personal standing within the team or company, personal pay rate, or personal recognition. As a leader, it’s about team recognition, team growth, team support, and positioning the team to achieve mission or company goals in the most effective and consistent manner. It is promoting the team and other individuals on your team above yourself.

Mission Success Depends on Team Success

Don’t worry about you. If you are leading great-performing teams and accomplishing goals as a team, there will be bigger teams and more important missions for you to go after in your future. 

I was lucky enough to come by this on my own and have it enforced by key managers that I looked up to. Some of these leaders are still out there, growing teams, new leaders, and smashing mission goals. This is how you succeed the right way. This way grows the organization, creates new leaders, and has the best chance for absolute mission success.

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.