Early in her career, Kathryn Heath felt like she was blowing it with her new boss. She was asking too many questions about a project she was launching at a big bank in Charlotte, N.C., because she didn't want to overstep her boundaries.
"The project involved a lot of top executives and I think I had frustrated her by standing at the door asking, 'Can I do this?'" Ms. Heath said in an interview.
"After a while, I learned that I didn't need to be the good little girl and do that. It was 10 times easier to bend the rules and move forward and empower myself, or have conversations with my boss and say, 'Tell me about the playing field, and when am I going to go out of bounds and get in trouble?' I figured out pretty quickly that the playing field was much bigger than I thought it was."
The strategy worked: Ms. Heath eventually rose to senior vice-president and director of First University at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo). Now a career coach and co-author of the new book Break Your Own Rules , she says a reluctance to ruffle feathers and take centre stage is one of the most common things holding people back at work.
"They're so interested in the team. They're so interested in making sure everyone around them is developed that they don't always say, 'I've got to put myself in the middle,'" she said.
While team work is an asset, it's important to be noticed for your individual strengths as well. If your team did good work, make it known that it was you who led the team, she said. "You're the CEO of your career."
Here are eight ways to take centre stage and get your hard work noticed:
Focus on yourself
Your career is a business that needs a business plan, Ms. Heath said. If you focus too much attention on other people's needs, it leaves precious little time and energy to take the steps required to thrive professionally.
Call attention to your accomplishments
One sure way to be passed over for a promotion is by remaining silent and allowing others to take credit for your success.
Don't wait for permission
There are plenty of situations in life where proper protocol entails obeying the established rules. However, there are many other times when you need to give yourself the green light to proceed, Ms. Heath said. Know the difference, and don't be afraid to proceed independently.
Be an expert
If you don't have a brand, develop one. Are you known as the person with the deepest technical skills, someone who fixes projects or makes great sales presentations? Become the go-to person for a particular strength. Don't be afraid to let colleagues know what you are good at.
Be the dissenter
Get comfortable delivering bad news or introducing an opposing position. It's acceptable to play the devil's advocate as long as you have the ammunition and backbone to make a good case, Ms. Heath said. If you can do so in a firm, non-emotional way, people will respect you for it.
Play to win
Break out of your comfort zone and take risks. Accept the risk of failure. It may seem safer to let someone at a higher pay grade take the big chances, but it is the high-stakes decisions that offer the best opportunities to establish leadership credibility.
Act like you mean it
It's not only what you say but how you say it that causes people to take your authority seriously. Speak honestly and directly with a minimum of "in my opinion" qualifiers. Keep your voice on an even keel, and just tell it like it is.
Break a few rules
Going by the book is necessary to perform CPR or to bake the perfect soufflé. At the office, however, you have some latitude to do things differently, Ms. Heath said. Change makers and radical thinkers aren't generally the pushovers in the crowd. Do things your own way, and demonstrate that you have a style of your own.