Leadership Level-Up: 9 Actionable Tips

May 31, 2022

Lead from every seat. Leaders eat last. Leaders are made not born.

Okay… Those aphorisms sound good. They make intuitive sense. But they lack an instruction manual. How do you actually do leadership? And is it really possible from every seat?

More prosaically – and a question we get a lot at Generous Change: how do you get noticed for the next promotion? How do you stand out without feeling self-promoting? How do you earn the trust and respect of new direct reports who were once colleagues?

The good news is: there are clear and actionable answers to these questions. You’ll find nine suggestions here, complete with real-life examples you could put into play today.

I am borrowing my organizing framework from, of all places, Microsoft. CEO Satya Nadella, who is credited with culture transformation there and has a near-perfect rating on Glassdoor, told Adam Grant it boils down to three beautiful verbs. I realized all our recommendations fit within them, and they are so good, so simply memorable, that I am echoing them here.

If you wish to lead: Model. Coach. Care.


People with big titles don’t always walk the talk, but leaders do. They step up, they get in there and do the work, and they brag on colleagues’ excellence. All things, you might note, that can happen from every seat. Here’s your playbook.

Show Initiative

Look at your regular routine and find every opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive.

  • Think of all the questions your supervisor regularly asks you. From now on, start each one-on-one with ready answers to those questions. Anything they brought up in your previous meeting, address it! Proactively inform them – about the team, about the dean, about your #s – and you will give them so much trust and confidence in you. You will close big loops in their busy mind – give them whole categories of things they no longer have to wonder about. Giant gift!
  • Take on assignments nobody wants – or propose ideas no one else thought of! If you notice people are complaining about something, or there’s a frequent logjam or miscommunication that could be easily solved, volunteer to help. We know people who helped development and alumni engagement to dovetail better; helped DOs and prospect management teams to collaborate more effectively (and have more fun!); worked with teammates to create “field trips” to every unit on campus so the whole team was armed with terrific stories about every part of the university. What can you see that needs doing and is in your wheelhouse? If you could help, offer!
  • Present solutions to every problem you bring. “So many people bring a problem,” says Northeastern’s Diana MacGillivray. “People who bring three possible scenarios and their own recommended solution really stand out.” Doing this shows not only proactivity but creativity and good judgment. And talking through the options with your supervisor will help you learn which solutions are best and why, which makes you…a better leader!

Initiative was the #1 thing advancement leaders agreed upon. As Harvard’s Brittany Wilhelm says, “Don’t make yourself busy – make yourself indispensable.” If you do, as ASU’s Eric Spicer says, you will never have to be self-promoting because you will always be noticed.

Own Your Work

Know your numbers, show your strategy, brag on your team.

  • Show command of your data, your strategy and your process and you will stand out. Don’t wait for your supervisor to dig into the system to see what you’re up to. Instead, put it all on a silver platter:
    • here is every visit/communication it will take to get me to my next 10 asks;
    • here are the 30 high-capacity prospects in the metro I have to visit three times to close key gifts – and how I plan to get in the door;
    • here’s my close rate from last year and every step I plan to take to improve it by 10% this year.

Show you know what’s important and that you are pursuing it with smarts and gusto and your supervisor will look forward to every meeting – and find it easy to brag on you.

  • And speaking of bragging, let’s return to that FAQ: how do I stand out for promotion without self-promoting? UC Riverside’s Emily Rankin says, “I think we are asking the wrong question. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to promote your team. That’s how they get visibility. And if they’re doing well, so are you.” Look for every good thing your colleagues have done that you could mention to someone higher up and do it. This helps everyone.

Fresno State’s Paula Castadio reminded me that this work really never ends, even (maybe especially) in the top job. “My President and VP of Administration/CFO are focused on philanthropic return on investment. So I continually demonstrate results in a strategic and numbers-driven way. Every email I write, every talk I give, every agenda I’m on, I position the value of our efforts to the university.”


At Generous Change, we are big fans of metrics (stats, if you will :). They make pretty solid career playbooks. Champions, of course, (leaders) aren’t looking to hit the bottom number – they’re looking to exceed the best number. To learn and grow and constantly improve – in what the metrics count and what they don’t. Coaches are there to help every player do just that – play their very best game. Toward that end, everyone in every organization can and should be a coach and be coached.

Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor

This matters more than ever, to build ourselves as generous and innovative professionals and to grow our profession itself. If you are not being mentored right now, if you are not mentoring someone else, today is the day. Here’s how to find one, with thanks to Hawaii’s Karla Zarate-Ramirez, who says this has been one of her most valuable career (and life!) strategies.

  • Find a person you are intrigued by, who does something really well that you’d like to do, and where you can offer something back. Remember that like anything, mentoring can’t be all about you!
  • Reach out with a brief email saying why you think they’re fantastic, what you’ve admired about their work.
  • Ask if they’d be willing to mentor you – to meet for 30 minutes each month.
  • Create an agenda in advance for each meeting – and always, always save plenty of time to ask what you can do for them, how you can help.

Important note: advancement has bemoaned its lack of diversity for years. Many CASE sessions have focused on it, but our numbers have hardly budged. One tremendous way to demonstrate leadership in 2022 is to offer to mentor someone who wouldn’t normally land in your office and should have a chance to be there. Student alumni boards and annual giving callers can be a terrific and easy place to start.

Seek & Accept Feedback, Then Report Back

If you’ve ever had a 360, you know they can be rough – inevitably a few comments hit sore spots. You learn things about yourself you didn’t necessarily want to know. And, they’re invaluable. Because when you take constructive feedback to heart, you always grow.

Consider conducting your own informal 360 – asking select people who affect your work, and whose work you affect, just a few questions like:

  • What do you see as my strengths and are there any ways I should grow them?
  • What do you see as my blind spots or an area that I might improve?
  • How might I better support your goals?

And then, for giant extra leadership credit, get back to people later and say exactly what you’ve implemented and how it’s helping. When people know they’ve helped, they’ll help more!

Have the Career Conversation…Often

Sometimes, managers are doing their best to keep their heads above water – to support their team and their dean, to raise plenty of money themselves, keep everyone above and below informed. Most mean to be wonderful career curators but sometimes it falls to the bottom. You can help determine your own destiny! Choose a bullet point for your next agenda with your manager:

  • What would you like to learn – and why
  • Project that could help you grow – and what you could bring to it
  • Experience you’d like to have – and how it could help the team

The fun here is that you’re getting coached – and you’re being a coach. You’re helping your manager to coach you.

Harvard’s Brittany Wilhelm suggests making this a regular part of your meeting agendas. “Not only does this help break through the anxiety of broaching the subject, it normalizes the conversation so that you and your manager are always, obviously, talking about how you can add value to the organization and build your career.”


Leadership is love. Stay with me!

Every advancement leader I spoke to mentioned how deeply they appreciate – how much they notice – the people on their teams who simply love what they do. Love their donors, love their work, love learning, love the university, love their colleagues.

And okay, if “love” is too strong for you, go with “genuinely, energetically like.”

People who wake up and want to do their job, want to do it always better because they just care – those are leaders. No matter their position or their pay.

Leaders are people to whom others listen, who have earned influence, who others want to follow.

As CalPoly’s Zack Smith says, “You want torch carriers. I’m looking for owners of vision, owners of culture, people who contribute to it on a daily basis.”

Good luck to you, leader! If you’ve read this far, you care. Take one or several or many of these actions and you will see results. Please let me know when you do! Your example matters.