Karen Kaplan didn’t even know how to type when she was hired as a receptionist at the Hill Holliday advertising agency. How in the world did she rise to the position of CEO?

She learned. From that very first position she learned her role and set herself to maximizing that function. According to an article in Forbes, Kaplan’s task as a receptionist was to facilitate communication, and that job put her in contact with every one of her co-workers, at every level of the company. She seized the opportunities in that exposure and those interactions, and worked to exceed expectations.

From receptionist, Kaplan moved to a secretarial position. Although she was also under-qualified for that job, she set to learning its essential function and mastering it. She “kept every business card she ever received,” according to Business Insider. When her tasks exceeded her experience, Kaplan put in weekend hours to keep up. And once again, she mastered the role and eventually exceeded people’s expectations as a secretary, too.

Then she did it again with her next role. And again. Whatever role Kaplan accepted, she took control of it and went beyond expectations. She likes to say that she has had the same string of jobs as many other people, but she had them all at the same company.

Eventually, Kaplan’s relentless pursuit of mastery put her at the top. She’s now the CEO of Hill Holliday, and her experience with the entire organization lends her a unique strategic acumen. It’s a story so tidy it sounds like a vintage Horatio Alger story, but Kaplan wasn’t carried from the receptionist’s desk to the CEO’s office by vague “determination” or “grit.” The practical pursuit of competence, followed by the daily effort to exceed her role, brought her astounding success.

Karen Kaplan stands out as an extraordinary example of a leader with well-honed business and professional knowledge. You can’t do without that know-how if you want to serve as a leader in your organization. A lot goes into mastering that knowledge, and in particular, mastering the specific function for which you’re responsible. That was Karen Kaplan’s secret to success. Whatever role she faced, she made it her own and then she made it more — she exceeded expectations.

What goes into taking command of a specific business function? First, you have to quickly grasp the purpose and processes of the function. Then you should learn how results are produced in that arena — the mechanics of the work.

compass-book-coverOnce you’re comfortable with that aspect, take a broader view. Ask yourself how the work and results of that function integrate with the rest of your organization’s operations. And don’t forget the numbers: mastery over a business function includes the ability to comfortably analyze data — specifically financial results — that benchmark performance.

Finally, you want to achieve the ability to put all that knowledge into context, to think strategically about your function’s place and your organization’s place amid the changing industry and economy. Educate yourself to gain a practical understanding of global markets and trends, as well as their effects.

Many times, leaders gain the experience they need from different jobs in different companies. They use those experiences to become smart about the organizations and their role in them, as well as how both intersect with markets and economic performance.

But some leaders, like Karen Kaplan, put together a portfolio of experiences while working at the same place. Whichever path you find yourself on, pursue opportunities that will help you become a generalist with strong managerial skill.

Seek out challenges that will give you those experiences and step into them. For example:

  • You can join with a colleague to solve a problem that affects both of your groups.
  • You can take on a project that demands coordination across several groups in your organization.
  • You can share the knowledge you have about your work with others across the organization to establish general understanding of the relationship among workgroups and functions.
  • Create a flowchart of how the organization works — how decisions are made, how results are produced, how information and ideas are communicated.
  • Take an assignment that forces you to critically review your organization’s product lines and find where it might create new product ideas.
  • Make a list of items that you have heard and seen recently that you know need to be addressed in order to grow the business — everything from newspaper articles to blog posts to research reports to poll numbers.
  • Take an assignment that brings you into contact with customers and frontline employees.

You can also provoke your development with guided questions, such as:

  • What does the person 2 levels above you need to know to do their job?
  • What books, journals, magazines, videos, and other media can help you get smarter about your function and role?
  • Who do you see as a role model for the business and professional knowledge you want to possess?

Karen Kaplan’s tale is just one many stories of leadership in action that you will find in Compass: Your Guide to Leadership Development and Coaching. These inspiring examples remind us that leadership takes many forms and succeeds in all kinds of ways. If you want to develop expertise in how organizations operate and how individual and group contributions fuel their operations, stories like these can help mark the path forward.

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