Most people build their careers in a traditional way. They start as an intern or a junior employee, and learn how organisations function in a team of experienced colleagues. After a few years of working experience, they are most likely turned into senior employees. In time, when they’ve grown professionally and socially, and have been fully tutored by their superiors, they might get promoted to a leadership position.
At that time, they have both experience of what it was like as an employee collaborating in a team, as well as knowledge over what management styles have been effective for them in their past. They can directly use this experience and knowledge to become an effective leader themselves. They know what can go wrong in teams, and what the common pitfalls are in their field.
Things went a bit differently for me.
Instead of building up years of knowledge as a junior or senior employee, I was thrown straight in at the deep end. Sure, I had some past working experience (I started my first real job at age 13), but here I was as an 18 year old kid running the IT department of an international advertising corporation. The opportunity to grow from a management perspective was given to me without building up a decade of ‘normal employment’ experience.
Now of course there is something to be said for the usual trajectory to leadership: in business school you learn about the functioning of companies, during your initial work experience you encounter the do’s and don’ts of the trade, and by the time you become a manager, you will be fully prepared for what’s ahead.
On the other hand, being thrown in at the deep end offers some major benefits that the normal route does not. When realising you don’t have the knowledge and experience yet, you’re a lot more humble in your daily routine. You have regular evaluations with your team leaders and the teams themselves, to talk about what worked, and more importantly what didn’t. It is this iterative approach that gives you the edge over other leaders. You’re not stuck in the management procedures that are being taught in school, you’re not sticking to just what people before you have done. Instead you’re reading dozens of books and articles, discussing approaches with other managers, and through those resources you find out what works for you and your company specifically.
Most importantly of all, you are extremely eager to improve and perfect. You know that if you slip up, you ruin the chance you were given. Of course most of your learning is not in your accomplishments, but rather in your failures; you just have to spot those prospective failures early on, and make sure the experience turn you into a better leader. That mindset gives you the ability to make your accomplishments even better.
People that are thrown in at the deep end -in any field-, have been given an advantage that most others did not have the luxury of. As long as you’re humble and mindful of that fact, having taken a non-standard career path, you’re going to do just fine.