If you go to the business section of any major book store, you will find dozens of books claiming to contain the “secret sauce” for how to be a great leader. Many of them offer useful nuggets of advice, but few get to the heart of the matter: significant growth as a leader requires a relentless, ongoing process of self-management. Developing leadership skills is not primarily about techniques and tools.
Based on our extensive experience in the areas of executive coaching and leadership development, Caliper has identified three core elements of effective self-management and incorporated them into the following framework for action:
The first thing to notice about this framework is that it doesn’t prescribe specific leadership techniques or “best practices.” Rather, it lays out a process for continually learning and growing from real-time, on-the-job experiences. Books and workshops can serve as helpful supplemental resources, but they have far less impact on growth and development than learning from experience.
The self-management process begins with setting a stretch objective that is specific (i.e., contains clear action items), outside of your comfort zone, relevant to your current role and career goals, and time-sensitive (i.e., contains deadlines for action).
The best places to look for stretch objectives are any of your personality tendencies that are either underdeveloped or overdeveloped. Traits (e.g., Aggressiveness, Urgency, and Cautiousness) measured by the Caliper Profile that fall at the 20th percentile or below represent potential self-management areas that are underdeveloped, while traits at the 90th percentile or above represent tendencies that may be overdeveloped.
For example, imagine a leader who is viewed by his or her colleagues as extremely intelligent and knowledgeable but is often quiet in staff meetings and rarely takes a strong point of view in group settings. This individual could benefit by developing and enhancing his or her ability to speak with more candor. An example of someone with an overdeveloped tendency would be a leader who often dominates conversations and does not actively listen to others when they speak.
The next step in the self-management process is to take action on one or more of your stretch objectives. Once you take action, it’s critical to engage in self-reflection to identify “lessons learned” from the experience. The best way to engage in self- reflection is to ask yourself “learner” questions rather than “judger” questions. The following table contains a few examples
Now for the most underutilized – but most important – part of the framework: actively seeking real-time feedback from colleagues. The need for this step is simple: all leaders, no matter how effective they may be, have blind spots. When we perceive our actions differently from how our colleagues view them, this represents a potential blind spot.
Several years ago, there was an article in Harvard Business Review (“Coaching the Alpha Male”) that profiled the 360-Degree Feedback process in which Michael Dell and his senior team participated. Dell was shocked by the feedback. He viewed himself as a decisive leader who constructively challenged his team to do their best. However, his team viewed his leadership style as “over the top.” They described him as someone who frequently shut down dialogue, did not listen to anyone, and was hyper-critical.
While 360-Degree Feedback processes can yield valuable data for self-management, they are implemented too infrequently to drive sustainable growth and development. The key to effective, consistent self-management is real-time feedback from colleagues. This feedback should be solicited in an informal and low-key manner. For example, if you’re a CEO who tends to dominate your senior leadership team meetings and is striving, like Michael Dell did, to better balance authority and active listening, ask a trusted member of your team to provide feedback on your behavior after a meeting you just led.
Contrary to what many executives believe, seeking out this type of feedback will not be viewed as a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. Self-deprecating humor and acknowledgement of areas to develop reflect a person’s self-confidence. In contrast, leaders who take themselves too seriously and don’t acknowledge their self-management opportunities can be viewed as falsely confident (i.e., insecurity masked by a veneer of exaggerated self-confidence).