3 Steps for Taking Your Leadership to the Next Level

Even when you’re at the top, there’s always room to improve. Here are three steps every leader should take to make the new year their best year yet.

 

How am I doing as a leader today? What’ll it take for me to get better? How will I make it happen? These are the questions every leader should be regularly asking themselves on their journey to continuous improvement. Answering these questions can help you successfully create a structured development plan to take your leadership skills to the next level.

 

To get started, here are three steps that’ll ensure the new year becomes the best year yet along your leadership journey.

 

  1. Assess Your Leadership Where It Stands Today

 

Before you can get better, you’ll need a clear assessment of how you’re doing as a leader now. There are two parts to this evaluation: self-reflection and seeking feedback from others.

 

Self-reflection: If you feel like you’re often gasping for air as you get swept up in the whirlwind of today’s fast-paced, ever-changing marketplace, you’re not alone. It’s hard for leaders to slow down and reflect on their leadership. But it’s a crucial step if you’re serious about taking your leadership to the next level. Here’s what to do to take a pause:

 

  • Schedule an appointment with yourself—away from your office—to reflect on the current state of your leadership journey.
  • Review your recent successes and failures, noting important lessons that’ll help you lead better in the future.
  • Create a mental movie of critical leadership moments and how you performed in them. Explore what went well and how you made a positive impact. Celebrate those moments. Then,

identify what didn’t go well and what caused the breakdown.

  • Determine what you need to change in your approach that’ll make you a more effective leader.

 

Seek feedback from others: Conduct a 360-degree survey to seek feedback from others. Find an online survey that includes a self-assessment to compare how you rate yourself with the ratings of others. It’s best to keep these surveys anonymous with your work relationship being the only identifier (i.e., boss, peer, or direct report). I’ve used RightPath’s 360° Leadership Assessment Tool, which groups feedback by leadership competencies (e.g., delivering results, building relationships, developing others, and emotional intelligence).

 

Admittingly, the anonymous nature of this feedback can be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is the ability for your colleagues to share their experiences without fear of judgment or reprisal. But that’s a curse, too. Without clear direction, a 360-degree survey can be used as a tool for retaliation or other punitive motivation. To avoid this, the survey administrator (typically an HR professional or external coach) should emphasize that it’s for development purposes, not disciplinary.

 

Another downside to typical 360-degree assessments is the cost. For that reason, many organizations limit this tool to senior leaders. However, don’t let that stop you from seeking feedback on your own, or as I call it, the “DIY 360.” For this approach, I like the advice leadership coach and author Kristi Hedges shared in her Harvard Business Review article, “How Are You Perceived at Work? Here’s an Exercise to Find Out.” Hedges suggests the following:

  • Select five colleagues (I suggest your boss, two peers, and two direct reports).
  • Arrange face-to-face meetings (could be done via video conferencing in a remote work setting).
  • Stay open and resist the urge to become defensive (take a deep breath and remind yourself that this conversation will help make you a better leader).
  • Ask two simple questions: 1) What’s the general impression of me in the workplace? 2) What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?

 

Consider modifying the second question above if you need to obtain feedback in a particular area. For example, if you need improvement in leading meetings, you might ask, “What could I do differently to make the meetings I lead more successful?”

 

Notably, you don’t need to wait for a structured 360-degree exercise to obtain feedback. You can use the two questions above at any time, with any person willing to share their experiences with your leadership.

 

  1. Create a Game Plan for Improvement

 

Now that you have your self-reflection notes and the feedback from others in hand, you’ll be ready to start step two: creating a game plan to develop your strengths and address any gaps that hinder your effectiveness as a leader.

 

To get started on this step, focus your plan on leadership skills that require further development for you to be more effective, such as communication, delegation, and coaching. You should also include habits that’ll elevate the value you contribute to your organization, such as strategic thinking, team building, and meeting one-on-one with direct reports. Additionally, I suggest making your game plan more actionable by using the SMART acronym: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

 

  1. Obtain Ongoing Support

 

The final step in your leadership development plan involves sharing your goals with those who provided feedback and, perhaps, trusted colleagues and mentors. Continue to build an ongoing feedback loop with them to monitor progress as you strive to better yourself as a leader.

 

Once you’ve obtained feedback and created your game plan, Marshall Goldsmith, a widely regarded executive coach, recommends sharing your intentions for improvement with these stakeholders and then following up with them regularly to measure progress in each growth area. Goldsmith suggests asking questions like “Based on my behavior last month, what ideas do you have for me next month?” Focusing on future behavior, rather than dwelling on the past, inspires continuous improvement. Goldsmith’s advice is worth following—he built his stakeholder-centered coaching methodology on the premise that he’s only paid if his clients achieve positive change in their leadership behaviors.

 

Beyond your internal resources, consider engaging a mentor or coach outside your organization. Microsoft Founder Bill Gates is among leaders who believe in the value of outside support. “Everyone needs a coach,” he said during a 2013 TED talk. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a basketball player, a tennis player, a gymnast, or a bridge player.” The audience laughed as his slides first showed world-class athletes and then a picture of himself sitting at a card table. Gates continued, “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”

 

This article was first published in my Leadership Matters column for the Illinois Society of CPAs Insight magazine.

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