Today’s post is by Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood, authors of Leadership Sustainability: Seven Disciplines to Achieve the Changes Great Leaders Know They Must Make (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
Most good leaders try to become better. Around the world today, and every day of the year, thousands of leaders will attend leadership training to glean insights into how to lead better. Thousands will receive performance reviews with individual development plans on how to improve. Thousands will receive coaching with recommendations on how to change their behavior so as to deliver better results in better ways. Thousands will complete a 360-degree feedback process with data on how they are seen by others. At the end of the training, performance development, coaching, and 360-degree feedback, most of these leaders will resolve to use their new insights and be more effective. Unfortunately, few of them will implement these good intentions.
As we help leaders improve, we often start with three questions:
- On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is leadership either for your personal or organizational success? Most answer 8, 9, or 10.
- What specific things do you need to do to be a more effective leader? Most can quickly write down two or three desired behaviors.
- How long have you known you should improve these behaviors? Most meekly acknowledge that they have known what to improve for three, six, twelve months—or longer (decades for some).
Any leader can ask him or herself these three questions to assess how they are doing in being a better leader.
The first question addresses the question: Why? Why should I work to improve in being a better leader or why should my organization invest in building better leadership? For organizations, leaders matter because they increase employee productivity, help accomplish business strategies, deliver customer services, and create investor confidence. At a personal level, being a better leader allows an individual to find meaning at work by positively influencing others.
The second question is about WHAT makes an effective leader. In our research, we have found that effective leaders shape the future, make things happen, engage today’s talent, build future talent, and have personal proficiency. In addition, leaders make sure that their actions are consistent with customer expectations.
The third question addresses HOW leaders sustain what they know they should do. Many leaders who want to get better know why they should and what they should do, but they don’t do it very well.
In our work on leadership sustainability, we have distilled seven disciplines from multiple literatures on how leaders can sustain the changes they know they should make. If you are a leader who wants to improve, think about what you want to get better at. Then work through these seven tips to build a disciplined approach to sustaining change.
1. Simplicity. We cannot change too many behaviors at once or we get discouraged at how far we have to go. Like writing a one page memo to get approvals, leaders have to focus their attention on the key behaviors they want to improve. Leaders have to master skills in setting priorities, sequencing actions, and separating symptoms from underlying problems. The avoid concept clutter by keeping their personal improvements simple and clear, explainable in under 60 seconds.
2. Time. Every leader we know is busy. Time is probably the most valuable resource any leader has. Spending time as carefully, or more so, than money implies that the leader is serious about improving. When a leader wants to be more innovative, we can turn that aspiration into a calendar test that shows a resolve to innovate. This might mean who the leader meets with, what meetings he attends, what reports he reviews, and what speeches he gives. Managing your calendar overcomes leadership hypocrisy where a leader preaches A and does Z. We like to ask leaders what they will do in 3 hours (to get started), 3 days (to practice), 3 weeks (to build a habit), and 3 months (to change others’ expectations).
3. Accountability. Many leaders are gifted blamers. They try to hide from mistakes by deflecting attention, blaming others, stonewalling, or emotionally hiding. Leaders who sustain change take personal responsibility for mistakes they made. They run into the mistake with simple tips around “I” statements: I made a mistake, I am sorry, here is what I learned, and here is what I will do differently. Sustainable leaders also go public with their improvements. A private commitment has little staying power; a public commitment means expectations change and accountability goes up.
4. Resources. Personal change is a team sport. Most leaders have allies who want to help us improve. These coaches may be friends, peers, bosses, or experts who are willing to invest in helping us get better. Acknowledging our improvement plans, asking for help, and responding to it help a leader sustain change. A leader posted her 360 feedback report, good and bad, and shared with her staff each month what she was doing to improve. And, the improvements stuck.
5. Track. Without traceable data, improvement plans are wishes that likely are made with more vigor than kept. In 30 years of teaching, no student has ever “audited” a course and learned as much as students who take the course for credit with graded papers and test scores. It is important to measure progress to sustain it. Measures should be lead not lag to predict what will happen next not to reflect on what happened last. Measures should also lead to positive or negative consequences depending on the measures.
6. Meliorate. Meliorate is an uncommon word for two common processes: learning and resilience. Almost no leadership improvements are linear, from A to Z. There are moments of improvement followed by setbacks. When the inevitable setbacks occur, face them, learn from them, and be resilient in moving on. Leaders meliorate when they focus on what is right more than what is wrong and when they are continually learning and growing.
7. Emotion. Leaders who sustain changes they want to make have passion for those changes. The desired behaviors are consistent with their personal identity or mission. The leaders feel an emotional pull to improving as much as an intellectual agenda. Emotion alone will not sustain change, but without emotion, most wonder why they bothered in the first place.
These seven disciplines spell the mnemonic START ME. We think this is apt because for each of us, sustainability starts with me. These seven disciplines turn hope into reality. When leaders make commitments to change something in training, coaching, or performance management, the impact increases when participants attend to these seven disciplines as they anticipate how to turn learning into action.
- Dave Ulrich is a Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. Norm Smallwood is a recognized authority in developing businesses and their leaders to deliver results. They are the authors of Leadership Sustainability: Seven Disciplines to Achieve the Changes Great Leaders Know They Must Make (CLICK HERE to get your copy).