Great leaders practice self-leadership, recognizing areas of opportunity and creating a solid plan for growth and development.
You’ve just finished your last annual review with Abby, a solid employee on your team, and it was a good conversation. You were able to celebrate the great accomplishments she did and you offered some thoughtful insights on how she could improve this year. You committed to a weekly check-in this year to ensure the lines of communication are wide open. She thanks you for your feedback and walks out of the room. As you sit alone, you feel satisfied that you are doing the right things as a leader to help your team grow and develop. Then you wonder…”What about me? What do I need to do to grow and develop as a leader?”
Thankfully, the answer to this question is relatively simple in one way – but not so simple in another. First the good, simple news! You should manage your own leadership growth and development like you would any important project: Create the scope, plan things out, follow the plan, adjust as needed, keep the right people involved and informed. You know these steps.
Now, the bad news – the hard part news: Change is not easy. It requires a disciplined dedication from you to make it happen. Even more: Changing behaviors, including leadership ones, requires physical modifications to your brain.
Implementing Behavioral Change
Brain science research shows that changing a behavior requires us to “re-wire” our brains. For example, when we do something over and over, our brain builds a neuron “superhighway,” making it easy for us to react and behave in the same way over time. However, if we want to change a certain behavior, we have to train our brain to send those neurons that are responding to a stimulus down a winding mountain pathway versus the mental superhighway we’ve been using our whole life. Doing this takes time and practice (hence the need to follow a disciplined process). We can’t just wish/hope for change if we want it to be permanent.
Destin Sandlin, an engineer by trade and founder of the video series Smarter Everyday, illustrated this point with the Backwards Brain Bicycle Experiment. The video is 7 minutes long and worth watching; however, to sum up he built a bike that turns the opposite direction of what we are used to. If you turn the handlebars right, the bike turns left and vice versa. It seems like a simple thing to tell our brains this fact and then just adjust – yet it was not. It took him months of practice to learn to ride this bike as he had to re-train his brain to leverage new neural pathways.
So how does this relate to you growing and developing as a leader?
- To grow as a leader, you need to change your behavior.
- To change your behavior, you need to re-train your brain.
- To re-train your brain you have to work at it in a disciplined way.
- To work at it in a disciplined way, you need to manage your own leadership development like a project!
A Plan for Behavioral Change
Here is a project-oriented process to follow:
Phase 1: Identify the “Problem”
At what do you need to improve? Is there a strength you want to leverage more? Is there a weakness you need to shore up? Take the time to complete an honest assessment of where you are.
Tools like Strengths Finders or DiSC can help, or leadership competency models. You need to leverage these and do a full self-assessment – and you also need to get feedback from others. Leadership 360 reviews are helpful if your company offers them. If not, reach out to 7-10 people you trust and interview them on your leadership style and competencies.
After you do this research, document what you have learned. Make sure it includes the things you want to leverage more and the things you might want to improve.
Phase 2: Build the Plan/Execute the Plan/Adjust as You Go
Now to create the plan you’ll follow to change. Based on your problem statement, think about the things you can do to learn about the new behaviors. Purchase the books you need, find relevant blogs, maybe even go to training. Once you have this part mapped out, develop small experiments you can do to start practicing the behaviors you want to incorporate into your leadership style.
As an example, say you need to improve your interpersonal skills, i.e., people feel you come across as task-oriented versus people-oriented. To do this, meet with 4 people each month for no reason beyond simply getting to know them better. This will help you learn how to interact on this level and help you become a little more people- versus task-oriented.
As part of building the plan, it’s extremely helpful to have a group of people who can help hold you accountable (maybe the 7-10 people noted above). Joe Smucny of our Cleveland business unit refers to this as his “personal board of advisors.” He selfishly (in a good way!) leverages these folks to hold him accountable for his growth, shine light on any blind spots and offer encouragement as he works on his growth plan.
Execute the plan and adjust as you go, and schedule time to work on your own growth and development. Make sure you have a little time for it every day, a little more once a week and more once a month. This will allow you to reflect and adjust based on what you are learning as you re-train your brain to respond differently than you have in the past.
Phase 3: Reflect and Plan Again
On a periodic basis, for example, annually, schedule a “leadership development retreat” for yourself: take stock of how you have changed – and how you’ve not changed. This is the time to determine what feedback you need to get, and to start planning again for the next growth and development project.
Out of this retreat, it’s likely you need to restart with Phase 1 all over again. Your personal board of advisors can come in very handy during this phase.
In summary, be a leader to yourself. Apply the same principles you would lead a project effort to your own growth and development. Add to your discipline by actually scheduling the time to focus on you. If you do these things, you’ll be able to change your brain and become a better leader over time.