When I enrolled in business school, my goal was to gain specific knowledge related to things like marketing, strategy, and finance. But I ended up learning in a much broader sense — including learning the importance of self-reflection. Leaders don’t just need to understand the industry landscape and the needs of their employees. They also need to look inward, reflecting on how they can improve their leadership skills and then taking concrete steps to do so.
Put another way, we should look to upgrade our leadership skills the same way we upgrade our iPhones. In my opinion, leadership upgrades should take place every eight to 12 months. Think of it as an annual self-review. I’ve broken the process into three general steps to help those who are upgrading their leadership skills for the first time.
While it may sound obvious, reflection is often overlooked. There’s a natural tendency for people to motivate themselves by comparing their progress to others. Some other person took two steps up the corporate ladder, for instance. But as is true with most things, one size really doesn’t fit all. It’s important for leaders to take the time to identify their own strengths and goals.
Start by asking the following questions: Where do you want to be in two years? Do you want to move up the ladder? Do you want to move laterally but take on additional responsibility? Do you want to start your own company? With these questions answered, you can start thinking about what particular skills, capabilities or tools you need to achieve those goals.
Once that stage is complete, create a concrete plan for moving from self-assessment to self-commitment. You know what skills you need, so it’s time to map out how you’re going to get them. This can take many forms: training, formal education, reading books, etc. You should also find a mentor who can help guide you. They should be able to advise which approach is best for a given skill.
This process shouldn’t be solely task-driven, though. You need to identify the desired outcomes and ways to measure them. Similarly, it’s important to prioritize. It’s not good to have an aspirational list of items but finish none of them. Quantity is not important — quality is. Besides, if you’re upgrading your skills every eight to 12 months, you’ll have time to tackle new goals in the next go-round.
I always preach the importance of leaders listening to their customers and employees, but usually it’s for the sake of business success. However, listening and soliciting feedback is equally important for your own development, too. Once again, there are many ways to see if you’re progressing. You can ask leaders, peers, direct reports, even family and friends. Your mentor should continue to be a sounding board as well. Do they see a difference in how you approach decision-making, or an evolution in your emotional intelligence? Do they have suggestions for other areas you could work on?
Many people misunderstand leadership as a top-down affair, where you know best and you’re calling the shots. But really, leadership is about dialogue, whether you’re launching a new product or trying to get better in that role.
Sometimes, outside factors push leaders to grow. Maybe your job circumstance is out of your control. Or maybe there’s a global pandemic that turns normal business operations upside down!
While it’s important to have a game plan for upgrading your leadership, it’s also important to be flexible. When the external environment changes, you need to bring new perspectives into your learning plan. COVID-19, for one, has demanded a new set of skills from leaders, such as the ability to present a calm and confident front even when you’re as anxious as everybody else. Similarly, leaders now must hyper-empower their employees, helping them learn, quickly iterate, and make decisions.
The bottom line is that reaching a leadership position shouldn’t represent a finish line. The best leaders are constantly assessing ways to enhance and transform their careers. That can only happen, though, with honest self-assessments, reliable mentors, and tremendous commitment, including a commitment to feedback and flexibility. There’s always room to grow as a leader. The important thing is to think carefully about where you’re heading and what skills or training will help you get there.
For the cherry on top, upgrading your leadership sets a fantastic example for employees, who should also be thinking about their career paths and committing to a growth mindset.