Chefs, pianists and tennis players improve their skills by practicing, experimenting and performing.
So do organizational leaders.
The “playing field” where they practice leadership includes conference rooms, hallways and offices.
However, many individuals who desire to take on higher leadership positions are in a bind. Their current day jobs are all-consuming, especially if they’re a SME (subject matter expert). They feel obligated to fulfill their technical duties, which leaves them little time or energy to act as leaders.
To try to get ahead, they read leadership books, watch TED talks and other videos and take leadership development classes and workshops.
Yet, according to Professor Herminia Ibarra and author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, they’re going about their transformation backwards.
Acting like a leader is a much more effective leadership strategy than first trying to change your mindset or expose yourself to more leadership content.
The problem with trying to become self-aware and more knowledgeable about leadership theories without any new experiences is that you’re likely to sabotage yourself.
If you don’t have any new data—a la new experiences—to draw from and analyze, you’ll keep ruminating over the same thoughts and you’ll get stuck, as I’ve learned through my applied neuroscience program and experienced in my executive coaching practice. It’s hard to break out of how you’ve defined yourself. Adults learn through experiences.
When you make the effort to take action by taking the time to experiment with new projects, expose yourself to new, diverse people and escape your comfort zone, you’re much more equipped to change how you think and who you become, Professor Ibarra explains. You can make positive, sustainable changes.
You do need to allocate time to do this, Professor Ibarra acknowledges, and the time crunch is real for many of us.
That’s why she suggests that individuals who want to become better leaders make a point to “add before you subtract” and jump start their transformation into a leader by first getting involved in more activities.
Now, that suggestion can trigger many of us to start playing mind games with ourselves.
When we’re crazy busy, when are we going to find the time to do anything new and different?
The truth is though that we can carve some time to do things that are really important to us. And we can start small.
Here are five small, simple actions to take over the next 10 days:
- Broaden your in-person network. Vow to talk informally with at least one person outside your company each week about their job, their company, their opinions about the changing nature of work, or whatever topic is on their mind or yours. You can do this at a networking event, your child’s school or when you’re riding in an Uber car.
- Join a new virtual network. Find a LinkedIn Group devoted to a topic that’s outside your expertise and industry yet interests you, such as an alumni group, futurist, or geography-based. Sign up for email messages and spend a 10 to 15 minutes at least once a week, reading what members are writing and asking about, and look at some of the links they’re sharing.
- Challenge your thinking. Read a new publication or blog or watch a TV news show with a different perspective from your own. Try to understand why others may find the content interesting and compelling. This can help you practice empathy, which is an important leadership skill.
- Start scheduling slack time on your calendar. Block at least 90 minutes on your calendar either in one chunk or in three 30 minute periods over the next 10 days. This is special time for you to use to walk around the office talking to co-workers, research a new project or topic outside of your area of expertise or apply for an extracurricular activity that you can participate in.
- Invite a millennial to lunch. Talk informally over lunch about the future of work, and how technology and other trends are affecting the way we do things and interact with one another. With this action, you can score three points in helping yourself change: you can ensure your network is becoming more diverse, you can discover new ways to work, and you can find new ways of connecting to and enjoying people. Professor Ibarra says all three are valuable.
Then for the next 10 days, you can either expand these small, simple actions or select some other ones to challenge yourself.
If you’re a corporate communication professional, you also can sign up for The Communication Leaders Circle, which John Gerstner of Communitelligence and I are launching September 25 for up to 12 corporate communication professionals.
This group of peers will take responsibility for their own action-based learning, as well as supporting others over an initial three-month session. For an example of how peers can provide support as well as peer pressure to stay accountable, check out 8 Great Pluses for Peer Learning.
And you also may want to read the Professor’s insightful book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.
If taking actions appeals to you, yet you still find yourself challenged to make things happen, get a coach. There’s nothing to be ashamed of by getting individual help. Most high-performers in any field—organizational leadership, athletics, music, etc. — work with personal coaches.
If you want to talk about the pros and cons of having a coach, contact me.
Meanwhile, good luck taking tiny, simple steps today.