Seeing yourself as others see you can make you a more effective leader ©Getty Images
Seeing yourself as others see you can make you a more effective leader ©Getty Images

Career coach: how to be the best leader

13 March 2020

Need to improve your leadership skills? Make time for self-reflection to boost your skills and become the leader you want to be, says Caroline Stagg

The best leaders are those who never stand still, who evolve, adopt more effective behaviours and acquire new skills. Modern leadership, particularly in procurement, must be innovative and future-focused, and ready to adapt. And as a leader, it’s up to you to take charge of your own development, as well as that of your organisation. When did you last look at yourself as a leader? Take the tips of a career coach and reflect on these five areas to develop – or maintain – your leadership skills both in and out of work.

1. Build your resilience
From everyday crises to people asking you to do things they should be doing themselves, there are constant demands on your time and attention that can distract you from achieving your real goals. In this environment, it can become difficult to keep track of the things that matter. Resilience is not just about bouncing back from difficult situations, it is also about being able to adapt when things become stressful and could cause you to make decisions that are not your finest or have you interact with others in an unhelpful way.

Do a boundary check: make clear whether it is or isn’t OK for people to contact you outside of office hours, and what constitutes an emergency. Getting clear on your values (see point 3 below) will help you. When you respect your personal boundaries, others will, too. 

Find balance in your life: make time for friends, family and hobbies. Find ways to unwind that work for you. When you don’t prioritise these areas, it can be easy to lose the clarity and motivation you need to show up as an inspiring leader. If you’re not inspiring yourself, how can you inspire others?

2. Be self-aware: reflect before you act
How we come across to others is something we’re not often aware of because we tend to operate on autopilot. We see things the way we prefer to see them, think that people are like we are – that they think like we do and appreciate what we appreciate. The reality is that the way you do anything is the way you tend to do everything. Do you ever stop to think how your colleagues and clients like to be communicated with? Just because you like it when people get straight to the point, doesn’t mean all colleagues feel the same. Some people like to be praised with a shout out across the office; others prefer a thank you note or a drink at the pub. 

If you have never completed a personal communication and behaviour profile such as DISC, Insights or Myers-Briggs, this can make a perfect starting point for finding out how you tend to communicate and behave in different contexts, and how others might perceive you. If you have, then it’s good to dig it out and review it from time to time. 

Profiling tools can be a game changer as they highlight how your current behaviour gives you your current results. When you reflect on this, it’s possible to see how you could achieve different results with different behaviours. 

3. Understand your values – your hot buttons
People don’t do business with products or services. The way you and your organisation present and the language you use conveys so much of who you are (good and bad). When people believe and trust you, they can relax. When something is off or is not congruent, you create doubt for them and their confidence in you is reduced. 

Whether or not you’re aware of it, your values run the show. Not many leaders take the time to be clear on what their values are for themselves and their business, yet it’s important personal development work.

A value is a hot button that drives a behaviour. Everything you do is done to fulfil a value. Knowing your values and their importance to you is key to a happy life and key to your business success.

Values are ‘pull-me-push-you’ in nature. We are drawn towards things that feel good or seem pleasurable and repelled from things that give us unpleasant feelings or are ‘painful’. We feel good when we fulfil our ‘towards’ values or avoid a situation with a value that ‘repels’ us.

You may have different values for your home life and your work life. Unless you are clear on your values, the ‘pull-me-push-you’ can have you stuck and ineffective. 

For example, a leader who has a strong pull towards a value for ‘success’ and, at the same time has a strong push away from ‘failure’ is unlikely to succeed. It’s difficult to see what this looks like for yourself. It’s likely to take the form of excuses, procrastination, and blaming others, your age, finances or market forces. Look where you find yourself blaming others and consider what ‘value’ might be behind it.

Because values change as we get older, or our circumstances change, it is important to review them regularly. Write a list of what’s important to you now in work and in life. Try to whittle it down to a list ranked in importance from 3-5 core values. If you want to dig deep, another great list to write is your ‘What I don’t want people to know about me’ list. Reflect on how the concerns on this list hinder you. How do they affect your leadership?

4. Articulate your vision and mission
How you speak your world creates your world. When you are clear on values, it makes articulating your leadership vision and mission much easier. If you’re clear on your values, then your vision is like your personal or corporate North Star – a mental picture of what you want to achieve. 

While leaders may change over time, the corporate vision helps employees continue with what is important and helps explain alignment of resources and so on. Where your vision is your ‘cause’, your mission is your ‘effect’. Vision statements are aspirational, whereas mission statements are what you will do to bring about your vision. Vision is ‘why’; mission is ‘how’.

Articulating your mission is critical for your own leadership, as it will help you separate what is important from what is not. Your personal mission statement should be able to withstand changes that come up over time, and will help you articulate for yourself and others the unique contribution that you make. 

For example, your personal mission could be ‘developing future leaders’. Then, whatever you do, you will always seek out the opportunity to develop someone else’s leadership. This might look like finding opportunities for reports to excel and experience new situations; it might be in giving excellent feedback, or in celebrating mistakes and failures, so that they feel able to play full out and are not fearful. 

Another example might be ‘true partnership’. This might look like every partner involved being happy with the outcome, and no one partner benefiting more than another, creating a team that everyone is proud to be a part of. 

And when you stand for something important that people feel connected to and proud to be a part of, says Evan Carmichael in his book Your One Word, you can make it easy for them to share the message when they only have to remember a single word. “There is one word that defines who you are, connects all the things in your life that make you come alive, and will help you escape the chains of mediocrity,” he says. 

Steve Jobs’ one word was ‘elegance’ – it made it easy for people to tell the difference between an Apple computer and every other computer on the market. Can you find yours?

5. Maintain integrity
All the above will count for little if you have integrity issues. Integrity is a great lens through which to view outcomes – more than just doing the right thing, it is about being true to your principles, your values and to yourself. It is less about morality and more about workability, a state of ‘wholeness’, where all the parts work together. Think of a wheel with missing spokes that is likely to go out of shape and eventually stop working.

Businesses run by leaders who have high integrity are more sustainable and successful. Employees know that if their leader acts with integrity they will treat them well and do what’s best for the business: excuses are acknowledged as such, problems are explored and resolved so that it is understood what went wrong and how to prevent it happening again. 

Integrity is a crucial element in any team. Blame is not necessary when team members understand they must accept their part in what went wrong, without being made to feel bad. They’re not a bad person, it’s just that what they did didn’t work.

So, a final list: Where in your life are there things that demonstrate a lack of integrity? From people you said you’d get back to and didn’t… to that lightbulb in the porch you said you would change six months ago and still haven’t! Where there is a dip in integrity in one part of your life, you can be sure it will show up in other areas too.

Leaders that maintain high levels of integrity gain the respect of those they work with. Having this trust and respect is more likely to mean that colleagues respect you and follow you. You’re only a leader if you have followers.  

Caroline Stagg is an executive and leadership coach.

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