How to Assess Your Leadership Skills
Are you persuasively steering your team, and the company you founded? How do you know?
“Often without meaning to, we create complexity for people who work with us,” says Katherine Ebner, executive leadership coach at Nebo Leadership in Washington.
The first step is to recognize you can always do better. The next one? Follow Ebner’s seven leadership tenets.
1. Clarify what your job is. Before anything else, says Ebner, you must understand your roles and responsibilities as a leader. “Often people will do their old job; they will do what is familiar versus what’s needed.” Ebner says it is an adjustment to step up to a leadership role, often one that people are not prepared for.
She recommends you define your work by researching your job description, making a list of your roles and responsibilities (according to you), defining outcomes expected of you and, invaluably, asking direct reports, directors, and other senior level staff what they expect from you.
2. Invite feedback. Just as you offer colleagues and subordinates constructive critiques to improve performance, those people can also help you evaluate how you’re doing. To get the deepest and most actionable commentary, Ebner recommends you make the feedback loop simple. It can be formal or informal, as long as it is confidential, respectful, and efficient.
Ebner recommends conducting such leaderships reviews annually, or twice a year, because your staff may turnover and market conditions change. She advises asking key staffers open-ended, low risk questions such as: ‘What could I be doing better to support your success?’ ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘Is there anything I do that make things difficult?’
She also points out the importance of observing nonverbal cues. She stresses you should always be aware of the impact your make others. You can observe it from body language. Does the staff fall silent when you walk in the room, say? Do key executives meet your gaze or look away when you are speaking? “The key is to understand that you are collecting observable data,” says Ebner. “Don’t project, or be overly sensitive about what you may be seeing.”
There are also a lot of resources to help you do peer reviews:
- 360-degree evaluation tools. Ebner says there are several excellent online 360-degree survey tools that protect privacy while also providing thorough assessments, including Leadership Circle, the Booth Company, and the Center for Creative Leadership.
- Leadership coaches. “A coach can interview stakeholders and produce a narrative from confidential conversations,” says Ebner. This is often valuable when you want to go one layer deeper than online assessments.
3. Define goals. Establishing goals and milestones for performance over time is important not only in the financial arena but also in the organizational one. “The number of people you can impact everyday does not change in a big or small company. People who work most closely with you will pick up on your tone and mood,” says Ebner. This is then reflected throughout the company.
You can track “people performance”: turnover of key positions, length of tenure in position, ability to attract top talent.
4. Refine your storytelling skills. Once you define your goals, you must be able to articulate them. Ebner says that an effective leader is the company’s chief storyteller, not just someone who keeps his or her nose to the grindstone. You have to be able to say where you have been as a company, where you are now, and where you ’re going.
Ebner recommends using a three-year time horizon. “When you can answer where you want to be in three years in detail, you can identify what it will take to get there, and start filling the gaps.” Remember it’s not just financial or market positioning, it’s also organizational goals—everything from staffing to technology choices to office locations.
5. Check in on employees. Ebner says it is important to find out if the message you are relaying is trickling down to employees. You can do so by asking around, or by setting up a more formal process. Take annual employee satisfaction surveys, or conduct a culture survey. There’s also a slew of online vendors that can help assess your company culture and its impact on performance.
6. Look into leadership training. Many universities and institutes offer leadership-training courses. You can also engage a leadership coach, or even go on one of numerous CEO retreats. Among the subject matter you might expect: how to use conversation to inspire action and results, how to garner respect and credibility through your presence, and how you can use social networks for career development.
7. Expand your circle. Networking is critical to being an effective leader. It can come in the form of professional peer groups like industry associations or community involvement at, say, your local Parent Teacher Association. “Practicing leadership in a variety of settings and observing leaders in a variety of settings will enhance leadership skills,” says Ebner.
Don’t overlook peers as an important group with whom to network, either. “As you progress professionally, so do your peers,” points out Ebner. “By investing in these relationships and getting to know others at a similar level of responsibility and authority, you are building a community of colleagues who care about you and your success.”
Another networking tip: The aspirational—or “stretch” lunch. One of Ebner’s coaching clients regularly invites leaders she admires for a bite, and focuses on talking with them about their lives, careers, and goals. She even follows up with ideas, articles, or an intro to someone relevant she knows. But she holds off on asking for anything. Says Ebner: “Over time, the good will and relationships from these lunches has led to a powerful network of people who are more than happy to support, advise, and assist her when the time comes.”
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