Most development plans are well-intentioned but generally ineffective. They list a few books to read and/or courses to attend. They describe actions to take but without a mechanism to assure that new learning will actually occur. Awareness does not equal change, yet most development plans at best raise awareness. Here are some of the elements we see as most important in a truly effective development plan:
- Use an intentional change framework. What is your desired end state? What is current reality? What are your strengths and challenges in making this change? Who/what in your context currently supports the changes you’re trying to make, and who/what could get in the way? Given that, what’s your plan?
- Understand what it means to build capacity. Building capacity is increasing your ability to lead effectively in times of increasing complexity, ambiguity, volatility, uncertainty and rapid change. Please see our handout on Levels of Development-in-Action. The essential elements that assist leaders to move up in Levels of Development are reflection, perspective taking and seeking, and use of Polarity Thinking.
- Commitment to ongoing daily reflection. This is the cornerstone, yet totally missing from almost all development plans. Awareness does not equal change. We cannot build capacity without also building reflective awareness that gradually changes the way we think and act. This is how the brain actually changes, with small and frequent cycles of action and reflection. Neuroscience tells us that it’s better to reflect 10 minutes a day than an hour once a week. And it’s also better to reflect 1 minute ten times a day than 10 minutes once. Real change doesn’t happen by reading a book, taking a course, or listening to an inspiring speaker. Real change takes place over time with frequent cycles of action and reflection.
- Building in perspective taking and seeking. In order to build our capacity to think and act at higher levels, including our compassion and emotional intelligence, perspective taking and seeking are crucial. Perspective taking is when I put myself in your shoes and, for example, consider my impact on you, or (with curiosity and kindness) why you might have taken some action. Perspective taking happens within my head. Perspective seeking is when I go out and seek your perspective. High-capacity leaders are masterful at seeking and then integrating multiple perspectives. What’s more, they know that dealing effectively with complex issues demands it. See our white paper for more information on perspective taking and seeking.
- Build intentionality into your schedule. Our schedules need to make room for being more intentional about what we’re doing, building that into our calendars. In addition, have a practice of taking 30 seconds before every meeting: What do I want to accomplish? What’s my desired end-goal? If this is a one-on-one, what do I want to be the experience of the person I’m meeting with as s/he leaves our meeting? Given that goal, what’s my plan of how to best accomplish that? Take mindful action during the meeting, and at the end take another 30 seconds of reflection: How did it go? To what extent did we accomplish what I’d hoped? Celebrate what went well and learn from what didn’t, including what I might do differently next time.
- Choosing two or at most three things to work on. You have a day job. If you’re like most leaders, you already have more than you can handle. In order to drive effective change you can’t focus on more than a couple of things. The art of working with a good coach is determining the two or three highest leverage areas of focus. This is often a challenge when a lot of new data has come in (360 evaluations, assessments, feedback from your manager, etc.). We work with you to help determine the 2-3 areas of focus that will have the highest overall impact. This is a vital step.
- Being led by your values. Neuroscience tells us that we operate on autopilot 95-99% of the day. Our brain likes to run on cheap fuel, so we default to using parts of our brain that are less conscious and aware. There’s also fascinating new neuroscience that the single most powerful way to break out of autopilot is with focus on our values, what we truly care about. Why do you want to make the change you do? Who and what will it serve? If a change isn’t truly meaningful to you then you likely won’t follow through.
- Willingness to be uncomfortable and patient, with lots of self-compassion. Everyone wants to change as long as it’s not uncomfortable. The reality is that we think and act as we do for a reason, and change is often surprisingly hard. We often have patterns that worked for us at one time (or at least we think they did!) but they no longer are sufficient to get us where we want to go. When we try something new it often feels vulnerable and unfamiliar, and most leaders like to feel neither. Yet it’s required. Also, when a leader chooses an important area of focus, like having difficult conversations, we don’t know until they start whether it will be relatively easy for them or extremely difficult. Many leaders are surprised at how difficult it can be to change habitual patterns. More damaging, they then judge themselves for that (the inner critic). Patience and self-kindness are crucial.
- Learning to be more mindful. Mindfulness practice helps us be more present, self-aware and self-compassionate. Most people go through life embedded in their thoughts and feelings, identifying with them as “me.” Good mindfulness practice allows for more choice. We gradually “have” thoughts and feelings rather than “being” those thoughts and feelings. We learn to identify with a higher level of compassionate self-awareness that can be at peace even admidst turbulent internal states. We then can reflect on who we’re being and what we’re doing from that same self-compassionate and aware stance, rather than from the “inner critic.” This supports real change and allows us to be more versatile, happy and effective. See the second page of this handout for some resources.
- Deepening self-awareness. What are the strongest derailers that can wreck a leader’s journey? Personality blindspots. It’s vital that we all continue to strengthen our understanding of what makes us tick. Wht’s our worldview? What’s our overall life strategy? What are our strengths, and what do we most need to watch out for? The Enneagram is the system of choice for the two of us, one that we use daily for more effectively navigating our own journey. The Enneagram often points to one of the factors that’s most deserving of daily reflection. No matter what the system, it’s vital to be actively cultivating self-awareness.
- Committing to building resilience. Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist. We’ve been sharing his work for many years. He talks about the brain’s negativity bias, and how we’ve evolved to be “Velcro” for negative experiences and “Teflon” for positive ones. Virtually none of us, no matter what our personality type or upbringing, are naturally skilled at taking in positive experiences. When we consciously take in the positives we build resilience, internal resources that help us cope with the inevitable setbacks of life. Taking in the good requires at least 12-15 seconds of focused attention in order to have the information go from short-term to long-term memory, or from activation to installation. To strengthen this process, consider who and what was impacted by what you did? What are the likely ripple effects? This is one of the important reasons for having an active practice of daily reflection. When you set an intention at the beginning of the day, and then reflect on what actually happened at the end of the day, it provides an opportunity to take-in-the-good. See this blog post for more information on building resilience.
- Paying attention to the context. What in your context (people, structures, organizational culture, etc.) can or will support the development areas you’ve chosen? What in your context can or might interfere? To what extent can you build on the support and address the challenges? How will you integrate this into your development plan? Also, how do you plan on addressing the context for which you’re responsible? See our blog post on Making it Real.
- Make a public declaration. One of the most powerful predictors of successfully changing is making a public declaration of what you want to change. There are several reasons for this. One is that you’ll feel more accountability. Another is that it loosens others tightly-held perspectives. Our brains like to run on cheap fuel, and one of the ways to do so is to form impressions of others, put them into boxes, and then look for data that confirm our previously-held beliefs and ignore data to the contrary. In psychology this is called confirmation bias. When you tell people the changes you’re looking to make, and even better ask them for their help, they’ll start looking for the change rather than for the old behavior.
- Find creative ways to measure change. We need frequent data points to know if we’re headed in the right direction. In our work with complexity we use the term dynamic steering for this. Most organizations have engagement surveys every two years, and then try to drive strategy from that data. It’s insane. It’s like being in a car, opening your eyes, seeing where you are, and then driving with closed eyes for the next two years! One way to gather ongoing data is to create a goal statement. One of our clients, a hard-driving executive who needed to improve her interpersonal skills, used, “She continues to drive results while building relationships rather than breaking them.” Every month she then asked important stakeholders (her manager, peers, direct reports, etc.) to regularly provide feedback on a -3 to +3 scale, where zero represented no change, +1 a little better, -1 a little worse, etc., along with a brief explanation. Many clients collect this data anonymously.
Did we mention that ongoing cycles of action and reflection are vital? Along with healthy doses of patience, self-compassion and curiosity?