Eight Step Guide to Developing Your Leadership Skills

Here’s how to develop your leadership skills, adapted from Lombardo and Eichenger’s Leadership Machine:

1. Know what the target looks like. There are hundreds of books out there that claim to offer the secrets of how to be a great leader or manager, including “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” to “Leadership the Soprano’s Way”. It can be overwhelming, confusing, and sometimes contradictory. So what’s an aspiring leader to do? This is why as a practitioner (someone who’s responsible for leadership development within a company), it’s important to clearly define the critical leadership competencies that are required now and in the future in order for the business to succeed. There are great research-based models to pick from (Lominger, CCL, PDI, DDI), so there’s no need to start from scratch. I’ve found it’s best to first understand your company’s strategy and leadership requirements, create a draft competency model, then engage your CEO and senior executives, as well as other key stakeholders to validate the model. If you’re an aspiring leader with no company model, then study the successful leaders in your company. Talk to them, ask them how they’ve been successful, then supplement this information with a couple good books.

2. Know where you stand against the target – seek out feedback. If you have access to one, a 360 degree assessment is a great way to gather confidential feedback on your leadership skills. Even better if the assessment is based on your company’s leadership model. You can also ask trusted colleagues for ongoing feedback. If there’s something specific you’re trying to improve, like listening skills, or assertiveness, you can ask your manager, a coach, or colleague to observe you and give you feedback on that skill. While feedback is one of the most powerful sources of development, unfortunately, it’s often lacking. First of all, managers just aren’t good at it. In fact, most people aren’t comfortable giving feedback. That, combined with our own natural emotional response to feedback (fight or flight), we often don’t get enough of it. And it gets worse the higher we get in an organization (the “it’s lonely at the top” syndrome).

3. Have a reason to develop – be motivated. It’s almost impossible for someone to develop if they don’t want to. The motivation has to come from within, some kind driving force. That’s usually not a problem with successful, ambitious people – improving leadership their leadership skills is often seen as a key to their success. For others, becoming a great leader is almost a calling, part of a purpose driven-driven life.

4. Get specific. I’ve seen so many development plans that say things like, “improve my leadership skills”, or “become a better leader”. Nice intentions, but pretty worthless when it comes to real development. You need to drill down and uncover the behaviors that if improved, will make the greatest improvement in your effectiveness as a leader. And oh by the way – with all due respects to Marcus Buckingham (Discover you Strengths), weaknesses do matter. It’s your weaknesses that will hold you back, so find out what they are and fix them.

5. Create a plan – and put your plan in writing. The research is clear – people that set goals are more successful than those that don’t, even better if they are written and even better if they are specific. Create your own “Individual Development Plan” (IDP). Do it – you deserve it.

6. Hit the need or needs with every learning method available. For some big needs, a job change may be the best development remedy (and the most powerful). In lieu of that, look for projects that require you to use the skill you are trying to develop. For example, if you’re trying to become a better listener, lead a project where you’re not the subject matter expert, so you’re forced to listen to others. Learn from other people (experts, mentors, coaches, etc…), from courses and books. Whatever you do, make sure you’re really challenging yourself. A robust development plan should make you a little queasy just thinking about it, there should be a risk of failure. It’s that “development heat” that causes the most impactful behavioral changes.

7. Make sense of it all. Think about what you did, what you read, what you learned. What were the lessons? What should you incorporate as a permanent part of your repertoire? What should you reject? What did you learn about yourself? It’s often helpful to have a trusted coach or mentor to help you with those “V8 moments”.

8. Finally, develop a sense of “learning agility”. A recent study showed that learning agility was the single most significant predictor of leadership success. Be curious, be open to new experiences, try new things, experiment, and take pride in being able to tackle the new and unknown. Enjoy the journey!