HBR: Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders

What is your approach to leadership development? Which of the following approaches would work for you? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Deborah Rowland 

Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders

Too many business leaders today are out of touch with the employees they lead. Edelman estimates that one in three employees doesn’t trust their employer — despite the fact that billions are spent every year on leadership development. Part of the problem: Our primary method of developing leaders is antithetical to the type of leadership we need.

The vast majority of leadership programs are set curricula delivered through classroom-taught, rationally based, individual-focused methods. Participants are taken out of their day-to-day workplaces to be inspired by expert faculty, work on case studies, receive personal feedback, and take away the latest leadership thinking (and badges for their résumés). Yet study after study, including my own, tells us the qualities that leaders in today’s world need are intuitive, dynamic, collaborative, and grounded in here-and-now emotional intelligence.

The mismatch between leadership development as it exists and what leaders actually need is enormous and widening. What would work better?

Over the last 16 years I have carried out research into how leaders create change, and I’ve worked in the change leadership field for 25 years in multinational corporations. Over that time, I’ve come to appreciate four factors that lie at the heart of good, practical leadership development: making it experiential; influencing participants’ “being,” not just their “doing”; placing it into its wider, systemic context; and enrolling faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas.

Make it experiential. Neuroscience shows us that we learn most (and retain that learning as changed behavior) when the emotional circuits within our brain are activated. Visceral, lived experiences best activate these circuits; they prompt us to notice both things in the environment and what’s going on inside ourselves. If leadership development begins in the head, leaders will stay in their heads. We can’t simply think our way out of a habit. But in experience, and novel experience in particular, our intentional mind can be more engaged as we make conscious decisions about our behavior.

In practice, this mean setting up what I call “living laboratory” leadership development. Throw out pre-planned teaching schedules, content, lectures, and exercises that ask you to think about your world and how you need to lead it. In its place, switch to constructing self-directed experiences for participants that replicate the precise contexts they need to lead in. In such experiences the group dynamics at play in the room become the (at-times-uncomfortable) practice arena. Business simulations or unstructured large group dialogues are examples of this. I have also used experiences that challenge participants to self-organize visits outside of their companies to stakeholder groups that matter for their future, such as a carbon-dependent energy provider visiting environmental NGOs. All can act as powerful experiential catalysts for learning and change.

Influence participants’ “being,” not just their “doing.” In soon-to-be-published research, Malcolm Higgs, Roger Bellis, and I have found that leaders need to work on the quality of their inner game, or their capacity to tune into and regulate their emotional and mental states, before they can hope to develop their outer game, or what it is they need to actually do. So leadership development must start by working on the inner game. It’s very hard for leaders to have courageous conversations about unhelpful reality until they can regulate their anxiety about appearing unpopular and until they’ve built their systemic capacity to view disturbance as transformational, not dysfunctional.

In order for leadership development to influence being-level capacities, the learning experience needs to offer stillness and space for intentional, nonobstructed contemplation. It’s difficult to teach how to be! Training people with tools and models is very different from simply holding a space for leaders to be. In practice, I have found that offering participants experiences such as mindfully walking outdoors in nature, sitting silently in peer groups to hear colleagues share their life stories, and providing out-of-the-ordinary tasks such as stone carving, enables leaders to tap into their inner world as a powerful instrument for cultivating the vital skills of purpose, self-awareness, empathy, and acute attentional discipline.

Such approaches might sound a million miles from the chalk-and-talk model on which leadership development was built over the last century. But do we really believe that inner capacities can be developed in this way?

Place development into its wider, systemic context. In their HBR article, “Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It,” Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader talk cogently about the need to attend to the organizational system as a vehicle for change before companies simply send their leaders on training programs to think and behave differently. Too often I have seen the “parallel universe” syndrome, in which leaders attend courses that promulgate certain mindsets and ways of working only to go back to the workplace and find that the office (and especially top leadership) is still stuck in old routines.

I have an additional spin on this need. And that is to use the lived leadership development experience as an opportunity to tune into and shift that very system, because they are intimately connected. Recently I directed a three-year change intervention in which the top 360 leaders of one company (including the board) attended a leadership development program in 10 waves of participants, with 36 leaders in each. Given the uncertainty in their industry, it was impossible for senior management to know what their long-term business strategy or organizational model would look like. However, the CEO did know that all he could do in such a dynamic context was build new capacities for agility and change in his organization. Each wave of participants joined the leadership development at a different stage of the company’s change journey, and at each stage we used the development experience not just for personal training but also as a vehicle to import and work with the shifting systemic dynamics of the company through time — helping them move through the “change curve.”

This meant, of course, that the program for each of the 10 waves felt very different, all set course designs had to be thrown out, and we as faculty had to continually adapt the program to the shifting context.

Enroll faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas. Finally, you have to attend to the required skills and characteristics of the people who lead these programs.

In the above example, we found that no single provider could provide a facility that was holistic enough. We needed a faculty group with egos not wedded to any particular leadership methodology or school of thinking and who could work skillfully with live group dynamics, creating psychological safety in the room for participants to take personal risks and push cultural boundaries. We required the educational equivalent of Sherpas, people able to carry part of the load in order to guide participants toward their personal and organizational summits.

This required not just hiring a bunch of individuals with such guiding skills but also developing ourselves continuously as a robust faculty team. We needed to be able to work with a continually changing curriculum design, and with the group projecting their discomfort with the wider change — and how it was being experienced in the program — onto the faculty.

Make no mistake, attending to all four of these factors is a sizable challenge. Whether you are a corporate or business school leader, a head of leadership and organizational development, or a senior business leader sponsoring and attending leadership development programs, take a long, hard look at how you are currently delivering leadership development. The price of failed leadership is already too high for us not to attend to the process through which we develop it.

JoA: 5 Things Leaders Should Never Say

How’s is your communication with your directs? Are you pushing them away? Below is an article form Journal of Accountancy magazine By Jennifer Wilson.

5 Things Leaders Should Never Say

To avoid alienating your employees, especially your best young talent, try these alternative approaches for better communication.

Today’s –coming leaders have many career options, and their phones, email inboxes, and LinkedIn accounts are being “hit up” every day by recruiters and others interested in potentially employing them. That’s why established leaders committed to retaining their best and brightest need to pay more attention to the things they say that frustrate and disappoint future leaders.

This article explores five phrases established leaders should never say again and suggests an alternative approach that their young or new talent might better appreciate. And while the advice in this article is geared toward conversations with young CPAs, leaders would be -advised to apply it when communicating with all team members.

Never say this again Be patient …

Why? Because … Up-and-coming leaders have many options. When you tell them to be patient about something they want changed, they hear, “This isn’t going to happen for a long time (if ever),” and they don’t want to—or have to—wait.

Try this instead: When your people want something to change, ask them to develop a plan to make it happen. Then, help them refine their ideas and do your best to support them in implementing the change unless the change is a monumental deal breaker. Be willing to pilot new ideas, take small steps, and implement things imperfectly to ensure that your team feels perpetual forward progress.

Never say this again: You’re not ready …

Why? Because … Emerging leaders want experiences. Most have confidence in their abilities, and they want to progress faster than traditional timelines. Your best and brightest don’t want to be held to “old” timing standards of what a “- person” or a “new manager” does. Instead, they want to do what they believe they are ready and able to do. When you say they’re not ready, they hear you saying, “I don’t believe in you yet,” which contradicts their own beliefs. This leaves them thinking, “You don’t get it” or “You don’t get me.”

Try this instead: Figure out how to get them a portion of the experience they’re requesting or allow them to take on the whole effort. For instance, if they feel they are ready to meet with tax clients, allow them to do so. Ensure that a member of your team acts as a silent shadow for the first few meetings. In my experience, today’s emerging leaders are often more ready than we expect—which is great news! When they try and don’t succeed, most are quick to admit they need to step back and invest to round out their skills. While they’re regrouping, they’ll appreciate that you took the risk and believed in them.

Never say this again: When I was coming up … That’s not how it was when I came up …

Why? Because …They hear you saying, “Four score and seven years ago …” or “I am old.” I realize that’s harsh, but if you hark back to your days as an emerging leader, you rolled your eyes when your boss said this, too! Back in the day, people churned butter and used outhouses. But they don’t have to anymore. Today’s emerging leaders don’t want to talk about yesterday’s hardships—they want to talk about tomorrow’s possibilities!

Try this instead: Ask yourself what you’re trying to convey in a story about the past or your career progression. Instead of using the offending phrases, try something like, “What I have learned that works well is …” or “A best practice we employ is …”

Never say this again: He must not be working because he isn’t here … or She isn’t putting in the same effort as others because she leaves at 4:30 p.m. or isn’t here on Saturdays …

Why? Because … It is a fallacy that people are productive contributors just because they’re in the office. It is possible that your people are working from home, clients’ offices, or other locations at odd hours and producing a lot of great work when they are not in the office. In fact, according to Gallup’sState of the American Workplace report, remote workers logged more hours than their office counterparts and were slightly more engaged. Emerging leaders value flexibility in where and when they work. The offending phrases make them think, “You really don’t get it.”

Try this instead: Look for ways to further your workplace flex programs. Ask your emerging leaders to devise strategies to maximize both production and flexibility. Encourage all employees to stop equating presence at the office with productivity because the correlation is false. And, if you want to learn more about the argument emerging leaders have for virtual work, read my blog post at convergencecoaching.com.

Never say this again: You can change this when I’m gone (sometimes said jokingly, but not heard that way!)

Why? Because … This is similar to “be patient” but has the extra kick of reminding your emerging leaders that you are on your way out, biding your time, bailing, or any other number of “short timer” ideas. And this can cross their minds, “So, we won’t change this important thing because you don’t want to, and the firm will suffer until you leave. Then, we’ll have to scramble to be competitive.” This leads them to want you gone sooner—and you wonder why you feel pushed? When your resistance persists, it can lead to this thought you never want to enter your future leader’s mind, “Why don’t I leave before you and save us both the trouble?”

Try this instead: Our profession is facing immense change in almost every area. For firms, those changes include shifting work styles such as dress and flexibility, the fight for relevance in compliance services, changes in billing practices, the emergence of advisory services, and leaps in technology. Evolution isn’t optional. Your emerging leaders want to capitalize on these changes and position your business for success. Step outside of your discomfort, reignite your passion, and put your immense experience to work to support your team in making the big changes needed—now.


As a Baby Boomer, I understand the feelings that established leaders might have as they read this article. You want to enjoy the fruits of your labor as you appreciate the view from your career pinnacle. You want things to be familiar and perhaps the way they’ve always been. But that’s like wishing you could do business in a market that doesn’t exist instead of actually doing business in the market you’re in. If you’re committed to having succession in place to ensure that your business succeeds well into the future, give up the notions—and phrases—that send signals of resistance to your emerging leaders. Reignite your inner revolutionary. Embrace their ideas. Engage with them in change.

This article is adapted from “5 Phrases Established Leaders Should Never Say Again,” CPA Insider, Aug. 1, 2016.

About the author

Jennifer Wilson (jen@convergencecoaching.com) is a partner and co-founder of Convergence-Coaching LLC in Bellevue, Neb.


FOCUS: How Gritty Leaders Articulate Purpose

The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results by Eric Kaufmann is a quick and enjoyable read. He talks about four key questions to keep you on track: What am I creating? What am I avoiding? What am I sustaining? What am I yielding? Below is an excerpt from the book:

FOCUSFour Virtues.jpg

Purpose is the focusing element we need to understand and develop among the building blocks of grit. Grit is a forward-facing principle. Running away from something isn’t grit; it’s fear. While fear provides a strong motivation to keep running and moving, it drives you from behind as it pushes you along. Grit, on the other hand, magnetizes you toward a long-term objective. Clarity of purpose is a critical element for successfully developing and enhancing your grittiness; this can be something as broad as your life purpose, or a more narrowly defined sense of purpose for your work, team, or project.

Purpose draws from your focus, from your answer to “What am I creating?” In formulating your focus, you keep attention toward the horizon, and in so doing forward becomes obvious and easy to press toward. Leadership is a constant vigilance toward the future, toward what’s coming, as well as to the present, to what’s happening now. Long-term goals feed grit. We persevere when the future plays an active role in moment-to-moment decision making.

I’ve seen a common pattern among people who are most effective at remaining on purpose. I’ve coined the acronym FOCUS as a thinking guide that reflects how gritty leaders articulate purpose. FOCUS is a way to concentrate your efforts forward and bring forth the elements that empower grit:

F-Fulfilling. Is your goal fulfilling to you? How does this long-term goal feed your spirit? How does it make you a better person? Beyond the things that we have to do that we find challenging and difficult, how is this work feeding your soul? My job is challenging. It takes lots of attention and energy. Yet I grow and learn and make extremely rich and meaningful connections. I can press through the challenges because my work is fulfilling. My grit-my perseverance for striving to improve professionally-is fed by the fulfillment of being of service, of touching people’s lives in a meaningful way.

O-Optimistic. My daughter has a glass on her desk half filled with water. She keeps it there because she wants to be gritty, and gritty folks choose to look at the glass as half full. It’s difficult to be gritty when you’re pessimistic about your goal in particular or future in general. You can learn and practice optimism, and the optimistic aspect of FOCUS isn’t just looking at the world positively, but looking forward and being engaged by the future. Being focused on the goal means that you direct yourself toward it; being optimistic about your goal means that you look forward to it. It’s nearly impossible to persevere toward something that you dread.

C-Challenging. Believe it or not, if the purpose is too easy or too ordinary, we lose interest in it. It’s paradoxical that grit-stamina and determination in the face of difficulty-is activated by the very presence of challenge and difficulty. Being challenged has a stimulating and energizing effect when the goal is also fulfilling; you strengthen grit when you know that you’re working toward something fulfilling and challenging.

U-Urgent. To stay on track with your purpose, it has to entail a sense of urgency. Urgency keeps your intention top of mind and your attention focused. This might sound counterintuitive, as grit refers to passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Yet if the long-term goal has no sense of urgency, then it simply languishes in the “would-be-nice-someday” category. When urgency turns to stress, though, it actually consumes the ability to be gritty. What builds purpose for true grit is your continued attention to the urgency of the goal while maintaining a rational detachment from the strain and stress of the deadline.

S-Specific. The final component of FOCUS is that the goal is specific; it’s restricted. During strategic planning, I refer to strategy as the “art of exclusion.” Being specific means honing in on one defined outcome and ignoring the other possibilities and temptations. Losing weight through diet and exercise can take a while, often longer than we wish, and saying, “I want to lose weight” is fairly useless. But saying “I want to weigh 140 pounds” is specific. “Hiring good talent” is vague; “hiring three experienced trainers” is specific.

Two Yardsticks for Measuring Risky Decisions

How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices by Therese Huston is a fascinating book. How do you make decisions? Do you know the risk in making your decision? Below is an excerpt from the book:

Two Yardsticks for Measuring Risky DecisionsHow women decide.jpg

Are there strategies for figuring out when to take a risk? I was torn on whether to include this advice because I don’t want to send the message that women are, underneath it all, fearful of risk. The data doesn’t support that. But whether you’re a man or a woman, someone who takes too many risks or too few, you need strategies for evaluating new opportunities. There are any number of risky decisions you might be considering. Maybe you’re thinking about taking a new job or quitting your current one. Maybe you’re trying to decide whether to invest your time in a project that your friends think is a dead end but that you believe is just beginning. I’m going to offer two tools, two yardsticks you can use to measure a daring move and whether it’s headed in the right direction.

The first tool is the 10-10-10 rule, developed by the journalist and author Suzy Welch. The purpose of this strategy is to help you look at a decision from three angles, with the hope that one of those vantage points will provide a pop of clarity. In her book 10-10-10, Welch offers three easy-to-remember questions: “What are the consequences of this decision in 10 minutes? In 10 months? In 10 years?” Simple, yes, but potentially quite powerful. The goal isn’t to constrain you to those exact numbers – you could think about two days, six months, and seven years from now. The goal is for you to think about the immediate consequences, the impact your decision will have in the foreseeable and imaginable future and in a distant part of your life, a time far enough in the future that you can’t predict the intervening details or events but you still have clear hopes for yourself. Imagining forty years out is probably too far. The idea is that all too often when we’re trying to make a decision, we’re focused on one, maybe two of these time frames, but wisdom might lie in considering all three.

The second tool for sizing up a risk is something called a premortem, a strategy discussed in the bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University professor and Nobel Prize- winning economist who has been studying reasoning and decision- making for over forty-five years. You may be familiar with a postmortem, which is what you do when a project or event is over, but a premortem is just what its name suggests – a step you take before the project launches, before you’ve committed to a plan of action and the risks that come with it. The concept is simple. Once you have a concrete plan on the table, bring together the key people who know about the decision you’re making and say, “Imagine that it’s a year into the future and we’ve gone ahead with our current plan. The result was a disaster. Take five to ten minutes and write down a brief play-by-play of that disaster

You might not be immediately impressed with this strategy. You’re thinking, But I’ve already asked “What could go wrong?” a dozen times. But that question involves looking forward, to possible events in the future, whereas the premortem involves looking back. (A premortem is similar to the look-back we discussed in chapter 1.) Looking back may not seem like much of a shift, especially since it’s all in your imagination, but this small shift in perspective can be profound.

Consider these two questions: “How likely is it that an Asian American will be elected president of the United States in 2024? Why might this happen? List all the reasons that come to mind:’

Before you read on, take a moment to think about this future possibility and generate some ideas.

That was looking forward. Now consider these two questions: “It’s 2024 and an Asian American has just been elected president of the United States. Why did this happen? What events might have preceded this one? List everything that comes to mind.”

If you’re like most people who’ve been asked these questions, a wider variety of vivid details come to mind in the second, hindsight scenario. It’s not just that you’re getting a second chance to think about the same event – people generate better answers to the hindsight questions even if they never heard the first ones. Deborah Mitchell at the University of Pennsylvania, J. Edward Russo at Cornell University, and Nancy Pennington at the University of Colorado collaborated on a project and found that people who are given the second, hindsight scenario generate 25 percent more reasons than people given the first, foresight scenario.” Perhaps even more important, people generated more specific and concrete reasons in the hindsight scenario. When we think about future events, we’re content to think in broad generalities, but when we think about something that has already happened, we feel a need to provide more convincing explanations. This is why the premortem is so effective- it’s looking back at a fictional event as though it’s happened. You’ve always heard that hindsight is better than foresight, and that, remarkably, includes imaginary hindsight.


HBR: The 4 Leadership Styles, and How to Identify Yours

What is your leadership style? My leadership style is a Solution Finder. Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Bill Taylor.

The 4 Leadership Styles, and How to Identify Yours

We all want to be part of a great success story. To run, start, or play a senior role in a company that wins big or changes the course of its industry. To launch a brand that dazzles customers and dominates its markets. To be the kind of executive or entrepreneur who creates jobs, generates wealth, and builds an organization bursting with energy and creativity.

Which means that all of us, no matter where we are in our career, have to wrestle with the big questions of leadership: What is our personal definition of success? What does it mean to make a difference and have an impact? What is the best way to rally colleagues to our cause, to handle problems and obstacles that inevitably arise, to revise plans in the face of setbacks or to stand pat no matter the odds? How much do we rely on our own ideas and experiences, and how widely do we seek the advice and support of those around us? If we hope to succeed, we need to understand how we lead.

Over the last three decades — first as a young editor at Harvard Business Review, then as cofounder of Fast Company magazine, now as a book author — I’ve spent time with truly remarkable leaders in a vast range of fields. All of them have achieved tremendous success and impact, and none of them has done it in precisely the same way. But I’ve been able to identify four styles that capture their different approaches to the whys and hows of leadership, and I’ve come up with a set of 16 questions to help you figure out which style suits you best. There are no right answers to these questions, of course, no one way to lead. But each of us has to figure out which style of leadership fits who we are and what we are trying to achieve.

What are those four styles of leadership?

The Classic Entrepreneur. As legendary investor John Doerr likes to say, classic entrepreneurs do “more than anyone thinks possible with less than anyone thinks possible.” Leadership is about the thrill of competition and the quest for success. No-nonsense variables, such as costs, quality, profit margins, and savvy deals, are the metrics that matter. Sure, these leaders care about the values their company stands for, but it’s the dollars-and-cents value proposition that matters most. They love to build killer products and butt-kicking companies. They are, in Doerr’s words, and he doesn’t mean this critically, “opportunistic” — they revel in “the pitch” and “the deal.” When faced with decisions about launching a new product, or dealing with a disgruntled customer, or selling the company to an eager suitor, they focus on tough-minded calculations and no-nonsense financial returns.

The Modern Missionary. These leaders aim for more than mere business success; they aspire to success and significance. Winning is less about beating the competition than it is about building something original and meaningful. Success is less about making money than it is about making a difference and having an impact. Sure, economic value is important, but human values are what drive their passion to succeed. So these leaders may take risks that classic entrepreneurs won’t, even if the short-term returns aren’t obvious, or they may turn down deals that others might accept, because the financial payoffs aren’t as important as the broader impact they hope to make. These leaders don’t just want to run companies; they aim to turn their companies into a cause.

The Problem Solver. They worry less about dramatic impact than about concrete results. They believe in the power of expertise and the value of experience. Disruptive technologies and blank-sheet-of-paper business models may be reshaping markets and industries, but past success is a good predictor of future impact. So as they rise through the ranks or lead organizations they’ve built, problem solvers are the first to confront difficulties and identify new opportunities. Yes, they rely on the advice of colleagues, but ultimately they fall back on everything they’ve learned and seen to guide the organization into the future. These top-down, take-charge, the-buck-stops-here executives may be the most recognizable sorts of leaders, in terms of the image we carry around of what it takes to get things done.

The Solution Finder. This style is about incremental results and concrete solutions, but these leaders believe that the most powerful contributions often come from the most unexpected places — the hidden genius of their colleagues, the collective genius that surrounds their organization. They are committed to making sure that what they know doesn’t limit what they can imagine. They’re ultimately responsible for business results, but they believe that achieving those results is everybody’s business. These modest, humble, self-effacing leaders don’t make headlines, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious. They believe that humility in the service of ambition is the right mindset to do big things in a world of huge unknowns.

Why is it important to gain clarity about the leadership style that fits each of us best? Because the more we understand about ourselves — what we truly care about, how we make decisions, why we do what we do — the more effective we will be at marshaling the support of others for what we hope to achieve. In a time of wrenching disruptions and exhilarating advances, of unrelenting turmoil and unlimited promise, there have never been more roads to success — or more opportunities to fail.

Author’s note: I’ve created a 16-question quiz on my website to help you figure out your style. It’s free, but you do have to enter your email address to get your results.


How to Conduct a Business Meeting

Business meetings are often unproductive. The following outlines some tips to help ensure a productive meeting. There are three importance things to determine before scheduling a meeting: purpose, agenda, and people.


The purpose of the meeting should be clearly stated and communicated to participants. Both the agenda and materials should be sent to all members before the meeting. Let everyone know that the materials should be reviewed prior to the meeting and to come prepared to discuss the topics at hand. Discussions at meetings are important and silence may denote that you’re in agreement with the topic. Ground rules should be made clear.  These may include things such as no cellphones or laptops allowed in the meeting. Also, the meeting should start on time, so arrive 5 to 10 minutes early to network beforehand.


The agenda is used to guide the meeting. Each agenda item should have a designated amount of time noted on the agenda either written in minutes or beginning time (3:15pm). An alternative approach is to use a shot-clock which is a timer used to countdown the minutes.

You may want to assign someone to take notes for the meeting. These notes can be either formally typed up and distributed after the meeting or simply make a copy or take a picture of the handwritten notes and email them to the group.

The notes should include the agreed upon action items and assignment of those task s to a responsible party. As a group leader you will need to follow up with the individual responsible for all action items before the next meeting.


The last item, but perhaps the most important is deciding who should attend the meeting. There isn’t any magic number on the number of attendees. However, many recommend no more than 6-8 people or you can use Jeff Bezos’s two pizza rule; limit participants to the number two pizzas would feed. Involve those who have a stake in the agenda and will add value. Finally, at the end of the meeting there should be a recap of the results of the meeting, next time steps to be taken, and the responsible party for those actions.

A little extra planning can go a long way to increasing the productivity of any meeting.

HBR: 4 Ways to Be More Effective at Execution

Do you have an execution problem? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.

4 Ways to Be More Effective at Execution

Most people recognize that execution is a critical skill and strive to perform it well, but they may a) underestimate how important it is to their career advancement or b) not realize that you can improve on execution without working longer hours.

On the first point, bosses place a premium on execution, which we define as the ability to achieve individual goals and objectives. In fact, when we asked senior managers to indicate the importance of this ability, they ranked it first on a list of 16 skills. Other raters in the organization ranked it fourth, behind inspiring and motivating, having integrity and honesty, and problem solving. We recognize that there are many parts of your job that are important, but if you want to move ahead in your career, it might be time to double down on simply getting more stuff done – it’s what your boss wants to see.

Which brings us to the second point. Many managers react with defensiveness or despair to this news; after all, most of the managers we know already feel like they’ve got too much to do. People who are lethargic, slow, or unfocused are rarely (at least in our experience) promoted to upper management positions. The leaders we know already work hard and long – and working harder and longer is not a viable option. In the short term this typically yields improved results, but in the long term leaders burn out. And if they’ve pushed their teams to do the same, team members quit.

But our data – gleaned from tens of thousands of 360-degree performance reviews — tells us that there are more sustainable methods of improving execution. We looked at thousands of leaders who were rated as being highly effective at execution and looked for the coinciding behaviors that enabled this skill. We found a set of behaviors that improve execution. Four behaviors in particular stood out:

Be clear and methodical

Many people who are energetic about execution tend to jump into activities and take action before they get organized, create a plan, or connect what they’re doing to the strategy of the organization. Having the discipline to organize people, assemble resources, and then generate a plan that others can commit to will collectively improve execution. So will making clear who is doing what; we have learned that when everyone is collectively responsible, that no one is responsible. Providing others with clear direction and a sense of connection to the strategy of the organization helps people understand how the work they are doing dovetails with the organization’s mission.

If you are quick to jump into action and tend to start project without a well-organized plan of attack, or if you get feedback on your lack of planning and organization, this suggestion might be one to focus on. An individual contributor might be able to get away with being disorganized, but it rarely works out well at the senior management level.

Set stretch goals and deadlines

Setting stretch goals helps the group achieve their objectives and generates greater engagement and satisfaction in team members. To push the group to achieve those goals, pair them with deadlines. While we may not like it, when someone gives us a deadline, our behavior changes. Simply setting deadlines for goals and objectives goes a long way toward achieving those goals and objectives! If you resist setting stretch goals for your team, start by asking your team questions like, “What would it take to accomplished this goal two weeks earlier?” We find that by challenging your team and supporting them in accomplishing a difficult goal, team members actually feel more engaged and satisfied with their jobs.

But don’t go overboard; we’ve also found that too much pushing can erode trust, which will hurt execution in the long run. When an untrusted leader asks for additional effort, people question their motives and resist their requests. Moreover, involving your team in the process of setting goals deadlines will increase their sense of commitment and autonomy.

Give more feedback, especially more positive feedback

This is all about improving execution through intrinsic motivation, rather than through goals and deadlines. Leaders who are great executors are skilled at giving feedback. Specifically, the leaders who rate most highly are those who deliver critical feedback by taking the time to listen to and understand their employees’ perspectives, rather than simply dropping a difficult message on someone and ending the conversation as quickly as possible.

But where we really saw a major difference was with positive feedback. Specifically, we found that leaders who are great at execution give a lot more positive recognition. Our research indicates that while giving a little more recognition did not affect execution, being above the 65th percentile on this skill had a major impact.

Resolve conflict and build team unity

Have you ever been part of a team so great that you love coming to work? Teams like this probably do all or most of the above – work assignments are clear and processes make sense, deadlines are ambitious but fair, and feedback is plentiful – but they also do something more. On these teams, it’s not just the boss motivating team members — the expectations of peer team members are powerful motivators, too. Creating this kind of team culture is an important element of good execution. While there’s a lot that goes into building high-performance teams, in our experience, perhaps the biggest single thing for leaders to focus on is resolving conflict. That’s because many of the problems within a team come from differences and conflict between team members; on high-performing teams, team members trust each other and conflict is constructive, not destructive or personal.

As you think about your ability to execute we feel that all three of these dimensions are critical. You may focus on one or two and find that one is lacking. But our research shows that balancing all four of these factors is the strategy that will improve execution most of all.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far and you really feel like you’re already doing all of these things, and yet somehow you’re still perceived as having an “execution problem,” consider this: in our research, we also found that there’s almost a one-to-one relationship between leaders who are seen as fast, and those who are seen as great executors. Previous work we’ve done has shown that some of the above things – setting stretch goals, having clear processes in place, and building trust, for example – will help you move faster. But you may also need to give your peers and bosses more evidence of your speed by, for example, being more transparent about how many projects you’re working on and where they are in your pipeline.