Exercises for improving leadership skills

Each individual's leadership skills fall somewhere along a broad spectrum from truly terrible to incredibly inspiring. I believe that wherever we are in our leadership development, there are simple, daily exercises that we can do to improve our skills-- in between courses, trainings, coaching, and just doing the hard work of leading and motivating staff.

Here are 5 exercises with accompanying questions and examples to spark some reflection and self-assessment.

  1. Make conscious choices: lead, follow, or watch from the stands. In the very next meeting on your calendar several issues will be raised. Some actions will be agreed to and assigned. And still, there will be a larger or more complicated issue that will go unmentioned or unresolved. This happens in every single meeting- you just have to train yourself to see them. Each of these bigger issues is an opportunity to consciously choose your role. Can you lead your organization out of this bigger problem? Is someone better suited to lead and needs supportive followers? Or, is it best to watch this one play out? All three can be appropriate responses. The important thing is that you choose. You make a choice instead of passively going with the flow. Making a choice, taking a stand is empowering. So, speak up for those you want to take on and lend support to those you want to help. For everything else, make it clear that you’re sitting on the sidelines—because it’s not your leg of the race.
  2. Listen closely for other people’s perspectives. Are you able to hear someone’s point of view without assessment or judgement?  It’s difficult for me and I’ve wondered in the past why I should bother. It gets easier, and opens up more productive conversations, if you can reserve judgement and action until after hearing someone else’s point of view. Specifically, listen for times when people start with “I think” or “I feel” or “we should.” These are clues that they’re about to provide some insights into they’re processing the issue. They’re also words that trigger our subconscious and queue up a response of “well…I think, I feel, or we should…”
  3. Step up to solve today’s problem today. People I believe and respect* say credentials don’t matter as much as we previously believed. But they must matter, right? It’s a tough belief to shake. It’s been drilled into us since the beginning and the foundation higher education is based on. What matters instead are the results you can produce. This makes sense but putting all of the education and experience stuff on the back burner isn’t easy (at least for me) to do. What is more practical though, is resisting the tendency to not speak up because you presume that you don’t have the right credentials to contribute. There is so much important work to be done in our businesses and so much is going undone because the few in titled leadership roles couldn’t possibly get to all of it. They’re a bottleneck to brilliance—and rarely do they shut down good work intentionally. Never once in the history of all of my professional experience was a good idea turned away when someone offered to actually do the work too.
  4. Get the feedback you need—not just what your boss or team is offering. As a leader, you need to know not only if you're hitting targets, but also whether your team is content under your leadership. There's only one way to find out — ask them to tell you how you're doing and if there's anything they wish they could change. They’re likely to be really uncomfortable with this request at first. Reassure them that it’s not a trick and no one is going to get in trouble for speaking about their honest perceptions and experiences. You then back this up by thanking everyone who offers feedback, making adjustments in your approach (if needed), and continuing to enthusiastically lead forward.
  5. Pick yourself to be on the team.  Leaders create project teams and assume that everyone knows that they (the leaders) will fill a review and approval role. A more unique approach is to pick yourself for the team and make that clear upfront. State your role and how you’d like to work with everyone else. It's difficult to lead well if you don't consider yourself part of the group hashing through the tough challenges. What makes the project successful and the team look good is all of the same stuff that makes you look good too.  So, being an actual team player first while leading is a pretty novel and effective approach.

three steps lead down a better path

So, you’ve hatched an idea. That’s great! Now what do you do with it?

The challenge now is figuring out how to share that idea in an interesting, intriguing, or compelling way and start the process of achieving buy-in. To start, you have to get ultra-clear on precisely what problem you’re solving, what the impact will be, who will need to be consulted, and whether it’s an idea even worthy of being said out loud to begin with.

To sort, shape, and validate the idea, ask yourself (or your team) the following questions:

  1. Sort the idea by problem solved: What issue does this idea solve? What pain does it eliminate? Is it a total or partial solution? How do you know that this is a problem? Include the supporting the data, trend, or feedback that not only speaks to the existence of the problem but its magnitude.
  2. Shape: To shape your idea, examine how known culture, attitudes, resources, spending sensitivities, and anything particularly polarizing should be considered. What about external conditions, such as the economy, public perception, customer/market surveys, industry trends and so on? Will they have an impact? Make adjustments or shape your solution to account for (or acknowledge) these factors.
  3. Validate: Do you have a confidante or trusted adviser whom you can safely bounce ideas off of? Ideally, this is someone who isn’t directly affected by the proposed outcome but who has some understanding of the organization and purpose. Someone like this can be invaluable and, such these relationships really blossom when they’re reciprocal. Touch base with a trusted adviser to float your concept and get a gut reaction. Based on their feedback, decide if tweaks are needed, additional people should be pulled in, or if you’re good to go.

Disciplining yourself to take these three early steps for each idea you’re passionate about pursuing helps lay the foundation for success in the future.

this is your career

Available on Amazon!

Available on Amazon!

This is your career. Whether you have your dream job or “just a job,” you owe it to yourself to bring your best ideas forward. If you’re doing work today in exchange for money, it all counts toward the body of work that is your experience, your contributions, your career.

Waiting to do your best work until a better role comes along is a lost opportunity regardless of whether you plan to stay in this line of work in the future.

Once you make the decision to fully participate in your career (and if you’re reading this, my guess is that you made that decision a long time ago), getting leadership buy-in and support for your ideas is essential. Not taking action because you can’t (or because you don’t want to try) to earn your boss’s buy-in is, ultimately, an excuse and one that completely impedes your ability to meaningfully contribute.

Don’t you owe it to yourself—and your ideas—to share them?

Today, I'm launching my first book, Flock: Getting Leaders to Follow. It's the why and how to gain leadership buy-in and support for your ideas so that you can have the kind of impact you want in your career.  Click here to download a copy and let me know what you think!


high impact organizations at CBODN today!

Kid prep, run, meet with a client, get to the conference, present, and then we’re off to Gettysburg for the weekend with the entire family for dinner, nostalgia, and mini-horses. There is a lot going on today but I am so excited to hear the others, then speak at the Chesapeake Bay Organizational Development Network (CBODN) conference today!  

Here’s the gist of the message. The slides will be up on Slideshare later today.

High-impact organizations—what are they and how to we get there?

We all want impact. We want to do work we think is important and make progress. Too often, we’re held back by missed opportunities to connect with our leadership and get buy-in because we’re using our language, not theirs.

When I start working with new clients I often hear them say, “We’ve told them (their leadership) this before but they just don’t get it.”  Sometimes that is true but I’ve found a lot of times that our bosses understand the numbers but they’re not seeing the connection with the bigger picture—something they care deeply about.  And I believe that it’s our job—not theirs—to make that connection.

How might you do this?  Well, to start… 

  1. Inventory your current ideas, key proposals, objectives, goals or whatever you call the stuff you would really like to see done.  
  2. Then, document the top issues for you organization—coming from a recent speech or memo or your agency’s strategic plan.  It’s important here to pull from materials and use the language that will seem most familiar to them.
  3. Complete a mapping exercise.  Look ideas that can either be renamed or pitched slightly differently to better demonstrate the issue.
  4. Lastly, sit down and plan a series of conversations with the right staff—heads of each line of business or other senior staff to build a broader base of support.

With revamped messages and a calendar loaded with a handful of strategic meetings, you can begin demonstrating a connection with the broader mission.


sticking with it

I overheard crumbs of a conversation between two people at Starbucks the other day. I was waiting in line. I wasn't trying to be nosy, really. They were within two feet of me. Living in and around DC, however, you never know what juicy bit you might hear so I didn't make any attempts to distract myself either.

Anyway, the gist of the conversation was one person pitching the other on creating a business partnership. The closing comment was, “Hey, this was great.  Thanks for your persistence on this.  I’m glad we finally got together.”  I suspect that all of the seated twosomes around the shop were having conversations that we’re basically the same at their core. Call it networking or catching up or getting-to-know-you or whatever, a lot of things start this way over a latte.

“Thanks for your persistence on this,” stuck with me. It’s not something you hear said out loud often but it struck me as a compliment. I can think of dozens of things I've bought or bought into and now love—products or services or experiences or job offers—that took someone more than one try to sell me. When approaching someone new with something new, we give up too easily. We all do. 

But what happens when we approach someone with whom we have an established relationship—our leadership or boss—with something new?

I scanned the recent experiences of friends and colleagues and, of course, my own that came to mind. I thought of my friend and neighbor who doggedly pursued recognition for a key client over about a five month period. In the end, her persistence paid off and she ensured that the client won an important industry award given out by her organization. I thought of a colleague with deep reservations about the risks in a prospective scope of work who pushed for a half dozen rounds edits with the account lead and client to get it to a place she felt more comfortable supporting the assignment. And I thought of a former boss and mentor who fearlessly (and like a charming goofball) works every room, everywhere she goes turning over stones looking for fresh opportunities.

After just this quick mental search, I decided that it’s impossible to know whether we’re more persistent with those we know than those we don’t. I suspect that we’re a little better when we know the mind of the recipient and have a much more open door to reach them. I also suspect that because we know them we filter the kinds of ideas we approach our leadership with in advance. We assume a “no” so we don’t even ask.

For those issues you have raised and ideas submitted...

  • Where did they go?
  • Are the concepts working way through a review and consideration process or are they lingering?
  • How important is it?
  • Is it worth following up (perhaps again?) today?

the two-step: gaining leadership buy-in at work

LOMO No. 13 , Lisa Barbero

LOMO No. 13, Lisa Barbero

Most of us work within organizations where bosses tend to hang out. When we have ideas, one of the first hurdles often is getting our boss to agree—agree to let us expend our own work time, engage other staff, use corporate resources, buy something, sell something, or speak up and out on an important issue.

This connection to our leadership is such a fundamental part of the employment pact that it’s not explicitly written down anywhere. We all just “get” that if you want to do something outside of your specific, immediate job responsibilities at work, you’re going to need to ask.

This is as true for entry level staff as it is for the most senior executives. We all have someone who represents a gate we have to pass through to gain buy-into our vision. This approval gate creates tension. In some cases this is a really positive, creative tension. In other cases, unfortunately, it can be a disappointing, frustrating, murky mess.





There are communication strategies we can use to improve our chances of gaining buy-in from the beginning.

  1. The start is finding common ground on what problem we’re trying to solve. Is there agreement that we have an issue? Is it solvable in their view? Is it important enough to rise above other priorities? If we’re already past this point, great. We can skip ahead to crafting the pitch describing the proposed solution.  If we’re unsure, our time is well-invested to describe the problem we see and make sure we hit multiple viewpoints—our staff, our client’s, other stakeholders, and lastly, our own. 
  2. Next, our leadership has to agree that some significant portion of the solution we’re proposing might just work. The trick here is including a sufficient number of interesting, compelling hooks but resisting the urge to come bearing an entirely baked solution. One general thing about leaders—and you can probably relate to this yourself—is that they like to put their own stamp on things. Any solution that is completed researched and documented doesn't leave a lot of room for input. So an alternative is presenting the framework of our solution, demonstrating what you know and what you've researched, and leaving a couple of questions that create room for further engagement.

In the end, the goal is to get leadership support not just approval.  We want to see their whole head (and heart, if we’re lucky) invested in the outcome. We want them to change at an emotional, molecular level and support us with every brain cell. Anything short of that isn't full buy-in.