“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy
Whether you’re already a CEO or still climbing the corporate ladder, you probably already know that continuous learning is the key to being an effective leader, staying relevant, and inspiring employees to achieve great things. As with any big goal, you’re far more likely to succeed if you create a formal written plan rather than just keep all the details in your head.
But how do you develop a Leadership Development Plan (LDP) for yourself? And if your company already offers an LDP, is it sufficient for your needs—or should you still develop your own plan?
Determining What’s Important
“Leadership means not only having a dream but claiming that dream and the role you want to play in it.”
Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader
The path to greater responsibilities can be built only on a solid foundation. So before you begin planning your promotion, be sure you’re performing at the highest level in your present position. Once you’ve reached that apex, you can then focus on the position you desire and your plan for getting there.
During my days with the Oxygen Channel, I was fortunate to work with an extraordinary executive coach, Gloria Henn. She urged me to think of leadership as a pie, with each slice representing a different skill set. The skill requirements change as one’s responsibilities shift, and mastery of them all makes one an effective leader.
With that image in mind, start the creation of your LDP by asking yourself what skills (or slices of pie) are needed for the position you want. Don’t focus on the skills you’re already good at; rather, pay careful attention to the skills that are needed to be an effective leader in this position.
My last blog post mentioned seven competencies that characterize great leadership. Depending on the position you have in mind, however, you may need to supplement those with additional skills, such as:
- Technical abilities
- Industry knowledge
- Negotiation skills
- Effective delegation
- Taking ownership and responsibility
Once you’ve compiled a list of competencies, review it with your boss to ensure that you both agree on which ones are critical to the position. After all, at some point you may be asking him or her for training dollars (or a promotion as you master the skills!)—so it’s prudent to keep this person in the loop while creating your LDP.
Once you’ve identified the slices of the pie, now what?
Getting Honest Feedback
“It is much more difficult to judge yourself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself rightly, then you are indeed a man of true wisdom.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
It is hard to be objective about oneself. To increase the accuracy of your self-assessment, solicit feedback from your employees and colleagues. However, that’s easier said than done: for a host of reasons, it can be difficult for both direct reports and peers to speak honestly about a supervisor or coworker. Susan M. Heathfield, the human resources expert at About.com, offers ten suggestions for asking others for feedback. They all emphasize open-mindedness (e.g., “Try to suspend judgment,” “Be approachable”), active listening (e.g., “Ask questions to clarify,”), and critical thinking (e.g., “Check with others to determine the reliability of the feedback”).
If you work your way through Heathfield’s list in order, you’ll start with a directive to “try to control your defensiveness.” Starting with the right attitude is critical: if your assessment process gets off on the wrong foot, your employees and colleagues may be reluctant to give you sincere (or any!) feedback—and you may not be in the right frame of mind to analyze what they say. Feedback received in a positive manner encourages more feedback, so listen closely and take notes to understand where, from your coworkers’ perspective, your leadership skills could be improved.
Heathfield correctly observes that “just because a person gives you feedback doesn’t mean their feedback is right.” It’s definitely best to solicit feedback from as many people as you can (ideally, at least six) to determine which comments are widely held and should be addressed and which are specific to particular individuals.
If your company offers 360-degree performance evaluations, which gather feedback from one’s immediate work circle (including peers, superiors, and subordinates), sign up for one immediately! This valuable tool offers the best type of feedback, partly because of the wide range of participants and partly because its inherent anonymity allows for more honest feedback. (Don’t try to associate comments with specific individuals—that defeats the point of getting anonymous feedback!)
If your company does not offer 360-degree performance evaluations, you can create your own versions of them through SurveyMonkey or 36Dollar360. For an approach that’s more low-tech (but just as effective), you can distribute a survey as a Word document and ask respondents to submit their completed forms electronically to a neutral party who can remove identifying information (e.g., e-mail headers) before passing them over to you, or ask them to leave printouts of their responses in your office mailbox.
To ensure that your questions are appropriately chosen and phrases do not breach any company policies, it’s best to involve your HR representative or your boss when generating questions. Including your boss can also highlight you as a motivated go-getter seeking to improve your skills on your own in the absence of a formal system through the company.
Identifying Training Opportunities
Once you’ve identified what you need to work on, speak with your boss about potential on-the-job training opportunities, such as a rotational assignment in another department or office, spearheading a project in an area where you need improvement, or shadowing your boss or another executive. Establishing a formal coaching or mentoring relationship with an executive other than your boss (either inside or outside your organization) can be another great way to expand both your education and the career options available to you.
Numerous LDP-oriented classroom training options exist, but in the event your company is unable or unwilling to pay for one, you can put together your own course of study. For example, you can download case studies or books to read and discuss with your fellow executives. A great way to start compiling your reading list is to ask your boss and C-level executives what books have been particularly inspirational or useful in their development. Perhaps you can start your own book club at the office and ask the executive who recommended a particular book to lead the discussion on it.
Online training is another route to gaining additional leadership experience, as is volunteering for a nonprofit group, school organization, or community-based program. In addition to expanding your skill set, volunteering can also expand your network of contacts (which is never a bad thing!).
Keeping on Track
Obviously, it’s easier to stay on track if you’re involved in a company LDP plan that structures and monitors your progress. But if you’re on your own, you’ll have to work hard to avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day and to keep your focus on developing your leadership skills. In her article “How to Stay on Track for Your Goals,” Ali Luke offers some helpful advice on this topic:
- Establish specific objectives (and a timeline for achieving them) around each skill set you’ve identified as needing improvement. And, Luke adds, “Instead of focusing solely on the end goal, give yourself some milestones along the way.” As you meet each one, a small celebration can help you stay motivated and on track.
- Luke points out that “much of what we do in life is habitual.” With that in mind, she says, building and maintaining good habits will enable you to work toward your goals with both greater ease and greater success.
- Record your progress systematically, in a journal, in your online calendar, or any other format that works for you. Having an overview of your program enables you to see what you’ve accomplished—and what you need to improve—and stay engaged with the overall project
Planning for Your Future
Ultimately, your professional development is your responsibility. If you aspire to be or are currently a leader in your organization, having your own Leadership Development Plan is smart business. Even if your company has a formal program, remember that its goal is to create the type of leader who fits the organization—not necessarily one who can accomplish your personal goals. So to ensure your future happiness and growth, take the time to focus on you and your needs—and how to achieve them.