Guaranteed to Optimize Your Leadership Effectiveness in Minutes a Day

A watch with a minute and second hand. This powerful practice only takes 30 seconds before and after your interactions.
Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

We define leadership capacity as the ability to lead more effectively in times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. Please see this important article for the vital but little-understood distinction between leadership capacity (our operating system) and leadership competencies (the software we run).

We have proven we know how to increase leadership capacity. In one leadership program, with approximately 40 hours of curriculum over 9 months, the average gain in the ability to think effectively about complex leadership challenges was equivalent to more than two full years of graduate school, using an assessment with high validity and reliability that cannot be faked or gamed.

This article is about a practice, the Integrative Cycle of Learning, that will increase your leadership effectiveness in minutes a day, so long as you consistently follow through. It’s one of the first things we share with our leadership clients. It is the foundation for much of what we do. As you read further you will understand why.

Our clients come to us wanting to become even more effective leaders and human beings. They have changes they would love to make. This is about how to actually change the way we think and then act, integrating what we are learning from practical neuroscience.

First, why do you care?

We need to start with what goals or desired outcomes really touch our hearts
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

The first step is getting clear about why you care about increasing your leadership capacity. Change is hard for us humans. It inevitably involves experiencing some discomfort in service of something that really matters to us. What is your “why”? What is your vision for you as a leader? What impact do you want to have on your organization and those who are in your care?

It can help to ask yourself what you hope people at your retirement party say about you as leader before you arrive. Is it just, “She really hit her numbers?” or something deeper than that?

Second, understand something about your brain

Autopilot image. We humans are on autopilot or habit mode a great majority of the time.

Our brains are designed to run on cheap fuel. It takes a lot of energy to run the frontal lobes, the seat of executive functioning. This includes insight, response flexibility, empathy, intuition, moral awareness, attuned communication, reflection, perspective taking and perspective seeking. and emotional regulation. Important abilities! But in order to save energy, our brains naturally revert to automatic pilot or “habit mode.” In doing so much of what allows us to become even more effective leaders goes offline. We’re still getting stuff done, but we’re not able to optimize our current capacity, nor build new capacity.

An alarm clock — we need to mindfully “wake up” many times a day in order to successfully change habits and patterns.
Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

In order to increase our capacity we have to “wake up” many times throughout the day, coming off “automatic pilot” and making more conscious choices. Building capacity requires a mindful approach, with short cycles of action and reflection.

While the practice we’re describing takes just minutes a day. our leadership clients consistently report their overall effectiveness taking a quantum leap in both organizational results and employee engagement. Many report it having just as powerful an impact on their personal lives as well.

The Integrative Cycle of Learning: Short cycles of Goal — Plan — Action — Reflection

OK, here’s the practice that will change your professional life, as long as you consistently follow through.

30 seconds before every interaction, set a Goal and a Plan.

By “interaction” we mean any engagement with other human beings: meeting with a direct report or your whole team, being a participant in someone else’s meeting, speaking with your supervisor, etc. This applies to 3–5 minute interactions as well as two-hour meetings.

An archer shooting an arrow at a target. What is our goal for each interaction we have?
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Goal

First set a Goal for the interaction.

This Goal needs to have two parts: Task & People.

The Task Goal may be getting an update on a project, better understanding some problem that arose, wanting your manager to understand your perspective, desiring to integrate the perspectives of others, etc.

The People Goal isn’t just what you want your experience to be. Generally the best question is: What do you want the experience of the other(s)to be at the end of the meeting?”

This is a vitally important question. When we put ourselves in the shoes of the others (perspective taking) and ask what we want their experience to be, it opens up the empathy channels in our brain. We “wake up” to being aware of the impact we’re having on other human beings. We also “wake up” to ourselves as humans, including the values that most matter to us. It’s a brain stretch. It’s inherently capacity-building. We engage our frontal lobes, which we described above as the seat of our executive functions (insight, response flexibility, emotional regulation, etc.).

The People Goal might be wanting the other(s) to be more engaged, or to know you have their back, or to feel more ownership, or to feel safe and able to share their best perspectives.

Even when this is a tough performance conversation, and you want to set clear expectations for what is required in order to meet minimum standards (and please see our writing on Co-Responsibility before having this conversation), how you take their perspective and your impact on them is critical. When people are thrown into reactive or fight-flight mode, as often happens when they feel criticized or no longer safe in their role, they become less productive, less innovative, less collaborative, and more narrow in their thinking. Your challenge is to set clear expectations, have them know current reality and needed future state, while also letting them know you have their back (again, see Co-Responsibility) and want them to succeed. You let them know you are there for them, AND that there are performance gaps that need to be addressed.

A woman thinking about her plan to optimize her desired goals for the next interaction, both for herself and for others.
Photo by Paola Aguilar on Unsplash

Plan

Then make a quick Plan: What are one or two things I can do to have my Goal be more likely to occur?

This generally involves what we’ve already learned about our strengths and challenges, perhaps from 360s or personality assessments. For one of our senior leaders, it’s often: “I know I tend to jump to giving advice. I’m going to focus on listening, asking more curious questions, and first really understand the perspective of my direct report.” For another: “I’m going to make sure I understand what’s most important to my manager, so I can present my ideas in a way that he’s more likely to welcome.” Sincerely asking for feedback is another common part of leaders’ plans.

For those who have learned the Enneagram, understanding our Enneagram Type helps us see where we might best focus our attention to have even better interactions. This article has links at the end for our free Clear Impact Enneagram Training videos.

Others are more engaged, with a deeper sense of ownership, when their perspectives are heard and valued and integrated. Your Plan may include remembering that “you don’t know what you don’t know” and it isn’t a negative mark on you as a leader if your direct report comes up with a perspective or idea you hadn’t been aware of. Our leaders often remind themselves that complex challenges do not have one right answer, and the importance of being open to ideas other than their own. Adopting an attitude of appropriate leadership vulnerability can really help.

Of course, the organizational culture needs to be adjusted if it reinforces Heroic Leadership, where the leaders must always have the correct answer or they are perceived as deficient. Otherwise, leading in this way is swimming upstream, against the organizational current, which makes it more difficult.

Many leaders with whom we have worked, particularly those at later-stage levels of development, have adopted what we call the vital attitude of Co-Responsibility, the essential foundation for effective Performance Collaboration. This includes realizing that, rather than giving direct reports a “report card,” higher-capacity leaders understand that they are co-responsible for the performance of their direct reports, and the dialogue is about “How are we doing?” instead of “How are you doing?”

Others remind themselves to focus more on the contextual factors that may be driving difficulties that occur at work. Please see our article about Pond Thinking for more depth on this topic.

A leader mindfully working with her direct report, both engaged and focused.
Photo by Authors, Clear Impact Consulting Group

Action

Now you’re in the meeting. Take mindful Action, keeping aware of the Goal and Plan you created in that first 30 seconds.

Staying mindful is a capacity we build over time. We cannot just will it. It’s OK if you realize, after the fact, that you lost your focus in the first 2 minutes. Be kind to yourself. There will be many more opportunities.

A man looking at his own reflection in a window. Regular cycles of action and reflection are required for building capacity.
Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

Reflection

At the end of the meeting, resist the urge to grab your phone and see what messages you missed. Instead take another 30 seconds to Reflect on what just happened:

  • To what extent did you follow your Plan, and to what extent did you achieve your Goal?
  • What went well? Our brain has a negativity bias, and we tend to focus on what was less than optimal. We need to learn to “take in the good.” If others were more excited or engaged, or left with more of a sense of connection, really take that in. A few deep breaths, imagining what their experience was as they left the interaction.
  • How was what you did in alignment with your deeper values?
  • What could you have done differently? What can you learn for future interactions?
  • It’s important to make sure that the part of us doing the reflecting is our compassionate and curious inner observer, rather than our toxic inner critic. Taking a few long, slow, mindful breaths into our hearts greatly facilitates this.
  • In reflecting, be kind to yourself. Many of our habits and patterns were formed when we were very young, even before the age of 2. Be happy with small changes, over time.

It also greatly helps to set an overall daily intention about how we want to show up, what qualities we most want to embody, and then take a few minutes at the end of the day to write down how that went. This increases our daily mindfulness, “waking up” to what truly matters to us.

Finally: Who is Reflecting?

This is such an important ongoing question to ask ourselves. Who is actually doing the reflecting? Which part of us? Is it:

Our mindful and compassionate inner observer, kind and gentle, primarily focusing on the small gains we’re making? Or:

Our severe Inner Critic, harsh and punitive, focused primarily on how we’ll never be good enough? The Inner Critic is incapable of true reflection. It only knows self-abuse and ridicule.

We can’t say enough about how much the Integrative Cycle of Learning, this simple Goal-Plan-Action-Reflection practice, done throughout the day, has increased the effectiveness and deep satisfaction of the leaders with whom we work, as well as the positive impact they have on others. We use it daily in our own work as organizational consultant, executive coaches, and leadership development practitioners, and know what a difference it has made for us and our clients.

Leaders tell us that it’s self-reinforcing. They like who they’re being as leaders. They like how they’re impacting others. They like their better results. They feel more in alignment with what most matters to them.

Please try this practice, and let us know how it impacts your work life (and perhaps your personal life as well!).

One of our favorite comments from participants is, “These approaches are working really well with my team, but they’re amazing with my teenagers!”

Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC and Dr. Sandra L. Hill. Our work includes executive coaching, organizational/team consulting, and leadership development. Please feel free to contact us: partners@clear-impact.com. Our leadership curriculum is all open-source. Please see our other articles at www.clear-impact.medium.com as well as other materials on our website, www.clear-impact.com.

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Clear Impact Consulting Group

Clear Impact Consulting Group

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Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.