By Brenda Ellington Booth and Karen Cates
“Many leaders have the same questions,” says Karen Cates, adjunct professor of executive education at the Kellogg School. “‘How do I assess myself? How do I become more self-aware? And how can I turn that self-awareness into an effective leadership style?’”
Cates and her colleague, Brenda Ellington Booth, a clinical professor of leadership at Kellogg, have many years of experience coaching leaders through this particular challenge. Here are their four steps for becoming a more self-aware leader.
1. Look beyond assessments.
Cates and Booth both agree that assessment tools—and there are many—can be helpful. They see these tools as a way for leaders to gain new perspectives on themselves, their values, and their motivations.
“Anything that gives you a language to understand your thought patterns and behaviors can help crystallize self-awareness,” Cates says. “Leadership is dynamic, and sometimes you need to break out of the way you’ve always done things and see new possibilities.”
But the pair caution that these assessments should be thought of not as the end of the self-evaluation process, but as the beginning—as catalysts to start the kinds of discussions that lead to important insights.
“Assessments are helpful, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of leadership development,” Booth says. “So any assessment tool you use should be followed by a conversation with a coach, boss, or peers, because it’s important to get qualitative feedback face-to-face. It should be more like a conversation, where you can ask follow-up questions.”
Those conversations can be timed to the assessments themselves, because their results make the request for deeper feedback a natural next step. Cates and Booth recommend opening the conversation by asking to sit down and talk about how you might interpret and act on the results of the assessment, including asking for examples of how those results have played out in your work with your colleagues. Creating space for open-ended questions will allow others to add to your understanding of how the assessment might influence your personal and professional development.
Cates also recommends you tailor the questions for the person you are asking. “Your coach is going to dive deep with you. Your boss has her own goals when it comes to your leadership skills. Your peers may be more reticent. If you approach the conversation as a genuine opportunity to learn, you can help others provide more input to flesh out your assessment results.”
2. What could you be doing differently to be a better leader?
Feedback is most valuable when it leads to important, actionable insights into your behavior, personality quirks, biases, strengths, and weaknesses. Sometimes, reflection on your own emotional reactions to people and situations provides an opportunity to grow in self-awareness.
For example, one of Cates’ clients—a young female executive—had been struggling to respond to older male colleagues when they challenged her in meetings. In every other scenario she was confident, dynamic, and quick on her feet. But in those moments, she would freeze up, and she was worried this would affect others’ perceptions of her leadership and her ability to grow in her role.
So in coaching sessions, Cates and her client focused on her strengths—her ability to learn, her ability to relate—and explored ways to use those strengths to create a response mechanism that would neutralize that specific challenge and help her stay on track. They role-played past scenarios, and the client started to build a vocabulary that would help to steer others’ challenges back to the meeting’s original focus. The client was able to use these tools to increase her awareness in the moment, insert herself into the silence that followed derailing comments, and maintain the flow of the discussion.
In some circumstances, an executive’s strength can also be a weakness. Booth is coaching a woman who highly values transparency, truth, and fairness—generally understood to be positive traits. But at times it can seem to others as if she is challenging people, which comes across as intimidating.
“As long as she’s self-aware, she can decide how much she wants to adapt,” Booth says. She can read the room and the moment, and in certain cases, rather than insist on “telling it like it is,” she might try to have more compassion for people’s faults and insecurities.
3. Don’t just change for the sake of changing.
Think of feedback as useful information that helps you expand your response toolbox, rather than someone telling you what to do. After all, there might be cases where a leader chooses to tell it like it is as a matter of strategy, knowing full well it will cause discomfort.
It is important in such situations, however, to help others understand your approach. If you have received feedback that you are harsh in team meetings, Cates suggests telling your colleagues, “I’m being very direct right now because I want you to understand how important this project is, and not because I think you can’t get it done right and on time. Let’s talk about how to move forward.” This has the effects of empowering your people to tackle the project and communicating your expectations for success.
It is also good to keep in mind that just because you learn something actionable about yourself doesn’t mean you necessarily have to act on that knowledge. “It’s more about listening and deciding, ‘OK, given what I’m trying to do for the organization, and for myself, is it worth it to make the change or not?’ Effective leaders read the situation, figure out what’s required of them, and choose to respond in a way that’s appropriate, authentic, and valuable to their team,” Booth says.
Booth is coaching a client in a relatively senior position who came to realize through self-assessment that he dislikes being rushed towards decisions, especially if the decision involves processing large amounts of information. His group members value him highly, but the feedback he recently received suggests they were worried he was slowing things down.
“Once he became more self-aware, he felt better about himself,” Booth says. “He thought, ‘OK, that’s just who I am.’ But then he had to figure out how to communicate that to his team members—to explain that he might need 24 hours to make a big decision, or that he values taking the time to do a deeper analysis so that the group can make an informed decision. He was able to shift perception of himself, and the assessment—combined with feedback and coaching—made it possible.”
In a sense, Cates says, it’s a process of learning how to be comfortable in your own skin.
“You build confidence in who you are, then help others understand what’s valuable about who you are.”
4: Cultivate targeted self-reflection on your leadership style.
Both Cates and Booth suggest that leaders learn to cultivate self-reflection. But self-reflection only helps if it is done with a real purpose in mind, and that means thinking strategically about what is most important for the leader and the organization. Self-reflection isn’t just about looking backward; it also allows you to be proactive instead of reactive.
Some leaders meditate and practice mindfulness to achieve “aha moments.” Others journal or join a round table to reflect on particular issues or obstacles. Many leaders turn to executive coaching as a proactive means of self-reflection. Coaches provide an opportunity to work one-on-one to challenge assumptions, reframe problems, and digest feedback.
“Leadership isn’t just about taking assessments, attending seminars, or reading articles and filing them away in a folder on your desktop,” Cates says. “It has to be a living thing.”
For example, it can help to spend an hour or two each week just thinking about upcoming meetings, conversations, or presentations. Consider what your natural response might be in each situation, then consider whether that response is appropriate and valuable. How might you adjust to be more effective? What questions should you prepare? This is how a leader can practice and reinforce their self-awareness.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Booth says. “You learn, you evolve, you adapt. And in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking: Where might I add value?”
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