The arrival of a new year, with its clean slate, gives you another shot at getting things right, or at least making them better. My Wharton colleague Katy Milkman has conducted research on the “fresh start effect,” and it’s really real: January — or a birthday, anniversary, new month, or any personally meaningful marker of time — does actually create a stronger motivation to refresh yourself.
And yet too many of us squander this opportunity: our intentions to change don’t result in actual change. Based on my own research, which is explained more fully in my book Leading the Life You Want, I see four practical steps you can take toward making big changes in your growth as a leader.
1. Identify the most important skill on which to focus. Resolutions for a new year often fail because they don’t matter enough. Take some time to invest in thinking about what matters most in your life. Keep it specific, simple, and important, and you’re much more likely to take realistic action.
Start by getting a systematic read on which skill you want to develop. Here are three exercises that can help:
- In collaboration with Qualtrics and based on decades of research on leadership from the point of view of the whole person, I’ve developed a free three-minuteself-assessment to rate your skills. After you take it — why not now? — and read through the brief report of your results, ask yourself “Which of these skills is the most important for me to focus on, and why is it so critical at this stage in my life?”
- Try an exercise I learned about from Tom Tierney, the former CEO of Bain and cofounder of Bridgespan. He spends a day at the end of each year writing in his journal about whether he’s lived according to his values and, if not, what he can realistically change in the year ahead to become more capable of doing so.
- Another option: Write one page describing a day in your life 15 years hence. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine it’s a day in January 2031. You wake up. Who are you with? What do you do in the morning? In the afternoon? In the evening? What impact are you having on the world…and why does it matter? Capture in words as much as you can of the mental pictures you just drew. Then ask yourself “What do I need to do to strengthen my ability to get a bit closer to that vision?”
2. Articulate why your skill development matters to important people in your life. Once you’ve chosen a particular skill on which to focus, raise the emotional stakes and increase your chances of following through on your development plan by thinking about how your improvement might affect people in all part of your life who matter to you. In other words, what would be the performance impact of you being better at this skill — not only at work, but also at home, in your community, and for yourself personally? In asking yourself this question you’re thinking like a leader: you’re giving your attention to what’s good not just for you, but also for the people who depend on and love you.
3. Come up with a specific idea for an action you can take to build this critical skill. I’ve asked thousands of people to do this, and almost everyone can. But if you’re struggling, here’s a simple example (one of the three dozen I describe in my book). I call it Talent Transfer, and it’s an exercise for enhancing your skill in applying resources from all parts of your life to important goals.
Start by thinking of a skill you’ve already mastered. Maybe it’s mentoring colleagues, organizing family activities, or running fundraisers. Can you use this skill in a different area of life? Let’s say you successfully planned your wedding. Now use what you learned about event planning to organize a community gathering for 200 or a conference at work. Or if you are an accountant by day, turn into a teacher at night by running a budgeting-skills class for your child’s high school. View these skills as muscles you can use for achieving different ends, just as a strong arm can be used to throw, lift crates, or carry a child.
By transferring skills from one area of your life to another, you capitalize on them and become better able to meet goals in all parts of life. You also give yourself the opportunity to solidify what you’ve learned through additional practice.
4. Enroll others as coaches to build support (and accountability). Because most human beings by nature tend to recoil from the unknown and resist trying new things, we need to have both encouragement from people who want us to grow and, perhaps more importantly, pressure from such people to keep at it. Pair up with a colleague or a friend to peer-coach one another.
You can also cast your net a bit wider. If you’ve done Step 2 reasonably well, then you should be clear about how and why your plan for skill development will benefit the people you care about. If you tell them your plan, perhaps adjusting it so they can see more clearly how they’ll benefit, and if you invite them to provide you occasional feedback about your progress, then you’ll not only have more support and positive pressure to change, you’ll also be practicing and embedding in your mind the impression of yourself as a leader. That is, you’ll be acting on behalf of them and yourself.
Like the best athletes, musicians, and performers of all types, great leaders continually develop their skills and devote substantial effort to practice. Use the extra motivation available to you now, at the top of the year, to accelerate your growth as a leader. Increase the chances of your success by doing so in a way that is infused with the passion of pursuing what matters and that brings the people who matter most along with you. In other words, lead your way to becoming the leader you want to be.
Stewart D. Friedman is the Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School. The former head of Ford Motor’s Leadership Development Center, he is the author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life, Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, and Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. For more, visitwww.totalleadership.org, find him on Twitter @StewFriedman, or on LinkedIn.
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