Interview with Professor Sue Ashford
Do you wish you had more leadership development opportunities at work? Are you tired of waiting for people to see your potential and tap you on the shoulder? If you could step into a leadership role right now, are you ready, willing and able?
Nearly 60% of companies are facing leadership talent shortages that is impeding their performance. Another 31% expect a lack of leadership talent to impede their performance in the next several years. And while spending on leadership development programs keeps rising, some suggest it isn’t providing the returns that are promised or needed and instead this crisis could be averted if people understood that leadership is a fundamental state anyone can demonstrate and not just a job title.
“Leadership is about influencing people and processes to accomplish a collective goal,” explained Professor Sue Ashford, a leading researcher on organizational management from the University of Michigan, when I interviewed her recently. “So you can develop your leadership potential no matter what your current role is, by considering how you can influence and contribute more to your organization.”
Sue suggests that leadership is partly a skill that can be developed by learning to be more inspirational, to set visions and to be people-focused. It’s also being willing to take risks and overcome the fear of getting this wrong, of projects failing and of your self-image taking a hit. And it’s a mindset to be open to learning from your experiences – the good, the bad and everything in between.
In fact, research indicates that leaders learn over seventy percent of the skills they need to be good leaders as they go through the ups and downs of developmental experiences on the job. And another twenty percent is learned from either observing role models or through interactions with others. And thus often the best leadership development opportunities come from your on-the-job experiences, rather than external courses that teach leadership concepts, frameworks and skills.
How can you best learn from your experiences?
“The biggest obstacle to learning on-the-job is that many of us are so busy, we’re mindlessly racing through tasks and missing out on the learning that could help you be an effective leader,” explained Sue. “While it’s unlikely you’ll ever be mindful of every moment, you can decide to approach your leadership experiences in a more mindful way to improve your performance.”
Sue suggests trying these three steps for mindful engagement:
- Prioritize a learning approach – Develop a growth mindset that allows you to approach your experiences as learning goals. Rather than focusing on proving yourself which has been found to undermine your learning opportunities and impair your potential for success.
Set explicit goals for learning development and leadership like: ‘‘learning how to set an effective vision or direction for a group,’’ ‘‘learning to be more persuasive,’’ and ‘‘learning how to share more of my authentic self.’’ Not only will this help to direct your attention from simply performing the task to gaining the new knowledge and skills you need to develop and exhibit, it will also help you assess and share your leadership development needs.
- Take action and experiment - develop your leadership skills by playing with different actions to discover what does and doesn’t work for you, your team and your organization. For example, if you want to work on being more influential, you might try speaking first in the meeting, or you might try speaking last. You might try speaking softly so that everyone’s drawn in or speaking in a tone that doesn’t rise at the end in a question mark. The idea is to try different things so that you can discover what might help you better achieve your goal.
Keep seeking feedback by asking others how you can improve in specific areas. Far from making you look weak or insecure, Sue has found that in fact, your colleagues, manager and the people you manage are more likely to regard you favorably. Let people know you’re working on improving a particular skill, and you’d really value any thoughts they have on how you could do this better.
And try to keep your emotions in balance as you work to improve your performance. Be aware that while anxiety about your performance can get in the way of your learning, too many positive emotions can interfere with your ability to pay attention to important cues in your environment. Emotional regulation can help you help you to keep your emotions in a middle ground that is optimal for learning.
- Make time to reflect – Whilst many of us would rather be zapped by an electric shock, than left alone with our thoughts, to truly learn from your experiences you need make time to reflect on what happened and to learn from it. Studies have found leaders who engage in ‘after-action reviews’ (as detailed below) enjoy improved leadership ratings, more leadership opportunities and higher salaries.
To complete an ‘after-action review’ make time to capture a clear picture of what unfolded (try to separate out your biases as you do this), consider the “what-if” options that were available but weren’t taken and what impact these may have had, and then distill the lessons you learned. Try to identify new insights about effective leadership and identifying how these insights can be applied to improve performance in future situations.
How can you be practice more mindful engagement as a leader, no matter what your job title says?