Rise To The Top By Developing These 7 Practices


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In your rise to the top as a leader, you have many challenges to overcome and skills to develop. As you continue to grow your leadership, you need to leave behind old habits and practices. Specifically, you need to start with improving your inner game. With that foundation in place, you can improve your outer game.

The Inner Game

Why does the inner game matter as you work toward becoming an excellent leader? It comes down to the simple fact that you bring yourself everywhere you go. Even more, these practices can be applied and add value no matter your industry or rank.

1. Practice The Art of Saying No

Without no, there is no focus. We have all seen leaders who spread themselves too thin with new projects starting each week. In reading “Essentialism,” earlier this year, I was reminded of the vital importance of this principle. If the negative nature of this principle bothers you, look at it with a new perspective. Saying no to a given request or project allows you to say yes to another priority.

2. Develop Your Eulogy Virtues

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about the distinction between resume virtues and euology virtues. As Brooks explains, most eulogies focus on a person’s character and how they cared for other people – these are the enduring eulogy virtues.

Here’s the good news  – a strong character improves your work performance, especially if you are a leader. According to leadership researchers James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, people around the world look for the following qualities in their leaders: honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. Choose one of these traits to develop.

To make serious progress on this front, consider the example of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). The noted American publisher, scientist and diplomat had a daily practice where he reviewed his virtues. His virtues list included industry, justice, humility and moderation. Each day, he would note whether or not he had observed the virtue. Keeping a notebook to track your virtues is a long established method to improve performance.

Resource: If Franklin’s approach interests you, look into the Ben Franklin Daily Virtues Journal.

3. Develop Daily Habits That Sustain You

In 2013, I read an article about former Lehman Brothers Chief Financial Officer Erin Callan  in the New York Times. The pressures of that role were incredible. For example, last minute international travel was a frequent obligation. She decided to resign because the demands undermined the rest of her life. Consider this comment from Callan’s article:

At an office party in 2005, one of my colleagues asked my then husband what I did on weekends. She knew me as someone with great intensity and energy. “Does she kayak, go rock climbing and then run a half marathon?” she joked. No, he answered simply, “she sleeps.” And that was true. When I wasn’t catching up on work, I spent my weekends recharging my batteries for the coming week.

By 2008, she had enough and left the role behind. In some situations, that may be your only choice. For the other 95% of situations, I suggest developing daily habits to sustain you. One of my daily habits since July 1 has been to write 500 words a day to build this website. It has gone very well so far. On the health side, I have also developed the habit of completing 100 pushups a day since July 1. For over 90 days, I have completed both daily habits. I encourage you to think of a daily habit you could develop to reach your goals faster.

4. Build On Your Strengths

As we go through school, we receive report cards that summarize our learning performance. You may receive an A in English, History and Geography. On the other hand, you may receive lower grades in math and science. The traditional reaction is to work on repairing your weaknesses. There is a better way.

In the professional world, you will receive greater rewards by further building on your strengths. There are several ways to identify your strengths. To understand your perspective on the world, use DISC or StrengthsFinder 2.0. To understand your strengths in terms of performance, take note of your past achievements. It is best to look at several achievements so that you can understand the general patterns.

The Outer Game

The outer game of success are the habits, activities and achievements that are visible to everyone else. Reaching success in this arena brings greater income, status and recognition. Unless you master the inner game first, those achievements may ring hollow.

5. Track Your Wins

Tracking your results as an individual and a leader is essential habit as you grow in your career. As an individual, you can use a brag sheet to track your results. What about leaders? Why does tracking results matter for them?

It matters because leaders need to communicate success stories to their people and other stakeholders. At the start of a new project, you will likely create the big picture vision that will motivate your team to create results. At the end of the project, it is vital to return to that vision again. By giving credit to the team and sharing their success story, you will gain a greater standing.

6. Work Your Lifelong Learning Plan

Lifelong learning is no longer an activity limited to reseaerchers, doctors, and accountants. For example, Project Management Professionals (PMP credential holders) are required to earn a certain amount of continuing education units in order to maintain their certification.

As I explained in The Most Important Trait To Boost Your Productivity article, professionals often pursue broad strategies when they begin a new learning plan. Problem based learning is based on learning skills and knowledge so that you can solve a specific problem in your career. In contrast, goal based learning involves thinking up a future state you want to achieve and then finding learning resources to help you reach that goal.

Note: I wrote an overview about PMI’s new continuing education framework a few months ago.

7. Follow Your Personal Vision

Giving thought to your professional legacy gives shape to your efforts and the projects you choose to work on. Early in your career, you may few choices about your assignments. As you develop, you have more options about what you choose to work on. The projects, assignments and jobs you accept combine your legacy. While there will always be some degree of surprise, give some thought to choosing at least a few signature projects.

Note: My inspiration for this article comes in part from Marshall Goldsmith’s classic business book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. For the concept of Inner Game and Outer Game, I am inspired by Warren Buffet’s observation.

Question & Action:

Which of these practices and attitudes have you struggled with in your rise to the top?

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6 thoughts on “Rise To The Top By Developing These 7 Practices

  1. Great article, I am actually starting my new career plan and trying to develop my “good habits” as I started. My ultimate goal has several branches or smaller tasks or goals that I must achieve. Therefore, I am doing a lot of researching to find out how to get there.

    Thank you much for the inspiration!

  2. Great article Bruce. Several of these items I implement as part of my workflow and if I had to focus on only two of them to help me sustain performance I’d pick learning to say “no” and developing daily habits – or what I’ve seen called “daily rituals”. The two of these have been liberating in that the first provides me with adequate margin in life to do the right things when they need to be done and doesn’t clog my life/work with too much (Derek Sivers is credited with the phrase: “If not’s a hell ‘yes’, then it’s ‘no’!”). The second serves as my daily Polaris and keeps me grounded because I practice daily the same items over-and-over. As days/weeks go by, the improvements I seek and the sustained energy I need is there (perhaps for me to say “no” to more!

    • Christian, thanks for your perspective. I like the point you made around maintaining margin in life. That has been a struggle.

  3. Liked the article very much! It is well written and inspiring. It is quite true, that until and unless we cleanse ourselves internally by being disciplined, learning new things, setting goals and working towards towards them, not much is going to happen on the outside!