When deciding who to promote into a leadership role, most executives look at how candidates have performed in their current job. But past performance isn’t always the best predictor of success. Individual contributors are usually measured on their ability, likability, and drive — but leadership demands other traits, including integrity and emotional intelligence. So don’t just promote your highest performer. Instead, think about what good leadership looks like at your company. Do you need people who can drive results? Bring everyone together? Listen and develop others? Innovate and evolve the business? Then think about who has the skills you’re looking for — and take another look at employees who “may not be ready.” Reconsider them on the basis of their ambition, reputation, and passion for your business. Sometimes the youngest, most agile people turn into capable leaders when given the chance.
When one of your employees makes a mistake, what do you say? You might feel frustrated or angry, and ask something like “What were you thinking?” or “What went wrong?” But those kinds of past-focused questions only reinforce the mistake and make the person feel defensive. Instead, ask a question that looks forward: “How will you do it differently next time?” Focusing on the future this way allows the person to acknowledge their mistake and demonstrate what they’ve learned. Additionally, it shows that you’re confident in the person’s abilities and gives you the chance to point out any problems in their thinking. Future-focused questions aren’t easy to ask when your emotions are hot. Take a deep breath before speaking, and remember that your goal in this situation is to help the employee grow — not to make them feel worse than they already do.
Before a critical presentation, the best thing you can do is rehearse — a lot. That doesn’t mean you need to memorize every line (which will make you sound too rehearsed). Your goal should be to feel confident in what you’re saying while leaving room for spontaneity. Spend extra time on the beginning and the end of your talk, including your first and last slides. The introduction sets the stage for your message and gives your audience a reason to care. Your conclusion determines which ideas people will walk away with. If you nail these two sections of the talk, you’ll probably do well no matter what happens. You should also repeatedly practice any sections that have complex or technical content. While you rehearse, consider recording yourself on your phone; play it back to watch for distracting habits (fidgeting, avoiding eye contact) and areas where you seem unsure of yourself. Rehearse those sections a few more times.
Is there someone on your team who sucks up to you? They’ll do anything to get your approval, from running every detail of a project by you to watching your favorite TV show. If one of your direct reports is overly focused on impressing you, take steps to set some boundaries. Don’t give the employee extra time or attention (even if they ask for it), and hold them to the same standards of performance as everyone else. If they spend too much time checking in and gauging your reactions to their work, guide them to make their own decisions. You should also schedule your one-on-ones and check-ins so that the employee doesn’t monopolize your time; this is particularly important if people in your office often drop in for ad hoc discussions. And assign the person to work with other leaders and teams when possible. This will take the pressure off the dynamic between you and give them chances to collaborate with others.
If you want your culture to be more inclusive, start with the way you run meetings. Some employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, or they’re likely to get interrupted when they do. That’s why leaders need to make sure everyone feels welcome. Send an email before the meeting that invites all attendees to be ready to share as well as listen. As people arrive, welcome them by name and make sure everyone has a (literal) seat at the table. Let people know they can speak honestly and offer dissenting opinions without fear of retribution. During the meeting, keep track of who’s talking — and who’s not. If someone hasn’t offered their thoughts, call on them and ask what they think about the topic at hand. And if someone is interrupted, step in quickly: “Wait a minute, I want to hear more of what Alejandra has to say.” Leading meetings this way creates room for everyone to contribute and sets a standard for respect across the group.
We all want meaningful work, but meaning is rarely handed to us. It’s up to you to connect what you do every day to what you value — and that takes self-reflection and deliberate effort. Keep a journal of your tasks and projects, noting which ones you find deeply satisfying (and which are gratifying only in the short term). For example, do you feel fulfilled when making presentations to clients? Are you energized when mentoring and coaching junior employees? Then, as much as possible, prioritize work that aligns with your values. If helping others grow is part of your professional identity, make coaching one of your weekly activities. If self-development is a core value, make listening to podcasts or taking an online course a daily ritual. And talk with colleagues about how you’re prioritizing meaningful work. Hearing about others’ efforts will help everyone focus on what matters most.
It’s easy to prioritize projects that have deadlines — you know exactly when they’re due. But how do you motivate yourself when a project doesn’t have a deadline? Try making one up. Pick a date that you want the work done by, or set aside a certain amount of time for it each day or week. You can also create accountability by enlisting positive peer pressure. Tell a colleague what your deadline is (even if you picked it), and send them updates regularly. For additional motivation, incentivize yourself. For example, you might decide that after spending a morning on the project, you’ll treat yourself to lunch. Or you could let yourself work from your favorite coffee shop — as long as you finish the project’s next step. If those incentives aren’t powerful enough, try penalties. Decide that if you don’t complete the task as planned, you won’t be able to listen to your favorite podcast or watch your favorite TV show tonight.
People can’t use data to make decisions if they don’t understand what the numbers mean. To help colleagues wrap their heads around a data point — how big or tiny it is, how important it should seem — compare it with something concrete and relatable. When you’re talking about lengths of time, frame your data in terms of flights between cities, TV episodes, or how long it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn — whatever your audience will know. When you’re talking about size, use places and things that are familiar to listeners. For instance, if you were trying to show a San Francisco audience what 1 million users really looks like, you might mention the San Francisco Giants baseball field, which has 41,915 seats: “Our users would fill the stadium almost 24 times.” Articulating figures this way can keep the narrative from getting lost in the numbers.
Most of us think filler words such as “um,” “so,” and “like” diminish our credibility (and just sound bad). So we try to avoid them in our speech. But there are times when they can be helpful — if you use them strategically. First, they’re useful when you need to be diplomatic. If you want to soften your message, perhaps to give someone delicate feedback, a hedge word like “just” or a phrase like “We may want to consider” can be an effective cushion. Second, filler words can help you hold the floor. If you’re in a meeting where people interrupt you, a well-placed “so” can ward off interruptions while you transition to your next thought. And lastly, a “well” or “actually” can help you break into a conversation. Just make sure you aren’t cutting someone off mid-sentence.
Privately held family businesses have a lot of freedom to define success. Yet many founders and owners aren’t clear about exactly what they want their company to achieve, which leads to conflicting priorities and unclear decision making. Ask yourself whether you are most interested in growth (maximizing the financial value of the business), liquidity (generating cash flow for use outside of the business), or control (retaining decision-making authority). Achieving all three goals is difficult, if not impossible, so you’re better off focusing on one or two. Think carefully about why you started the company and which of the three goals are most aligned with your objectives. And don’t forget to revisit your choices as things change, whether they’re external factors like the economy or internal factors like a shift in senior management. What worked well in one environment can be a disaster in another.
There are many ways for coaches and consultants to price their services. The simplest is to bill hourly, which is useful when you don’t know how long a project will take. But there are drawbacks, such as the record keeping and level of scrutiny it invites. (“Why did this take eight hours instead of five?”) Once you’ve built trust with a client, a better method is to use a monthly retainer: a flat fee for access to you. The risk is that clients may feel they own you and try to monopolize your time. If you offer set services — say, half-day strategy sessions or six-month coaching engagements — another option is to charge a flat fee for each of them. That way clients know exactly what they’re getting and what it will cost. You could also try a pay-for-results model, in which you make nothing unless your client improves. Yes, it’s risky, but if you’re confident in your process, you can usually charge a premium.
Relationships are a big part of being happy at work. Whether your job is demanding or mundane, you’re more likely to feel fulfilled if you regularly spend time with colleagues who support you and help you create a sense of purpose. Think through your values (who you are) and objectives (what you want to do). Then review your calendar for the coming month, and consider which events, lunches, and coffee meetings bring you closer to your objectives and which don’t. Do you thrive when interacting with people who are upbeat? Analytical? Calm? Ambitious? Are you collaborating with people who share your values? Of course, you can’t control every facet of your schedule, but when possible, prioritize working and spending time with colleagues who help you feel fulfilled — and minimize interactions with people you find depleting. Keep thinking about how you can make small adjustments to your calendar so that you’re investing in the right relationships.
Sometimes a company’s strengths can quickly turn into weaknesses. For example, a small and seemingly unimportant rival might figure out how to use your firm’s size against you. Here’s an exercise to help you look for threats and opportunities where you hadn’t realized they exist. First, divide your employees into two teams. Ask Team A to list your company’s strengths and Team B to list its weaknesses. Then have the teams swap lists. Ask Team B to argue that the strengths are actually threats to the organization’s future, and Team A to argue that the weaknesses are opportunities. Next, do an external analysis: Ask Team A to list the strengths it sees in your competition, and Team B the weaknesses. Again, have the teams swap lists and make the counterarguments. The goal of this exercise is to open your, and your employees’, eyes to new possibilities — and guard against sudden changes that could mean trouble for your company.
Being proactive at work is generally a good thing. But if your initiative isn’t channeled in the right way, it can backfire — squandering resources and even damaging your reputation. That’s why it’s important to think carefully before taking on a project. Ask yourself three questions to help. First, “Am I the right person to lead this?” Consider whether you have the personal interest and professional expertise needed, as well as whether you can commit enough time and resources. Remember, not every problem is yours to solve. Second, “Whose support will I need?” Consider who will be affected by the project and who you’ll need on board for it to succeed. Make sure you’ll be able to get the blessing of key stakeholders. Last, “Do I understand how important this project is, or isn’t, to the company?” If an idea doesn’t align with your goals or the organization’s mission, pursuing it is likely to be a waste of time.
Managers, your employees usually know where you need to improve. That’s valuable information for you to have as you keep growing and advancing — but are you encouraging your team to share it? Make it safe for employees to give you feedback. At team meetings, for example, you could take a moment to report on your recent work and ask people to rate your efforts. They may hesitate at first, but they’ll get more comfortable with it over time. You can also ask a candid direct report to be your coach. Meet regularly to request feedback, and be public about the commitment to show your sincerity. Whatever method you use, give examples of when you’ve gotten tough feedback in the past, to show it’s OK for employees to give it now. You might say, “I’ve heard from Marlon that I am often inaccessible because I spend a lot of time out of the office. I’m working on a plan to fix that. What else can I do to improve?”
Being a beginner at something can feel awkward and embarrassing, especially if you’re used to being an expert. But those feelings are the inescapable growth pains that come from developing and improving. To get used to the discomfort, know that it’s brave to be a beginner. Exposing your weaknesses and trying new things takes courage. You can make the challenge a bit easier by looking for learning situations where the stakes are low — maybe a class where you’re not expected to be an expert or you don’t know anyone else. If it helps, tell fellow participants that you may mess up whatever you’re about to attempt. Your willingness to take risks may inspire others to do the same. And whatever you do, don’t stop learning. Keep pushing yourself, especially in the areas where you are accomplished, so you can get even better. If you are willing to feel embarrassment and shame, and even to fail, there’s no end to what you can do.
“So…tell me about yourself.” Although this job interview question seems simple, answering it is anything but. Should you share your life story? Your job history? It’s tempting to turn your LinkedIn page into a monologue, but don’t — the interviewer already has your résumé. Instead, talk about what the company really needs from the role you’re vying for. Before the interview, scrutinize the job description for phrases like “required,” “must have,” and “highly desired.” Go to the About Us section of the company’s website and read up on the corporate culture and core values. Then think about how to connect your background and interests to what the company is looking for. Practice your response so that you’re ready when you walk into the interview room. You want to sound like your career has been building to this role and you are the best person to fill it.
Being betrayed by your boss is painful, to say the least. Whether they publicly shamed you for their mistake or gave someone else the promotion they promised you, it can make you want to quit. If your boss habitually undermines you, leaving may in fact be your best bet. But if quitting isn’t an option, or isn’t an option right now, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Continue to show respect to others, share ideas, and give credit. When your manager fails to keep promises, document it to help you remember what happened. When they take credit for your work, make sure important stakeholders know about your efforts. And find an outlet for your feelings. You’re going to need to vent, so write in a journal or talk with someone outside of work. Above all, don’t retaliate or compromise your values. Don’t let your boss’s actions turn you into someone you don’t want to be.
Opening an innovation lab (also known as a business incubator or an R&D hub) can be a good way for your company to develop new products and ideas. But research shows many of these labs don’t deliver on their potential — and the majority fail outright. Before you make such a large investment, ask yourself a few questions. First, what’s the vision for the lab? Unless the incubator has a clear, well-defined goal, measuring success will be difficult. Second, what happens when an idea born in the lab needs to be developed further? Maybe the project will go back into the core business, or get passed on to an accelerator — it doesn’t necessarily matter as long as everyone knows the process. Third, how will you staff the lab? The best R&D hubs have both new talent from outside the company and insiders who know how the firm works. That mix of skills and knowledge will help ideas come to life and keep growing beyond the lab’s walls.
Companies often try to inspire employees with lofty mission statements. But if the tasks your employees do every day feel meaningless, those lofty messages can backfire and actually lead to disengagement. Fortunately, research shows that even mundane tasks can feel meaningful if they are clustered with other tasks. For example, a hospital administrator whose job involves organizing patient records might not always feel that she’s helping people live healthier lives. But if she thinks about how this task helps nurses and doctors treat patients, she might see that she is supporting the hospital’s mission. Managers should help employees understand how the tasks they don’t always enjoy are connected to the company’s purpose. If one employee thinks responding to client emails quickly is a waste of time, for instance, point out how those emails, when combined with data analysis and report writing, play an important role in solving clients’ pressing concerns.