Why Does Changing Behavior Take So Long? 3 Solutions To Speed Up The Process




By Jack Zenger

NowYears ago, I was sitting in a meeting of leadership development professionals from Fortune 50 companies. One person remarked, “We won’t know for 25 years whether our work will produce any positive results.” Many nodded their agreement. Two alternative reactions went through my brain. One was, “How do you get a job where there is no accountability for a quarter of a century? Where do I apply?” The other reaction was, “If you don’t see any differences in behavior within six weeks, I doubt you ever will.”

Leadership development is about changing behavior. Yes, knowledge can be useful. Self-awareness is a necessary starting point for development. New mindsets can create the guardrails leading to better outcomes, but the only rock-solid measure of success in developing leaders is a new behavior.

Unfortunately, many executives remain highly skeptical about leadership development.

·      Can, and do leaders change their behavior?

·      What is responsible for this widespread doubt?

·      What could change the minds of those who doubt that leaders can make a significant change?

How to Change Perceptions of Leadership Development

1.    Make specific behavior change the objective, not the byproduct. Those seeking to develop leaders often focus on creating a seminar or workshop. Assume the topic is coaching skills. The instructional designers may structure blocks of information highlighting the importance of leaders being good coaches, or what business outcomes result when better coaching occurs. Conceptual models are presented to give insight into various theories of coaching. Facilitator guides and exercises are designed to have participants better understand what good coaches avoid doing. I could go on, but the point is that these are all activities designed to educate the participant on this subject. These activities are “intervening variables” designed to lead to a general outcome.

The change I am proposing is that we shift the focus squarely on the outcome. Make the main focus the simple fact of whether or not the participant can display good coaching behavior with their colleagues at work. The measure of success is not the participant’s satisfaction with the “f’s” of the event (facilities, faculty, food, and fun) but with their ability to conduct a more effective coaching conversation.

2.    Dramatically cut the period of time in which you expect change to occur. Laurence Peter observed that the discussion in a meeting will always expand to fill the time allocated for the meeting. If scheduled for one hour, it will take at least one hour. Most of the time, projects will take as long as the time that we anticipated they would take. These become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How long does it take for human behavior to change? We’ve all known or heard of people being in therapy for countless years. That may help to account for the fact that when we think about some major changes in human behavior, we are prone to think in terms of years.

Recently I was drawn to an article with a heading that described a research study about psychologists successfully changing people’s personalities in two weeks. It caught my eye because it was so contrary to all that I had been led to believe was possible. Changing personality in two years would normally be seen as impossible. Yet this group of psychologists at the University of Zurich demonstrated success with 255 subjects in two weeks. Participants were students and full-time working adults. They were assigned to two groups based on their selection of a development objective. One group selected to become more self-disciplined. This pertained to behaviors such as exercise and improved eating habits. The other group chose to become more open to new experiences.

The primary intervention was two daily calls on the participant’s smart-phone. The first, in the morning, reminded them of their objective and gave them an encouraging message. The evening smart-phone message asked three simple questions, seeking their assessment of their progress during the day. Post-measurements after the two weeks showed measurable behavior change. Follow-ups two weeks later, and then ten weeks later, showed the change persists. (In all candor, I’d describe their accomplishment as behavior change, not fundamental personality change. Luckily, it is a behavior change that most leaders need.) The exciting part of this research is the bold target of changing behavior in a short time span, not months or years, but only 14 days with minimal time away from the participant’s normal daily activities.

3.    Creating a new habit is the longer-term objective of leadership development. The success of the experiment described above hinges on the fact of making the specifically identified behavior become viewed as a practical, reasonable target. Then, the emphasis on the immediate application, when practiced for a relatively short period of time, became a repeated behavior, which became a new habit. For it to become permanent, there must be ongoing self-monitoring or external follow-up.


The changes proposed above may not seem all that dramatic to the casual reader. I would emphasize, however, that these shifts represent a new mindset about leadership development.

 From:                                                                 To:      

1.    Ideas, information, insights                   Specific new behavior

2.    Distant future implementation             Immediate application

3.    Anticipated occasional use                    New habit, frequently monitored

When implemented, these changes are attainable and would rather quickly change the way those inside every organization perceive leadership development. Skepticism would diminish as observers identify tangible and immediate changes in their colleagues. The outcome? Participants would become more vigorous champions because they could recognize their new behavior, which in turn would be converted into better business results.

About author

Jack Zenger 

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a strengths-based leadership development firm. He is the author and co-author of 13 books including including How To Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths, The Extraordinary Leader, Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders and The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate, along with his newest book Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution (McGraw Hill, 2016).

Posted in Insights, Leadership Development

Virtual Instructor-Led Training: The Not-So-New Way To Train

Training Industry



By Brent Colescott and Elisa Vincent

Virtual instructor-led trainingLast year, it was unlikely anyone would expect the workforce to look the way it does now. The global pandemic has seismically changed the way we work — everything from working environments and social dynamics to the tools we are using. For professionals in the training industry, we’ve seen notable change as well. With remote work becoming the norm for organizations around the world, one training modality has seen a surge in attention: virtual instructor-led training (VILT).

We could call VILT “an overnight success, 20 years in the making.” The offering itself is nothing novel, and it’s certainly nothing new. The technology to conduct training online has been around since the late 1990s, but it’s taken a long time to encourage widespread adoption. VILT used to be an “only when necessary” option: For businesses of all sizes with widespread stakeholder groups, this type engagement makes perfect sense, as they could save money and time on travel and stay connected with disparate clients and employees.

So, what has kept VILT out of the zeitgeist for so long? To be frank, it’s the fact that a lot of VILT is not resourced, designed and deployed effectively.

Moving Existing Training Online Won’t Work

While VILT is a great mechanism for everything from skills training to company-wide discussion forums, it is not identical to in-person instruction. Organizations that rely on existing content without reworking it for this new method of delivery will have problems with execution and engagement.

It’s not that technology can’t support in-person training. The problem with VILT is not a technology problem but an application program. There are ways to make it seem as though the technology has melted away, leaving attendees with an experience that’s similar to or even better than an in-person experience.


It’s crucial to be present and engage with the audience directly.


Effective VILT Comes Down To Delivery

By considering all aspects of learning — from registration to attendance to subject transference — training professionals can shape any content so that it’s relevant and easily digested. Attention spans are much shorter online, so it’s best to change learning modalities frequently. Learners do not sign up to have a PowerPoint read to them; effective VILT comes from instructors who engage with the participants and form a community of learning during the session. By establishing elements like discussion breaks, live quizzes and polling, facilitators can make participants feel a part of the action. Beyond encouraging engagement, these types of modules that test learning can reveal to both instructors and learners which information they are missing and which information they are retaining.

It Pays To Invest In A Producer

On top of having a main facilitator — someone who understands how to engage online and break through a participant’s “second screen” — good VILT also has a producer. Producers manage the virtual room behind the scenes and are responsible for troubleshooting, answering chat messages, changing slides and managing polls. If the content is well designed, there will be many areas where participant engagement is necessary. For the session facilitator, it’s crucial to be present and engage with the audience directly. The producer collects questions or poll results in real time to find areas of insight on what will likely disrupt the flow — and effectiveness — of the session. This partnership between facilitator and producer creates a more interactive and intensive experience for the participants.

Test (And Test Again)

The fastest way to kill a good VILT program is having a system that learners cannot understand. Review the steps necessary to register and attend a VILT session; if attendees cannot overcome the technical challenges of attending, the presenter will burn up time and effort just helping people enter the session.

Internet connection also plays a major role. Presenters need to consider all of the devices being used at the same time. Local area network (LAN) connections are more reliable than Wi-Fi, as a wireless signal weakens with distance from the router. The more prepared the presenter feels, the more comfortable he or she will be throughout the presentation, leading to a stronger experience for everyone involved.

VILT has evolved over the years to be more than just a cost-saving approach to learning. It is a more efficient and scalable way to train distributed audiences. It helps remote teams establish a sense of community, and it does so in a shorter time frame to provide organizations with alternative mediums to reach people they otherwise couldn’t.

Looking at the world of work today, it’s hard to be certain of anything. What does seem clear, however, is that the adoption of technology is sustained and seismic. The need for VILT is not going to go away, and the demand for it will only grow. Organizations that embrace and invest in its best practices now will find themselves prepared — even in a future of unknowns.


The need for VILT is not going to go away, and the demand for it will only grow.


About authors

Brent Colescott and Elisa Vincent

Brent Colescott is the senior director of global business strategy and transformation for SumTotal, a Skillsoft company and leading platform for learning and talent development. With over 20 years’ experience in the learning and talent fields, he has successfully initiated and optimized online learning platforms and programs during his career in the human resources, utilities and energy industries.

Elisa Vincent is vice president of global talent enablement at Skillsoft, where she leads strategic initiatives that foster the individual and collective success of the organization. She has more than 20 years of experience leading and transforming human capital management; leadership development; talent management; organizational design; and diversity, equity and inclusion across global enterprises.

Posted in Learning, Skill Development, Training, Virtual Events

Managing a Large Virtual Audience is Like Piloting a Commercial Aircraft




By Jim Moushon

Pilot CabinA quick glance into the flight deck of any commercial airplane and one can be overwhelmed by the number of different dials, lights, instruments and equipment. The more sophisticated the aircraft, the more training necessary for successful outcomes for each flight. The same is true for managing a large virtual audience. The presenter (the pilot) must be interesting, organized, and informative while addressing technology issues; trying to stay on time; and maintaining good presentation skills to keep the audience engaged; all while heading for a successful outcome.

A pilot and co-pilot go through a pre-flight checklist before every flight. A presenter should also have a routine he/she follows before, during, and after each presentation. A few items which should be on any checklist:

  1. Send out the meeting agenda ahead of time with the purpose and outcome clearly stated so attendees can prepare their contributions and questions.
  2. Go online several minutes before the stated start time and greet people as they enter the meeting. Engaging in small talk ahead of time can put people at ease and make them more likely to contribute during the meeting.
  3. Call attendees by their name; give them context; then ask them for their input. For example: “Jayne, you’ve had experience with international vendors. What do you see as the top 3 areas we should focus on when acquiring new vendors?” This will give Jayne a “heads up” in case she was multi-tasking, and won’t put her on the spot or embarrass her.
  4. Be engaging with your body language, volume and inflection. Smile when appropriate. People tend to mirror your behavior.
  5. Have a co-pilot. The co-pilot can take some of the burden off of the presenter by monitoring the chat box; watching for raised hands; and assisting attendees with technical issues.
  6. Utilize the annotation tools available on your platform. White boards, chat box, raised hand, breakout rooms are some of the tools available on many platforms.
  7. Stay on time. You can always end early, but you cannot go over your stated end time. The closer it gets to the stated end time, the more the attendees start to mentally check out. They’re already thinking about the next thing on their calendar.
  8. Debrief with your co-pilot and anyone’s judgement you trust. What went well? What can we do better?


About the Author

Jim Moushon is a Senior Master Trainer at Communispond. Jim’s areas of expertise are in executive coaching, presentation skills, media interviews, persuasive dialogue, interpersonal communication, business writing and sales effectiveness. In addition, he does train-the-trainer for Communispond as well as for many of Communispond’s clients.

Posted in Virtual Events

Why Leaders Should Be Prioritizing Their Own And Their Employees’ Well-Being

Training Industry



By Sarah Jones

3 minute read

Leader-Well-being-8.20.20-928x522For the past few months, we have found ourselves working in uncertain and unprecedented times. These events have forced many leaders to rethink aspects of the business and some to pivot their entire offerings. It is also important to accompany this process with policies that safeguard the well-being of both leaders and employees. Leaders are often quick to put in place measures to safeguard others without taking ample time to look after their own well-being.

To fulfill their key role, leaders need to take care of themselves both physically and mentally. Here is why they should do so and how they can create a culture that prioritizes well-being, even when employees cannot be together physically.

Setting The Example

If employees see leaders taking care of themselves, they are more likely to follow suit. Providing employees with resilience techniques and strategies to protect their well-being is key, particularly now, as many are suffering with increased personal pressures or may be adjusting to working from home. However, these policies begin to lose some of their impetus if leaders do not also follow them — for example, if they regularly send work-related messages outside of work hours.

It is not enough for leaders to tell employees how they can take care of their well-being; they should also clearly demonstrate how they are doing so themselves. This behavior gives employees role models they can emulate.

Setting Boundaries

In times of crisis, people naturally look to their leaders for support, within their government, personal relationships or workplace. Leaders are likely in that role because they are the most well-equipped person to deliver that support, but it should not be at the expense of their own well-being, nor should this responsibility rest solely on their shoulders.

It is easy to slip into unhealthy patterns, particularly when working from home, such as trying to be available all hours of the day or increasing working hours in a bid to pick up the workload of others. While it may support employees in the short term, it creates some longer-term negative patterns. Boundaries are important for leaders, too, and they should adhere to them as much as possible. If leaders take care of their own well-being, they will be in the position to support and guide others.

To fulfill their key role, leaders need to take care of themselves both physically and mentally.

2 Steps Leaders Can Take

Prioritize Mind And Body

When our movements are restricted or we are working from home, it is easy to spend each day inside the same four walls, which can be detrimental to our overall well-being. Mental and physical health are linked with many of the mood-boosting hormones raised when we exercise.

It is easy for leaders, in particular, to feel like they should be constantly working, but a lack of “off” time could place them firmly on the road to burnout. It doesn’t have to be intense exercise; it could be a short stroll in nature or with family — whatever boosts their resilience tank.

In the workplace, leaders could promote whole body wellness by introducing a lunch-time yoga session via a streaming platform or creating a friendly monthly steps challenge. These types of initiatives would not only promote wellness but would also help bring colleagues together who are not able to meet in person.

Pool Resources

Encouraging staff to share their challenges and resources they have found helpful is another way leaders can promote well-being in the workplace. In challenging times, leaders sometimes feel like they have to have all the answers, which is not good for their well-being. In fact, their team is a great sounding board for solutions. They can also consult a mentor they admire or a friend outside of the workplace who could provide an objective viewpoint.

Similarly, leaders should encourage people to share the resources that they have found to boost their resilience. For example, books, podcasts and online courses can provide some great strategies. The sharing of both challenges and helpful resources creates a collaborative working culture that is supportive of everyone’s well-being, even when employees cannot be together.

During a pandemic, protecting the well-being of everyone in the workplace is paramount. Leaders should promote well-being and resilience strategies that encourage employees to share their challenges, pool their resources, and look after body and mind. But, first and foremost, leaders must role-model these behaviors themselves.

Leaders should encourage people to share the resources that they have found to boost their resilience.



Sarah Jones is an accredited coach, trainer and speaker specializing in career coaching, leadership, talent development and team productivity. After a successful career in public relations, Sarah founded her coaching business, Sarah-J Coaching, to help people find purpose, meaning and direction in their lives and careers and support organizations with talent development and executive leadership coaching. Sarah is a neurolinguistic programming (NLP) practitioner and holds a diploma from the Coaching Academy, accredited with the International Coach Federation, and a personal performance coaching diploma and a corporate executive diploma (both merit) from the Institute of Leadership and Management.

Posted in Health, Leadership, Leadership Development, Workplace, workplace wellness

Mind The GAP-Between Espoused and Actual Corporate Culture




By Nirupama Subrmanian

Building-Corporate-Culture-1-1024x683While no one knows what really happened at that time, a customer who was supposed to fly off into the air, was wrestled to the ground by the airline staff. For a past few days, the media has been buzzing with the viral video of a customer being manhandled by a couple of Indigo employees The CEO has issued an apology, the ‘culprit’ has been sacked and an inquiry demanded by the ministry. But the damage has been done. I have occasionally travelled by Indigo and so far have not faced any major issues. But now the image of the struggling customer has been downloaded into my hard drive and any future interaction with the airline might be clouded by this data.

All it takes is one incident to damage the reputation and image that has been carefully cultivated over many years. Almost always, this incident is the result of human behavior. It could be sexual harassment , fraud or just uncouth behavior- Think Nick Leeson bringing down Barings bank or former the Uber chief yelling at a driver.

Peter Drucker once declared ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ and most companies did sit up and take notice. Organizations do spend a considerable amount of money and effort to identify and communicate the values and code of conduct for all its employees. Websites and walls of many organizations proclaim their values and competencies.

Yet incidents happen.

If you search  through Indigo’s website, across the banners flashing low fares and new routes, and delve into Careers, you can find its Culture Values- Integrity, Customer Orientation and Future Mindedness. Customer Orientation- means always seeing things from a customer’s perspective, identifying customers unstated as well as emerging needs.

Clearly, not everyone saw it this way.

Even if all employees do believe in all this good stuff, it goes out of the window during a crisis.

The writing on the wall can be quite different   from the writing on the ground.

Over the course of the last 20 years of working with organizations, I have seen that there are often two cultures that exist in organizations- the desired culture which is visible in pockets and the actual culture which is displayed on a day to day basis. All individuals in a company are different carrying their own baggage of life experiences, values and mindsets.

So how do companies create a culture where diverse individuals , different departments and different geographies can happily  adhere   to a set of values- no matter what the situation is. Certain norms can be enforced through the rule of law or through fear. However culture cannot be sustained through fear or coercion. The organizational health gets damaged through years of fear based culture just as smoking may slowly but surely kill a perfectly healthy person. We many not admit it or see it in the short term but long term effects will be deadly. Culture building needs commitment not just compliance.

Let us assume the organization has identified the values it stands for and the culture it wants to create. There are tools for identifying values  such as the Barrett Culture Transformation Tool or Culture Assessment Tool. This can also be done through a facilitated session with senior leaders and organization wide surveys.

Now let us say the organization has identified 5 core values and the related descriptors of these values.  They leaders know that they want to create a culture that focuses on Innovation, Integrity, customer orientation and Discipline. This is the easy part.

How do you make it stick? How do you make it last? How do you make everyone realize the importance of it?

Many leadership gurus and consulting firms have their theories and 16 point plans for this. Most of these can be synthesized into the 3 Rs- 3 simple things that every leader, every organization needs to do – daily and with determination.

Role Model

‘The culture of an organization is a reflection of the values and beliefs of the current leaders, and the institutional legacy of the values and beliefs of past leaders that have been institutionalized into the organization’s structures, policies and procedures. Therefore, if you want to transform your culture you must change your leaders or your leaders must change.’ – Richard Barrett

Monkey see, Monkey do holds for humans as well. We don’t really care about what the leader says unless he or she ‘Walks the Talk’. Kids learn about values more from the behavior of parents and teachers than from moral science classes or Aesop’s fables. Leaders have to live and breathe the company values. It helps if your own values are aligned with the organizations. If not, you are possibly not a cultural fit and might not last long in the place. If the senior leader needs to see a change in the company’s culture, she needs to role model it in every interaction, every meeting, every touch point. It can be daunting but that is why leaders are paid – of course to get performance but also be custodians of the organization’s culture. If the leader punishes those who take risks and does not actively seek new ways of doing things, it is unlikely that there will be a culture of innovation in the organization.

When the board wanted a change in Uber’s culture, they changed the CEO. Dara Kushrowshahi’s Uber will possibly look different from Travis Kalanick’s. He has now replaced the 14 values of Uber with 8 new cultural norms to reflect the new desired culture. These now need to be modeled by all leaders first.


Culture cannot be built in a day. Leaders need to reinforce the culture in many ways. Systems and processes need to be aligned with culture and not just for getting maximum performance from employees.

I was recently doing a workshop on coaching for some leaders and we all agreed on the importance of developing and supporting employees. ‘I want to do this,’ said a leader,’ but there is no time. It is much easier for me to direct my team member or do it myself because the company wants quick results.’ When leaders are incentivized only on numbers, there is no reason to focus on people development.  Some organizations use the Balanced Scorecard to ensure that numbers alone are not recognized. Others do give awards for being great team players. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

Reinforcement can also be done by giving behavior based feedback openly and fearlessly. Most leaders are comfortable giving performance feedback but feedback on behavioral issues is more challenging. Just as positive behaviors need to be rewarded, behaviors that are not aligned to the culture needs to be pointed out quickly and effectively. Make a distinction between things that are’ Not done’ and areas for coaching and promoting diversity. A swift and just punishment for violating a value is just as important to reinforce behaviors.

Culture can be reinforced through structural alignment. An organization that wanted to enhance collaboration among different teams created a Collaboration space on each floor next to the coffee machine. The departments that needed to work closely together were put on the same floor so that they could meet and interact informally. Sometimes, processes need to be defined and aligned to the culture as well. A diverse and inclusive organization’s hiring process needs to reflect its ethos by broadening the candidate pool and consciously avoiding biases during the interviews.


Rituals exist to remind and engage us. Rituals are a series of actions performed  in a specific order. While rituals are usually associated with religions, they are of immense importance in creating cultures. Every religious ritual, even those we do without thinking has some meaning attached to them.

In a bank I work with, every morning starts with a group prayer which all employees sing together. In another company, a workshop cannot start without a safety briefing. Safety for this manufacturing organization is a key value. Some organizations have a Values day when different employees come together for a celebration of living the values. To reinforce Discipline as a value and behavior, another organization has a penalty box in every meeting room for every late comer to put in 100 Rs. The money collected every month is given for the CSR activities.

Rituals provide powerful visible reminders and involve everyone in a set of actions designed to promote the culture. A ritual exists as long there is meaning and energy around it. The ritual can fall apart if there is no role modelling by the leader. Imagine if the senior most person in the meeting comes late and does not put in his penalty. No one would do it again.

The culture needs to reflect the organization’s mission and vision and the changing context outside the organizations. While analysts and senior leaders monitor stock prices and profits, it is just as important to keep a check on the pulse of the organization’s culture. If there are symptoms such as attrition, absenteeism, destructive conflicts, customer complaints and poor performance, it is a sign that it is time to revisit the culture. If this is not done, then culture could become the monster that eats strategy and systems for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Nirupama Subramanian
ELAvate Senior Trainer
Founder of GLOW – Growing Leadership of Women

Posted in Corporate Culture, Leadership Ethics, Strategy

Without Compassion, Resilient Leaders Will Fall Short





By Carol Kauffman

psychologist-offering-tissue_1098-1853It can come out of nowhere — a contempt attack. Like a panic attack, it arises suddenly and takes over completely. You feel a roil of emotions and an overpowering sense of exasperation: the person you’re working with is wasting your time, undermining your efforts, holding back the team. They’re weak, lazy, willfully misguided. In the grips of the attack, you can no longer focus on the matter at hand. The problem is more fundamental. What troubles you about this person is not so much what they’re doing as who they are.

Most leaders experience contempt attacks at one time or another, especially during times of crisis, uncertainty, and high stress. Leaders need to be strong and resilient to make it through these periods. Paradoxically, however, those very strengths make leaders vulnerable to these attacks, because in the heat of the moment they forget that not everybody is as strong and resilient as they are.

Consider a CEO I’ll call Gwen, who leads a well-known financial institution. During the financial crisis of 2009, Gwen was the picture of calm: perfectly coiffed hair, Chanel suit, and a commitment to doing whatever it took to help her institution navigate the crisis — which it did, with flying colors. Understandably, in the aftermath of the crisis, Gwen was proud of what she’d done. As she put it, “Under pressure I lowered my pulse, stayed strategic, and got everyone to execute brilliantly.”

In the work she’d done, Gwen had withstood the kind of pressure that would crush a normal person. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who worked for Gwen hated the experience. As one of them put it, she was an “ice queen slave driver” who couldn’t be bothered to connect to her people. She drove the team relentlessly, micromanaged, and took over herself when she felt members of her team were falling short. In her view, she had done this to rescue the team — but they weren’t grateful, and she couldn’t understand why. She may have won the war, by successfully navigating the crisis, but her team was unhappy, and she sure wasn’t winning the peace. So to turn things around, the board insisted that she hire a coach.

I ended up being the person Gwen chose to work with. When we first met, she didn’t hold back. “They think I’m the one that needs coaching!” she told me. “It’s the team, not me. They collapsed. They put our entire organization in jeopardy, and I had to carry them out of the mess on my back. I’ve seen their feedback: How I need to listen and slow down. ‘Take them all with me.’ I am supposed to be more open? And they want me to be vulnerable?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned toward me with fury and contempt shooting out of every pore of her being.

“Frankly, Carol,” she said, “I’d rather walk on nails.”

Gwen is not a “bad” person. She felt betrayed by her team, who she felt had abandoned her when she needed them most and now threatened her leadership. It never occurred to her that the members of her team might not be as relentlessly resilient and mentally tough as she was. Blind to this fact, she was unable to relate to her employees empathetically and instead assumed they had chosen to fail her. From her standpoint, they deserved her contempt.

In my decades of working as an executive coach, I’ve seen versions of this story play out time and again. Men are more likely to experience contempt attacks than women, but, as Gwen’s case makes clear, leaders of both genders are vulnerable. And no matter what the situation, the attacks put leaders, their people, and their companies at risk. To put it simply, contempt is dangerous in a leader.

Just how dangerous was something I learned years ago, when I was part of a research team, at the Maudsley Royal Hospital, in London, that was studying what we called “levels of expressed emotion.” What we found was shocking. Working with patients who had suffered episodes of depression or schizophrenia, we found that a high number of remarks given in a critical or contemptuous tone by a family member was as powerful a predictor of relapse as their not having taking medication.

As a leader, you need to recognize how powerfully your contempt can affect the people you’re working with. You overlook this at your peril. Fortunately, it’s possible to train yourself to be alert to signs of an impending contempt attack — and in so doing, to help yourself hit the reset button.


Consider how another client of mine — I’ll call him John — coped in this sort of situation.

Second in command of a pharma giant, John hit the ground running after Covid-19 arrived. Early on, however, he saw it from a different vantage point than most. His take, as he described it to me recently, was this: “This is horrible, and we’re racing against time for the vaccine, but, still, our parents and grandparents had it so much worse during WWII.”

John went on to describe his leadership team. “Some are amazing,” he said. “Really stepping up, and not always the one’s you’d expect. They are incredible. But others? They’re just missing in action. What they are doing? Sitting on their hands? I need them. It’s pathetic.”

John scoffed, rolled his eyes, and said, “One guy, Kevin — I just don’t get it. He’s afraid of his shadow, for Pete’s sake. He needs to get stuff done not hide at home quivering under his desk.”

As I listened to John, I was baffled. His attitude was shockingly out of character. I knew him as a beloved, highly collaborative, and empathic leader, but suddenly he was on a judgmental rant. And I heard telltale signs of contempt in his voice. How could he be so callous? I was reminded of Gwen, and then it hit me. He was a former military officer and, like Gwen, he was fearless. He was the epitome of a guy with the “right stuff” — but he couldn’t imagine what it was like not to have it.

“John,” I asked, “do you remember what you loved to do in your twenties?”

He looked and me blankly.

“After your time in the military, didn’t you fly helicopters for fun? And each time you took off, didn’t you have to face death and overcome your fear?”

He gave a short nod.

“For the hundreds of times you strapped into that seat, you built up your resistance to danger. It’s like you inoculated yourself against fear, over and over. And you loved it, didn’t you?”

“Well yes,” he admitted, looking down. “I used to weave them through the trees for fun.”

I could only imagine looking up at a helicopter thundering past, 30 feet off the ground. For fun?

“Here’s the thing,” I told him. “You’ve developed a backbone of steel. There are few people with more fortitude than you have. And that means you aren’t the normal one here. Kevin is. You can’t measure his behavior by yours.”

John is a quick thinker, and it took him only seconds to pivot.

“You’re right,” he said. “Damn! I never thought of it that way. Kevin didn’t deserve that attitude. It’s good thing I didn’t call him yesterday. It wouldn’t have been pretty.”

“But now?”

“I’ll be a lot kinder.”


In my work as a coach, I’ve found that leaders can take several steps to help keep a contempt attack at bay:

• If you’re an exceptionally strong and resilient leader, like John, recognize that you are the unusual one and don’t judge others based on yourself. Instead, think about what prepared you for the experiences that have made you stronger. Then apply that thinking to others, who haven’t been trained as you have. Take that “What’s wrong with them?” energy and use it to create an environment for them to be stronger. Don’t be so quick to judge them as failures. You have no idea what else may be going on for them. And don’t forget the genetic lottery — some of your stability may be inborn, and you can’t take credit for that.

• Remind yourself of who this person really is, not who they are at this moment. If you find yourself looking down on them, see if you can come up with three things that you respect about them. What have they accomplished that matters to you or the organization? When have they gone out of their way for you or someone on your team? If you can’t come up with anything, you’re probably too stressed to think straight — or you need to turn your attention back on yourself. If this person really isn’t up to the challenge of being on your team, why are they still on it? It’s not their fault that you chose to keep them there.

• Empathy involves making an extra effort to be kind. Walk over the bridge to where the other person is, try to see the world from their point of view, and then help them see yours. That’s what Gwen did. At one of our later sessions, I found her holding a black moleskin notebook open to a long list of names. About half of them had checkmarks next to them. “Carol,” she said, “you’ll be proud of me. Last time we talked about my starting conversations with people to understand them better. So I made a list of people and started doing that. It’s my kindness campaign — and it’s been amazing. They aren’t anything like I thought. They’re bright and interesting. I get it now.”

• Finally, to create the impact you want, ask yourself these questions: Who do I want to be right now? Am I living my values? Ask yourself about 30 times today. And then do it all over again tomorrow.


Carol Kauffman (carolkauffman.com) is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Institute of Coaching. She has been ranked #1 Leadership Coach by Marshall Goldsmith and shortlisted as one of the top 8 by Thinkers50.

Posted in Engagement, Relationship, Resilience

Who We Are Is How We Lead




By Nirupama Subramanian

office-chaos-vector-illustration_74855-5903When we talk about leadership, we usually think of grand important words to describe great leaders. We speak about vision, strategy, business acumen, influencing skills, great oration. In most workshops, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Dhirubai Ambani and JRD Tata are discussed in reverential tones even as we know that we can never match their stratospheric achievements.

However at a recent leadership workshop, I asked participants to talk about the leaders they had experienced, people they had known personally who may not have been the CEO but who still left a lasting positive impression and inspired others. What did these leaders do? This is what many of them said.

They really listened to me.

They took quick decisions.

They responded to my queries promptly.

They always remembered my name and also that of my family members.

They genuinely cared about my well- being and enquired after my health.

They believed in me and gave me a lot of responsibility though I was new to the job.

They didn’t shout at me even if I did  something wrong.

They always appreciated my efforts.

They were fair and impartial during appraisals.

Almost all the descriptors of the leaders pertained to their behaviors as individuals. These were not skills to be learnt at business schools or techniques that the leaders had mastered by reading books. These were simple human traits which we display in and out of the office. These are the qualities that distinguish a leader from just another ordinary person doing his or her job. The highest level of leadership as per John Maxwell is at Level 5 Pinnacle- People follow because of who you are and what you represent. These people may not be in positions of official power but they have risen to a place where they can exert personal power irrespective of the context or situation. They are good human beings first, then good leaders.Such leaders are congruent and authentic in situations in and outside of work.

A man who is rude to a waiter at a restaurant is probably rude to the front line employee.

A leader who does not listen to his/her spouse finds it difficult to listen to the team members.

A woman who is partial to one of her children finds it difficult to be objective during the time of appraisals.

A man who forgets the birthdays of his friends will probably not remember that of his colleagues.

A woman who is stingy with praise for the domestic help will not appreciate the efforts of her subordinates.

A person who tends to distrust his neighbors will tend to distrust his peers.

We all do adapt to some extent at work. Some people slip on a professional mask when they enter the office. We might reduce spontaneous reactions, behave with more gravitas, try to get along with people but we cannot change our whole personality when we step out of the home. If we continue to fake it at work, we will soon be stressed or burnt out. Our mindsets and beliefs that lead to the thoughts and feelings which in turn influence our behaviors are the same whether we are at work or home.

One of the main failings of typical leadership development programs is that they try to address only the skills required on the job. I myself have conducted several such workshops and though they provide for an engaging learning experience, I have to confess that they do not immediately enhance leadership qualities. The momentum wears off on Monday morning, the Action Plans are relegated to the bottom of the To Do list and workbooks gather dust. A few highly motivated individuals may see an improvement in some aspects of their life but for the most part, it is life as usual after the intervention.

If we want to change the way we behave as leaders, we also need to change the way behave as individuals, irrespective of context. Apart from a robust workshop design that caters to the holistic growth of a person followed by individual coaching, there are some other important  measures that can help to bridge the gap between personal and professional.

Feedback from Family and Friends– Usually a 360 degree feedback or a psychometric assessment is the starting point of a leadership development intervention. Complement that by taking feedback from the spouse and children. They often give the sharpest critique from a space of trust. Ask a good friend for an assessment. Check in with your parents about your qualities that stood out for them. Recently, I asked the participants of a leadership program to spend the evening getting feedback from people outside of their organization. The experience threw up many surprises and gave them valuable insights about their behavior. For many participants, the icing on the cake of this activity was the strengthening some of the most important relationships in their lives.

Focus on Well-being – Scientific research in the recent years, apart from our own common sense shows a strong connection between the body, mind and soul. Exercise and adequate sleep not only lead to better health but also promote happiness and well- being. Being a leader in position of responsibility can be a grueling task that calls for peak physical and mental fitness. Most interventions neglect this aspect and leave it to the individual to manage their physical fitness. While the ownership for this lies with the individual, enhancing the awareness of this aspect and motivating them to start off on a wellness routine will help them to become better leaders as well. Include a Mindfulness walk or bodywork as a part of the intervention. Set a weight loss goal, start a yoga class, do a daily mindfulness practice or just get people to use the gym in the office.

Meaningful action plans- Most action plans or Individual development plans that are created as a part of leadership interventions involved tasks related to office work only. There are cost saving projects, innovation projects or even resolutions to delegate more and enhance communication skills. These are important and must be accomplished. Along with these include some actions that are important to the participant at a personal level as well. This could be taking up a new hobby which has been a long cherished dream. One of my participants wanted to start music lessons since she was out of touch with this for many years and singing used to give her great happiness in her early days. Some might want to focus on a social cause close to their heart. Another senior leader in a workshop wanted to do something for underprivileged orphans but did not set aside any time or make concrete plans for this. Once he put down a weekly visit to a nearby orphanage as a part of his personal goals, he felt a great sense of satisfaction.

Set up mentoring relationships- Many organizations these days, sponsor performance coaching for their employees. Coaching forms a part of many leadership development interventions. As a coach, I have seen that my clients struggle with issues that are both personal and professional. Often, the mandate is to coach people so that they deliver on performance parameters only. However, during coaching, we uncover values, beliefs and limiting mindsets that impact the individual as a whole. I see that many clients need support on personal decisions and aspects as well. Most of them would benefit from a mentor with whom they have a trust based long term relationship. A mentor either from the organization or from outside would support them in their goals and challenges cutting across the personal and professional domains. Even if the organization does not provide a mentor, a leader should find a mentor who they will involve in their leadership journey. Some organizations like Biz Divas or the Cherie Blair Foundation provide mentoring support  for women leaders and this has proved to be hugely beneficial for their growth.

The workplace of the 21st century is changing rapidly. The traditional way of looking at work life balance in terms of only time has changed. People no longer do 9-5 jobs, many work out of home; with smartphones and wi-fi, the lines between personal and professional space is blurring. In such a world, only leaders who can bring their whole authentic selves to work will succeed in work and life.

Nirupama Subramanian
ELAvate Senior Trainer
Founder of GLOW – Growing Leadership of Women

Posted in Behaviour, Leadership Development

How to Lead with Compassion in Crisis





By Alexandre Ribas


3 Minute Read

I’m Alexandre Ribas, TTI Success Insights’ Master Distributor in Brazil, and I’ve been leading the global network in terms of report usage during the last few months. I truly believe that we should be doing everything we can right now to support our clients through this crisis, and that means leading with empathy and compassion.

Here are 4 steps I’ve implemented both in my own business plan and leadership style to emphasize a ‘matching’ mindset, and I’ll share with you what I’ve seen in my business as a result.

By utilizing complimentary reports, my team has been able to make connections without a significant financial investment. When TTI Success Insights released the Working from Home Report for free, myself and the other TTI SI Master Distributors were able to see first hand what that altruistic action did for trust in the company and for larger brand recognition.

Use Your Resources

Profits are not going to be high right now, because people are afraid to spend their money. With so much uncertainty and instability, this makes sense. In an industry like ours that focuses on human potential and personal development, you need to show that you understand the struggles of all organizations right now, whether it’s a small family business or a national team.

Focus on what you can give, not just what you can get. I’ve been giving away free reports and consultations with current and potential clients. They’re incredibly grateful for the help, and we get to expand our network (more on that later!).


By utilizing complimentary reports, my team has been able to make connections without a significant financial investment. When TTI Success Insights released the Working from Home Report for free, myself and the other TTI SI Master Distributors were able to see first hand what that altruistic action did for trust in the company and for larger brand recognition.

Invest in Your Future Reputation

The way that leaders and companies handle the current crisis will lay the groundwork for the future. People need help, and they’ll remember how you treat them. Our sales are actually growing right now in Brasil. This isn’t a result of free reports, but rather the increased awareness and appreciation of TTI Success Insights Brasil.

It is anywhere from 5 to 25 times more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to keep a current one, according to the Harvard Business Review. This makes sense; your messaging, products, and services have already resonated with your current customers. They’ve already made an emotional connection with you, that makes it easier for them to buy in the future.

Take care of these customers! By giving freely and with good intentions, you will lay the foundation to be an authority in the future, in both hard times and good times.

Put People First, Period

Difficult times are your opportunity to become a giver with a purpose. You can’t just focus on what you’ll get back from your clients and connections.

chatting-with-colleagues-at-homeStart this mindset within your own team. We’ve decided not to use personal data from this campaign, and we’re releasing resources and helpful materials without collecting information to use in later marketing campaigns. The idea behind this is to create trust and an environment that is so helpful and instructive that customers come back of their own accord.

Personally, I’m not measuring success for my sales team by numbers. In the past, we’ve had daily meetings to share conversions and data from their work, but that isn’t a realistic expectation right now when you factor in the state of things.

As a result, I’m measuring the success of my sales team not by profit but by the conversations they’re having. Are they empathetic and helpful? Are they truly listening and responding to the needs of the customer? If they are, we’re succeeding. We’re not setting sales goals in an extremely difficult financial time; we’re planting seeds for the future. And it’s working.

Shift Your Mindset

Any results that are not win-win will one day bring losses to you. Our attitude shows that we care about our clients. Truly caring about our clients builds our image and brand awareness, and boosts our reputation in the market.

This idea might be challenging. I know many members of our network are dominant, pioneering, and fast paced. The idea of shifting focus to people and not profit might be scary right now, especially in such an unsure time. I’m here to tell you that it’s more important now than ever. If you’re having a difficult time framing your thoughts around the matter, we can break it down further into three types, as defined by author Adam Grant:

 The Givers

Givers are altruistic and seek to help others. They take pleasure in the success and development of others, which can mean they frequently don’t put themselves first. Their careers can suffer, as a result.

 The Takers

Takers focus on their own agendas and interests, and are ambitious, driven to lead, and strategic. Their focus on their own success and development can lead to weaker interpersonal connections.

 The Matchers

Matchers work to balance their own development with the development of others around them. They seek a ‘win/win’ perspective in all things, and act purposefully and thoughtfully.

In times like these, you need to be a Matcher. Work to fully understand what they give to you, even if that’s just engaging with your content or offering you feedback. If you focus on what you’re going to get back from your clients right now, you’re not going to succeed.

We’ve had a huge influx of positive feedback from our Value Added Associates and from our clients. They see what we’re doing and how their own businesses can succeed because of it. That’s a huge win for us.

Look Forward With Compassion

True colors really are revealed in difficult situations. I’m proud to say my team and our network are revealing that they are empathetic, understanding, and adaptive. I advise that you start thinking about what you can give your clients, not what you can get from them. By becoming a trustworthy advisor to your clients, they can become your clients for life.

About Author
Alexandre Ribas is the President of TTI Success Insights Brasil and works with assessment tools since 1994. Started with TTI in 2001 and since 2002 provides assessment tools and sales orientation for consultants, coaches, head hunters and coaches.

Posted in Accountability, Influence, Motivation, Trust

When Unexpected Is Expected




By Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry

sportsman-climbing-wall_23-2147795578I flew on an airplane just once before college. Starting with my first job at KPMG after graduation, however, I began to fly more frequently—and later, while I was with an investment bank, I started to live on planes.

Through all this travel, I learned an invaluable lesson: the unexpected is always expected.

I can remember being on one particular flight, about 20 years ago, from Los Angeles to New York. We were supposed to land at JFK, but we couldn’t because of a blizzard. As we circled low over the New York area, I tuned into the audio channel that, back then, allowed passengers to listen to the conversation between the cockpit and air traffic control.

During the discussion of whether to land at JFK, try Newark, or fly to Philadelphia, the pilot asked about a plane that had just touched down. I was dismayed by air traffic control’s candid answer: “Yeah, they landed—if you want to call it that.”

Finally, we somehow landed at Newark where we sat on the tarmac, waiting for a gate, and then even longer to get our bags. I barely made my meeting. After that, I promised myself I’d always be prepared, starting with what I could control. No matter where or when I flew, I would always carry on my bag.

That lesson paid off many years later when I was en route to Madrid to give a speech, with a connection in London’s Heathrow Airport. The flight was diverted because of a snowstorm, and we landed in Shannon, Ireland. The pilot announced over the intercom that we’d probably be stuck there for 14 hours because the crew had exceeded their legal flying time. As I nervously pondered what to do, I looked out the window. No other planes were at the gates. It was clear that I would be stuck if I didn’t take control.

While everyone else waited on the plane for further instructions, I asked if I could deboard. So, I grabbed my carry-on, rented a car, and drove 120 kilometers through Ireland along country roads in the rain to the city of Cork. There, I got the last available seat (the last row, middle seat) on a cheap regional airline and landed at Heathrow around midnight. I stayed at an airport hotel with all the ambience of a minimum-security prison and got up at 4:30 in the morning to catch the flight to Madrid. But I made it on time.

You can’t control the weather, but you can adjust your sails.

And that’s what we are trying to do, right now. The pandemic is worsening in some parts of the world. Phase 3…Phase 4…back to Phase 3. State to state, region to region, it’s a patchwork of different economic realities, which seem to shift like the wind.

Across any global organization—with different phases and stages for any place at any given time—leaders must navigate in the moment.

To navigate is to make proactive, purposeful decisions to accelerate through the crisis curve. Most decisions these days seem to be a good decision—until they are no longer a good decision. Then it’s time to course-correct, in real time, with another decision.

The times we are in call for “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

Here are some thoughts:

  • Navigating means taking responsibility. Navigation is the companion to anticipation. Together, they keep the organization on an even keel. In a conversation we had a few years ago, Ken Blanchard, the management expert and co-author of The One Minute Manager, described the tension between anticipate and navigate in this way: be the “president of the present” and the “president of the future”— both at the same time. Navigation focuses on what happens in the present, with real-time adjustments. Making a decision is easy. Making a decision, knowing you personally own the consequences, is much harder. The starting point is humility—not because of the consequences on you, but rather recognizing the burden those decisions may place on others. Humility begets self-awareness, and self-awareness reminds us we’re not the smartest in the room.
  • Plan a little, think a lot, decide always. Navigating is determining both direction and velocity. The truth is leaders can’t move an organization faster than the people and culture can absorb. Another way to think about it is launching a rocket. If the launch trajectory is off by even inches at the start, the rocket is going to be off by miles when it’s in orbit. It takes navigation and strategy to maintain the right trajectory over time. One thing is certain: we can’t ignore reality. If we try, what becomes truly unavoidable is the consequence of having avoided reality. “Let me think about that” can be just as toxic as “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” No decision is still a decision—and probably a bad one—and it can lead to organizational paralysis. In these times especially, we must plan a little, think a lot, decide always.
  • Know when to take the wheel. When you’re responsible for the whole organization, you oversee the entire airspace—from ground level up to 35,000 feet and beyond. Nothing should be “beneath” you. How and when you need to take the wheel depends on the organization and the circumstances. A historic moment serves as an example. In July 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to reach the moon. The landing was supposed to be a totally hands-off operation. Just before touchdown, Armstrong noticed that the targeted landing site was at the edge of a large crater surrounded by boulders. He overrode the computer and landed the Eagle manually. “The Eagle has landed” became a victory cry everywhere. Now, 51 years later, we can reflect on that moment with deeper appreciation for Armstrong’s split-second decision to take matters into his hands. It’s a powerful lesson for all of us: When it’s smooth sailing, we can delegate more to our team and occupy the upper airspace to view the entire organization and its strategy. But when we face critical issues in the moment, we need to be at “ground level.”
  • Lessons learned the hard way. Of all the times that leaders must navigate in their careers, the moments that undoubtedly stand out the most will be times of crisis. These are the moments that teach us what to do when we don’t know what to do. I can distinctly remember, when I was about 10 years old, riding with my dad and my uncle from McPherson, Kansas, where we lived, to Topeka, in the middle of the state. There was a snowstorm, visibility was terrible, and on top of it, we got a flat tire. Because of the snowdrifts, our car was barely pulled off the road when my dad and my uncle got out to change the tire. I can remember them being so worried about what would happen if we got stuck. That day, I learned the importance of being prepared. Even to this day, I carry a potpourri of “stuff” in my car trunk: a blanket, flashlight, jumper cables, warm clothes…. Because one of these days, I’ll be glad I did—even in “sunny” Southern California. Have Plan B for Plan A, particularly today.

When we’re in the thick of it—the turbulence, the storm, the crisis—clouds of uncertainty and ambiguity shade the horizon. But the horizon is ahead. Embrace the unexpected to be expected. Look up, look out, look forward. Perspective is usually liberating!


Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

Posted in Leadership Development

The most fundamental skill: Intentional learning and the career advantage





By Lisa Christensen, Jake Gittleson, and Matt Smith

close-up-young-woman-looking-out-through-balcony-from-white-curtain_23-2148161251Learning itself is a skill. Unlocking the mindsets and skills to develop it can boost personal and professional lives and deliver a competitive edge.

The call for individuals and organizations alike to invest in learning and development has never been more insistent. The World Economic Forum recently declared a reskilling emergency as the world faces more than one billion jobs transformed by technology. Even before COVID-19 emerged, the world of stable lifetime employment had faded in the rearview mirror, replaced by the expectation that both executives and employees must continually refresh their skills. The pandemic has only heightened the urgency of doubling down on skill building, either to keep up with the speed of transformation now underway or to manage the particulars of working in new ways.

Despite this context—and the nearly constant refrain for people to adapt to it by becoming lifelong learners—many companies struggle to meet their reskilling goals, and many individuals struggle to learn new and unfamiliar topics effectively. We believe that an underlying cause is the fact that so few adults have been trained in the core skills and mindsets of effective learners. Learning itself is a skill, and developing it is a critical driver of long-term career success. People who have mastered the mindsets and skills of effective learning can grow faster than their peers and gain more of the benefits from all the learning opportunities that come their way.This article, supported by research and our decades of experience working as talent and learning professionals, explores the core mindsets and skills of effective learners. People who master these mindsets and skills become what we call intentional learners: possessors of what we believe might be the most fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate in the coming decades. In the process they will unlock tremendous value both for themselves and for those they manage in the organizations where they work.

Unlocking intentionality

Formal learning opportunities account for only a small percentage of the learning a professional needs over the course of a career. Everyday experiences and interactions offer tremendous learning opportunities, but only if you intentionally treat every moment as a learning opportunity. While intentional learners embrace their need to learn, for them learning is not a separate stream of work or an extra effort. Instead, it is an almost unconscious, reflexive form of behavior. Learning is the mode and mindset in which intentional learners operate all the time. Although they are experiencing all the same daily moments anyone else might, they get more out of those opportunities because everything—every experience, conversation, meeting, and deliverable—carries with it an opportunity to develop and grow.

Each of us can become an intentional learner. There are two critical mindsets (or things you need to believe) and five core practices (or behavior that collectively reorients you toward learning in everything you do). It’s not as hard as it sounds; in fact, you’re probably doing some of these already.

Foster learning by adjusting two critical mindsets

Mindsets are powerful, often exerting tremendous influence on behavior, sometimes unconsciously. When built on a foundation of self-efficacy—the belief that your actions can help you achieve desired outcomes1 —two mindsets serve as especially powerful fuel for intentional learners: a growth mindset and a curiosity mindset. While some people may have a natural proclivity to these mindsets, the important thing is that they are neither fixed nor immovable. In fact, part of their power is that they can be developed.

Adopt a growth mindset

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s popular work on growth suggests that people hold one of two sets of beliefs about their own abilities: either a fixed or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that personality characteristics, talents, and abilities are finite or fixed resources; they can’t be altered, changed, or improved. You simply are the way you are. People with this mindset tend to take a polar view of themselves—they consider themselves either intelligent or average, talented or untalented, a success or a failure. A fixed mindset stunts learning because it eliminates permission not to know something, to fail, or to struggle. Writes Dweck: “The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”2

In contrast, a growth mindset suggests that you can grow, expand, evolve, and change. Intelligence and capability are not fixed points but instead traits you cultivate. A growth mindset releases you from the expectation of being perfect. Failures and mistakes are not indicative of the limits of your intellect but rather tools that inform how you develop. A growth mindset is liberating, allowing you to find value, joy, and success in the process, regardless of the outcome.

Cultivating a growth mindset can begin with shifting your inner dialogue from beliefs about your ability (a fixed mindset) to beliefs about your opportunities and needs (a growth mindset)—for example, from “I’m terrible at giving presentations” to “I need more practice presenting in front of others.” Similarly, “I’m not good enough to be promoted to supervisor” might become “I need some additional experience before I’ll be ready for promotion.” Simple restatements have a dramatic impact on what you believe about your own abilities. A fixed mindset often runs deep; it may take constant practice to reframe your default thoughts.

Feed your curiosity

Curiosity, the engine of intentional learning, can be cultivated, even in those who don’t consider themselves naturally curious. Think of curiosity as priming the pump. It’s what gets your learning started. Curiosity is awareness, an openness to ideas, and an ability to make connections between disparate concepts.

The research tells us that curiosity matters for three primary reasons. First, inspiration is strongly correlated with an intrinsic desire to learn. Curiosity sparks inspiration. You learn more and more frequently because you are curious. Second, curiosity marks the beginning of a virtuous cycle that feeds your ability as a self-directed learner. Finally, research suggests that curiosity doesn’t diminish with age, so it can serve you at any point in your career. Although your learning methods will change over time, curiosity will keep the spark of motivation alive.3

Consider a few practices to strengthen your curiosity muscle:

  • Face your fears. Fear is a significant barrier to curiosity; confronting those fears can be an important way to unlock learning skills. Spend a bit of time reflecting. What prevents you from asking questions in meetings? What keeps you from trying new things? What makes you reluctant to accept new assignments? Once you name what you are afraid of, you can decide how to address it.
  • Seek novel experiences and ideas. New environments, new experiences, and exposure to new groups of people can all spark curiosity. Your search for the new can be as dramatic as moving to a new country or as simple as watching a documentary on a topic you don’t know anything about. The key is to avoid stagnation by feeding your mind with something new.
  • Focus on what you love. Your curiosity doesn’t have to be confined to your career—cultivating the muscle in anything you do will serve all parts of your life. Consider collecting skills and interests outside your day job. Maybe you love podcasts, build engines, coach a sports team, or play an instrument in your spare time. Whatever you love to do, do more of it.

Whatever form curiosity takes, it helps you stay open and aware, broadens your perspective, and readies you to learn. Because it looks different in every person, the best advice is to just start. Get curious. Ask questions. Find something you are interested in and try it. When you become tired, try something else, but don’t stop trying things.

Practice, practice, practice: The five core skills of intentional learners

A growth mindset and active curiosity are the fuel of intentional learning. But when you develop your learning muscles, it’s also important to modulate these forces and direct their energy effectively. Five best-practice behaviors help intentional learners get the most out of their experiences: setting goals, protecting time for learning, actively seeking feedback, conducting deliberate practice, and reflecting to evaluate yourself and determine your progress.

Set small, clear goals

Intentional learners are anchored in tangible goals, so they can use curiosity as an effective tool instead of a source of distraction. Learning-science scholars draw a bright line between a learner’s goal and the ultimate “stickiness” of learning. Learning takes hold when you can retain and use what you have learned. The stickiest kind of learning happens when you are trying to accomplish something you care about.

Consider these best practices for goal setting:

  • Set a goal that matters to you. Goals are a source of energy and motivation. Yours may be a career goal (for example, becoming a chief technology officer) or something more skill specific—say, improving your presentation skills. Either is fine if you really care about accomplishing that goal. You might also consider your goals through the lens of what is important to your organization: what of the emerging opportunities or challenges it faces excite you, and how you can shape a goal for yourself that allows you to embrace them (see sidebar “Creating a culture of intentional learning”).
  • Make the goal concrete. Be specific and explicit about what you will accomplish, but also take time to articulate why this goal matters to you. It can be fun to learn for learning’s sake (what researchers call epistemic curiosity), but for many people this doesn’t provide the same kind of anchor for learning as a goal directed at solving a problem or facing a challenge. “I’d like to learn more about technology,” for example, won’t give you the same kind of focused direction as “I’d like to be a great thought partner for digital experts and be able to solve problems with them.”
  • Adopt a ‘once in a career’ mindset. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said no one “ever steps in the same river twice,” for neither the river nor the person remains unchanged by the passage of time. Perhaps you weren’t excited about helping your entire team to work remotely or optimizing all your customer-service processes for digital, but this also might be the only moment in your career when you have that opportunity. A once-in-a-career mindset that both enjoys and learns from every opportunity (because it may be the only such opportunity in your career) is a powerful reframing technique. Rather than letting unique opportunities go to waste, setting goals with this mindset helps you squeeze every drop of learning from even the most challenging circumstances.

Remove distractions

Although intentional learners face the same distractions and expectations their peers do, they protect time for learning. Because no set of decisions is more personal than how you use your time and balance your responsibilities, there isn’t a single formula for making time to learn. However, the strategies of intentional learners share three traits to make and protect time for learning in a busy day:

  • Carefully evaluate yourself and make a plan. Start with an honest self-analysis of what we call your personal operating model. What choices are you making about your priorities, roles, time, and energy? Do your choices align with the goals that you care about? Consider activities you should add but, more important, consider what you must eliminate to meet your goals.
  • Be mindful in the moment. Even with the best intentions, things will get in the way of learning. Ready yourself for the deeper work of learning by minimizing distractions in your environment and managing your energy. Separate yourself from your devices. Take a walk before you start a long period of focus. Set an alarm reminding you to stretch every hour. Set up your workspace to eliminate distractions.
  • Conduct experiments and be flexible. It may take time and iteration to find what works for you. Consider small experiments and reflect on how successfully they help you reinvest some of your time. Nothing works perfectly but, perhaps more important, nothing works forever. Commit yourself to being intentional about learning and protecting time, but be open to flexing specific strategies as your circumstances change.

Actively seek actionable feedback

Feedback is a familiar principle to most professionals; even when we don’t love receiving it, we understand its benefits. Intentional learners are different because they not only seek feedback but also pursue it voraciously. Without it, they recognize, they may have blind spots that halt their progress. As you seek feedback, do these things:

  • Prime others. Focus people on what you are working on. After an important meeting, many of us have probably asked a colleague, “What did you think?” It’s very different to say to someone before a meeting, “I’m working on managing my reactions when my ideas are challenged. I’d love for you to watch for that and give me feedback after the meeting.” Broadcasting what you are working on increases your chances of receiving tailored, actionable feedback.
  • Press for details. Feedback is most helpful when it’s actionable, and actionable feedback most often comes from details and examples. If someone comments that you seemed defensive during a meeting, probe for more information. Did my defensiveness show up in my facial expressions or body language? Did my tone of voice change? What did I say that suggested this reaction?
  • Decide how to treat feedback. This might seem surprising, but how you judge your ability to handle and act on feedback plays a critical role in the way an intentional learner responds to it. You may actively seek feedback, but you do not have to act on (or even believe) every comment. Feedback is data you collect to help you improve, but in the end you are in control of what to do with it.
  • Seek experts. It is difficult to grow when you don’t know what good looks like. By seeking out someone who already has expertise—say, an executive who has achieved the role you aspire to rise to or someone who is deeply skilled in the area in which you are interested—you have a pattern for how to advance. Expertise is made up of nuanced skills. An expert can give you insights that a peer simply cannot.

Practice deliberately in areas you want to grow in

Practice, especially practice in context, is absolutely critical to learning. The pattern of trying, failing, refining your approach, and trying again is at the heart of building all behavioral skills. After studying the development of expertise across varied domains, such as athletics, aviation, medicine, and music, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson determined that there is a “scientific approach to developing expertise” and that “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.”4

Many of us believe that practice makes perfect, but that classic proverb isn’t specific enough. Doing things over and over does little to build your skills. Instead, Ericsson suggests, “deliberate practice” creates expertise. Deliberate practice is “focused activity aimed at just the right level of challenge to extend expertise.”5 In other words, effective practice is aimed at the skill gaps just beyond your current set of skills. It is practice that Goldilocks would appreciate—not too hard, not too easy, and not too repetitive of what you can already do, but at just the right level of challenge, focused on precisely the skill you need. When it comes to being deliberate, we believe that this quality is not only a critical differentiator for intentional learners but also, in application, usually markedly different from what most of us do (exhibit).


Practice regular reflection

Metacognition, or reflecting on and directing your own thinking, plays a critical role in all cognitive tasks, including your ability to reflect on and learn from situations. Reflection is a diagnostic skill that helps you evaluate yourself and determine your learning needs, both in light of your own past performance and in comparison with recognized experts. Reflection helps you unpack your actions, to refine the component pieces, and then to put those pieces back together in a way that improves your performance.

Reflection that promotes learning happens in three primary moments—before, during, and after a task. Forecasting a cognitive task simply means looking ahead. In these moments, we are thinking ahead about how we might tackle a task, how we will approach a problem, or what we will say during a difficult conversation. We’re reflecting on what’s coming. This process of forecasting or planning primes us to learn. When we reflect during an event, we can correct our course and make adjustments. We notice what is happening even as we are “in the arena” and can learn and experiment in the moment. Finally, retrospective reflection lets us look at a past situation, consider how effective our actions were, and then project forward to how we would approach a similar event in the future.

Among reflection’s many benefits two stand out. First is the correlation between reflection and self-efficacy. At the core of learning is your belief that you can learn, that you can improve, and that you can take the steps necessary to achieve desired levels of performance. Reflection begins a virtuous cycle of building confidence, which reinforces the feeling that we are capable, which primes us to become more capable. Confidence builds resolve to take on increasingly hard challenges, which strengthen existing skills and build new ones. Reflecting on those challenges in turn breeds additional confidence—and on and on and on.6

Equally important, reflection lowers a person’s barrier to change. The best problem solvers try new strategies when old ones are no longer working. We work in a fast-paced world, and unfamiliarity, particularly in the face of time pressures, can be a major obstacle. Reflection builds cognitive familiarity with new processes. Because you have thought about something before and are always thinking about how to refine and improve, concerns about making changes become less powerful.

Our ability to reflect is threatened on many fronts. Being overscheduled, overworked, and overloaded affects our ability to pause and assess our circumstances and performance. But the noisier the world around us, the greater the need for dedicated reflection time. Intentional learners not only engage in reflection but also, in many cases, ritualize it. They create consistent and predictable patterns, both for when they will reflect and what they will think about. They establish strategies for capturing these thoughts and referring back to them often. By relying on ritual, learners reduce the number of decisions associated with reflection (for example, when, what, and how), so it becomes easier to return to the practice repeatedly.

The level of intention we bring to improving our performance readies us for challenges, prepares us to raise our skills when needed, and ultimately keeps us inspired and engaged. Intentional learning is an investment we make in ourselves, but it is equally an investment we make in our professions, our families, our communities, our organizations, and the world at large. In that way, it just might be the most fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate.

About the author(s)

Lisa Christensen is director of learning design in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, Jake Gittleson is an expert in the Chicago office, and Matt Smith is a partner and chief learning officer in the Paris office.

This article was edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in the New Jersey office.

Posted in Development, Learning

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