Leaders, It’s Time to Unlearn the Skills That Made You Successful

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As a leader, you’ve spent years — or decades — learning and honing the skills and characteristics that make your leadership effective. When circumstances change — as they very much have in the age of COVID — you may quite naturally reach for the very same set of skills you’ve used all along. This might not be the best approach.

As a former Fortune 15 executive, I know from experience that, as your career and its context evolves, you may need to unlearn many of the habits that have contributed to your success so far. This is especially true in today’s context, where so much is in flux.

Here are five ways to ways to unlearn the skills that made you successful in the past so you can experience continued career success in the future:

1. Aim for More Collaboration, Less Competition

The hierarchical structures of most organizations are wired for competition, and it’s natural to think of our peers as our competitors when climbing the corporate ladder. However, internal competition is not always profitable or beneficial. Those peers could one day become your manager or direct report. Competing could also erode your personal brand image and make it more difficult for peers and direct reports to fully engage with you, for fear that they may get caught in the crossfire.

Collaborate internally and win externally by delivering solutions for your customers, clients, and stakeholders. Collaboration sharpens your skills, creates a nonconfrontational environment in which people can learn from one another, builds alliances, and creates a better team dynamic for everyone.

2. Adapt to Your New Environment

The Heart of a Leader CoverI’ve worked at three Fortune 500 companies across different industries: Procter & Gamble, The Hershey Company, and Cardinal Health. Once, I transitioned from a company where working 50-60 hours per week was the norm. I wrongly assumed this was also the norm at my new company, and I spent many late nights working from home to support on-time launches for new products. However, I was oblivious to the impact my habits had on others until my manager brought it to my attention.

I accepted the feedback and became more aware of the norms, habits, and practices of my new company, and then I adapted my approach. For example, I stopped sending late-night emails and instead saved the emails in my draft folder to send them in the morning. This was one of many intentional tweaks I made to unlearn what made me successful in other companies so I could adapt to a new organizational culture to increase my effectiveness and enhance my brand reputation.

3. Adopt a Growth Mindset

First described by Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,  a growth mindset is the underlying belief that your abilities and intelligence can grow with time, experience, and effort.

“In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development,” Dweck writes in Mindset. “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

These beliefs can have a profound effect on our behavior. People who are open to change, believe they can do better, and feel their efforts matter have a sense of agency in their performance and rise to the challenge. Setbacks and failures don’t keep them down;  they persevere, even when they’re frustrated.

4. Seek Feedback 

Kristin HarperNo matter your level or role, feedback is crucially important to advancing your career and increasing your influence on your organization and people. Once you’ve proven yourself as a high performer, the differentiating factor in your success becomes your brand image and exposure to key stakeholders. I refer to this as the “PIE model” — performance, image, and exposure. Be careful not to rely solely on old feedback. Your perceived strengths, opportunities, and brand image can change over time and with different circumstances.

Be courageous and solicit broad feedback at least annually, including metric-based questions and verbatim comments. People are naturally biased toward listening for the good and denying or defending the bad. Keeping feedback in a written document gives you time to process it and engage in the emotional journey necessary to fully metabolize it. Feedback deepens self-awareness, prompts reflection, and illuminates opportunities for growth in both the what (technical skills) and the how (soft skills). Consider hiring an executive coach or working with an accountability partner to help you debrief on feedback, define action steps, and support your continued development.

5. Revolutionary Pivots Aren’t Necessary — a One-Degree Behavioral Shift Can Make All the Difference

According to some estimates, the average moderately active person walked 7,500 steps a day pre-COVID-19. Over the course of a lifetime, that’s the equivalent of walking 110,000 miles.

Similarly, I encourage you to think about your career as a marathon, not a sprint. To go the distance and reach your desired professional destination, you may need to make a few small changes along the way. These minor shifts can have a big impact on your brand image and effectiveness. Here are a few examples:

Situation: A colleague often opposes your ideas in meetings.

One-degree behavior shift: Schedule just-in-time or on-going meetings with colleagues to build rapport, socialize ideas, and solicit feedback.
Impact: You’ll increase your influence, build more rapport, and advance your ideas with more support and less resistance.

Situation: Your team feels disengaged.

One-degree behavior shift: Integrate an icebreaker into your team meeting agendas.
Impact: Lighthearted icebreakers can foster team bonding by focusing on the team as people, not just employees. They break up the monotony and increase engagement, connectedness, and belonging.

Situation: You need to inspire your team in the face of change.

One-degree behavior shift: Avoid delusional positivity or doom and gloom. Instead, share what you know and don’t know about the situation, create a safe space for your team members to express themselves, and focus on what you can control.
Impact: You’ll be perceived as a more empathetic, in-touch leader while driving engagement and retention on your team.

Kristin Harper is CEO of Driven to Succeed, LLC, and the author of The Heart of a Leader: 52 Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career.

By Kristin Harper