How to “Boost” Your Leadership Skills… and Your Career Trajectory4 May 2023
By Samir Mehta, David Altman, and William Gentry
Have you ever wondered how Simone Biles, the Olympic gold medal athlete, executes those amazing flips that are part of her gymnastic routine? Biles may not be able to explain the physics behind those flips, but you can bet she spends long hours studying, observing, and practicing them before she enters a competition.
Whether you realize it or not, many of us execute similarly complex mental flips when we take on a leadership role on our team or within our organization. At the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), we’ve been studying the art and science of leadership for more than 50 years. As part of our mission to advance the understanding, practice, and development of leadership, we’ve identified six major mindset shifts or flips that are necessary for new leaders to succeed.
PMI and CCL are now partnering to bring that knowledge to project management professionals. Project professionals, after all, lead efforts within their organizations to advance major initiatives and bring about change. It’s critical, therefore, that all project professionals understand how leadership works and why it’s important to their organizations and to their professional lives.
Our CCL Boost™ for New Leaders course is specifically designed for new leaders who haven’t led or managed others. It’s also a great refresher for those who have been in leadership positions but have not had formal training on how to be a better leader. And it’s an excellent complement to PMI certifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification, with its emphasis on power skills so essential to successful project leadership.
Through the CCL Boost™ for New Leaders course, new leaders are shown the six flips in thinking that are essential to success. But it starts with an even more fundamental shift in how to think about leadership and the role of leaders. Let us explain.
Conventional wisdom says that some of us are followers and others are leaders; followers follow the leader. But we define leadership differently. Leadership is, first and foremost, a process – a social process that enables people to work together as a cohesive group to produce collective results. You know this process is working when you see three outcomes: direction, alignment, and commitment.
There’s direction when there’s a vision, a desired future, a purpose that everyone on the team can clearly articulate. There’s alignment when there’s a sense of organization, coordination, and synchronization. And there’s commitment when there’s a sense of mutual responsibility within the team for its overall success and wellbeing.
By this definition, leadership isn’t a position you hold. Everyone is a leader. We lead ourselves, and we contribute to the leadership process by furthering the direction, alignment, and commitment of the team. The role of the leader is to create the conditions that make the social process of leadership happen.
Having said this, there is a shift in perspective that leaders undergo, and there’s a role for formal training in the evidence-based practices that contribute to leadership success. Here are the six major flips outlined in CCL Boost™:
- Mindset: The most successful new leaders understand that even leadership is a skill to be learned and for that, they need have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
- Skill Set: For new leaders, influence and verbal and nonverbal communication skills — including empathy — take top priority, as opposed to technical, job-related skills.
- Relationships: The shift in roles from team member to “boss” is the most frequently described challenge in our research. This changes the relationship with former peers and superiors.
- “Do It All” Attitude: New leaders must transition from “doing it all myself” to developing and involving others. Leaders do that most effectively by providing challenging assignments, growth opportunities, and both career- and skill-related mentorship.
- Perspective: It’s important that new leaders widen their perspective and understand the big picture. They need to be aware of organizational politics and be flexible enough to navigate those dynamics.
- Focus: New leaders need to flip their focus. Instead of looking at others, they must realize that others are now looking at them. Character and integrity are vital.
Making these mindset shifts begins with self-awareness – leading ourselves by developing our competencies in communication and influence and by learning from our experiences. Indeed, experience – being thrown into a difficult assignment and having to learn on the job – accounts for about 70 percent of what contributes to leadership success, according to CCL research. Another roughly 20 percent comes from observing others in leadership roles and the final 10 percent from training of some kind, e.g., taking a course or reading a book on leadership.
But what can you, as a project professional, do to sharpen your leadership skills and contribute to the leadership process on your team? Here are six recommendations:
- Take the first step: Today, right now. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was wise when he wrote: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
- Adopt a growth mindset: Adopt an attitude that you can get better day-in and day-out, year-over-year, throughout your lifetime. Realize that effort more than intelligence is what contributes to success.
- Volunteer for tough assignments: Odds are you will look back on these experiences and see how they made you both a better professional and person.
- Be an expert in yourself: Embrace self-awareness and a willingness to tackle development needs while building on areas of current strength.
- Seek input from others – advisors, mentors, coaches, friends, family: Being a leader can be lonely. You can reduce the harmful effects of isolation by seeking out others you trust.
- Leadership is a social process: That means you need to get out of your head and your office (whether onsite or virtual) to seek input from and connection with others.
One potential “first step” on your leadership journey is membership with PMI. Through their local chapters you’ll meet like-minded project professionals who can serve as advisors and mentors, and you’ll be exposed to seasoned and accomplished leaders who embody the growth mindset important to success. Even more, you’ll have an opportunity to participate in volunteer projects that will stretch your capabilities as a professional and as a person.
PMI and CCL stand ready to support you on this journey. While training may seem like an obvious path for those interested in a leadership role, 60 percent of leaders have never been trained. That may be why 50 percent of managers are seen as failing in their role as leaders, according to CCL research. Imagine the benefits to our organizations and to society at large if we could change the trajectory of even a fraction of that 50 percent. It all begins with a mindset flip.