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Why You Probably Aren’t Getting Enough Feedback… and What To Do About It: Self-Leadership Challenge #15

Management guru Ken Blanchard often quotes his friend, Rich Case, as saying, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” If that is the case, how often and how well are YOU™ being fed?

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If you’re like most leaders I’ve met in my executive coaching practice, you aren’t getting enough regular feedback. That’s why the best self-leaders ask for feedback regularly. If no one is offering you feedback because of your heightened position, or if you don’t feel you’re getting honest opinions that you can use, you have to take the initiative to go after it. There’s simply no better way to excel in your current position and accelerate your career.

Of course, asking for feedback may not be something you love to do. Let’s face it: It can be somewhat painful to learn about your shortcomings, even if there are only relatively small issues that need improvement. But the other reality to face is that not accepting criticism can cause your career to come to a crashing halt. So, it becomes a matter of trading off the long-term pain of a career that isn’t reaching its full potential for the short-term potential pain of a little constructive criticism. That feedback could ultimately help you move forward and perhaps even help you reach heights beyond what you thought possible.

Once you know what needs improvement, you’re then armed with the information you need to move forward. There’s a certain excitement from developing your self-leadership skills and getting better at your job. It’s almost guaranteed to rejuvenate you and give you renewed energy in your position … if you let it.

Why Don’t Leaders Seek More Feedback?

Despite the known benefits of getting input from others, too many executives continue as usual without getting enough feedback about their performance. Why is that? These are the five main reasons I’ve seen. Do you recognize yourself in any of these?

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  1. As you climb higher, you become less coachable.
  2. You let your ego/pride stop you from getting feedback.
  3. You’re concerned that the feedback you do get won’t be genuine.
  4. The feedback received doesn’t come from the right people.
  5. You’re content to just continue on as you’ve always done, as long as nothing appears to be wrong.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Feedback

The bottom line: It’s critical at all levels of an organization to get feedback from others. Here are some do’s and don’ts that will assist you in getting feedback you can truly use:

Do make it clear to feedback providers that you’re sincere and want their remarks to be honest. Encourage them to be candid, and let them know that’s exactly the kind of input you’re looking for.

Do ask for feedback from coworkers at different levels from within the organization—your boss, your subordinates, key peers, and colleagues. They might have varying perspectives on your work and your behaviors, so getting all of their opinions will help you see a multitude of viewpoints from a “surround-sound” perspective. That can help you grow in different ways.

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Do say “thank you” when someone shares feedback with you—and that’s all you need to say, whether you agree with what you heard or not. This holds especially true if they offered perceived “negative” inputs. If you’re not the sort of person who’s good at taking criticism, there’s nothing wrong with “rehearsing” ahead of time. Try to anticipate the points people might tell you, and prepare yourself emotionally to react well. You don’t need to commit to making a change on the spot; you can decide what to do with the feedback later. Just thank your feedback provider, genuinely, and remember that they’ve given you information you can use. View it as a gift – because it is.

Do listen closely, and take notes on what is said. Don’t try to remember your feedback providers’ remarks in your head because if you’re feeling any emotion or anxiety, no matter how prepared you think you are, your mind will likely get cluttered. Plus, when the person sees you writing down their remarks, they’ll be convinced you really are sincere about getting honest feedback. And it will be helpful, later, to have your notes in front of you as you review the inputs and plan what to do with them.

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Do devise an anonymous questionnaire if you think you might not get genuine feedback any other way. Again, those who hold very top positions may find it difficult to persuade subordinates to speak with honesty or to criticize “the boss” in any way. Your own comfort level might even be enhanced if you can ask questions in writing. Design the questions in whatever format will suit your purposes: You can write questions that require simple “Yes” or “No” answers, or those that rate you on a scale of 1-6 or 1-10. Or you can combine these styles, even asking a few “narrative” questions, e.g., to write a sentence or a paragraph in response. You’ll be able to see which types of questions bring the most useful information and remember that for future surveys.

Do hire a coach to interview selected colleagues and subordinates if you think those feedback providers might be too intimidated to give you straightforward inputs directly. Have the coach assure the feedback providers that their comments will be kept completely anonymous. Their responses will almost certainly be more forthright if they know that no one will share “who said what” with the feedback recipient.

Do create questions that correspond to specific key self-leadership qualities or skills that you want to improve. Here are a few suggestions—you can pick and choose—but always try to start off with “positive” input questions (e.g., the first two below) as people are generally open to sharing opportunities to improve inputs once they’ve had a chance to share positives first.

  • What would you say are the top three things that I am doing well (what should I continue doing)?
  • What would you like me to start doing?
  • What would you like me to stop doing?
  • What do I do too much?
  • What do I do too little?
  • What do you need from me that I haven’t been providing?
  • How could I communicate better?
  • What could I do to help improve overall productivity?
  • If you were in my position, what would you suggest I do differently compared to what I’m doing now?
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Don’t make your request too open-ended by saying something like, “Give me feedback, please.” People won’t know what to say, and they’ll likely be lost trying to figure out what you’re looking for. But if you ask them specific questions, such as those from the list above, you will probably end up with very useful inputs that can drive tangible strategies for improving your performance and strengthening your self-leadership skills.

Don’t ask for feedback from colleagues or direct reports when they are in a group. I once witnessed a CEO who did this. Instead of asking his staff for feedback one-on-one, he surprised them in a group meeting with the question, “Okay, let’s get it out on the table now: How am I doing?” Later, many of the direct reports told me they felt “ambushed.” Most of them glanced down at their hands and said nothing. Only one person in the meeting had the courage to tell the CEO what he thought, and guess what happened to that individual? The boss held a grudge against him and didn’t treat him fairly from that moment on.

Don’t get defensive, no matter what kind of feedback you get. You’ve asked people to be honest with you (and you did mean it, right?), so if you don’t accept the criticism gracefully, there’s a good chance they will never offer honest feedback again. Just think about the CEO in the above example—if you had been in that meeting, can you imagine ever offering him honest feedback again? No way. So, he will become yet another senior-level executive who will never find out what people really think of him, simply because he was too insecure to accept genuine criticism. Of course, that kind of insecurity goes strongly against the grain of self-leadership. It’s extremely important to train yourself to keep silent and listen actively while receiving feedback.

For more self-leadership tips, pick up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

How to Successfully Manage Up to Your Boss and Across to Your Peers: Self-Leadership Challenge #14

A potential new executive coaching client, Ethan, came to my office one day, confused and distressed due to the results of his 360-degree feedback report.

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The good news was that his direct reports adored him. “Best boss ever!” one had written. Another gushed, “I love coming to work because I get to work for him!” They described him as open-minded, friendly, sincere, a good listener, firm when he needs to be, a boss who clearly communicates his objectives, and then follows up effectively. Without a doubt, Ethan was doing things right when it came to leading his team.

The not-so-good news came from two other sources—first, from Ethan’s two bosses, one direct and one dotted line. These two superiors saw him in a completely different way, evidenced by their critical comments. Here are just a few examples:

  • Lacks initiative
  • Lacks visibility
  • Doesn’t facilitate discussions
  • Doesn’t offer visionary ideas or examples
  • Needs to be more tenacious
  • Doesn’t lead from the front
  • Needs to develop a broader network among his peers and next-level managers

The second source of not-so-good feedback news came from Ethan’s peers who were equally critical:

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  • Should get involved more
  • Needs to hold discussions to resolve matters
  • Doesn’t engage the broader group
  • Has unclear objectives
  • Communicates poorly
  • Doesn’t get enough support to make things happen
  • Shows a lack of ownership

Ethan was shocked and upset with the results. “How can the outcomes amongst the three groups be so different?”

I asked Ethan to reflect on how much time he spent—in any given week—with direct reports vs. his boss and/or peers. He paused for a second, and then responded, “Come to think of it, I probably spend about 95% of my time with my direct reports.”

The “penny dropped,” as they say, and Ethan realized he was spending much less time managing “up and across,” which automatically meant that his bosses and his peers simply didn’t see him in action all that much. The feedback was a clear indication that Ethan wasn’t managing all of his stakeholders with the same level of focus.

I have seen this challenge with multiple coaching clients. When you are at the mid-level of an organization, you are learning how to get results from the individuals and teams you supervise. So, it’s understandable that, up to that point, you would focus on “managing down.” After all, early in your career, leading staff is a major factor in your success; it helps you get promotions, raises, and gain status and a good reputation within the organization.

But that isn’t how it works as you move up to higher positions in an organization. With increasing necessity, balancing time with all stakeholders becomes more critical. Indeed, managing superiors and same-level colleagues—managing up and across—becomes just as important to your career as managing down. Let’s explore this common gap in a senior leader’s self-leadership arsenal.

Managing Across to Peers: How “Connected” Are YOU™?

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Two of my coaching clients, Joelle and Hritesh, were partners in the same law firm. Their styles and priorities were vastly different: Joelle consistently built her internal network, taking time for peer lunches, connecting with fellow partners for dinners, and setting aside work for five-minute chats with colleagues in the office. She also took time to connect people in her network with each other, helping them build their own networks and relationships. In short, she demonstrated good self-leadership when it came to managing across.

Hritesh’s focus, however, was primarily external, and he spent the bulk of his time keeping clients satisfied and bringing in business. He didn’t really see the importance of building internal relationships—after all, he had cases and files to move off his desk, and there never seemed to be enough hours in the day for anything else.

Both partners brought in roughly the same amount of revenues, and for a while, they were at the same level in the firm’s organizational structure. But within just three years, Joelle had advanced very quickly, catapulting herself up not just one, but two levels higher within the firm. Hritesh, on the other hand, remained in the same post despite his aspirations to move up. His one central mistake: He hadn’t built solid internal relationships.

It isn’t uncommon for people to reach levels close to the C-Suite and not make it to the highest levels of the organization because of one thing: They didn’t cultivate positive relationships with their peers on the way up. So, learning to manage across is a very important self-leadership skill. After all, a peer today may become your subordinate – or your boss – tomorrow.

How Do You Coach “Up?”

If you’re like most leaders, you probably think of “coaching” as what you do when you lead and direct others who work for you. But it can also be an extremely effective tool when applied to any relationship, including coaching up to bosses and across to peers. Here are a few tips to follow:

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 1.  One of the best techniques for coaching up and across—that is, for guiding bosses and peers to new, more effective behaviors—is to first, make an objective, factual statement, and then ask powerful, open-ended questions that are aimed toward the big-picture, higher-level arena within the organization. It takes a bit more time and creativity than simply telling bosses and peers what’s on your mind, but asking good, strategic, open-ended questions builds relationships, trust, and transparency and can have positive, long-lasting effects.

By open-ended questions, I mean questions that don’t elicit a one-word “yes” or “no” response but require the other person to elaborate. By asking and not telling, you will get others to pause, reflect, grow, and come up with answers.

2.  Pick the right time. Neither you, your superior, or your peer should be in a rush or tired at the end of a long day.

3.  Get into a good frame of mind. Approach the conversation with curiosity. You’re here to explore, so don’t go into the discussion attached to a specific desired outcome or expectation.

4.  Get out of the “me vs. you” mindset, and rise up into “we.” Ask yourself:  What positive outcomes can come from this conversation that will not just help us work together more effectively, but will support the overall objectives of our team, our function, and the company?

5.  Prepare—and practice out loud—the words you want to say until they sound natural and you feel comfortable.

As you can see, self-leadership requires that you make a conscious effort to regularly manage up to your boss and across to your peers.

Reflect… Are you spending enough time with each of your various stakeholder groups?  Assess your current situation, and devise a plan to start managing more effectively up and across within the next two weeks.

For more self-leadership tips, pick up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

How Well Do YOU Manage this Critically Important Balance? Self-Leadership Challenge #13

My executive coaching client, Myra, struggled with what I call the “Strategy vs. Execution Dilemma.” She was a successful leader, in the running to become a Senior Vice President. She had gotten there by being known for producing, for always making sure that she and her team members were seen as delivering desired outcomes.

At the surface, this would seem like a good thing, right? So, you can imagine Myra’s surprise when, during her performance review, her boss told her point-blank that the promotion she wanted so badly wasn’t going to happen. The reason? Myra wasn’t considered a strategic thinker. Ouch.

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Myra immediately reached out to set up a coaching session. As she settled into the chair across from me, she admitted right up front that it was probably true. “Ever since my boss gave me the feedback, I’ve been thinking about what he said … and it’s true. I do typically make sure the team and I are busy doing things, reaching our daily, weekly, and monthly objectives toward delivering our major projects. And that means I do spend the bulk of my time attending to details. That’s been a good way to get where I am. But clearly, it isn’t going to get me to where I want to go.”

After a bit more reflection, Myra shared that this tendency actually went way back. Getting things done efficiently and with excellence was how she impressed teachers as a student in school as well as every boss she’d ever had. And she had always been rewarded well for her “get it done” behavior, too—earning good grades as a student and collecting raises and promotions once she got into her career. Clearly and consistently, she proved that she was a go-getter and a producer.

But now, that seemingly positive behavior was holding her back. Indeed, while Myra and her team were delivering consistent excellence in execution, she wasn’t doing the strategic work necessary to take her team, her function, and, therefore, the company to the next level.

Given her busy day-to-day world, it had never occurred to Myra that taking time to sit quietly and think strategically was actually what she was being paid to do. But, now it struck her that she was actually only doing part of her job—in short, she was underperforming as a leader by not taking regular time to focus on strategy.

For Myra, thinking strategically would represent a shift. It would take time away from attending to the day-to-day details of her workplace. It would mean sitting still, not visibly “doing” anything except thinking, reflecting, and challenging herself mentally. She had been so busy “doing” all of her life, and the road to success had been paved with accolades related to her level of activity. So, this shift felt incredibly awkward, even “wrong,” “wasteful” and “not productive.” She had fears of people judging her for being lazy.

Can you relate to Myra’s situation? If so, you’re hardly alone. There seems to be an unspoken belief at work that just sitting and thinking is not a justifiable use of time. Some clients have told me that they feel so guilty if they aren’t visibly “doing” something all of the time that they close the door or pull the shades in their office when they need to take time to think. They want to avoid being perceived as “not productive.”

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As children, we’re often warned to stop “daydreaming”—both in school and at home. Our parents, teachers, and other authority figures may not have had much respect for staring out the window. Today, even though you are now in a higher-level position, that old conditioning may still be in your head, causing you to feel as though you’re wasting time if you schedule “strategic thinking” in your calendar. But, just like Myra, this belief may be holding you back from future career success.

When this self-awareness surfaced in our discussion, Myra’s initial dismay and frustration turned to excitement as she began to contemplate the possibility of spending more of her time thinking strategically. But she wasn’t sure what that would look like or how to go about doing it.

How to Balance Thinking and Doing

Here’s what I asked Myra to do, and you can try it, too, right now: Grab a piece of paper, draw a circle on it, and let it serve as a pie graph that represents 100% of your time. At the top, title it “Strategy vs. Execution.”

Divide the graph into two pieces—one portion that reflects how much time you currently spend executing tasks and attending to details (execution/doing) and the other that reflects how much time you currently spend on thinking strategically (strategy/thinking). Be honest!

Label this circle “Current.” If you’re like many leaders I’ve worked with, your chart may reveal that you spend anywhere from 80-90% of your time executing, and only about 10-20% strategizing.

Next, underneath the same circle, draw a line, a colon, and another line that looks like this: ___________ : ___________.

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Let this represent the optimal ratio for these two aspects of self-leadership—how you probably should split your time between strategy and execution, given your current position. Is it 60% strategy/40% execution, 50:50, or something else? The best ratio for you will depend upon your organization and the expectations of your position (be sure to keep in mind the position you hope to achieve in the future, too).

Now that you’ve reflected on how much time you should optimally spend on strategy, it’s time to make changes. I’ve found that the only way strategic thinking will “happen” in the middle of a busy week is for you to actually make it happen. How? Well, here’s what Myra did: She started with reserving one hour of strategic thinking per week and increased those hours over time until she had reached her optimal ratio. As a result, her next performance review was much improved, and within a year, she was once again being considered for a Senior Vice President position.

Make a commitment to set aside strategic thinking time, like Myra did: Shut your door and just think. To start, I suggest you begin with one hour, once or twice a week. Don’t agree to take calls during that reserved time, and don’t be tempted to go to meetings. Just look at either your team, your function, or the entire company (as appropriate, given your position), and reflect on where and how your area of the company gets stuck, how to improve that and move forward, and how the company’s progress and prosperity might change for the better as a result. Don’t think about any details at this stage—only strategy. Decide that you’ll set aside at least that much time every week, no matter what.

That’s how great self-leaders achieve a positive balance of thinking and doing.  So, how does YOUR ratio look right now when it comes to strategy vs. execution?

For more self-leadership tips, pick up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

Announcing the First-Ever International Speakers Summit from June 19 to 30, 2017: Yours for free as a reader of my blog!

In addition to following the tips mentioned in my blog post about presenting powerfully, I invite you to take your presentation and public speaking skills to a whole new level by tuning in to the first-ever online International Speakers Summit – which is absolutely free!

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There has never been an event like this before. Over the 12-day period of June 19-30, 2017, you’ll be given unprecedented access to tips of the trade from nearly 60 top professional speakers, including myself, Jack Canfield, Simon T. Bailey, Rob “Waldo” Waldman, Lenora Billings-Harris, Stephen Shapiro, Tony Alessandra, Terry Brock, Fredrik Haren, Michael Port, Mark Bowden, Daniel Gutierrez, and – literally – dozens more!

When you tune in, you’ll discover:

  • How to craft a winning presentation or speech
  • How to present in a way that reflects who you really are
  • How to get asked to speak more frequently and strengthen your internal and external brand in the process

And much, much more.

It will be lots of fun, too!

As one of the speakers participating, I’ve been given complimentary passes for all of my blog readers, so I’m very happy to be able to share this benefit with you!

CLICK HERE today to reserve your complimentary pass. Please don’t wait because spots for this event are filling up fast!

I look forward to seeing YOU™ at the International Speakers Summit!

CLICK HERE to find out more and to reserve your free pass.

Which of These Top Presenting Mistakes Have YOU Made?

Consider these scenarios: Your boss informs you that you will be presenting to a high-level group of senior leaders in three days’ time.

Or… you get a call from the President of an association asking you to speak to an audience of 250 at a well-attended industry conference.

Or… you’ve been asked to give a toast at an important corporate banquet, in honor of the company’s retiring Chairman.

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What’s your immediate reaction? Are you calm, cool, and collected – even excited about the opportunity of presenting? Or does your heart skip a beat as you begin to fret, knowing that you won’t sleep well between now and the date of your presentation?

Based on my experience conducting leadership branding programs across multiple continents, the second reaction seems to be much more common than the first. In fact, for millions around the world, the mere thought of presenting is enough to cause nerves and an upset stomach.  Does that sound familiar? If so, read on! I’ll share some important presentation tips I’ve gained while shadowing executives in the workplace and also from being a professional speaker myself for the past 10+ years.

We Know the Basics of Powerful Presenting…But What Really Matters?

If you have any experience presenting at all, you probably already know the four basic P’s of Powerful Presenting:

  • Plan
  • Prepare
  • Practice
  • Present

You know you should have a solid flow and presentation structure, stand up straight, articulate clearly, watch your pace and pitch, use body language to communicate your points, and maintain good eye contact with the audience. These are just a few of the standard tips and tricks you can do to strengthen any presentation.

Yet… around the globe, the most senior leaders I work with regularly complain about their team members not knowing how to present powerfully. What more are those leaders looking for? Let’s investigate.

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Here are three of the top 10 “subconscious” mistakes I regularly see leaders commit when presenting, and which I share when I train on this topic at client companies. They’re some of the most critical errors, yet they’re often overlooked.

Do you commit any of these top mistakes, too?  If so, you may want to participate in the free International Speakers Summit taking place on June 19-30, 2017. Find out more about the Summit in this blog post.

Powerful Presenting Mistake #1: Not Knowing What the Audience Wants or Needs

We prepare what we’re going to say, but we often don’t find out ahead of time if our presentation is appropriate for the audience. The key to successful presenting? Don’t guess or make assumptions!

Instead, find out ahead of time:

  • What is the audience’s current knowledge on the subject?
  • What background do they have on the subject matter?
  • What specific problem can you solve for them?
  • How do they plan to use your information?

If possible, of course, ask the questions bulleted above to whoever will be in the audience (even if your “audience” is one person!) Or, get a sampling of the audience to share their thoughts on these questions, if you’ll be presenting to a larger crowd.

If that’s not possible, then put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and ask: “Based on the amount of knowledge I anticipate the audience to have about this topic and how they would plan to use the information, what would I most want and need to learn, if I were them?”

Then, be careful about choosing the “wrong level of abstraction.” By this, I mean that you might provide too many details or not enough details when presenting. Do they want the big picture and generalities? If so, guard against adding in too much data. Or do they prefer a lot of details? If so, your presentation could end up being too general for participants, leaving your attendees frustrated and feeling they’ve wasted their time listening to you.

Find out, too, if there are any “hot buttons” to avoid. Certain words may strike a negative chord with a particular audience or with one particular senior leader. For example, an executive once told me that he didn’t like to use the word “weaknesses.” He wanted everybody to refer to potential issues as “opportunities for improvement.”

Powerful Presenting Mistake #2: Not Making Your Presentation Two-Way (Only One-Way)

Too many speakers talk at their audience rather than engaging with them. Remember that your presentation should be a two-way conversation. Pause now and then, and ask a question to those in attendance. Check in and see how well what you are sharing is resonating.

What can you do if the format doesn’t allow for a lot of back and forth with the audience throughout your presentation? Then, be sure to leave time for Q&A at the end.

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If you do have a Q&A, here’s a helpful tip: Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?” as an opener. That’s a “yes” or “no” question that makes it too easy for people to simply say “no” (and which often just brings blank stares in response). Instead, scan the audience and make eye contact. Then, ask, “What questions do you have at this point?” You’ll most likely get a few hands raising.

One last point: To set the tone for an inclusive conversation – no matter how large your audience – be careful to not use “I” too often. Instead, use “you,” “we,” and “us.”

Powerful Presenting Mistake #3: Including too much content

In a survey of top executives from large companies, they were asked, “How could people present to you more effectively?” The answer? “Make presentations shorter and more candid.”

So how can you accomplish that? Here are the best ways I know:

  1. Focus on the “bottom line” – get to the point.
  2. Honor the audience’s time, remembering that it’s valuable (re-read Powerful Presentation Mistake #1).
  3. Only use as much data as necessary to make your point, but be ready with supporting data if they request it.
  4. Remember that presenting isn’t about making it clear how much you know. It’s about giving those in the audience exactly the amount of information they need – no more, no less. And again, if you don’t know how much to include, ask!

If you follow these tips, you’ll be way ahead of the game as a presenter, you’ll bring power to the podium, and your attendees will appreciate you immensely.

Presenting powerfully is only one self-leadership capability; find out about others by picking up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

How Adaptable Are You? Take this Quiz and Find Out – Self-Leadership Challenge #12

As Senior Director of Finance for a major insurance company, my executive coaching client, Marilyn, knew more about rules and regulations than most of the people in her company. And she stuck to them—down to the tiniest detail. She acknowledged that she might be a bit rigid, but being flexible in her industry brought risks she just wasn’t willing to take.

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You see, over several years of working in such a highly regulated industry, Marilyn had learned the “right way” to do things, and once learned, she felt strongly that the company should stick to those “right ways.” Given that she was also responsible for leading others, Marilyn was afraid to set a precedent by questioning a proven procedure or by doing anything substantially different from the past. She feared that her employees would get out of control and start bending the rules. “Color inside the lines,” she told them. “That’s how you avoid problems in this function and in this industry.”

The higher Marilyn reached in the organization, however, the more this “black-and-white thinking” approach brought unexpected consequences. By the time I got involved with her as an executive coach, it had reached a point where Marilyn’s colleagues wouldn’t even approach her for opinions because she seemed unable or unwilling to offer useful, creative solutions. My verbal interviews with stakeholders revealed that, because of her rigidity around rules, she came across as cold and incapable of being collaborative.

As a result, Marilyn’s colleagues were holding separate sidebar conversations. And, one by one, she watched other functional peers get promoted while she stayed at the same level.

Don’t get me wrong—Marilyn was very good at what she did. She was reliable, incredibly knowledgeable, and she and her team produced good quality work. But based on my key stakeholder interviews, it was obvious to me that her attachment to black-and-white thinking was holding her back from moving forward in the organization. That’s because at the higher end of any organization, being strategically and executionally creative—even in something as numbers-driven as finance—is critical to success.

Marilyn failed to realize that her ingrained belief in sticking to rules, which had served her well as a more junior leader, was now potentially sabotaging her ability to advance to more senior levels. She had gotten stuck in the fact that entry-level/junior positions in most professions are very often based on strict guidelines—what is right/wrong and good/bad.

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It’s true that early in your career, you have to learn the rules and work by them. But eventually, you do need to be confident enough to see smart ways to bend—or even change—those rules and to know when to bend or change them. In Marilyn’s case, her growing organization needed a Finance Director who knew the rules well but who could also see the gray areas between black and white. Why? The higher up you get in an organization, the best solutions actually exist in the gray.

So, as you progress in any organization, the more important it is that you get comfortable being in the gray in order to be ready to solve challenges with creative solutions. In other words, letting go of rigidity and assessing the subtleties of each situation are important aspects of self-leadership.

How Do You Know if You’re Operating in Black-and-White Mode?

In the interest of becoming more aware of your habits and thinking, let’s find out if you, too, could benefit from becoming more flexible. Take this quiz to assess your own tendency toward black-and-white thinking.

Note: Respond “yes” if the answer holds true 50% of the time or more, and “no” if the answer holds true less than 50% of the time.

  1. At the gut level, do you tend to judge decisions or people’s actions immediately as either “right” or “wrong”? Yes___ No___
  2. Do you quickly and instinctively look at situations that arise at work as either “good” or “bad”? Yes___ No___
  3. Do you view other people or their choices as either “strong” or “weak,” with no in-between? Yes___ No___
  4. Do you find yourself labeling colleagues who agree with you as “smart” and those who disagree with you as “stupid” or at least “less competent”? Yes___ No___
  5. Do you typically think in terms of either “success” or “failure,” viewing failure as a catastrophic event? Yes___ No___
  6. Do you rely primarily on previous experience to make judgments—not only about colleagues and their behaviors, but about whether a decision is right? Yes___ No___
  7. Do you find yourself so pressed for time that you resort to quick choices based on what’s been done in the past, without pausing to assess the specifics of the current situation? Yes___ No___
  8. Do you find yourself frequently defending decisions by saying, “Well, that’s the way it’s been done before”? Yes___ No___

Now, add up the number of times you responded “yes.” If you answered “yes” to only one or two questions, that can indicate you’re reasonably flexible and seem comfortable working in the gray.

If you answered “yes” to three to five questions, you’re spending some time in the gray but could definitely benefit from paying closer attention to situations where you fall back on black-and-white thinking.

If you answered “yes” to more than five questions, your self-leadership will improve immensely if you practice assessing each circumstance on its own merits, and avoid judging people or situations in black-and-white terms.

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Learning to Thrive in the Gray

Making a conscious effort to see the nuances of gray in any situation requires more of us. The key is to stay open to new modes of thinking. The world moves too quickly for any of us to stay stuck in patterns, simply relying on the way things used to be done. Given the speed of life today, I predict we will all have to reinvent ourselves many times over during the course of our careers.

There is little to be gained from black-and-white thinking, but much to be gained from making the effort—and having the courage—to get out of the right-or-wrong world and not just survive, but thrive, in the gray.

For more ways to get comfortable in the “gray,” pick up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

How to Avoid Saying “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”— Self-Leadership Challenge #11

If you’re like most of the busy executives I work with as an executive coach and corporate trainer/speaker, your day may go something like this: Headquarters wants your profit projections for next quarter a week in advance of when you and your team had planned. There’s a line of direct reports outside your office door waiting to meet with you, your inbox is filled with 300+ unanswered emails, and you haven’t yet prepared the keynote speech you are giving tonight at a charity dinner. Meanwhile, your son needs help with his math homework, your spouse complains because you haven’t been home for dinner in a week, and your ailing parents’ financial situation needs your attention.

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It’s enough to make anyone feel dizzy and stressed out. And the truth is, something has to give if you don’t want to crack under the pressure. But the question is: What?

When I say “something has to give,” what I really mean is that you need to say “no” to some of these pressures. And in order to do that, you must draw strength from your self-leadership bank because learning how and when to say “no”—unapologetically and without guilt—is fundamental to leadership success.

You don’t want to turn away from the people who need you—neither at work nor in your personal life—but that doesn’t mean you need to become a pushover either. For many leaders, it means learning to avoid being so “nice” that you overextend yourself.

Saying “yes” to too much causes physical and emotional stress, can damage relationships, and can leave very little time for self-care. That can result in rising blood pressure, poor health in general, and may cause you to fall ill. It’s a vicious cycle if you don’t put a stop to it.

Being in charge of when you say “yes” and when you say “no” is key to taking control of your life. Saying “no” in a calm, collected, and respectful way becomes more and more critical as you take on increasingly high levels of responsibility.

Yes, You Can Learn to Say “No”

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If saying “no” is difficult for you—whether it’s always challenging or only in certain circumstances—you can make it easier by following some key steps:

 1.  Get clear on how your life would be better if you didn’t have so much on your plate. Make the longest list possible of all the benefits of saying “no.” For example, your list might include: (1) less stress, (2) more time to spend with family, and (3) fewer feelings of resentment toward the people who expect so much of you. Keep writing until you’ve uncovered all of the possible upsides of saying “no.”

2.  Accept that you do need to get better at saying “no.” Review your to-do’s, and put a checkmark next to each task or activity that you would honestly like to cross off. What issues are you encountering due to having said “yes” to these tasks?

3. Recognize opportunities to say “no.” For a week or two, take note of all the times when you could have said “no” but chose to say “yes.” What drove those decisions? Note the times when it felt right to say “yes,” and those when it didn’t. What would have happened if you had said “no,” and what are the consequences you fear in each situation if you were to say “no”? Assessing these opportunities will help you sort out what’s most important and which fears are stopping you from saying “no” when that’s what you really want.

4.  Practice saying “no” to smaller requests first. A sympathetic yet firm “I’m not able to do that right now” works well. If you’re asked why, simply let them know it’s conflicting with more critical priorities. Most reasonable people will accept this as an adequate response. Are you unsure if you should say “yes” or “no” to a request? Consider saying, “Let me think about that, and I’ll get back to you by 4:00 p.m.” Then, take the time to reflect—without the pressure of someone standing there—to determine if saying “yes” is really the right thing to do.

5.  Literally practice saying “no.” If saying “no” is a particular problem for you, practice it in front of the mirror or on an audio recording. Remember: You want to sound assertive rather than unsure or angry. Remind yourself that you have every right to say “no,” and say it calmly and with confidence. If you say it with aggression or anger, you’re almost certain to cause negative feelings between you and the person making the request.

6.  Stick to your convictions. If someone tries to convince you to change your “no” into a “yes,” ask that person to respect your decision as final. Don’t offer reasons for saying “no” unless you really believe doing so will defuse a potentially explosive situation, or if you feel the individual making the request deserves to hear your reasons.

Most of the time, however, you don’t owe anyone excuses or reasons why you need to say “no.” An exception to that rule: If you’re saying “no” to your boss, of course, it’s smart to offer clear reasons why you believe you can’t take on a new task. If you do offer reasons, be succinct, calm, and confident. Going on and on with multiple reasons could actually cause you to sound guilty and defensive.

7.  Watch your body language. If your mouth is saying “no,” but your body language is saying, “I’m not sure,” you’ll have what I call an “executive brand buster” on your hands. To make sure your body is helping you stick to your convictions, turn full-face to the person you are addressing, and maintain an open yet confident stance. Avoid crossing your arms protectively or looking away when you say “no.” If you are standing, avoid shifting from one foot to the other. Whether you are standing or sitting, be sure to maintain eye contact with the person.

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8.  Take note of what it’s like to say “no” to the little things. After each positive experience of saying “no,” sit back and assess. What did you experience? Relief? Self-confidence? Pride in your ability to push back? Or did you feel discomfort and guilt? If so, assess what that is about, and keep practicing. Eventually, it will get easier for you. Recognize and reward yourself for each successful “no.”

9.  Make saying “no” a regular habit. After some practice, you’ll find yourself able to say “no” to increasingly bigger requests. You’ll be able to discern quickly when you want to avoid something and when you know it’s right to say “yes.”

You may never be completely rid of your guilt feelings or discomfort when you have to say “no” to someone. But over time, you won’t be as affected by it. Remember: You’re not a bad person because you don’t say “yes” to everything that’s asked of you. You will actually do less good for others if you haven’t done what’s right for you first before attending to others’ needs. That’s just one more benefit of successfully mastering the art of saying “no,” and it reflects good self-leadership, too.

For more ways to say “no” effectively, as well as dozens of self-leadership tips, pick up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #10: Tough Decision-Making Made Easy

As a senior manager or executive, you’re constantly faced with difficult decisions. Most of the time, you can make those decisions based on experience, financial analysis of the situation, input from colleagues or your boss, or even perhaps pure instinct. But once in a while—and this happens to us all as leaders—you’re faced with a truly gut-wrenching decision that simply has to be made, and there doesn’t seem to be any “right” or “obvious” choice anywhere you look.

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One of my executive coaching clients is a perfect example of this. Harry was a senior leader at an international pharmaceutical company. He was usually exhausted, working most of his waking hours. By the time Harry came to me, he was burnt out and ready to give up his career to go live on a beach in Belize. (Well, not literally, but I suspect he could have easily been talked into it…) Through feedback, we uncovered that one of Harry’s big issues was decision-making—not in any particular area, but the physical and mental stress of making regular tough choices in any area.

“What does it feel like when you have to make a decision?” I asked him.

“Painful!” Harry replied.

“Painful,” I said slowly. “So, tell me, Harry, how did you decide to marry your wife?”

“That decision? Well, that one was easy,” he replied. “I just knew it was the right thing to do.”

“So, making that decision wasn’t painful?” I asked.

“Not at all!” he said, chuckling.

“When you bought the house you live in now, how did you make that decision?”

“Again, that was fairly simple,” he said. “My wife and I just walked in, and I just felt it was the right house for us.”

“And, again, was that decision painful?” I asked.

“No,” Harry replied.

“Got it,” I said. “So, it seems not all decisions are painful then—just some. What’s the difference between the less painful decisions you’ve made—the ones we just talked about that seemed so easy for you—and the ‘painful’ decisions that you mentioned earlier?”

This started an interesting conversation that peeled back the layers around Harry’s decision-making process at work. Through the discussion, he revealed that almost everyone he worked with was either a doctor or a scientist—a fairly “left-brained” set of professionals. Based on his experience, those individuals typically felt more comfortable basing their decisions on facts, figures, numbers, charts, and graphs. Harry’s colleagues were naturally strong at analytical and linear thinking, and they relied on that for making decisions.

Therefore, for Harry to justify his decisions to those scientists at work, he had to go through a long and complicated analytical process. This involved explaining to his colleagues how he had done the analysis, reviewing numbers, and holding lengthy discussions with them that centered on the data.

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Why was this so exhausting for Harry? Because his natural decision-making style was intuitive. If he listened to his gut, he could make decisions reasonably quickly because he just knew what the right choice would be. But that wasn’t happening at work because the professionals he worked with could only be influenced via numbers, facts, and figures. Instead of their guts, his coworkers were using their heads.

So, when Harry had to make tough calls, he was subconsciously trying to move into his colleagues’ “head space.” He attempted to mirror the decision-making process of those he worked with, but that wasn’t at all natural for Harry. And that’s why he was struggling so much to make decisions—why they were so “painful” for him.

“Great self-awareness, Harry!” I acknowledged. “How will you use this insight to ensure that your decision-making process becomes less painful, quicker, and easier in the future?”

Harry stated that he would first listen to his gut when he had to make a decision, honoring his natural decision-making mode. He would make up his mind based on what his gut told him was the right answer. Then—and only then—would he pull together whatever data he needed to support that initial “gut” decision. Within a matter of days of implementing this system, Harry was making decisions faster, easier, and with much less stress. His confidence grew, and the length of his workdays shrunk, leading Harry to feel all-around happier.

An important takeaway from Harry’s story is that self-leadership is founded on a solid sense of knowing yourself. What works for you may not work for others, and vice versa.

Your “Motivational Balance Sheet”

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Here’s a potential way to help you with decision-making: The “Motivational Balance Sheet” that allows you to look at the pros and cons of a situation and assess various possibilities by putting non-numerical choices into numerical terms. It sort of “levels the playing field” regardless of your industry, your background, or the way you view the world.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’re considering taking a different position within a new company. Write down all the key reasons (a) why you would take the job, and (b) why you would not want to take the job.

Now, rate each of those reasons in terms of how important they are to you. Use a scale from 1 to 10, with “10” being very important to you, and “1” being not important at all. Then, simply add up your scores and see which list gets the highest number. Here’s an example:

Motivational Balance Sheet—Accepting a Different Position in a New Company

Reasons to Accept Importance Rating

Reasons Not to Accept

 

Importance Rating
I will make more money. 10 I will have to work longer hours.   9
I will experience exciting challenges.   8 There will be a learning curve, and I’ll have to prove myself.   5
I will be more likely to reach my full potential. 10 It makes me nervous to make a change.   7
It would be good for my resume/CV.

 

  8 I may end up with less time to spend with family. 10
Positive Total: 36 Negative Total: 31

In this case, the positives outscore the negatives, which might help you make the final decision.

Think of a tough choice you’re facing right now, and use the Motivational Balance Sheet to help you make the decision.

For more strategies to help you make tough decisions more easily, check out my book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #9: Small Talk is a Big Art—How to Become a Master

Mastering “small talk” can make a big difference in your career. Yet, time and time again, executive coaching clients tell me they dread it. When I speak to an audience and someone mentions that they dread small talk, I sometimes role-play, acting like I’m an individual who has a lot of trouble with it. I inch my way slowly toward someone in the audience and say, “So … um … hi there … um … how are you?” When they say they’re “fine,” I say, “Oh good.” I look around the room, fumbling for what to say next. “Then … um … do you work in this area?” Once they answer that question, I look stumped. How do I move this conversation forward?

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If that sounds a bit like situations you’ve been thrown into (and suffered through), don’t feel badly—you’re far from alone! All across the world, leaders tell me they dislike small talk and avoid it at all costs.

But as a self-leader—especially one who’s working on expanding and strengthening your network—you will inevitably find yourself in plenty of situations, formal and informal, where you’ll have to have small-talk conversations. Improving your skills in this area is vital to self-leadership and to your brand as a leader.

Keep it “open”
Just like asking (and not telling) is a powerful strategy in the workplace, one of the easiest ways to make small talk more comfortable is to ask open-ended questions. If you ask questions that bring only a “yes” or “no” answer or a short one-word response, you’ve given the other party nothing to latch onto and will likely get nothing back in return—except awkward silence. Questions that start with “What” or “How” will get the other person talking. This is particularly helpful if you’re an introvert who hates to talk about yourself. With this strategy, you can just ask a few simple questions and then listen to the other person do the talking.

Examples of open-ended, small-talk questions include: “So, what do you like most about your job?” “How did you get started in the industry?” “How has your business (or organization or industry) changed over the years?”

You could also make statements that encourage the other person to elaborate: “That’s interesting … tell me more.” Or, “Help me understand what you mean by that.” Then, listen with genuine curiosity, remembering that nodding your head and murmuring the occasional “Mm-hmmm” will make sure the other person feels heard.

It’s not about you
Keep in mind that good networking is not about you! It’s about making the other person feel comfortable and feel heard. The good news is that, as the other person’s comfort level increases, your own discomfort level is likely to diminish as well.

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Of course, you shouldn’t stay completely silent throughout the entire conversation. To find meaningful ways to chime in occasionally, listen carefully for common ground in the other person’s responses. Does the individual say anything that you can relate to in your own experience? For example, your conversation partner might say, “I got into the industry because I really enjoy technology; I just can’t get enough of the latest breakthroughs.” You can respond with, “I’m with you—that’s why I got into the industry, too. I have an endless fascination with everything tech.” Then, pick up on that commonality and move the conversation forward with, “So, where do you see the next big technology breakthrough coming from?”

Small talk on the job
Instead of finding yourself in a networking situation with someone you don’t know, what if you find yourself at a company event faced with making small talk with a coworker or senior leader? Again, the same guideline applies: Ask open-ended questions rather than tell. If you’re talking with someone you don’t know well but who’s from your workplace, be honest and say, “We’ve worked together for a while now, and I still don’t know that much about you. What do you like to do in your spare time?” Or if it’s someone you already know fairly well, you could ask, “How is the XYZ project coming along?”

Be prepared
Here’s another powerful suggestion to prepare for our next networking event: The next time you have a small-talk situation coming your way, arm yourself with a list of at least ten possible open-ended questions you could ask that could apply to multiple people and situations. Make sure the questions you have in your arsenal begin with either who, what, when, where, or how (never “yes/no” questions, and avoid “why” questions, too). Examples are: “How often do you attend this type of event?” “Where are you from?” “What is your role at work, and how long have you been holding that position?” “Who is your main contact here, and how do you know them?” “What do you like to do in your free time?”

Of course, don’t underestimate the importance of smiling and making eye contact. When the person introduces himself or herself, repeat the individual’s first name: “It’s nice to meet you, Joseph.” Repeating the name makes it more likely you will remember it, and it immediately establishes greater rapport.

Armed with these tips, you’ll be prepared for any event where you need to interact with strangers or work colleagues. The more you prepare yourself, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and the faster you’ll master the art of small talk.

Want to learn more? My book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success,” includes many more tips and tools to help master small talk for greater self-leadership success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #8: How Your Thoughts Impact Success

When Victoria showed up for her executive coaching session with me, she looked forward to focusing on three behaviors that she had identified as holding her back in her career progression. Here’s what she had written down:

  1. I need to speak up more in meetings, particularly with senior leaders.
  2. I need to stand up to pushy clients.
  3. I need to become more comfortable promoting myself to top management.

But during our session together, it quickly became clear that the issue for Victoria wasn’t necessarily these behaviors. Instead, it was her underlying mind management driving those limiting behaviors.

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It isn’t unusual for a potential coaching client to show up for a trial session with a change-in-behavior objective, and then realize that their thoughts are actually at the heart of the challenge.

In Victoria’s case, through our discussion, she discovered that she had been quietly talking herself out of embracing the very behaviors she wanted to embody. She had been listening to that little voice inside her head that says, “If I speak up, I’ll probably be wrong and make a fool of myself.” Or: “Even if I don’t agree with a client, I don’t want to rock the boat, so I just go along with it.” Or: “I’ve never been any good at self-promotion, so my chances of getting anywhere in this job are slim.”

Does Victoria’s dilemma ring true for you, too? These kinds of limiting thoughts can pass through your mind so quickly that you don’t even consciously realize it. But these thoughts are incredibly powerful and can have a dramatic effect, causing you to postpone actions and make all sorts of excuses for not initiating positive change.

What’s at the heart of it all? One of the worst enemies of self-leadership is a fear of failure, and it plagues even the most high-ranking executives.

Here’s another example: Sarah is a woman who helped start up a successful high-tech company. Previously a strong individual, full of energy and excitement, she and her fellow leaders grew the company from a dozen employees to a thriving organization of several hundred.

By that time, Sarah had become a mother, with one child already born and a second one on the way. She found herself struggling to balance the demands of work and home and realized that her family was getting the short end of the stick. So, after serious consideration, she decided to leave the work world for a few years to focus on raising her kids. Those “few years” turned into more than 10 years of being out of the corporate environment.

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That’s when Sarah arrived at my office for coaching. “I thought I could just pick up my career where I left off,” she said, “but I realize I was being naïve. What was I thinking?”

She then proceeded to tell me about how she was certain she had completely blown her recent interview for a new position. “You won’t believe what I said, Brenda,” she told me. “What an idiot! How stupid can I be? Some of the answers I gave to questions were ridiculous, the more I think about them.”

I looked at her and quickly changed my demeanor. “I can’t believe you did that either, Sarah! What were you thinking? You really are an idiot, you know that? How stupid can you be! Your answers were completely ridiculous!”

Sarah looked at me with shock on her face, clearly taken aback by my words. But it only took her a moment to understand my purpose. When I saw the recognition register on her face, I returned to my normal tone of voice and asked, “Now, if I were your boss, Sarah, and I spoke to you that way, would you work for me?”

“No!” she said, “Of course, not! That would be the worst boss in the world!”

I responded, “But, all I did was mirror back to you exactly what you’ve been saying to yourself. My point is: You have been listening to the worst boss in the world—and it’s that nasty little voice in your head.”

The Power of That Nasty Little Voice

When it comes to mind management—a foundational element of self-leadership—it’s absolutely critical to watch the little voice inside your head … like a hawk. Many executives deal with the same problem, so much so that author Seth Godin even wrote a blog post about this very issue called, “The World’s Worst Boss.”

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If you think about it, that inner voice is the one that talks to you the most (no matter how chatty your spouse or others in your life might be). So, it’s fundamental to pay attention in order to get clear about what that voice is saying to you morning, noon, and night. Simply by paying attention, you can bring these thoughts to the surface and change the dialogue you have with yourself.

Remember: That voice has no right to treat you in a way that you wouldn’t allow others to treat you. It’s your choice which voice in your head you listen to—the one that tells you that you are ready to handle any job/challenge that comes your way … or the one that will defeat you.

Great self-leaders recognize the power of their thoughts. How will you begin to change your inner dialogue today?

Want to learn more? My book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success,” includes many more tips and tools to help strengthen your mind management for greater self-leadership success.