We can all look back on the choices we made as leaders and think of plenty of things we’d do differently. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
That’s especially true for me as a leadership speaker, reflecting on my time as an operations executive a decade ago.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of what I accomplished back then. But I could have had an even greater impact if I had applied some of the leadership principles I’ve learned since that time.
How did I discover them? Part of the learning process stemmed from my work with a wide range of amazing clients. I’ve had the opportunity to educate and coach their leaders, observing firsthand the specific behaviors that result in the greatest success. After my speaking engagements, I often get valuable feedback from audience members who are willing to share their experiences on the front lines of leadership. Beyond that, I’ve studied the seismic changes that have been transforming the business landscape in the last 10 years.
Just think about how many things are different now compared with years ago. Disruption is a fact of life in business, and innovation moves faster. This radically new environmentrequires a fresh approach to leadership.
If I could go back in time, here are a few leadership lessons I’d share with “past Sara”:
1. Don’t be afraid to press pause.
Like many other leaders, I had a bias for action. I always wanted to be doing something. Researchers have found that “doing” makes us feel productive and useful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re actually “being” productive and useful.
I could have been a more effective leader by shutting down the drive for busyness and making time to be more reflective. That certainly applies today, since the need for constant innovation means leaders must be able to grasp the big picture, connect the dots and imagine the future. All of that is hard to do if we never take some time to be still.
2. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
Everything must be perfect. That was my thought process back then. I didn’t take risks because they could lead to mistakes. My own managers encouraged that approach. And trust me, it’s a stifling, anxiety-filled way to work—and it’s even less viable in the current business climate.
If I could repeat my stint in the corporate world, I’d work to be more at ease with risk and uncertainty. Playing it safe isn’t so safe after all. The real risk in business is an unwillingness to step up and stand out. Reaching big breakthroughs means relentlessly exploring new opportunities and weathering some mistakes along the way.
3. Don’t worry about having all the answers.
As a leader, we sometimes feel like we have to be the expert on everything. Or that we need an instant answer for every question. I know I did. But I now realize that this isn’t a productive mindset. The most innovative companies and leaders are now embracing the idea that the right questions are more important than the right answers.
I wonder what I could have accomplished if I spent more time being curious and asking “what if…?” rather than scrambling to be first with a solution.
4. Don’t avoid stepping out of your comfort zone.
When I was an leader, I was great at benchmarking: watching other companies in the same field and emulating their successful strategies. But I missed a lot of opportunities to be creative and innovative. Given a do-over, I would draw inspiration from other industries and apply that to my own company’s goals and challenges.
I wish I had read diverse publications outside of my field and networked more with people in other industries. I even wish I had tried “reverse benchmarking”— examining what similar companies were doing but then deliberately venturing out in the opposite direction. “Staying in your lane” is overrated! And it’s no way to foster innovation.
5. Don’t forget to coach and develop others.
While I always provided thorough guidance for my team members, I wish I’d done more to help them grow. I was so focused on the deadlines at hand that I didn’t emphasize individual development plans and career growth for my staff members. I was missing a critical and highly beneficial component in my role as a leader.
Today, I encourage leaders to think of themselves as multipliers. If they concentrate on creating more experts, they can build short-term performance for their teams and long-term potential for their organizations.
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