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Who’s mentoring the boss?

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Why continuous education is just as important for the boss as it is for employees

It took every ounce of willpower that Beth Kieffer Leonard had to not immediately gather her employees together at Lurie Besikof Lapidus & Company, LLP and share everything she had just learned.

Leonard, the Minneapolis accounting firm’s managing partner, had spent a week participating in the Harvard Business School Executive Education program. Leaders who took part in this exclusive opportunity were not allowed to answer emails or phone calls during that time and spent full days reviewing case studies and discussing the principles of effective leadership.

“You are totally energized,” Leonard says. “It allows you to think differently.”

Leonard heard about the program from a colleague and decided it would be a great opportunity to work on her skills as a leader. She approached her executive committee and explained why it was something she really needed to do.

“Taking a week out and being unavailable is a big commitment of time and resources,” Leonard says. “So I had to make the decision that it was important enough to do it.”

Leonard told the committee that the program would benefit the company as well as her.

The Harvard program is just one of many opportunities available to help leaders hone their skills. You need to go into a program with the idea that you will come out with valuable new perspective on how to lead your organization. In order to do that, you first have to accept that you don’t know everything there is to know about leadership.

“If, at the end of the day, you are trying to be the best business leader that you can be, it really isn’t an effort,” Leonard says. “You have to do it. If you do not, it is going to preclude you from accomplishing what you want with the organization as its leader.”

Make the effort

One reason that some leaders struggle with personal development is they don’t believe they have the time to pursue it.

“Too many top leaders get in the trenches of management and lose sight of the big picture,” says Jay Colker, core faculty for the master’s in counseling and organizational psychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. “Many leaders say they value leadership, but then they don’t take the time or ask the right questions. Or they ignore other people. If they are too in the trenches of management day to day, and they aren’t thinking about practicing critical principles, it’s going to inhibit or prevent their own development.”

Other leaders believe that, even if they have time, they don’t need to grow their leadership skills because they have already figured out enough to be successful. However, if you have the attitude that you cannot reveal any development needs, or believe that doing so is a show of weakness, you create an atmosphere of like-minded individuals, Colker says. The result is an organization full of people who are risk averse and walking on eggshells out of fear of revealing mistakes.

“If you are feeling that way, you are probably reinforcing those values throughout the organization,” he says. “Is that the culture you really want?”

Personal development should be an ongoing requirement for everyone at every level of an organization, including the president, CEO or managing partner, says Leonard.

“It is not a matter of whether you identify that you need to improve your skills, or whether you can learn something more, because I think that is a given,” Leonard says.

The important thing is to identify where to expend your energy and then carve out the time to do that. Take the time to sift through all the available programs to determine what will help accelerate and enhance your skill set in the best way.

A leader who ignores such opportunities puts the well-being of the organization at risk.

“I hope those leaders have someone who is close enough to them who can tell them that should never be the case,” Leonard says. “If you are not a lifelong learner, and you are not always trying to improve, that is an indication of the culture you are setting for your organization. If someone thinks they have learned it all, their organization will suffer for that.”

Ask for help

Leaders who decide to pursue personal growth and development often turn first to the people who know them best. There are advantages to working with a peer on getting better at your job, Leonard says. Doing so creates an environment of familiarity that allows you to express your doubts and faults, resulting in the opportunity to expose a tremendous amount of information.

The person you turn to does not have to be a peer in the sense that you are both senior leaders in the corporate world. If you become humble and start asking for help, mentors can be anyone at any level.

“A mentor could be a young up-and-comer who is switching roles,” Leonard says. “It could be a wonderful development opportunity for a young person to be coaching a CEO on critical aspects of the business. In a learning organization, you don’t have to be constrained by role or process. If you are humble, you can create the mindset that we all can develop and learn from each other.”

When you branch out and eliminate the perceived barriers of rank, you open the door to some potentially great sources of knowledge. Approach your own growth as you would the growth of your business and work on both tasks together.

“The best CEOs are always aware that they have weaknesses,” says Andy Kanefield, founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” “They surround themselves with people who are better than they are in those areas. They just try not to do harm in those areas. The goal is not to become so strong that you are leading those areas.”

Instead, the goal should be to make sure you are well rounded enough to speak intelligently on everything that is happening in your organization, and also to be strong and confident enough to allow your people to do their jobs and even help you do your job better. For example, a truly visionary CEO might have a great COO who helps figure out how much the organization can bite off at this time, and help plan that transformation. Or an operationally focused CEO might need a head of strategy or marketing who can bring it all together and say, “If you want to do these things, this is what it might look like and this is the benefit we might be able to bring to our customers,” Kanefield says.

Leaders often struggle with certain aspects of leading their business simply because it’s very hard to be good at everything; it’s not about finding weaknesses and trying to become world-class in those areas.

“True strategic thinking takes several different mindsets that most people don’t possess by themselves,” Kanefield says. “Managing a company is a group exercise. We have a misconception that one person can do it all. The goal is to understand your own strengths in terms of how you’re going to manage the company and then make sure you have those other perspectives by you as you are managing the future trajectory of the company.

That is critical. You see the side effect of one-dimensional thinking when leaders run their companies into the ground. They are overly ambitious or overly cautious. They are not open to change or they change too much. There are a lot of reasons why it doesn’t work.”

Get others in your organization at all levels involved in the effort to continuously search for ways to do it better. For example, best-practice companies in human capital devote two full days every quarter to talent discussion, identifying high-potential leadership and discussing what they are doing to work on themselves.

“It really becomes a development mindset that starts at the top,” he says.

Get a coach

In addition to working with peers or colleagues, a coach can be another effective option to help leaders identify weaknesses in their personal repertoire. These can be longer-term relationships to continue growing, or short term to address a specific need.

Most one-on-one coaching opportunities don’t require a commitment of time on a monthly basis. It may be one issue you’re trying to deal with, or several. It’s a matter of getting better at something and obtaining the tools you don’t currently have.

In most cases, going into the coaching session you will learn more than you expected. “There is a great deal of self awareness that comes with introspection,” Leonard says. “A lot of times with coaching, you get 360 feedback so you can understand how you are perceived. That 360 feedback is a huge part of coaching. Any time you are getting unfiltered feedback about how you interact with your organization, that’s a good thing. In some cases, you may say, ‘OK, that is exactly how I want to interact with it, so it’s fine.’ You can also find, ‘Hey, I thought I was doing something and I’m not.’ That is a benefit for everybody.”

One of the keys to making a good match between coach and pupil is to focus on the connection and the relationship rather than on the ability to fit the time into your schedule. Find a coach who is right for you, one who has the right mindset or skill set for your needs, who will push you and challenge you, and who will be strong enough to help you.

However, coaching doesn’t always have to be one on one. A group setting has the advantage of bringing together people with common interests and experiences. Colker, of the Adler School of Professional Psychology, is preparing to embark on an assignment to work with eight leaders over the course of a year in a program that will allow them to coach each other.

“I believe this approach is in line with networking, social media, an open perspective and being willing to recognize that you really learn by doing,” he says.

If you demonstrate to your people that you have flaws and that you appreciate opportunities to get better, your organization will be much better for it from top to bottom. You have to take the first step and be willing to open yourself up to both praise and criticism in an effort to improve.

“I have certain skills and you have others,” Colker says. “It’s a process of learning together and putting people in a confidential and trusting environment and getting them to be willing to share, ‘This is what I’m doing and this is how I’m doing it,’ and somebody else saying, ‘That’s going to create some problems for you. Have you thought about this? Why are you doing it that way?’ It’s recalibrating the entire group through the diversity of opinion and solutions that are in the room.”

Leonard has one more piece of advice that is useful no matter what type of leadership training you pursue.

“You cannot overwhelm your organization with all that you have learned, because you have gone through it and they have not,” Leonard says. “When you come back, try to figure out how to implement slowly.”