Good Habits: What’s Lacking In Leadership Development

There’s something wrong with how we develop leaders. Learning what we need to do to step up our leadership, whether it’s because of a recent promotion or leading a disrupted marketplace, is helpful. But we don’t always do what we are convinced we should. Old habits get in the way.

Knowing what to do isn’t the same as doing it. Enjoying beautiful photos of food in a cookbook when you’re hungry is not the same as making those meals and satisfying your appetite. You’ve read the recipes but your stomach is still growling. What we want to do and know to do doesn’t always translate to action.

When it comes to forming new habits, we aim to behave in ways that will stick. Making behaviours automatic is what a habit is.

Employers have taken us partway there. Companies have worked for decades betting on the leadership competencies and behaviours that will lead a business to future success. They evaluate their leaders’ performance against these same behaviours. But it often stops there because, although people know what’s expected of them, what’s still elusive is how to continuously make the change.

As humans, we are naturally inconsistent and persistently habitual. You may have weekly Monday morning meetings with the team or run a meeting in a routine way. This can be useful if it’s valuable, but it can also be maddening to be consistent when you want to form a new habit.

I’ve spent years learning how to form habits with deliberation, and I’m learning to see myself as I am. I’ve noted where I went off the tracks and where I’ve thrived, revising what I know about myself as I go. That’s how you can determine your profile as a deliberate habit creator.

A few important things you’ll need to learn about yourself to master the game of habit building include how you motivate yourself, your strategies to succeed, your strategies for self-sabotage and the strengths and limits of your own willpower.

The Confusion About Habits

Like others, I first read about habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People. First published in 1989, it was a bestseller and still has a hold on people’s imaginations. Covey’s habits were habits of the mind, such as being proactive and seeking to understand and be understood.

Today, we live in an age where research in brain science and neurology and a strong interest in healthy lifestyles have captured our attention, and it’s advanced our understanding of the mechanics of habit creation. Furthermore, knowledge about the self-limiting behaviours that hold leaders back from their full effectiveness makes turning our attention to changing our habits very appealing.

Although we are told in books and movies how successful people got to where they are so we can do the same, copying their formula doesn’t work. One size doesn’t fit all. We aren’t motivated in the same ways, nor do we all enjoy the same rewards. So, here are a few vital keys to make you the potter of your own clay:

1. Focus on smart design, not just willpower.

Habits that sync up with your goals don’t get formed without a deliberate strategy. I guarantee that leaning into your willpower as your single strategy won’t get you there. When starting out, we aren’t as clear about our drivers or even when we can lean into our willpower, so it’s key to be patient with yourself as you learn what works for you. Be sure to write down any information or insights about yourself, as you will be building your own habit profile.

2. Shape your environment by creating cues. 

A cue is the start of the design. It sparks the sequence of actions you will follow. So many people know they need to expand their internal networks but don’t “find the time” to do it. Counting on your memory as a reminder doesn’t help. You need reliable cues.

At 12:30 p.m. each day, a leader I coach grabs her lunch in the company cafeteria where she starts a minimum of one conversation with someone she doesn’t know. This is a big win, especially because she dropped her long-standing habit of eating a quick lunch at her desk.

3. Get it out of your head and into the world.

Too many executives I’ve known start habit building with an intention they keep locked up in their head. It may work for a day or even a week, but then it disappears. The secret is to get it out into the world.

For example, a hospital foundation CEO wanted to resist getting distracted from her daily priorities. So, she began creating a daily list first thing every morning and sharing it with her executive assistant. She sorts the urgent from the important and refers to prepared questions she habitually goes to when she’s considering deviating from the list.

4. Determine whether you need to make it social. 

Are you someone who will forge a new habit on your own, or would you prefer it to be social? When an accounting firm partner I know wasn’t taking care of her health, she pledged that she would walk the stairs at work. And then she didn’t.

Although she saw herself as autonomous, she didn’t expect that making this activity a social one with a buddy was necessary. If you’re in a similar boat, consider finding a habit buddy who is equally committed to their goal.

When we change our habits, we take ownership of our behaviours in visible ways. Learning to turn leadership behaviours into habits is what’s missing in leadership development.

A version of this article was published by Forbes here. Thank you for the image You X Ventures.

How Mentors Can Turn Around A Failing Mentoring Program

Having mentored many people over the years and advised plenty of programs, I’ve seen their uneven results. Few people today are surprised that mentoring is offered as a structured program rather than just organically and casually. That’s because there are so many more mentoring programs now than before. Women in the technology sector, startup founders and those in financial services are among the professionals who are benefiting from programs that have become almost ubiquitous. Many more women and men could benefit from having a mentor available to them, yet let’s not confuse greater numbers of programs with greater quality.

Not All Programs Are Equal

A mentor is someone who takes a personal and professional interest in someone with less experience and is committed to their growth. They offer them encouragement, challenge them to go further and give them tools and advice, some of which may stick for a lifetime. People often ask me where they can find a mentor to support their career and develop their leadership. Workplaces have them, some were started by professional associations, and others are offered by schools. Not surprisingly, there is a great variation in how they’re designed and managed. Some are well considered so that participants are carefully matched and fully supported. Others are too laissez-faire about how matches are made, and inexperienced mentors are left on their own to figure it all out. And there are programs that are far too prescriptive to allow for a variety of approaches about how to mentor, the frequency of meeting and even the domain of what to talk about.

Whatever the case, many programs don’t get renewed after their inaugural year because too many pairs stopped meeting beyond their first or second time. Or, less obviously, some programs continue to chug along year after year without much oversight or evaluation. The sponsoring business or organization is just pleased to report that they have a mentoring program.

Here’s my advice on how mentors can turn around a failing mentoring program.

Give Them Appropriate Resources

Among the other reasons why mentoring programs fail are that too often they’re resource-poor, with coordinators taking on the management of such programs in addition to all their other tasks, or they’re without the right number of administrators to manage the number of mentorships. It may be easy to pay lip service to leadership’s good idea to have a mentoring program to increase engagement, accelerate the talent pipeline or enable professional success, but it can often fall short of realizing real impact and leave people with the view that mentoring isn’t meaningful.

Of course, success isn’t all about the program specifications. Mentors themselves can benefit from learning how to elevate their game and be at their best.

Clarify What’s In It For You As A Mentor

Surprisingly for some, good mentoring doesn’t usually start with the mechanics of how it’s done. That typically comes later. A good mentoring relationship usually begins with a mentor who is clear about their reasons for offering their time. If you’ve participated in a program yourself, you know that the focus is often on the mentees, who are asked why they would like to be mentored and maybe encouraged to set goals. But what about mentors? If participating in a mentoring program is strictly charitable work, a mentor is likely to drop their commitment as soon as they seek to recover time in their busy schedule. What seemed like a good idea at the start might not in time with competing priorities and without an understanding of what motivated them to participate in the first place. That’s just disappointment for everyone waiting to happen. And it happens a lot.

Mentees deserve better and many mentors could be far clearer about their interests. Not only will it increase the probability that they’ll keep their commitment, but it also will likely translate to their greater satisfaction.

Mentors are usually motivated to help others, but they sometimes focus on the needs of the mentees to the exclusion of recognizing needs of their own. When people are encouraged to think about what drives them to be a mentor, too many mentors don’t know. Look at it this way: Wanting to be helpful might be the foundational reason for your involvement, but there are many other reasons to want to contribute in this way. Here are a few common ones. See whether any resonate with you.

• Wanting to learn about another generation — their drivers and choices and what they think about the work they do

• Seeking exposure to new ideas

• Believing that influencing the new up-and-coming leaders is vital

• Believing that mentoring a younger person is invigorating and that it can renew a sense of optimism and enhance work life

• Having curiosity about a different part of the company that’s innovating at a rapid rate

• Wanting to expand the ties between your own function and another area of the business

• Wanting to enhance your skills as a people developer

• Wanting to learn the barriers that members of underrepresented groups face and champion them

The more that mentors know about their genuine purpose for getting involved, the less likely they are to communicate mixed signals to their mentee about their availability, which is a constant source of misunderstanding across programs of many types. Mentors may also find sustaining their involvement right through to the end without distraction far easier, no matter what shows up to compete for their attention.

Naturally, good mentoring means putting your focus on the person you’re supporting. But first, get straight about your motivations and what you want out of it.


A revised version of this article appeared on on Feb 8 2019. Thank you to Christopher William  Adach for the photo.

What Stops Women From Mentoring

I enjoy speaking on panels about women leaders. There’s often a feeling of colleagueship and sisterhood among the panelists and a sense that it’s not just us, that we’re surrounded by our tribe.

During a panel I was moderating about mentoring as a means to promote women in industries and occupations where women are under-represented, a young woman asked a great question, “Are our expectations of senior women too high?” The young lawyer in the early stages of her career went on to tell us about a time where she sought out guidance from a senior woman lawyer at her boutique firm and was rebuffed. It caught her off guard. It just wasn’t at all what she expected would happen, nor what she thought should happen, and there were plenty of women there who seemed to feel the same way.

Is it fair to expect that senior women take an active interest in other women’s careers? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since I heard it being asked.

I’ve been a mentor to plenty of women and men and I’ve known lots of senior women who find joy in being allies, advisors, mentors and sponsors. They seek it out and find it rewarding. Yet there are women who don’t initiate or accept the responsibility to actively participate in other women’s career development. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just as not all women think alike, they don’t all act alike either. Just look at election results, for example. We know that women don’t vote as a block and they don’t act the same at work.

There are many reasons why some women don’t offer the developmental support that mentoring provides. They may be closed to it because they aren’t natural givers or don’t have relational savvy. They may not have the bandwidth to take it on, and not least of all, their understanding of how they see their role as women who’ve achieved a great deal in their career may not include opening the door wider for others to follow. And there’s much more to it still.

Some younger who look to senior women for the connection and learning and career benefits that a high-quality give and receive relationship offers expect to get support because they share the same gender. But that isn’t how all women see it. Some may have minimized the significance of being a woman in a company or industry where they have until recently been ‘an only’. Many feel scrutinized for being female and may take pride in their hard work “without anyone’s help”. If they are the only woman, racialized person, or individual with a disability, they may want to downplay their ‘only’ status. They’ve have gone out of their way not to view themselves through a gender lens. Instead, they worked hard to fit in, not stand out. I know of many cases where women insist on exceptional performance from everyone and drive very hard to get it. Women can sometimes hold both genders to a tougher line because they’ve had to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard to garner credibility and respect from others.

This may not make sense to you if you haven’t faced or witnessed discrimination early in your own career. But for those who have, they can find themselves distancing themselves from other women doing what they can to prove they made it in the workplace because of their performance, not because of any special treatment. Having their gender define a good deal of their identity is something they go to great lengths to avoid, not embrace. This is just one of the several ways gender bias can fuel conflict between generations of women.

Women are more likely to put their job before their career. This explains why some senior women show a disinterest in helping high-performing women who show promise. Senior women may neglect the importance of growing their networks and of building currencies of exchange with others who are junior.

Think too about the impact of those senior women who lacked having a mentor themselves. Or possibly for those who did have mentors or sponsors, it’s likely it was an older male supporter because there weren’t many women at the top. They didn’t have the experience of receiving a woman’s mentoring on the unique challenges faced by their common gender.

We need to also look at the greater context of work today to understand why some women don’t want to mentor.

Women persistently find themselves on an uneven playing field. There are so few women in the C-Suite and on boards, that scarcity can often place a chill on woman-to-woman dynamics. Without the reliability of equal pay for equal work, and far fewer opportunities to reach senior leadership levels, the workplace dynamic can set women up to compete with one another.

At the same time that women are frustrated that the salary gap hasn’t closed and we’re living with many examples of poor workplace practices related to sexual harassment, things are changing for the better too. We can’t overlook that there have always been women who support one another. Today, there are far more conversations about how to close the gaps of inequity at work sparked by the #Metoo movement. There are many more diversity and inclusion indexes and many more mentoring programs in the workplace. Women in male-led industries are organizing events where women are given a platform to speak on issues that affect women at work.

Women supporting other women is powerful. There are legacy reasons why it doesn’t happen everywhere and consistently across industries. Nevertheless, when women raise each other up there’s reason to be hopeful. Long may this continue.

A revised version of this article appeared on Thank you to @mrsunflower94 for the photo portrait.

Addressing the Sponsorship Shortfall

According to a 2010 Harvard Business Review article, more high-potential women reported having mentors than men. Today, women are receiving guidance on how to navigate their careers, are benefitting from having a sounding board, and women in male-dominated industries are getting support from those with more experience in it. That’s all good. At the same time, women are mentored but under sponsored. Let’s have a look at what exactly that means and what we can do about it.

Having someone invested in your career is tremendously impactful, yet women need more than mentoring. They need sponsorship critical to their success. People often confuse the two roles. Sponsors are influential people who are willing to open doors of opportunity so that you can reach the next level of your career. Anyone at any level can benefit from a sponsor. A low number of men and women have sponsors, but because there are fewer women and women of color in the senior ranks to serve as sponsors, these two groups are underserved. This is especially the case in certain industries such as technology and law. There’s no doubt that we need to showcase women and promote them for upcoming opportunities more than we do. But how?

Nothing works to focus the eye like key performance indicators.

People can often fall into the trap of selecting people for opportunities who are most like themselves. This perpetuates homogeneity in many companies. When it’s been senior men choosing the talent for a new, high-profile initiative, it can leave women out in the cold. We need to promote and support women talent more than we do. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Here’s an example of what one woman who I know did. A large urban land development organization became serious about recruiting and promoting women and established KPIs to measure their success. Although they were eager to get going, the men on the senior team admitted they didn’t know where the female talent could be found. Coincidentally, for years, the only senior woman on the team was also always the only woman speaker at large industry events. As the lone woman presenter, she made a decision that the way to rectify the situation was to give other talented women exposure.

So she reached out to women professionals and compiled a thoughtful list of 100 local women who could be ready to speak on various topics based on their expertise and interests. This resource made finding women talent for speaking engagements far easier. Suddenly the list was in heavy rotation by the senior leaders in her own organization who felt that this is what they needed to discover who the talented women were.

There is a lot you can do to locate a sponsor to satisfy your career ambitions. Here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Speak up to let your ambitions be known. Regarding their careers, research conducted with AMEX and Catalyst Canada (As yet unreleased) report that women’s career ambitions are just as high as those of their male peers. Yet, navigating your career takes far more than working hard. I used to be surprised when the women I coach haven’t yet clearly communicated their ambitions upward, but it is common. Speaking up will get you closer to getting a sponsor. Several clients of mine who are now partners in law and accounting firms had their career goals delayed for years because they were not proactive in expressing their interest in becoming a partner.

Here’s a tip: Observe someone who asks for what she wants, and learn from her. If it’s still a challenge, talk to your mentor or professional coach about how to find your voice. Do whatever you can to develop the courage to say out loud what you are after.

  1. Map your network. You wouldn’t build or buy a business without checking if you have enough funds and support, right? In other words, you need to know your assets. It’s the same with career development. When you know who your people assets are, (the people you know or those you could have access to so you can leverage them), you are far more likely to be successful.

Here’s how: Start first with identifying your career goals and then draw your map. Now stand back and ask three strategic questions: 1) Is my network effective in getting me where I’m going? 2) Do I have the right people assets to achieve my career goal? 3) Are there any suitable allies who could act as my sponsor? If yes, go ahead and meet with those people.

  1. Can your mentor be your sponsor? Mentors help define career goals and direction. They provide guidance, feedback and support. Traditionally, your mentor is different from your sponsor, who opens doors and suggests you for roles and high-profile assignments. Yet, mentors too can be sponsors. Clearly, they have to know you and your work.

Here’s a tip: Give some thought to which of your mentors could also be a strong sponsor. This could be a topic of conversation to raise for discussion the next time you get together to see if this is a role best done by them or someone else.

Let’s all address the sponsorship shortfall.

A senior woman on a panel about success and growth for women leaders in male-dominated industries said it best: “Women are in the limelight, but aren’t always in the spotlight.” In other words, they can be overlooked for opportunities — even if they’re experienced — because their performance is being scrutinized when they are the minority.

One of the ways we can correct this is by addressing the sponsorship shortfall. As a woman seeking to move up a level of leadership, you can avoid the trap of being overlooked by leveraging your relationships. A sponsor will champion you so that you are rightfully in the spotlight to be seen by others who also can elevate your career.

Photo credit: Tim Gouw. Thank you.   A version of this article was published by Forbes here.

Laura Menke Arroyo on Talent Development

Laura Menke Arroyo is 1 of 4 senior leaders who has been invited to speak about people development on a panel at DELL EMC this month. Laura is a senior leader in Market Intelligence (MI) at DELL EMC working at HQ in Round Rock Texas.  She’s known for her talent in market analytics and she is also recognized as a great collaborator and people developer, and I am fortunate to be her executive coach.  There’s another way that Laura stands out.  She is Dell EMC’s first female leader for their combined MI team.

The team’s work is used across the company in many countries to steer company strategy.  People find their work so compelling that it’s natural that everyone wants to get their hands on it.  No surprise in a competitive marketplace where each division wants to improve their results as a contribution to the overall standing of DELL EMC as a whole.  In advance of her time speaking to leaders inside DELL EMC, I’ve invited her to share her views about people development with you.

Sheila: Firstly, thank you for talking with me about talent development Laura.  This is fun isn’t it?  Can you begin by saying something about what you do?

Laura: I’m happy to share what I know with other leaders who read your blog Sheila.  I lead the Dell EMC Market Intelligence Team.  We guide Server, Storage, and Networking revenue to external analyst firms representing a $150B industry.  We standardize quarterly share reporting and provide forward-looking insights of performance, providing insights into the industry as a whole and identifying opportunities of growth.

Sheila: That’s a heavy responsibility, designing and calculating market analytics across geographies and organizations when everyone counts on your team to provide measurements for performance.  The pressure of getting it right I know is immense!  What do you consider when you are hiring talent?

Laura: I personally like to build out teams with varied backgrounds.  Today I have talent from engineering, computer science, marketing, finance, and even one person with a background in archaeology.  While the different perspectives are useful for diverse views, I also encourage members of my team to continue networking in their original field too.  I recently hired a woman engineer as a data scientist and have encouraged her to stay in touch with other women engineers so that she can learn from them what innovations are emerging in her field that could have resonance with what we do.  Working with us in data intelligence will develop her skills in understanding the broader technology market and she’ll gain experience with the latest trending and models for planning and prediction.  With her technical degree in engineering and a better understanding of business and technology trends she’ll benefit from more career opportunities in the future.

Sheila: So you encourage people to stay close to their field so that they will benefit and so will the team.  That’s a great way to learn from their connections in other industries outside your own.  Is there a secret you can share about how you help people get to where they want to go with their career?  

It can’t get any simpler

Laura: I encourage people to speak up and say what they want. It’s easy to say but not everyone does it, and we can’t read each other’s minds.  Take me, for example, when I wasn’t yet a  people manager.  Way back when I wanted to make the leap into management, I had the discussion with my manager and bluntly stated that I was ready to lead.  Then I backed up my declaration with several actions that helped me gain experience to go in that direction.  For example, I set up the first day orientation meetings for Finance, where I was working at the time, securing volunteers from across the organization to make the day valuable, current and relevant.  It is sometimes harder to get folks to do something when they don’t work directly for you. Leading this well was a great transition point to becoming a people manager.

Generating a storied career

Sheila: That was a terrific strategy Laura that clearly paid off. What strategies do you use today to keep development top of mind with your team members?

Laura: We know that talent development is not a one time check-the-box event.  That’s why development is a recurring agenda item for discussion in my 1 on 1’s.  I think of a career as a series of stories that each person is creating.  Thinking of my own career as a series of stories is aspirational. I first ask myself to go back in time and ask:  what are the stories am I most proud of until now in my career? And then I segue to – what stories do I want to tell in the future?  I ask people what they want their story to be.

Sheila: I love that, and you know that I am a big fan of stories.  You and I work together using purposeful stories.  I like how you’ve shaped questions around stories to work with your team on their careers.  What other strategies have you used?

Laura: You need to be deliberate to develop people as your team gets larger.  A focus on a learning culture is vital.  For example, some of our Market Intelligence team members wanted to learn more about strategy and broader communications.  We developed quarterly readouts marrying our team with 4 other teams such as Strategy, Investor Relations, Analyst Relations and Public Communications teams.  All the teams are learning and growing from each other’s skill sets.  It broadens and deepens the linkages in the network of people and makes future career choices available as the teams work with each other.  They can now get insights about what others are working on and appreciate more about how they do their work.  It also expands the possibilities of what’s possible in delivering work where they are right now.

Sheila: I like how you baked development right into how work gets done in this cross-functional way.  DELL EMC has a fast-paced culture and like in many other workplaces, rapid change has become the constant.  How do you keep the lines of communication open in times of change?

Relationships are important.  I get to know the members of the team by spending time with them to understand them better.  Then when times change it is easier and more natural to discuss the changes because I can anticipate their concerns.  I led the 3-Year plan for the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), working with engineers and finance professions across the organization to agree on a single approach, deadlines and the final product for our business strategy.  None of those people worked directly for me, so employing my own leadership skills such as negotiating and influencing were essential. I now know a lot more people and maintain relationships with many of them.  This is also vital to detect any early warning signs of upcoming changes that will impact our team.

Sheila: So that’s how you stay ahead of any surprises. Clever. Have you ever identified a career goal that surprised one of the members of your team?

Laura: Yes, I had a recent hire with a background in computer engineering who was working on some machine learning algorithms for predictive analytics.  I suggested that he could patent the great idea. He didn’t realize this could be part of the role and it excited him to know what he is doing is bigger than the current problem at hand.  The work he’s doing right now could live on to continue to shape decisions going forward. I suggest thinking of the ways to help your people see beyond the present to have greater impact.

What you don’t nurture, you risk losing

Sheila: Nurturing long-term thinking too.  Has there been an incident that has shaped your own philosophy of developing talent?

Laura: As leaders attracting and developing talent, you have to come to terms with the reality that your people may search out for or be tapped for other opportunities.  Recently I had someone leave the company to pursue an MBA at Cornell in order to pursue investment banking opportunities.  I fully supported his decision and even participated in a 360 feedback request from Cornell.  It was a sudden leave, and prior to his departure, I was able to fill the position for cross-over because I had a thick pipeline of talented candidates.  It’s something I learned early on to do.

Sheila: Keeping the pipeline evergreen.

Laura: Yes, exactly. I learned that early as a manager.  When the Integration of Dell and EMC Market Intelligence was moving at full speed, I had just developed the Dell MI team.  With the integration, I needed to shift focus to our new storage line of business.  Having already developed leaders on the team, I was able to bring the new team into the fold and together we were able to take on the challenge of becoming a single voice of industry performance for the Infrastructure Solutions Group.  We combined our analytics and insights into a defined framework for competitive deep dives and insights housed on a combined portal for easy accessibility.

Humpty Dumpty’s lesson to talent

Sheila: A lot was going on at the same time and I can see how you used that to your advantage. Last question for you Laura. How do you identify a high potential team member with lots of headroom?

Well, high potential team members have high energy and optimism.  They seem restless in search of improvement. I see an inquisitive nature and desire to question assumptions and move to make things better.  I lead a complex area with industry disruption.  We are constantly questioning assumptions and are being challenged. We take things apart and put them back together for best results.  So a telltale sign is when someone pulls things apart and can put them back together in a new way.  In my experience, people that show this type of curiosity are a great fit for broad roles across Dell EMC.

Sheila: Thank you Laura. I know that you have much more to say on the topic of people development. I love working with you and am excited as I know you are about speaking on the panel. Thank you for having this exchange!

Laura: This was great! Thanks Sheila. Talk with you next week.


Receiving praise: we often shut it out

Leaders aren’t perfect. One common challenge is accepting acknowledgements and praise. I discovered early on that from time to time I had a cynical view about people’s motives when they offered words of appreciation. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I recognized that I had many experiences where I viewed praise as a disingenuous tactic meant to get something from someone else. Perhaps you can relate to that, or maybe you feel undeserving, or you have a belief that you don’t ‘need’ recognition to do a good job, or that you don’t see the reason to praise others because the duty of performing work should be satisfaction enough.

There hasn’t been a leadership program I’ve been a part of that hasn’t addressed recognition as a leadership imperative when working with people. Yet we haven’t moved our point of view to learn what we can about how we receive appreciation from others, and from what I’ve observed, most of us aren’t great at it. Accepting praise so that it ‘goes to work on us’ in positive ways is important because it gets to the heart of people development and creates a culture of learning. We are modelling an attitude one way or another. Appreciating that giving praise is central to causing leadership in others may be more or less widespread if not underutilized, but accepting it when it’s offered is an undervalued art. Let’s start with the 2 types of recognition.

Appreciation as a connective and transformative tissue

By appreciating with praise, we connect by letting someone know that what they did mattered and how. Leaders do this to inspire and develop others by lifting them as they climb. Acknowledging is different. It can be a tool for transformation because you are recognizing not what they’ve done but who they are and that is what makes it far more powerful. It creates a new future for someone to live into. By way of example, when I was a consultant in a Big 4 firm, long before I was a coach who started a business of my own, I was surprised to be told by my manager that I was a talented presenter and seller with potential. Although I enjoyed doing both, I was unaware that this is how I was seen. That moment was big for me. From then on I saw myself as a presenter and a business developer and it was the start of defining myself in new ways that had a positive impact on the long view of my career.

So if the rewards are clear, what gets in the way of taking recognition in? In my many years of coaching leaders, one of the reasons I’ve found is that we can spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others instead of to ourselves and so we feel undeserving against a high yardstick. Misunderstanding humility is also a reason. Leaders who are humble don’t think less of themselves, they concern themselves with others and take care of themselves. And if we apply a gender lens, women can come up short with our own high standards, reluctant to take credit or embarrassed to be seen as potentially self-promoting.

My Turnaround Story

I learned a lot about accepting appreciation from a watershed experience some years ago when my plan to offer well deserved praise to someone special didn’t go at all the way I expected. When I was 12 my parents were in a terrible car accident and my favourite teacher took me in to live with her family while my parents were convalescing. Decades later, I was moved to search her out and thank her for her extraordinary kindness. I adored her as my favourite teacher before this act of generosity, and I regretted not having the opportunity to show my appreciation. It took many unsuccessful phone calls until I found her. She answered on the 2nd ring, I identified myself and quickly confirmed that she was my former teacher from the 6th grade. She told me that she had only taught at my school for one year, something I didn’t know and it made her generous act feel even more special that I had received it. I sensed her nervousness, and I also felt my own as I explained the reason for my call. I thanked her for taking me in, which was met with silence from her. We moved on. I waited until the right moment and thanked her a 2nd time and she met my appreciation with a deflection. This time I knew for certain that the change of topic was deliberate. It was on the 3rd try when she listened to my offering and accepted it. The call turned out to be a crucible moment for me for reasons I didn’t expect.

The sting of feeling my acknowledgement pushed aside, no matter what the reason, was a powerful lesson about the importance of refining how I received appreciation from others. Since then, I’ve been able to respond to acknowledgements by receiving the message given to me more fully, although I’m not perfect. I learned much later that success on our goals holds for a time until the goal post moves, and the goal post continues to move! Then there’s simply more growth possible. It’s not a burden, just part of a life worth living. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but receiving – or taking if you prefer, is a generous act in its own right. Think about it for yourself. Are you receiving praise and acknowledgement in a way that respects the offering and promotes your own self growth and models it for others?