“Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” — Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father.
Despite what some seem to believe, few of us leap into our careers with our abilities fully formed. Yes, exceptions exist: writer Robert A. Heinlein sold the very first story he ever wrote, then proceeded to rule as one of the Big Three science fiction writers for close to 40 years. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a child prodigy, seemed capable of plucking melodies out of the air.
But they were exceptions, and as the saying goes, the exceptions prove the rule. Most of us must grow into our jobs—even leaders. Leadership may come easily for you, but it’s always good to brush up on your skills:
1. Continuous use. Complacency ruins teams, killing productivity. Rather than issuing orders and assuming things will go your way, actively seek out your teams’ input. Take the initiative to schedule 1-on-1 meetings and ask for input. Listen to their needs and requests, as well as their gripes. Tools you use continually might require more maintenance, but they also become more familiar, easier to use, and fit your hand better as time rolls on. Listening is one of these skills.
2. Never stop learning. Just because you’ve reached a particular place in your career doesn’t mean you can’t do better. Even if you like where you are, never stop learning! Arrogance means you believe you have nothing left to learn. Study the product your group produces until you know it inside and out. Take classes toward an upper-level degree in management or a free online course from one of the many institutes of higher learning. When you capture your new knowledge or degree, you’ve not only improved yourself as a manager, you’ve added to the cachet of your team and organization.
3. Improve your relationships with your co-workers. Do your team members and fellow leaders view you as abrasive, unreliable, tightfisted with data, or even as a micromanager? If you don’t know, find out using a 360-degree assessment—and start polishing away your rough edges. To paraphrase country singer John Anderson, you may be an old chunk of coal, but you can be a diamond someday. Diamonds command far more attention than coal. Not to mention that when you get along better with people, you can handle your crew and your co-workers better, inevitably increasing your productivity and your personal ROI.
4. Improve your health. When you get enough sleep, eat the right foods, regularly hydrate yourself, slim down, and make a commitment to mental health, you’ll feel better. You’ll relate better to others. You’ll get more done, and your productivity will increase overall. Very few professions, with the possible exception of stand-up comic, clown, and guinea pig, require you to feel bad in order to excel. The relatively small amount of time you spend keeping yourself in good shape can translate into greater work results.
5. Seek Multiple Positives. Some things you do to benefit yourself won’t do much to help your organization. Obviously, buying a new bass boat won’t directly assist your team, though if it does make you happy, you’ll be easier to deal with and more likely to make your team’s work life more enjoyable. But benefits like earning an advanced degree help not just you but everyone around you. Ditto for your increased health, and any other activity that increases your productivity and efficiency at work.
6. Prepare for crises. When you have time, create or polish up your crisis plans. Make sure they’re specific enough to deal with something debilitating, like if a key staff person dies or leaves the company, but general enough to handle a million-to-one event like a giant meteor exploding over your city (look up “Chelyabinsk” on Wikipedia if this doesn’t ring any bells). While you probably won’t handle such situations often, knowing what to do gives you a sense of calmness.
Over and Out
The idea of self-improvement has been popular for decades, so much so that it represents one of the top-grossing industries in America. Most of us should feel pretty good about ourselves by now, and function at the top of our game. But if you’ve stayed pretty much the same, make an effort to improve yourself. It might not be easy, but you’ve never let a little hard work stop you. Sure, you’ve proven yourself quite the worker by climbing to the managerial ranks in the first place—but being good suggests you can get better. And you must, because the old “if we rest, we rust” cliché contains a core of truth. Use it or lose it. If you don’t make a commitment to improve your leadership skills, they’ll get rusty, and they may drop away at the least opportune time. The penalty for complacency is low personal productivity—and a dangerously low personal ROI for your company.