What would you do differently? Really, think about it.

Chances are, over the course of our careers, we have done a lot of good. We’ve impacted lives positively, delivered on commitments, achieved results. But, if you’re human (and honest) you’ve also made some mistakes. Or, perhaps you just didn’t do your best work on a few occasions. Our ability to demonstrate learning agility and gain wisdom which, in time, becomes our currency, is one of our most critical skills as an effective leader. How should we look back and assess our performance? What can we do to remain mentally and emotionally nimble, ready to accept and own our mistakes? How do we ensure we are better tomorrow than we are today?

Be Self-Aware Without Being Self-Conscious

Do you have those times when you’re on autopilot and you get to the end of the day and it was all a blur? And what about that ‘driving home like a drone’ feeling after a long day? You know, the one where you pull into your driveway and you don’t know how you got there. We can’t afford to be that way on a regular basis, but sadly, we are sometimes so locked into our old methods and behaviors we are like bystanders. Sleepwalking through our work, while detrimental to our performance, is even worse for our personal growth. The first step toward us managing our own growth and expanding our portfolio of wisdom is setting our internal monitoring system to ‘record’. Too often leaders are caught up in what they have to do, running, chasing, striving to achieve. Often, these same leaders don’t stop and think about how they are doing their jobs or, in fact, what they are doing. Sometimes, a simple internal inquiry is all it takes to begin building a habit of self-speculation and analysis. ‘How am I handling this?’… ‘How would I rate my performance right now?’… These kinds of basic internal evaluations can provide us the pause we need to course correct or confirm we are on the right track.

Being self-aware doesn’t mean questioning every action you take. Over examination of our own actions can result in analysis paralysis and soon you become neurotic. Leaders are required to act. Standing still, over-analyzing or becoming mired in self-doubt and criticism will not help you lead. But it can be healthy to do a ‘post-mortem’ on your day or even a conversation. Take some notes. Record where you got it right and one thing you can try differently the next time you’re in that situation. And, remember to pay attention to how you feel when you nail it. Recognizing what success looks like and recalling the sequence you used to achieve that alchemy can be a powerful away to build repeat performance.

Master Your Skill of Pattern Recognition

There are hundreds of ways you ‘do what you do’ and don’t even think about it. Sure, I’m referring to habits, but more than habits, I am thinking about your tendencies, biases, reactions, perspectives and comfort zones. Just as in our daily lives, in our roles as leaders we’ve developed some tools that work for us as well as some patterns within which we operate. Recognizing your patterns is an early step toward ‘catching yourself’ before you repeat old mistakes. The saying ‘past is prologue’ is a powerful harbinger. It can be a death sentence if we aren’t careful. Just like another saying, ‘those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it’, recognizing our patterns and past can help us stop the cycle.

The next time you respond to something incorrectly, get riled or agitated when you shouldn’t have or, perhaps, fall into a trap of behavior you know you’ve experienced before, take a moment. Do some behavioral forensics and ask yourself what led to your slip up. What were you focused on when you made the mistake? What caused you to miss the warning signs that preceded your misjudgment? Perhaps changing your pattern is the key to correcting a mistake next time.

Be Ruthless In Your Willingness to Self Correct

Unless you are carved out of pure gold and you bleed blue chip stock options, you’ve probably had a rather mortal pathway through your business career. That means you’ve achieved much you can be proud of, and you’ve also stepped in a big pile of it a few times. Hopefully you are all too aware of your less stellar moments and you’re comfortable owning up to them in a healthy sort of way. In fact, I’m going to suggest that if you haven’t said some version of ‘I’ll never do it that way again’ than you aren’t being critical enough of your own track record. And, for those of you working in environments where performance reviews are done annually and your line manager sits with you and gives you a grade, don’t wait for that. You should be grading yourself. Ruthlessly. You should be willing to call out your worst plays in the game and ask yourself what must change so you don’t make the same mistakes again. From these self-examinations comes improvement and from a repeatable routine built upon these improvements comes wisdom.

Getting comfortable with self-examination means getting perspective. I’ve often shared with my direct reports that I play a bit of a game with myself, particularly in group meetings, during which I ‘put a camera in the room’. I imagine I am filming my actions in order to do two things - assess myself for improvement as well as ensure I remain aware of how I show up to others in the room. This isn’t as self-absorbed as it sounds (really!), it is simply a device I use to achieve a balance of remaining present within myself while not being too in my own head. Again, self-awareness without self-consciousness. Once this technique is mastered, you can time shift a little… meaning, you can fast forward and get out of ahead of what you say, and what you plan to say. This is incredibly helpful in meetings during which emotions can be high or when you are speaking to a group and you want to nail your message and delivery. But, these are topics for another time….

Recognize The Right Thing Done The Wrong Way Is Still Wrong

A couple of decades ago I was a developing multi-unit manager who had just been promoted within a high-growth organization a couple of years after previously having been promoted. Within a few short years my span of control was 70 times what it had been and I was responsible for a lot of people, performance and, in point of fact, results. My ‘up to now’ was being stretched and I had a lot of learning coming at me in real time. And things were about to get tougher.

So, I’ve been given this second of two promotions in a few years and a leader much more senior to me is seated on the opposite end of a long table in a room full of people during a meeting taking place 24 hours into me having my shiny new title. We were engaged in a discussion about performance across the organization and one person’s name came up as an example of an underperforming manager. The senior leader at the end of the table looked over his papers, down the long table at me, and he made his desire very clear. He wanted this manager transitioned out of the organization. Period.

I had no issue with the directive, the performance of this professional had been subpar. The individual was a fine person, but their performance had been lacking for some time and, while I felt badly for them and for what had to be done, there was no ethical disconnect here, no malfeasance, nothing scandalous in the senior leader’s directive to me. As a human, I felt empathy for the manager. As a business leader, I was there to solve today’s problem. I knew my role.

So, over the course of the following 8 weeks I worked with the proper partners in human resources and other teams and I led a very detailed improvement plan this manager was directed to follow with the hopes they would transcend their poor results, but aware that they likely could not. At the end of that 8 weeks, the leader was no longer with the organization. I had facilitated a clean, clear, correct performance management.

And, I was dead wrong.

Was I wrong about the performance of this person being lackluster? No. Was there any reason this leader should not have been removed from their role? No. I had done all of the correct things and the reasons for doing them were also correct and justifiable. But I hadn’t done them in what I would today call ‘the right way.’

This was early in my years as a large-span leader and as a result, I took a very sterile, almost perfunctory approach to my management of this situation. I was professional and courteous, but I wasn’t caring. Deep inside I wanted to be, but I didn’t yet know how to be both direct and heartfelt. I had the image of the senior leader pointing at me from down the length of the long table, and hence, I managed the removal of this leader as the process of me carrying out a directive, not as the transition of a person from one stage in their career to another perhaps better suited to them. I had managed many professionals out of roles by this time in my career but this situation was a bit more complex and, because I lacked wisdom and context, my manner throughout the progression was cool and remote.

I’ll never do it that way again.

I remember this period of time often. I absolutely remember it any time I have to sit with a struggling leader and help them improve or move on. There is nothing that can change the fact that we are all responsible for our own actions and performance, so, I never have and never will apologize for curating talent. But, I now have the experience and courage married with a deeply-rooted commitment to dialogue with, coach and counsel the human, not just ‘speak at’ the professional. Crucially, experience in the years since has provided me with the fortitude to occasionally fight to keep some leaders longer before deciding they had to be removed. And, when a removal is necessary, I have often cried with leaders during their terminations while still feeling fully correct in the action being taken. With wisdom has come the ability for me to maintain my humanity and cherish the dignity of another person while looking them in the eyes and telling them they’ve fallen short.

I still make loads of other mistakes which I’m working on (I promise!), but I can tell you, I won’t make this same mistake again. To be clear, the senior leader who gave me the directive would not have called what I did a mistake. But, I knew I hadn’t done my best work. What if I hadn’t self-analyzed all those years ago? If life was just metrics and formulas I could have easily told myself ‘they deserved it’ and I’d still be having performance-based discussions in the same way. For me to grow into the leader that I wanted to be, I had to remain open to self-discovery and examination and apply lessons learned from past performance. Past does not have to be prologue and history does not doom us to repeat it.

Is your team on their own journey of self-discovery? Is your organization striving to build on its learning agility and emotional intelligence so that your leaders can improve daily? I have coached and developed leaders and teams toward continuous improvement that positively impacts results. Get in touch and perhaps I can help your organization as well.

— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with businesses and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. — 

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