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Memo from self-aware boss: ‘I am going to improve’

Bosses are quick to want others to improve but slow to spend education and professional development dollars on their own growth and development. That doesn’t make sense.

Like everyone else, bosses can choke progress and contribute to problems. Just like others, they have attitudes and behaviors that could improve with scrutiny and feedback.

In most organizations, the owner or key leader is highly influential. How the boss behaves, interacts and decides affects the fate and functioning of all employees. A small upward shift in a leader’s insight and maturity pays companywide dividends.

If you are a boss, what would stop you from writing the following memo to your staff?

Dear managers and staff:

In the past few years, I have used busyness as an excuse to avoid something that is absolutely essential to the future of our company, namely, my own growth as a leader.

The fact that I have neglected to sharpen my own ax is embarrassing for me to admit, since, as you know, I am a big advocate for anything that can help our company get better.

My need for improvement is something I have become aware of gradually, as I have assessed the progress of the company. While we are a successful firm employing good and talented people, we also have shortcomings:

  • Our customers like us but are not raving about us.
  • Our culture is productive but not very innovative.
  • We are good solvers and fixers, but many of these problems could be prevented.
  • We talk about the importance of relationships, but we chronically put projects ahead of people development.
  • Our people-including me and the rest of the management team-get along and communicate, but we are not as candid and courageous as I want us to be.

I believe these issues have a big effect on both our profitability and our reputation.

I have decided the main reason for our mediocrity has been my own unwillingness to change and grow. (I know some of you are now thinking I am on drugs, but please read on.)

I believe I have contributed to holding us back by:

  • thinking I should have all the answers and acting as if I always know what I’m talking about;
  • being afraid of being disliked-for example, failing to give important yet difficult performance feedback and, worse yet, refusing to fire chronic underperformers;
  • doing too much that others should be doing;
  • spending almost no time mentoring others to become better leaders; and
  • spending almost no time thinking about the future of our company and my own destiny.

It’s time for me to do something about my own mediocrity.

For the next few years, I will be engaging in a multifaceted personal and professional development process. I say "next few years" because much of what I will be working on involves incremental change as opposed to a quick fix.

I will concentrate on five specific improvements.

First, I intend to learn more about myself. I will start by identifying the values and beliefs that are most important to me in both work and personal dimensions of my life. I will clarify my expectations of myself as a spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend and leader. And I will make a list, "Aspects of Life and Work I Am Ignorant About."

Second, I want to learn more about my managers and allow them to hear what I’m really thinking. It has become strikingly clear that my conversations with those who report to me are almost exclusively transactional and project-based. I will work to broaden my comfort zone to include more informal exchanges. Also, I will deliver difficult messages in a more straightforward way to low-performing employees.

Third, I will gradually reduce my involvement in decisions that belong to others. I will make a concerted effort to communicate more clearly who is responsible for which decisions, and I will allow those responsible to operate without my interference.

Fourth, through more effective mentoring and coaching, I will provide greater value to my key managers than I have in the past. To help me figure out how to improve in this area, I will be retaining the services of an experienced, outside coach.

Fifth, I will be tapping into your ideas about what it takes for us to be a truly great company. I will accomplish this by instituting monthly "great ideas sessions" where practical improvement ideas will be generated, considered and rewarded. I will also expect my managers to become better mentors to their direct reports, which includes soliciting great ideas from their people on a regular basis.

I gave much thought before deciding to send this memo to you. In sending it, I am holding myself accountable. I realize that if I publish my intentions and don’t follow up, I will rightfully be branded insincere. That is a powerful motivator!

I hope the coming months and years will make my commitment clear. If you see me operating in a way that you believe is detrimental to the company, I am hereby giving you full permission to let me know about this via e-mail, by telephone or face to face.

Thanks for being part of a good company that I believe can be a great company. I will be doing more about my own self-improvement, and I will be expecting you to do the same.

But it will start with me.

Sincerely yours,

(Name of boss)

Some bosses will adapt the above memo and send it out soon; many will not.

For those in the "will not send" camp, pick from the memo one or two changes you would genuinely like to make in your leadership. Follow through on these improvements without telling anyone, and see what happens.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

1/22/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].

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