While it’s well understood that leaders greatly impact their companies, it’s not always clear how that impact manifests in the daily grind of business. As a consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to work with leaders from many companies over the past 15 years. Some of those companies were small and some large. In that time, I’ve seen firsthand how the behavior and mindset of a CEO creates the model for certain types of behavior in surrounding teams. And what I’ve discovered is that your truest and most lasting impact is cultural.
Leadership clearly affects organizational culture, even when that influence is subconscious. Unless you reflect on your own development, that impact can easily become negative. Besides this, the entire motion of a company can stall if the CEO’s personal culture is at odds with the organization’s. Researchers from Harvard Business School studied CEOs in six countries and found that misalignment of a CEO can have detrimental effects on organizational health and performance.
Preventing this doesn’t just involve your effectiveness as CEO — it’s as much about your ability to show personal growth. Great leadership, then, is the result of a conscientious personal journey.
The Problem of Personal Growth as a Leader
It’s easy to feel fulfilled when you are just starting out with a company or in a career. The excitement of new possibilities, plus being submerged in a working environment with insightful colleagues and peers makes it feel like personal growth is constantly happening. It’s invigorating.
As you climb the professional ladder with each promotion — once, twice, maybe three times — you’ll often experience a lonelier playing field. You have to look outside your organization to find peers who understand your daily challenges, and most of those people are actually competitors. What’s more, the myth of the “hero” executive is perpetuated in Western culture to the point that you are expected to suffer silently if you want to be an effective CEO. For this reason, you and your fellow CEOs can feel very uncomfortable sharing personal growth with others. Maybe you’re scared to fail, be seen as weak, or seem less than infallible. It’s understandable.
It’s also unsustainable.
This pattern is a destructive one for you and the company at large. By hiding or ignoring personal growth, you are missing an opportunity to connect with your employees. In fact, a baffling 23% of Americans at midsize to enterprise-size businesses don’t know their CEOs’ names.
Embracing a Companywide Personal Growth Mindset
As a CEO, expectations of a “leader” as an all-knowing, competent individual have probably limited you at one point or another, maybe caused you to hesitate (or even stop) opening up about your own journey toward personal growth. But it doesn’t have to be so. You have the power to foster a growth mindset in your team. As leaders, we influence by example and through our actions every day. We can inspire our teams to personal growth in the same way.
Here’s how to get started:
- Make it safe to talk about personal growth.
As leaders, we all have areas we are actively working on. We all know it’s happening. But too often, we treat our personal growth like “Fight Club” — the first (and second) rule is that we don’t talk about it. And it’s not clear why. To help your employees think more openly and honestly about their journeys, start opening up about your own. You’ll immediately give employees a license to talk about theirs.
Not convinced? Consider the impact of TED Talks: Whether delivered by someone famous or someone completely unknown, the honesty and candor of successful people has power: Power to create safety for space and introspection. A clear call to action to explore one’s own challenges. It works because the presenters have a degree of authority and credibility, just like you do as a company leader. Bottom line is, if you strive to drive growth, you must provide a behavioral pattern for others to emulate.
- Master the art of personal storytelling.
If you want to open up about your personal growth, it isn’t as simple as spewing out facts and anecdotes. Tell your story in a way that promotes empathy and understanding. Using a personal narrative is the best way to create those deeper interactions. You need to make it real, and you are as real as it gets.
This doesn’t mean your story has to be a heroic tale. Going back to the success of TED Talks, the most well-loved stories grapple with both negativity and positivity. The challenge and the journey to overcome. Vulnerability is the most important factor — it’s a balance of sympathy and hope that inspires listeners in their own struggles.
- Find a great coach.
It’s tough to find models of personal growth when you’re the only person who holds a particular position in the company. This means it’s often necessary to find external mentors who can provide guidance. In fact, many great CEOs already rely on great coaches: Thirty-nine percent of CEOs sought the services of an executive coach in the past year. Are you one of them?
An unbiased, trusted third party can be a voice of reason, offering a crucial perspective during your personal growth journey. Find yours by consulting your networks and having an open, honest discussion about your needs.
As leaders, our actions drive organizational culture. To shape this influence into a force for good, however, you must learn to take notice of your own personal growth story. What makes an effective CEO isn’t what tradition tells us — it’s not fearlessness or infallibility, but just the opposite. Be vulnerable and watch those around you open their hearts and minds to your vision.
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