Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

Leadership Concept

[Warning: I was in a really corporate-y mood when I wrote this, so you’re getting a taste of Work Melanie’s voice rather than my usual silly, contemplative, self-deprecating Black Belt voice.]

I’m a learning and leadership development consultant, which in a very tiny abstract nutshell means that I listen, diagnose problems or needs, and help people make decisions and take actions that improve their performance on the job. As a bonus they very often end up happier too, which is my favorite part.

Since I’ve become a black belt and am nearing my test for second dan, I’ve seen many parallels between how leadership is managed where I work versus in the dojang. One positive point for the dojang (and an example I often use in the workplace) is how my chief instructor began grooming me for a leadership role before I even tested for black belt. That way I was prepared to adapt quickly to the new expectations and responsibilities of a black belt. That doesn’t always happen in the workplace, which results in leaders who feel overwhelmed and unsupported.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that in the workplace change or improvement is expected to happen with one shot: one meeting, one email, one workshop, one team building event. This year on two separate occasions I’ve had executives come to me after I’d already worked with their leadership teams to help address ongoing challenges. I was actually glad this happened, because it proved that you can’t expect change to happen overnight, no matter how fun or interesting or engaging the workshop/team building event was. My learning events didn’t “fail.” They were just a set up for longer term work, the beginning. So now I’m digging into their ongoing challenges and helping them better apply and practice the skills and concepts they learned earlier. It’s time to get real.

In the dojang, learning, practice, and application are blended seamlessly and are ongoing. Sh-t’s real all the time. If we are presented with a new concept that promises an improvement in skills or change in behavior, we can’t leave it at one demonstration and expect to see change. It takes ongoing practical application, feedback, and refinement. I still practice technique I learned as a white belt, and I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and leadership skills. My instructors provide constant feedback, so I know where I stand in my performance. Just as a manager shouldn’t look at their new role as a stopping point, they should continue to learn, practice, and encourage their staff to do the same, just as a black belt does.

If you are a leader in the workplace (or your martial arts school of choice), you are responsible for implementing and supporting change, whether it’s a new process or a new standard of behavior. It requires not only daily practice from your team to develop a new habit, but it also requires you to practice your influential and strategic skills to ensure the change is successful.

Here are some ways to practice those leadership skills and be a black belt in your chosen field:

Support
Are you providing support for behavioral change? Have you set clear expectations? Do your staff or students have the resources they need to do what you’re asking them to do? Are you thinking ahead to the finished product or event? Are you helping them overcome barriers? And are you seeking support from your own leader? (Unless you’re self-employed, ha.) I ask my instructors for help fairly often, especially with teaching. I’ve developed my own style of teaching and coaching, but sometimes I just pointedly ask how to teach something that I find confusing or difficult. Leaders need support too to improve their daily practice.

Rewards and Recognition

While you don’t want to reward an employee just for showing up and doing the tasks that are on their job description, make the time to point out when they’ve gone above and beyond. “Catch them in the act of doing it right,” as one of my coworkers can say. So often on teams leaders focus on the low performers and don’t give feedback to those who are doing well or far exceeding expectations. If we black belts chose to focus all our energy singling out the kid who’s doing it “wrong,” it would be discouraging and frustrating to us and that student, but also other students who would benefit from positive feedback.

Be specific with your positive feedback. Depending on the age of the student I’ll point out exactly what they changed and improved to reinforce the behavior.

Leaders like recognition too, whether it’s public or private. The other day my grandmaster corralled the black belts (who all happened to be first dans) together to work on our forms. Right after we finished Keumgang, he told us to turn and face one of the black belts. He had been spending extra time over the past few weeks with this black belt, chipping away at habits that needed to go and encouraging skills that were improving. Grandmaster praised that black belt for hard work and told us to applaud—literally. That was a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to a reward (that I will hopefully earn fair and square) after my second dan test.

Continuous Improvement

Once you’re in a leadership position you don’t have to learn anything new, right? You don’t have to teach anything new because people should know how to do their jobs (or manage their own martial arts practice), right?
Nope.
While you’re helping the people around you, look for ways to improve your own skills. Read, research, ask mentors, and above all practice. Practice will help you make your knowledge a habit and an integral part of who you are as a leader.

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Saying Goodbye to the Parasites in Our Lives

This is Plankton. He’s my intestinal parasite.

plankton_by_retroneb-d98dyec

…it’s not REALLY Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants, but this is how I picture the recently diagnosed parasitic infection in my digestive system–a tiny little bastard who’s always scheming to pull one over on everybody. He’s a dick, and I’m tired of the way he’s been treating me, but I’m also a little afraid to say goodbye to him.

I’ve hinted at my digestive-problems-of-mysterious origin in a few posts before. I’ve always had some food sensitivities since at least high school, but they got noticeably worse right after Christmas last year. I lost a total of 14 pounds in about 2-3 months, which on my 5’3″ petite frame was a lot. I’ve gained back about 6 pounds, and this is hard to admit…I’m not entirely happy about it.

Plankton’s taking up residence in my body was apparently one last f–k you from 2016, a year I think we can all agree was just awful for everyone. He made me sick, he ruined my appetite (and sometimes my entire day), and he was a constant unpleasant presence in my life.

He was also my enabler. I LOVED losing weight. I LOVED seeing the numbers get lower and lower on the scale every morning. I LOVED that sometimes all I ate for dinner was very carefully counted out Saltines and a little bit of hummus because I was too sick to eat anything else. Plankton tapped into my almost-but-not-quite-yet resolved issues around body image and disordered eating. He knew just what buttons to push to make me want to hang onto him a little longer.

Plankton knew I was having a pretty glum start to 2017 (job instability and a dark bout of loneliness), so he made himself a point of focus that I could cling to. Other parts of my life were unhappy, so if I could control and monitor my weight, at least I had some tiny bit of stability. (Yes, I recognize the irony in that statement) Sometimes even without the symptoms I restricted what I ate to see if I could get the numbers even lower. I wanted someone to notice my weight loss and ask if something was wrong. No one noticed other than my parents, who only see me every few months. I kept my secrets to myself.

So Plankton and I learned to live with each other. I tried to avoid foods that would trigger his wrath, but later in the year I let myself indulge and kind of enjoyed the fact that some “problem” was letting me eat whatever I wanted while keeping the weight off. We were a team, albeit dysfunctional. I waited nine months until seeking help from a doctor.

I knew I had a problem that was beyond just “food sensitivity” for months, but the seriousness of it finally hit me during a brief conversation with my mother. She told me how “drawn” I looked earlier in the year when I was at my lowest weight.

“So you’re saying I looked…thin?” I responded, half-jokingly but secretly, shamefully pleased. But seriously, what if this was worse than just lactose intolerance? What if I had IBS? Hell, what if I had colon cancer? Next thing I knew I was crying in the shower thinking about how as a self-loathing teenager I’d wished for a serious illness that would make me lose weight. It was a relief (and admittedly, kind of cool) to find out my problem was treatable.

Now it’s time to say goodbye to Plankton in the form of antibiotics. My original food sensitivities won’t go away, but if all goes as planned I won’t have the constant issues my clingy friend brought to the table, no pun intended. I’ll kind of miss him. He kept me skinny. He helped me fit into a cute little black skirt that I was going to get rid of because it was at one time too tight. I don’t want to go back to my pre-Christmas weight. What will I do without him?

Do you have parasites in your life you need to get rid of? They could be other people, habits, activities, perhaps even your own thought patterns. We can be in parasitic relationships that we know are making us sick, but we’re having a hard time seeking help. Are your parasites enabling you to stay stuck in a mental or physical place you don’t want to be but fear you can’t leave? Are they telling you that you must accept an unpleasant situation because you don’t deserve better? What is draining your energy and sapping your soul? Who (or what) do you need to let go of for good?

It’s time to let go of what no longer serves us and be brave enough to face the world alone. It’s time to be free.