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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What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders

helping silouhette

2016 has been my year of coaching. When I’m not yelling and punching stuff, I’m a leadership development consultant for a large healthcare organization. A large part of my job is coaching clinical and non-clinical leaders and a select group of physicians. I help them set goals, solve problems, guide them through decisions, provide feedback, and most importantly, I help build their confidence.

Meanwhile I’m continuing my black belt studies, both my own practice with such things as new forms and advanced self-defense, and also learning how to teach and coach other students. My instructor had been calling on me to help out since I was a bo dan, and now that I’m a black belt, the expectation is higher. At any moment I may be asked to help demonstrate a drill, teach a small group of students, referee a sparring match, coach students at a tournament, or do whatever else is needed. While it’s in the black belt’s job description, I also consider it my way of giving back to a community that’s been so supportive of me.

Is it possible to find a common thread between the leadership coaching I do during the day and the taekwondo student coaching I do in the evening? It’s one thing to scream, “Block and counter!” at a nine-year-old during a tournament sparring match and quite another to ask a physician what challenges she thinks she’ll face as she manages a high-profile hospital project with partners who are spread across a large metropolitan area…or are they more similar than I think?

In both instances I’m developing leaders (either future executives or future black belts). One of these days I know those in my care will have to go out on their own. Maybe they will someday be overseeing the opening and staffing of a new hospital, or maybe they will someday be overseeing other students in the dojang. I can’t fight their fights for them, whether in the sparring ring or in the boardroom, so I need to prepare them to branch out on their own.

I’ve identified some universal tenets we can use when developing leaders, regardless of age or level of skill:

1. Compassion. Everyone has vulnerabilities. A leader in charge of a half million dollar budget is under immense pressure, as is a child competing in her first taekwondo tournament. In either case I consider myself a caregiver and try to be sensitive to the individual needs of whomever I’m working with. You can push and stretch someone while still being kind and empathetic.

2. Listening and Observation. People need an objective gauge for how they’re doing. Focus, listening, and observation are crucial for giving meaningful feedback. I am using the same focus when I’m listening to a business client talk about their career goals as I am when I’m observing a taekwondo sparring match. I’m not waiting for a chance to speak and show off how smart I am. I’m focused on what they are telling me (and what they’re not telling me) and how I can help them based on my observation.

3. Customization. While you may choose to follow a standard coaching approach for multiple clients (or students), the individual needs and learning style of each client should be considered. I’m reminded of the categories in Dr. Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model. Some people need specific direction (“telling” or “directing”) while others benefit more from being guided to make their own decisions (“coaching” or “delegating”). In some instances, through inquiry and discovery, I can guide my client to make their own decisions about what they need to do to improve their performance. In other instances, say, with young children in a sparring match, I need to be more directive, scream something like, “Back kick!” or “Hands up!” and move on without explaining the “Why?” behind the motion.

4. That Extra Push. Think of coaching as tandem skydiving. It’s scary as hell, but you know you’re in the safe hands of an expert who has your best interests (and hopefully your safety) at heart. Many of us have made the most improvement when we’ve been pushed beyond our comfort zone. The encouraging words of a boss, teacher, family member, friend, or trusted coach can make all the difference. It’s a little scary to jump off the proverbial edge, but the payoff can be incredible. A good coach is willing to support a client or a student through every difficult step…and then shove them off the edge.

5. Praise! People of all ages respond to encouragement, and research has shown that performance improves when positive feedback is given more frequently and at a higher ratio than criticism…not that constructive criticism isn’t crucial, but constantly hearing, “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” and “You did that wrong” can make a person become weary and discouraged. Smiles, words of encouragement, acknowledgement, and even hugs can go a long way. Reward people when they do it right and kindly correct when they do it wrong. (Except in those instances where someone REALLY deserves push-ups.)