The Behaviors that Define A-Players

This research reported by Jack Zenger in the Harvard Business Review reinforces what we all know deep down are the traits that separate the competent from the exceptional individual performer.

The leadership skills identified are as follows.

Exceptional individuals :

Set ‘stretch’ goals and adopt high standards for themselves
Work collaboratively
Volunteer to represent their group
Embrace change rather than resisting it
Take the initiative
Walk the talk
Use good judgement
Display personal resilience
Give honest feedback.

It’s not a long read: The Behaviors that Define A-Players –

Missing the obvious

I was reminded recently of an occasion when I was talking to a colleague about swimming and she told me she couldn’t swim well because she couldn’t get her breath properly. She said she was going to get some lessons.

Over the following weekend, she went swimming with her young children who swim like waterbabies and asked one of them how you should breathe when you’re swimming. “You breathe out under water” was the answer. “But how?” she asked? “You blow bubbles through your nose.” said her son. Sudden blinding enlightenment! All her life she’d taken a breath, swum a stroke, lifted her head, breathed out and in again quickly and then taken the next stroke.

Now to you it may seem obvious that you breathe in when your face is out of the water and out when your face is in the water, but it wasn’t to her – until that moment. For me, the lesson is that we all have blind spots and it pays to be open to new learning from all sources. And it isn’t necessarily people older than you who have the wisdom or knowledge to help you move on.

And for anyone for whom it wasn’t obvious – now you know!

Deconstructing executive presence

How you present yourself, consciously or unconsciously, can make all the difference to how seriously your point of view is considered at work. More to the point, the impact of the image you project can determine how your career progresses and how your are seen and respected as a leader. Although this HBR article is about business, there are many similarities in modern higher education.

Deconstructing Executive Presence –

Managing difficult conversations

I’m frequently asked how best to deal with the hard conversations needed to address issues such as poor performance and unacceptable or thoughtless behavior.

One of the best frameworks I’ve come across is this one from Susan Scott’s book, “Fierce Conversations”. Details are in the Useful reading section.

She suggests the following as the components of your opening statement, a statement you should be able to make clearly and lucidly in under a minute.

1 Name the issue

2 Select a specific example (with day and time if possible) that illustrates the behaviour you want to change.

3 Describe your feelings about this issue – if it has disappointed you or made you angry, say so.

4 Clarify what is at stake. The words ‘ at stake’ are very powerful.

5 Acknowledge your personal contribution to this issue. Have you ignored it or let it pass without challenge in the past?

6 Indicate your wish to resolve the issue

Note that there is no preliminary sweetener in here, no “Thanks for this, but…”.  Practice what you are going to say and practice it out loud. Doing it in your head isn’t good enough. It’s a bit like trying on a new jacket – you have to feel comfortable with it.

7 Ask the other person to respond.

Keep quiet, listen carefully and absorb what they say. Something along the lines of a question Susan Scott suggests, “I want to understand what’s happening from your perspective” should elicit a positive response, but keep them to the behaviour and don’t let them deflect you with excuses or get into personalities.

This should give you a basis on which to proceed to a point where you can agree actions to change. Once you have identified the necessary actions, be sure to agree them and put a time frame on them. Decide when you will follow up with the person, agree a date and time and stick to it.

Good luck!

Acting “as if…”

My grandfather, a profound influence on my life, though I’m only now beginning to realise it fully, used to tell me when I had to do something that scared me – read a poem in front of my school class for instance – “All you need to do is act as if you were enjoying yourself and you won’t be scared any more”. And I’d read the poem out loud as a rehearsal, which wasn’t so bad, and then read it to him again, this time pretending I was enjoying it, and it actually worked. I felt better about it and he said it sounded better and when I stood up in class that felt better too.

This isn’t a new concept, but is one we often forget to apply in everyday life. One of the earliest references to the idea I can find comes from William James, the nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist, who said “We need only in cold blood ACT as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real.”

As you make the transition into senior management, walking the walk and talking the talk – consistently – is vitally important, so that those who depend on you to lead them can have confidence in you. Whilst you may not always feel a hundred percent confident, acting “as if” you were, can go a long way in helping you to convey the right impression.

And the next time you’re sitting slumped at your desk in a dismal mood ponder not only on that thought, but this further quotation from William James:

“Whistling to keep up courage is no mere figure of speech.  On the other hand, sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers.  There is no more valuable precept in moral education than this, as all who have experience know: if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate.

“The reward of persistency will infallibly come, in the fading out of the sullenness or depression, and the advent of real cheerfulness and kindliness in their stead.  Smooth the brow, brighten the eye, contract the dorsal rather than the ventral aspect of the frame, and speak in a major key, pass the genial compliment, and your heart must be frigid indeed if it does not gradually thaw!”

(William James, ‘What is an emotion?’, Mind, 9, 1884: 198)


You can read more about William James here: