Great CEOs are great learners, with a thirst for knowledge and ideas that they continually apply to their jobs. The challenge is finding time to learn and improve your skills. It can be done. Professionals who strive for the CEO chair someday or simply to be great in their chosen endeavors should build continuous improvement into their work routines as early in their careers as possible.
Here are 12 tips for professional development that I recommend to current and aspiring CEOs, which apply to all leaders.* After all, if CEOs can find the will and time to do it, so can you!
1. Commit to self-improvement: CEOs often cite lack of time as the reason they avoid continuous learning. Those who do make time are often the most successful, because they have learned to balance their responsibilities. They also realize they always have more to learn, no matter how successful they are. Hubris can limit many promising leaders who feel they know everything already. That’s a sure way to stagnation.
It is critical to your long-term success to set aside at least a few hours every month for self-development. On a daily basis, incorporate as many of the following tips into your routine as possible.
2. Read regularly: In an interview with the McKinsey Quarterly, Tom Peters said: “I was at a dinner party recently with a guy who’s probably one of the top ten finance people in the world. At one point he said, ‘Do you know what the biggest problem is with big-company CEOs? They don’t read enough.’”
Reading helps leaders of all kinds be innovative and stay one step ahead of the market. If you haven’t already, develop a reading habit. Seek out time to read whenever and wherever you can. Your reading list doesn’t have to be limited to business books. CEO.com recently examined the reading habits of CEOs such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Hsieh, Elon Musk, and Meg Whitman, and found that many read everything from history to fiction to biography.
3. Attend training and development programs: There are some skills and knowledge that you cannot glean from books alone. Even Fortune 500 CEOs can benefit from training and development sessions in everything from communication skills to new technologies. These programs get you out of your bubble and force you to focus on skills and expertise specific to your job. There are sometimes valuable networking opportunities during these sessions as well. Those who believe they don’t have the time to take a training course are not doing their jobs properly.
4. Write regularly: Regular writing helps you improve the skill, share your expertise with others, and clarify your thoughts for future benefit. There are more forums for expressing yourself than ever: articles, blog posts, online forums, etc. Even if you are still developing your expertise, you can write about what you know. Chances are you have a perspective that will benefit someone else. The feedback you receive may help you become a better professional as well. The visibility may also help build awareness for your expertise in your field.
5. Scrutinize your decisions: Quick decision-making is vital to keeping an organization going, but leaders should take the time to do a postmortem on important decisions – those that could have a significant impact on your performance and/or the business. You or someone you designate should actively look for evidence that could prove you were wrong. This willingness to examine past actions for ways to improve distinguishes great leaders from mediocre ones and allows them to provide leadership in their companies for the long haul.
6. Network with peers: Leaders need to network with others who are experiencing the same responsibilities and challenges. Seek out professionals in your community. Establish relationships with the other leaders in your industry. Networking with contemporaries outside your industry can be valuable as well. In fact, speaking with professionals in other industries can give you some creative ideas you may not have been exposed to otherwise.
7. Teach what you learn: There is no better way to deepen your own knowledge of a subject than teaching it to someone else. It makes you think through the material in a different way. Take advantage of opportunities to share what you know with others both inside and outside your company. This will help you improve your presentation skills as well. Take it from me: You may learn as much or more from your “students” than they learn from you.
8. Develop self-awareness: Self-awareness skills are critical to leading effectively. Knowing how you think and react in different situations is extremely valuable. Strive to continuously improve in areas such as emotional intelligence, which is how well you read others and gauge their motivations. There are many different self-assessments tools available – from Myers-Briggs to Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton’s strengths-based assessment. Many firms specialize in this area and may offer a free interpretation of your results.
9. Solicit objective feedback: If you are not getting enough feedback about your performance through your company’s formal channels, seek it out in other ways. This can be as simple as asking your supervisors and subordinates. Develop a close relationship with a couple of people in the company you trust to tell you the truth as they see it. There are also surveys you can ask your subordinates to fill out about your strengths and weaknesses, such as those in “The 2R Manager” by Peter Friedes. Dr. Tasha Eurich has an “Organizational Leadership Assessment” on the Web site for her book “Bankable Leadership” that could be insightful.
It is critical, if you want honest feedback, to find a way to guarantee that the responses are confidential. You might consider using an online survey tool that can be set up to make all responses anonymous. You could also give the responsibility of administering the survey to another person in the organization, such as someone in human resources.
10. Seek out mentors: Professionals at all levels can benefit greatly from a mentor or coach. They will share expertise, knowledge, and impartial feedback that you might not obtain on the job. Seek out someone who has walked in your shoes and will tell you the unvarnished truth while sharing his or her own experiences. The experience may also help you become a trusted mentor to someone else in the future.
11. Apply your knowledge: Learning without application can soon become useless. As soon as you learn a new skill or hear about a great idea from one of your sources, try to put it in action. Teach your team the concept so you all can use implement it together. Train your team to expect new ideas on a regular basis.
12. Focus on the skills and experience you will need in the future: If you have a set career path, chances are you know what skills and expertise you are going to need down the line. The question is: Are these areas you can start preparing for today? In a recent Khorus blog post titled “4 Reading Topics That Make You a More Successful CEO,” I wrote about some of the top disciplines and areas of study I recommend for current and aspiring CEOs, including game theory, history, and team building.
While some of these tips may seem obvious, the real trick is building time into your day to actually do them. It is an investment well worth making in yourself and your company. Great CEOs know this and make time for self-improvement, and professionals who strive to be great should do the same.
*Some of the tips on this list are adapted from the book “Activating Your Ambition: A Guide to Coaching the Best Out of Yourself and Others,” by Mike Hawkins.