5 Simple Hacks to Becoming a Better CEO

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A leadership coach shares a few of the top tips from her work with tech startups and CEOs.

By Ellen Petry Leanse (Technology Strategist and Leadership Coach)

Low-hanging fruit can be the sweetest kind. I’m sharing five juicy morsels below: freshly picked from my work as a strategy advisor and leadership coach. You may recognize some of them: They’re the five habits or attitudes my female clients (I keep a 50/50 gender-balanced mix) consistently look to change.

Maybe one of them can be on your “fix it” list for 2015. And maybe you’ll share this list with a friend or family member. I’m working on several of them myself and trust me: The difference is worth the effort.

1. Move Beyond “Pleasing” and “Proving”

Wanting to “show how great we are” or “do what’s expected” is so ingrained in our behavior that we barely even notice it. But we all see it happening as anxiety and stress escalates in the work we do.

Getting rid of pleasing or proving behavior may not change what we do. The change rests in why or how we do it, and that’s a factor of what’s motivating us. If we’re doing it to impress someone or “be the best,” we’re likely trying to prove or please. Changing that motivation doesn’t mean reducing the quality of work.

When you feel that impulse to please or prove (a sense some anxiety, nervousness or “frenzy”...maybe you even visualize yourself turning over the project and being congratulated for it (then being disappointed if that doesn’t happen)), simply try this:

  1. Pause for a moment. Take a breath. Some people even like to hold their breath, only for a moment. This helps us be more aware.
  2. Sense where you “feel” that need to please or prove. In your head? More like your chest? In your gut? Maybe in a few places? Wherever you sense it, remind yourself that it isn’t real. It’s probably an old pattern that you didn’t even know you’d picked up. Again, simply be aware.
  3. Dial down the project (or idea, or problem) in your head. What’s the simplest, most uncomplicated way to complete or resolve it? I’m not saying you’re going to do that. Simply be aware of a baseline way to do it, without the elaborations or frenzy that proving or pleasing patterns often layer on.
  4. If you have a sense of humor, imagine the furthest expression of fanfare that proving or pleasing would deliver. Take it to the Nth degree. See if you can see any irony or even ridiculousness in that expression.
  5. Recalibrate. Visualize what you think would be the most successful, sustainable way to deliver the result you’re after.
  6. Breathe again. Smile at yourself, gently. How do you want to do the project so that your work speaks for itself – without depending on the approval or applause of an external party? If you do it for your OWN standards, you’re more likely to do your best, most sincere work.

2. Hack Your Language

This one is so obvious (but only once we’re aware of it). Become mindful of language habits that may limit your impact. Really, once we’re aware of these we quickly see the power of change.

  1. Lose the word “just.” It undermines so much of our communications impact. Read more about this here: Just Say No.”
  2. Get! Rid!! Of!!! The exclamation points!!! Save them for when you actually have something to exclaim. Otherwise, they whirr your messaging up into a frenzy and might make someone’s head explode. Really, you’re better off without them. Get the point?
  3. Watch the rising intonation. Read that. Then read this: “Watch the rising intonation?” Many of us end our sentences with a rise? At the end? We’ve all heard it. Pay careful attention to this one (practice with a friend) and you’ll quickly understand why it’s a habit we all want to break.

These three things alone will meaningfully improve your communications. As a bonus, consider learning to pause, only for a moment, before answering any questions (we’re so trained to be first and fastest… often to our detriment) AND see if you can lower your voice to a slightly lower register. Slowing down helps. This excellent TED Talk shares some easy-to-learn tips.

3. Learn When (and How) to Say “No”

Why do we all find this so hard to do? Maybe it’s a culture that celebrates “Yes!” as the right answer, the one that will make us live our lives fully. Yet in reality every “yes” is a “no” to something else: a tradeoff (which we may not consider when encouraged to say “Yes!” ). I love how entrepreneur Dharmesh Shah writes about “saying no” here. In another post, I share ways to know when to (and how to) say no.

4. Cut the Self-Judgement

In my coaching work, I’m continually astonished by how women – smart, accomplished people, admired for their impact – judge and criticize themselves. It’s insidious. They’ll begin sentences saying things like, “You may think this is stupid, but…”, “I know this sounds crazy, but…”, “Sorry to ask, but…”. And then they follow it with a perfectly intelligent, valid insight.

They’ll also go on and on about how much time they waste, how they felt like the only person who didn’t understand, how they procrastinate...and on and on.

WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?

I think a lot of it goes back to that proving and pleasing conditioning so many of us get, but let’s not take that on here. When you find yourself judging or criticizing yourself, or “apologizing in advance” as in the phrases above, do these three simple things.

  1. Take that breath again. Awareness. Slowing down. Always the first step.
  2. Be curious. Where did that self-judging habit come from? See if you can identify an early time where you felt cautious, or tentative… like you had to walk on eggshells before sharing your thoughts. Simply look at that. Shrug. Be grateful for the awareness. And move on.
  3. Repeat as needed, never getting frustrated with yourself. Habits take time to change. Feel good about yourself when you notice them changing, patient with yourself when they recur. Step by step. You’ll get there.

5. Be Yourself

There is one thing that you always can do better than anyone else: be YOU. The challenge is remembering what that feels like under all of the layers of expectations, behavior, conformity, and habit that we all learn from the time we’re small. Gaining confidence in your unique skills is a lifelong process – that’s part of what’s fun about it. But at any point in your life, here are some small things you can do to reconnect with that unique sparkle or shine that only you have.

  1. Go back to your earliest memory. It may be from around age five or six. If so, let the thoughts wander over a few days and see if you can come up with something earlier. Try to see it in your mind’s eye. What stands out? How does that memory reveal something unique about you? For example, my first memory is of watching snow fall in my childhood back yard, in Ohio, when I was about three. I remember our snow-covered driveway and garage off to the left, the frame of the window close to me, and the many layers of snow gently drifting down. All of my life I’ve liked seeing how different parts of one thing fit together. I think I remember this memory because it let me do that.
  2. Make a moodboard. Get a big stack of magazines or other images and start tearing things out that strike you. Glue them onto a posterboard and tell the story you see. Free yourself from perfectionism or thinking too much. Work fast and respond to what grabs you, intuitively or aesthetically. This is a great “friend” activity, by the way. Agree to a few ground rules (no judgement, total confidence, what happens on the mood board stays on the mood board) and invite a few friends. Moodboard party, anyone?
  3. Know your three adjectives. Find three words that express you, uniquely, you. Write them down somewhere. Wall Street executive (and professional gospel singer; wow) Carla Harris recommends this for the workplace, encouraging people to choose three adjectives for the impact or impression they wish to make. Great idea. But I like having three “secret” words, too, that are about the bigger picture of who I am and what I’m here to do in the world, authentically, even when I’m stretched in other directions. By the way, these words can evolve over time… but try to choose words that will last you a year or so, and then re-evaluate up the road.

Anything here look worth a bite? If so, go right ahead. And let me know what you think. I’ll answer any questions in comments below or if you tweet them to me at @chep2m.


About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2m) works at the crossroads of technology, positive psychology, and design thinking. An alum of early Apple, Google, and a several entrepreneurial ventures, she has worked with innovators around the world and always comes home to a simple, human truth: we are all part of something bigger. Her Stanford class on Innovation is among the school’s highest-rated Continuing Studies courses, and will soon be offered online. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @chep2m for updates.