This post by Dorie Clark first appeared at Forbes.
How do you become a better leader? How can you enjoy more work-life balance? How can you advance up the ranks faster? Those are the questions New York-based executive coach Alisa Cohn addresses every day with her clients. Cohn, whom I profiled in my book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, recently offered five insights that professionals can use today to help enhance their careers and their lives.
The Single Best Investment in Your Career. What’s the #1 way to improve your professional success? “Learn to have conversations that are direct and respectful and that drive positive change, rather than cause defensiveness,” says Cohn. “We aren’t really taught this in school, and it’s a hard skill to learn, but it’s the single best investment you can make in your career. It will help you be exponentially better in attracting and retaining talent, and inspiring people to give their best.”
The Difference Between Hard Skills and Soft Skills. You need to cultivate both hard and soft skills, says Cohn, but they each fulfill a different role in your professional life. “Hard skills earn you the credibility to rise through the ranks. But as soon as you get into the ranks of senior management, your hard skills fade into the background as tools for success – soft skills – take over.” And the key to developing these soft skills, she says, is “you have to work to be open – to realize you don’t know everything, to embrace [the idea] that those around you have something to contribute, maybe even people you don’t know. The more open you are, the more you will learn.”
You Probably Have No Idea How You’re Viewed By Others. The first step in working with an executive coach is usually having them conduct a “360 degree interview,” in which they speak with your boss, peers, and subordinates to develop a full picture of how others see you. There’s a reason for that, says Cohn. “Most executives – most people, really – have no idea how they are perceived. They have a movie in their head that tells them what is going on, but the movie that everyone sees around them is really quite different,” she says. “I work with a CEO who is a lovely guy – very warm, very caring, at times even goofy. However, because he is the CEO, and because he has a reserved exterior, people see him as intimidating. When we discovered this, he was absolutely shocked – he thinks of himself as a pushover, not intimidating. So that was a major revelation to him and he had to change his behavior so that his intention matched his impact.”
The Real Secret to Productivity. You can’t be productive if you don’t know what work truly matters, says Cohn. “Force yourself to sit down and define what meaningful work is, and then schedule time proactively to do it,” she says. “Divide it up into action steps and milestones, set goals and measure your progress. Most of what we do in our day is reactive; by defining in advance what you want to do and finding time to do it, you will automatically make more progress in getting the real stuff done.”
What To Do When You’re Not Having Enough Fun. Most top executives are extremely busy – but that’s no excuse to lead a one-dimensional life. Cohn’s own solution, as a time-pressed entrepreneur, is “I try to make friends with people who like to have fun, and then I can tag along with their fun plans.” She also suggests putting “time on the calendar to recharge,” which protects it from encroachment by the constant demands of work.
What are your favorite insights about life in the professional world? What have you found to be particularly surprising, or helpful to your career?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.