How to Take Personal Development Off the Backburner — Tactical Frameworks for Leveling Up
People & Culture

How to Take Personal Development Off the Backburner — Tactical Frameworks for Leveling Up

Building better teams and companies starts with working on yourself. But for startup leaders, making time for personal development is usually last on the list. Here's a collection of tactical tips from the Review archives for getting started.

We’ve long believed that building better teams and companies starts with working on yourself. But for founders and startup leaders, making time for that self-work is often last on the list — especially these days. At a time when interactions with the outside world have shrunk dramatically, it’s natural to feel increasingly untethered and overwhelmed by all of the uncertainty.

A theme we’ve noticed in our last several pieces here on the Review is that it’s important to push back against these feelings by setting aside the time for critical reflection. Whether it’s an introduction to the concept of emotional fitness, a guide for managers leading their employees through a crisis, or our most recent article on building a vulnerable culture where you can truly be yourself at work, we’ve found time and time again the importance of tapping into that inner voice of strength and resilience. That work hinges on a resolve to deeply introspect about where you’ve been, where you’re headed and how you can seek self-improvement, even in the midst of stormy weather.

But it’s hard to know exactly how to approach this vital work. Often, personal development and self-improvement gets lumped together under the umbrella of “self-care.” But we think there’s an important distinction to make here. We like to think of self-care as the practice of harnessing healthy habits that boost your productivity and give you a competitive edge. Personal development strikes us as more expansive — the ongoing work to uplevel yourself in pursuit of learning and creeping ever closer towards those ambitious goals. It’s about understanding your triggers, unblocking what might be standing in your way, and taking on the steady, day-in-day-out work that will make you a better leader, teammate and overall more pleasant human to be around.

Yet even with this more specific framing, discussions about personal growth often get hacky and high-level, fast. Diving into the world of frameworks, self-help books, and aspirational advice, you’re likely to encounter your fair share of LinkedIn’s “broetry” posts or quotes on Instagram that are more bumper-sticker slogans than tactical pointers. Figuring out what will actually steer you in the right direction and help you make incremental progress often seems like a daunting task.

That’s why we've combed through the archives of the Review, reaching back beyond our most recent articles to find some of the best low-lift ideas for integrating areas of personal development into your daily routine. Grounded in tactics that you can weave into your everyday, this roundup of must-reads includes both the more nuanced pointers that you might be missing and the simple truths that are tough to actually put into practice.

Our hope is that you can use these targeted tips to unravel the habits you want to leave behind and lay the foundations for the ones you have yet to build. Whether you’re looking to become a more inspiring communicator, get better at embracing criticism, beat back burnout or just feel more prepared to tackle your to-do list with aplomb, the experts we’ve interviewed over the years have shared their personal playbooks for doing exactly that.

There’s a thicket of self-help and managerial advice out there — and by no means do we present this as a comprehensive list. Think of this as a starting block to integrating more aspects of personal development into your day-to-day routine — not just to get through the next few months, but to embark on a long-term commitment to making time for your own learning. Let’s dive in.

1. Why the ‘It,’ the ‘We’ and the ‘I’ are the most essential items on your to-do list.

As an executive coach for two decades, Chris Holmberg has worked with leaders from tiny startups and multinational corporations alike. While it may seem like this work requires some secret sauce or magic leadership formula for building rocketship teams or tripling ROI, Holmberg likes to think of it as building mindsets that can handle anything. Holmberg is a firm believer that coaching is about looking beyond solving short-term problems and instead training people to uncover their own self-limiting mental habits, because only then is true, long-term transformation possible.

If you’re not working with a coach, you can tackle this work on your own, starting with a simple daily practice — regularly reviewing your behavior and interactions to identify how and when you’re standing in your own way. But this doesn’t have to be a pie-in-the-sky, impractical exercise. Holmberg’s prescription is shockingly low-lift. “Spend 15 minutes a day in reflection — true reflection, in a quiet space, with your inbox closed. Take these 15 minutes to review the events of the previous day and make plans for the one coming up,” he says. “Whether it’s taking a look at your calendar to prepare for what’s coming up or jotting down a few notes, ground yourself in the ritual of being mindful of successes, missteps and opportunities for growth.”

To really level up, Holmberg suggests running the same exercise for an hour at the end of every week, reflecting on the past week more thoroughly and considering the challenges and opportunities of the week to come.

To a busy leader, these two hours and 15 minutes every week might seem to be too high of a price to pay. But swamped and overwhelmed leaders — especially those who recently made the leap from IC to manager — can’t afford to skip over this type of reflection. “Under pressure, we all revert to the things we know and feel comfortable with. These moments of reflection are your chance to review and gradually shift your mental models to leading, not just executing,” says Holmberg.

Startup leaders can’t afford to have low learning efficiency. They must milk each experience for maximum learning. Reflection is the key to accelerating your learning.

But even if you’re ready and willing to spend the time boosting your mindfulness, very few people know where to begin. As a jumping off point, Holmberg suggests using this framework to make these minutes really count: “Integral theory encourages you to look at the world through the lenses of the ‘It’ the ‘We’ and the ‘I.’ The It refers to your tasks and your role at work: Your goals, achievements and the stuff you’re getting done. The We is about your relationships, the quality of your interactions — which too few people think about. And the I is about the attitudes and energy you personally bring to the table every day,” he says.

Here’s how he encourages his clients to reflect on these three pillars each day:

  • The It: Did you execute your work that you had on your to-do list — the emails you wanted to write, that strategy document you owed your boss? Then, establish the tasks you intend to accomplish the next day and an agenda for reaching those goals.
  • The We: Did you add value to the lives of the people you interacted with? Did they walk away with more knowledge, energy, goodwill, or a better understanding? Holmberg is quick to clarify one point here: “It’s not asking whether you made people happy. That’s not always the goal. You want to make sure you communicated clearly in a way that added value for them and met goals for you,” he says. Anticipate any upcoming challenging interactions and think about how you want to show up to that conversation. Set an intention for how you’d like to respond to possible triggers.
  • The I: How did you manage your own energy and mood? “Self-care practices like working out, eating well and sleeping enough are just as important as anything you do in the office. However, those are often the things most leaders drop first, yet the “I” pillar is the foundation of leadership. You can’t help others if you deplete yourself,” says Holmberg. Consider how you can set yourself up to make good choices throughout the day and establish what might cause you to step off track.

Perhaps you already have some sort of daily practice to review “the It” — checking off your to-do list and accomplishments for the day. Using this template can take that surface-level audit a few layers deeper. “What’s the goal of the 15-minute practice? Consciously reflecting on the events of your day, using those observations to construct learnings and applying those learnings to the next iteration tomorrow,” says Holmberg

Startup execs commonly become overly focused on the “It” and moving forward at the expense of the “We” and the “I.”

Read more of Holmberg’s tips for sidestepping common leadership traps.

2. Lean on this prioritization matrix to beat burnout before it sets in.

There’s no shortage of advice about managing burnout, with often easier-said-than-done tips like “Take a vacation!” or “Stop checking email after dinnertime.” But right now, with virtually no separation of work and home life, and no fun vacations on the horizon, these common suggestions seem even further out of reach — and the risk for burnout has shot through the roof as a result. Startup founders and leaders might find themselves enveloped in the short-term thinking of, “I just need to get through the next two weeks, or the next month,” instead of trying to focus on more sustainable, long-term solutions.

Creating better boundaries at work and recognizing burnout takes skill — one that most of us could stand to improve on. It’s a lesson Roli Saxena learned the hard way. Saxena came up through the ranks at LinkedIn, overseeing its largest North American sales division. She was used to having too much on her plate — but even the most seasoned, multitasking executives have their limits.

“I still remember this one time early on at LinkedIn, when my team had grown from under 10 to 200 globally in the previous two years,” says the current Chief Customer Officer at Brex. “I remember seeing our senior vice president — who I was actually really good friends with — walking down the hall toward me, and I actually hid in the bathroom, thinking, ‘Holy shit, I haven’t looked at email for the last 2 hours, what if he asks me about something and I have no idea?’”

Even then, she didn’t realize she was in burnout. All she knew is she couldn’t have that conversation. “Different people manifest burnout in different ways, but I think for all of us, it’s some variety of a shutdown,” she says. “Parts of your personality start to contract. Your range of expression shrinks. Your world view narrows.”

Burnout is not just thinking, “I’m too tired…” It’s the inability to think creatively.

Now, Saxena has identified two of her common signals that she’s approaching burnout. Maybe these resonate with you, too:

  • Overcommitment: “It’s not just having too much to do, it’s having committed to doing more than you know you have time for. It’s committing to things you know at the time you won’t be able to get to, but another voice in your head says, ‘I’ll make it work somehow.’”
  • Disengagement: “I stop laughing, smiling and enjoying humor,” Saxena says. “Someone will say something really funny, but I just can’t. I can’t respond. I feel like a lot of people know this feeling.”

To help stop burnout in its tracks before she gets to the hide-in-the-bathroom stage, Saxena now comes equipped with tools to handle stress. The overarching theme: “Do fewer things, but do them extremely well.”

The Prioritization Matrix

All of the projects and activities on your plate have value — an impact they are ideally making for the company. This can be seriously quantitative (like active users gained) or softer (more positive sentiment on Twitter, for example). They also all have a likelihood of success. Some will yield easier wins. Others will be hard-won. Using this attributes, you can plot all your projects on this two-by-two matrix:

prioritization matrix

This is a framework executives at LinkedIn used all the time, and now, as Saxena puts it, “Everything in my life revolves around this.” She turns to it regularly to decide how to handle various tasks ahead of her.

  • Quadrant 1: Tough important stuff, requiring creative strategic thinking (where you as a leader should spend your time).
  • Quadrant 2: High yield, more straightforward projects. This is your home run quadrant. You can outsource this stuff to your highest performers as stretch goals that will be super empowering when they work out.
  • Quadrant 3: Low value, low likelihood of success. This stuff should get nixed. Maybe it’s a meeting you don’t need to have, or emails that don’t merit a reply, a coffee meeting with someone less relevant to you or the company. When you’re busy, it’s the first to go.
  • Quadrant 4: Low value, high likelihood of success. These are your housekeeping tasks. Activities in this quadrant might be best delegated or done at the end of the day.

“Let’s say we’re thinking of launching a new project that would have a really high impact for the business, but we’re really early in the process and the positioning will be tough. That belongs in quadrant 1 because it’s super valuable but unlikely to succeed in its current form,” she says. “Then there’s something like our leadership training program for new managers. The value of investing in them is really high, and the likelihood of running a good program is high if we put in the time, so that goes in quadrant 2.”

Once Saxena has mapped out all her projects on the matrix, she starts making decisions. She immediately drops and cancels anything that fell into Quadrant 3. Then she moves on to Quadrant 4, surveys her team, looks for steady junior people who would relish the opportunity to learn and help out with more, and assigns them the housekeeping tasks.

She’ll outsource anything in Quadrant 2 to the highest performers on the team after doing what she can to set them up for success. The important thing is to be available to answer any questions or provide input when necessary, but for the most part, you can let others run the ball on these tasks if you’re a team leader. If you have no one to delegate to, then maybe you allocate less time to these items.

Then there’s Quadrant 1 — the really hard stuff that needs to get done to make your business great. Usually it requires a lot of deep thought, collaboration, revision, and problem-solving. If you’re a leader, this is where your focus should live. This is where you have more context than anyone else and can have a major impact on the company yourself.

“Anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed, just draw it out. It’s therapeutic, and will give you a much clearer sense of your options and what’s truly important,” Saxena says. “When you’re a manager, especially, you can fall into this pattern of feeling like your time belongs to your team and you should never say no or be unavailable — this is not the case. It’s a mental exercise, once you’re headed into burnout, to beat back those thoughts that you can’t possibly take a break, and just repeat to yourself, ‘No, I actually can,’” she says. “It requires mental rewiring that can only come from repetitive correction.”

Read more of Saxena’s for proactively steering clear of burnout.

3. Get better at making your case with these two meta models.

Plenty of folks make personal development goals to become a better speaker or communicator — whether that’s on a big keynote stage or in the meeting room. Often driven by feedback from annual performance reviews, people sign up for Toastmasters, throw their hat in the ring to speak at conferences and look for more executive facetime opportunities. But Khalid Halim, founder of coaching company Reboot — encourages you to think deeper, beyond getting more comfortable using your own voice. “Communication is not just about what you say, it’s about the reaction it causes in the listener. Often we think delivering a message is enough without checking to see if it was actually received,” says Halim.

Reboot's Khalid Halim
Reboot's Khalid Halim

As a sought-after professional coach and former turnaround CEO, Halim specializes in untangling complex communications to help organizations move faster and more aligned. His unique approach draws on work with Carl Buchheit of NLPMarin and expertise in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) to reform the way leaders communicate with their teams — and vice versa. Here, he dissects two meta models that have proven to be especially effective for the leaders he’s coached.

For our purposes here, meta models are helpful tools for classifying individuals in broad categories that enable you to better understand what makes them tick. The meta models Halim outlines categorize motivational traits (how a person triggers or loses interest), as well as working traits (how a person treats information) that he most frequently shares with his clients. For each meta model, there is typically a question that can help you determine which type of person someone may be. Before you deliver that next big piece of news to your boss or your colleague, consider these meta models to hone your message and avoid getting lost in translation.

A rare leader is someone who can communicate and resonate with all their people. That takes conscious change — an awareness and radical self-inquiry. Only then do great leaders get that it’s not about what's being said, but what’s heard.

Toward vs. away from.

This particular meta model determines motivational direction — specifically whether a person is predisposed to focus on goals to be achieved or problems to avoid. Here’s the individual breakdown.

  • “Toward” people are motivated to achieve and attain goals. They have trouble recognizing problems, and are adept at managing priorities. They frequently use words such as “gain,” “obtain,” and “achieve.”
  • “Away from” people are motivated to solve problems. They focus on what may be going wrong. They frequently use words such as “avoid,” “steer clear of,” or “exclude.”

Halim gave an example of this dichotomy in action while he was coaching a frustrated CFO. “He had told the CEO that the company needed to cut 10% of the burn or would need to lay off some staff. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting through to the CEO,” says Halim. He encouraged the CFO to articulate what the company gets out of reducing the burn instead of the negative consequences of not doing so. The CEO began to reconsider the proposal.

“The reality was the same, except the CFO spoke initially of moving away from a full budget instead of toward more runway. CEOs don’t tend to be ‘away from’ people. They move toward the future,” says Halim.

Halim deploys one particular silver-bullet question to unearth someone’s subconscious motivating factors. “To decode ‘toward’ versus ‘away from’ people, ask the following: 'Why is that criteria so important?' Ask it up to three times to get to the heart of whether a person is moving toward that criteria or away from it,” he says.

Any action can be described as moving away from something or moving towards another. Like a glass half full or empty, how you see that movement has ramifications.

Specific vs. general.

This meta model is about scope, and informs the working environment people need to be most productive. Here’s how individuals who are either specific or general in scope can be identified.

  • Specific people operate with details and sequences. They cannot see the overview. They say “exactly,” “specifically,” and supply details and chronology.
  • General people focus on the overview or big picture. If they handle details, it’s for short periods. The language they use includes “essentially,” “the important thing is,” and “in general.”

Every great team needs a mix of more specific-minded people and big-picture folks. But how these different types of people work together can cause clashes, like Halim’s experience with a CMO client who was crossing wires with the CEO. “Naturally, the CMO is about narrative, story and writing full accounts of her work. She would send a long, thorough email and receive a response from the CEO in terse bullet points. She was convinced the CEO was angry at her, as she put her heart on paper and got back three bullet points,” he says. “The CMO was a ‘specific’ profile, while the CEO was a ‘general’ type.”

There’s no particular “silver bullet” question to decode specific or general people, but analyzing past written and verbal correspondence is a strong leading indicator.

Read more about the science of speaking and the art of being heard according to Halim.

4. Repair and strengthen relationships with this trust equation.

Whether you’re at a brand-new, fledgling startup or one of thousands of employees, doing your work (and doing it well) relies on relationships. It’s well understood that relationships are at the root of networking and getting ahead in your career. Yet, while people often have personal development goals around career-advancement or becoming a better networker, they often overlook just how critical it is to build trust when forging these relationships.

So when you’re not getting along with your boss, your direct report, or your colleague, Anne Raimondi, Chief Customer Officer at Guru, has a remarkably simple explanation: You don’t trust each other. Raimondi had this revelation when she was stumped that two of her direct-reports weren’t getting along. Not only were they disagreeing and quibbling with each other, ultimately it was having a negative impact on her entire team’s progress towards its goals. It was a simple yet profound discovery, which brought to mind a book she had read years prior called The Trust Equation. The eponymous equation is broken down like this:

Trust= credibility + reliability + authenticity / perception of self interest

To expand a bit — essentially, the amount you trust someone is the sum of how credible you believe they are on a subject, how reliable they’ve proven themselves to be over time, and how authentic you think they are as a person, divided by how much you think they’re acting in their own self interest. Let’s dive into the key variables of the trust equation.

  • Credibility: You’ll find someone credible if they seem to have the knowledge, experience and familiarity to perform a particular role well. It’s best indicated by past roles, lessons learned and the insights they offer. There are many different stumbling blocks for credibility, but a common one includes whenever anyone is doing something they’ve never done before, or figuring out something unprecedented.
  • Reliability: You’ll find someone reliable if they do what they say they’re going to do. You feel like anything you assign them is as good as done. They hold themselves accountable for things when they go well and when they go wrong. At large companies, there’s often more of a buffer for reliability, and there are more people to catch you when you fall and pick up the slack. On small teams, that’s not typically the case.
  • Authenticity: This is a nebulous term, and is often overthought. What it really means in practice is: How easy is it to get to know the person? Is it clear what they care about, what matters to them and what motivates them? Authentic people don’t need to always be polished, or know the answer, or be perfect. They do and say what they mean.
  • Perception of self interest: Does someone seem to be acting only for themselves? Maybe it’s to get credit, to look good, to make more money, or get more headcount. Note that this variable is more about optics. The greater the perception of self interest, the lower the trust between people. Alternatively, the more someone appears to be doing work for the benefit of the team, end user, or a higher goal, the easier it is to trust them.

So if you feel like something is off between you and a colleague, you and a manager, or you and a direct report — stop what you’re doing. Sit down, put yourself in the shoes of the other person, and take the time to think about each variable described above.

  • Are you miffed that they’ve missed deadlines and now feel like you need to micro-manage to stay on track?
  • Does your coworker seem to take credit for work that was a team effort?
  • Conversely, is your colleague doubting your credibility after taking on a new team?
  • Are you getting feedback that you’re not sharing enough about problems and only want to highlight achievements?

Reflect what’s really at the heart of the problem, then open up a (gentle) conversation to address these blocks. “When you realize something is blocking you from working well with another person, the first step is to recognize how important the relationship is to you,” says Raimondi. “Inventory all the ways you might be able to work positively together to get more done. Imagine working with the person for the next 5-10 years. What time and energy might be wasted? This will ensure you’re going into the talk with the right priorities and perspective. Then identify which variable in the equation you want to focus your talk around to limit the scope.”

Here’s an example: "Hey there, I wanted to chat because I've felt our dynamic shift a bit recently. Recently, when X happened, it had Y impact on me. Our relationship is very important to me, so I'd love to understand your experience and understand what to do differently in the future, because I think we can accomplish amazing things together.

Guru's Anne Raimondi
Guru's Anne Raimondi

Looking at her colleagues' damaged relationship through this trust equation lens, Raimondi helped them diagnose when and how trust had eroded, and eventually work with them to heal the rift. Understanding complex, shifting relationship dynamics can seem like a tall order that requires a psychology degree in your back pocket. But by breaking these relationships into a simple equation, you can begin to dig further into the underlying challenges that are bubbling up to the surface and find a path forward.

The thing about trust is that it’s so fundamental that it’s often overlooked as the issue at hand. If you’re able to train yourself to see how important it is in every interaction, that’s a big advantage.

Read more about Raimondi’s first-person experience diagnosing and repairing broken trust.

5. Focus on the past, present and future of your career with these three prompts.

Whether it’s creating career development frameworks at Google, serving as a Company Commander in the Marine Corps overseeing 175 Marines, co-founding Candor, Inc., or in his current role as Chief People Officer at Qualtrics, Russ Laraway has long been a star in the talent business. The battlefield may look about as different from a board room as you can get, but Laraway’s leadership philosophy and guiding north star has remained steadfast — to treat talent development as his most important job.

As a manager, you’re hopefully focused on the trajectory of your direct reports’ careers and how you can help them develop into better leaders and contributors. But too often leaders fail to apply a similar wider-range lens to their own career arcs, letting their personal development simmer on the backburner. We’re taking Laraway’s framework (originally intended to guide these critical conversations with direct reports) and flipping it around so that you can engage in a meaningful check-in with yourself.

Before diving in to analyzing your career and where you’d like it to go, Laraway cautions to look out for two common pitfalls.

  • This is not the time to improvise. People sometimes approach career planning in a start-and-stop, half-baked way. “We plan a lot of things. We plan our families, plan our weekends, plan our vacations and plan our meals,” says Laraway. “It’s a little crazy to me that we don’t often put a lot of energy, intentionality, or conscientiousness toward our careers. We need to put a little more structure around that.”
  • Thinking too small. Laraway has also seen plenty of folks hyper-focusing on the next step up in their career, rather than the broader arc. “A lot of times when we think about career, we’re a broken record, stuck on: what's next, what's next, what's next. People are hungry to know what their next job will be, or when that next promotion is coming. Promotions, at their best, represent an incremental increase in scope and growth. At their worst, they’re nothing more than a title and comp change, a nice formal recognition for a job well done” he says. These incremental steps towards broadening your scope or role are important, but don’t ignore what’s on the horizon by fixating on what’s directly in front of you. “You need both an 18-month plan and a long-term vision,” he says.

Don’t start hunting for your next great role just yet though— Laraway presents the following framework for developing a career action plan that invests in your long-term growth beyond the next near-term opportunity. With his three-step process, you can surface the key stepping stones of your path: your past, present and future, and how they all blend together.

It’s hard to keep books upright without bookends. You must understand your past and future to know how to order the present.

1. To contextualize the past, become your own Barbara Walters.

In his Review article, Laraway made a strong case for starting career conversations with an unconventional phrase: “Starting with kindergarten, tell me about your life.” Paired with thoughtful follow-up questions, he’s seen firsthand how this cuts to the heart of what motivates a particular individual.

Laraway employed this tactic with a report who had mentioned switching from cheerleading to swimming as a kid. “When I asked what prompted that decision, she said, ‘When we worked hard and spent a lot of time in that pool, we had tangible outcomes on the backend — we reduced our times.’ This emphasis on concrete results pointed us more clearly to what has brought her to this point in her career and what will fulfill her moving forward,” says Laraway.

You don’t need another person to retrace the steps of your own life and uncover patterns that point towards your motivations. Journal about some of the decisions — large and small — that have made incremental impacts on your life. Think through what follow-up questions your own personal Barbara Walters might ask to dig a bit deeper. Try to identify patterns that shine a light on what drives you, both in and out of the office.

2. Think longer-term by spotting your lighthouse.

Articulating a clear vision for your future role is a critical step in career planning. But before you roll your eyes — this is not about answering the dreaded “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question, which seems even more impossible to consider these days.

“The idea is to start to talk about your dreams, or three to five of them if you don’t really want to commit to one idea. None of it should be time-bound — no ten-year plans. Ask yourself what you would be doing at the pinnacle of your career — when you’re feeling challenged, engaged and not wanting anything else,” says Laraway.

This starts to piece together the hazy lighthouse far in the distance. Your goal is to bring that lighthouse into clearer focus with these three follow-up questions:

  • What size company do you imagine working for?
  • What industry do you want to be in?
  • Do you want to be in a very senior individual contributor type role or very senior management type role?

If through these reflections you uncover that you’re excited by the idea of being an entrepreneur — and meanwhile you’re at a large enterprise company — that doesn’t mean you need to start heading towards the door. “I had an employee while at Google who wanted to build something from nothing. Together we were able to come up with ideas to get her training that would be valuable for her as an entrepreneur. She stayed at Google longer than I did, and continues to grow in the digital ad space at Facebook. That entrepreneurial side is still the lighthouse in the distance, and that’s okay,” says Laraway.

Bring your own manager into the fold to help spot opportunities to level up within the scope of your current role — whether that’s taking on expanded responsibilities, prioritizing training opportunities, or any number of options. “When you understand your long-term career vision, it helps put training investments into context.”

3. Clarify the present with a career action plan.

This is the third step for a reason – you need to be armed with a textured understanding of your key motivators and desired future before crafting a detailed plan.

If you know your dreams – what lights you up — and how you envision your future, that arms you with all you need to take relevant action right now and start to build a career action plan.

Within the action plan, there should be numerous concrete takeaways. Whether it’s making adjustments to your current role to build necessary skills, expanding your network to folks that can influence where you’re trying to go, or signing up for additional training, the key question each action item should answer is: Who will do what by when? “If those three questions aren’t answered, you don’t have an action plan,” says Laraway.

Read more of Laraway’s tips for bringing your A-game to your own career development.

6. How to start (truly) embracing criticism.

When New York Times bestselling author Adam Grant created his podcast “WorkLife,” he wanted to immerse himself in some of the world’s most unconventional workplaces and uncover some of the unexpected insights that the broader work culture can learn from. Along the way, he sat in the writers’ room for “The Daily Show” with host Trevor Noah, got an inside look at the locker room of the Boston Celtics, and even hung out with a crew of astronauts (one of whom called in from the International Space Station — talk about a unique remote work situation).

A common through-line in Grant’s research is the need to embrace criticism whether you’re suggesting jokes for the opening monologue, taking (and sometimes missing) the game-winning shot as the clock winds down, or living in a space capsule together for months on end. Those of us who hesitate to float crazy, wild ideas often pause for fear of what others might say. Yet to truly commit to a journey of personal growth, you’ve got to look beyond the areas of improvement that you have identified on your own.

Illustration by Alejandro Garcia Ibanez.
Professor and bestselling author Adam Grant

Grant has experienced his own evolution on this front, “Early on in my career, I wanted my students and colleagues to like me,” he says. “Now I’m much more interested in whether people respect my viewpoint. I’m actually thrilled if somebody says, ‘I disagree with your thesis, but it really got me thinking.’”

It takes approaching criticism with a sense of curiosity, rather than being combative. “People start to realize that if their goal is to be valued or respected, then the best thing they can do is focus less on proving themselves and more on improving themselves,” says Grant.

Ironically, if you want to make a good impression, focus less on impressing people.

So how do you start to not just tolerate criticism through gritted teeth but actually love it? Here’s a few tactics Grant has personally borrowed from workplaces he’s researched.

Move from proving to improving mode.

“When we’re faced with criticism, our egos kick in, putting up barriers as self-defense. This is proving mode — the primal, emotional reaction from the lower-level of your brain,” says Grant. “But thankfully there’s a higher setting to unlock: improving mode. That’s the side of you that wants to get better, recognizing that you’re always a work in progress.” Here are a few strategies for tapping into this more level-headed part of your psyche.

  • Go public. “One of the best ways to get into improving mode is to ask people to criticize you in public or to criticize yourself in public. It can push you to stop being defensive. Because if you’re not showing a genuine interest in developing yourself, everyone in that room is going to know it,” says Grant. “I know one leader whose company grew to around 100 employees, and he felt people were just managing up and not telling the truth. So he called an All Hands and said, ‘I want you all to tell me everything I'm doing wrong and we're going to stay here until we've got it all on the table.’ And he started off by criticizing himself, which made others more comfortable.”
  • Get meta on feedback. As a professor who gets feedback from students, Grant knows a thing or two about responding to it. “Mid-course, I ask for feedback and I take the comments and send them out to all the students, typed up verbatim. But I like to take it a step further. In the next class, I stand up and analyze the comments, identifying themes and outlining changes I’ll make in response,” says Grant. “Then I ask for their feedback on my response to their feedback. ‘Give me some meta feedback.’ What’s interesting is that they’ve already made their judgement about the class. But when I go up there and give my reaction, then I’m being evaluated on how well I’m taking it. And at that point the only thing that you have to prove is that you are willing to improve.”

Assemble a challenge network.

“You know the value of a support network, but you also need a challenge network. For the past few years I’ve had a core group of people who all have one thing in common: they believe in the potential of my work, but they’re the first ones to call BS when it falls short of that potential,” says Grant.

For Grant, this has always been an informal arrangement. But inspired by his own research into workplaces, he decided to formalize this challenge network. “Now, whenever I get an email from someone in this group, I’ll write back and say, ‘Hey, I probably should’ve told you this sooner, but you’re actually a founding member of my challenge network. Here’s what I’ve valued so much about the constructive criticism that you’ve given me, and please keep letting it fly,” he says.

It’s about taking the next step to not just stomach criticism, but to welcome it. “After that, the gloves really came off. As entrepreneurs and leaders grow more influential or senior, people become more hesitant to tell them the truth. You can counter this by inviting people into your challenge network and letting them know how much you rely on them. It’ll open the door for more unvarnished, constructive criticism,” says Grant.

Read more of Grant’s findings from his research into some of the most unique workplaces in the world.