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Measuring the Unmeasurable: Tracking Your Development as a Leader

by Eileen Linnabery on

I was recently coaching a leader, tasked with the creation of a development and coaching plan in response to 360˚ feedback. As we fleshed out his plan, he was impressively quick to identify action items that would improve his leadership and move the needle on areas of focus. When we turned to discussing the ways in which success is best measured, however, he began pondering which of his business KPIs would be a good measurement tool. Although these metrics are critical to understanding business performance, even the highest-ranking individual executives (such as a President or Vice President) can have only a marginal impact on these indicators. This wasn’t new to me—I have often found myself counseling leaders on how to best monitor their behavior and measure the modifications. I offered advice and tips to help track his progress against developmental goals. Then, he mentioned something that changed the way I thought about executive development: “This is helpful. It’s hard to know how to measure the intangible.”

Give the People What They Want

This was a light bulb moment for me. Ever since a large “Voice of the Customer” study that our Vantage team undertook last year, I have been thinking about what type of support executives really need in their professional development. When interviewing our customers, I was surprised to learn how frequently the leaders we’ve assessed and their reporting managers desired more touchpoints with their assessor/coach. These are successful executives, I thought. They don’t need their hands held as they improve themselves. They have the game plan, now just go and execute! In many cases, execution is what these folks do best – and why they are so successful in their careers. In working with us, each leader was  already receiving in-depth assessment feedback and, in many cases, an alignment session with his or her boss to draft a straw man developmental action plan. When executives said they wanted more time with us, I saw an opportunity to improve how we serve our customers’ needs – but first, I needed to find out more about what kind of support would be most valuable for them.

The Quantification Conundrum: How to Measure and When

The importance of setting measurable goals is well-established as a mechanism to increase the likelihood of success in creating and sustaining change. After all, the old adage of “What gets measured gets done” has long been applied to the business world and leadership. We need that feedback loop about our performance to help us adjust as we change. The executives we work with are no strangers to this phenomenon. They are constantly monitoring and refining to improve business performance. This is why it is so common for leaders to falsely expect their own leadership development goals to be quantifiable in discrete, measurable terms. The problem with this assumption is that there is no easy litmus test for leadership. Progress is no longer measured in speed, accuracy, and performance metrics. Even workforce engagement indicators are often only surveyed annually, making them insufficient for helping leaders track and learn from their effectiveness over time. Leaders at this level cannot simply take a course and consider themselves improved —development happens every day in the building and maintaining of new habits. It’s about nuance, adaptability, and ability to choose the right approach for the situation and audience. Because this comes down to perceptions, impact, and interpersonal skillsets, the complexity of what we are measuring creates inherent challenges. Addressing these challenges head-on increases the likelihood behavioral improvement will be long-term and sustainable.

As my coachee pointed out, if you don’t know how to track behavioral change, it will be difficult to get it to stick. His comment about measuring the intangible helped me make sense of our “Voice of the Customer” study results and provided clarity that allowed me to improve our customers’ experience. I’ll share some measurement techniques for use with common “intangible” goals. I find these tools can be effectively applied across a variety of different developmental needs, and frequently make these recommendations to my clients.

Finding the Right Tools

To help you coach executives or develop your own soft skills, consider employing these 4 tips to help you track progress:

  1. Establish triggers and feedback mechanisms with an accountability buddy. When we are trying to change our habits, it is important to be present in the moment so we can intercept and adjust our automatic reactions. Distractions get in the way, and when we are not at our best or moving too quickly is when we are most likely to slip up and fall victim to old behaviors. Creating a partnership with someone who sees us in high-pressure situations and can redirect us or provide feedback frequently and immediately is a valuable mechanism for changing and also tracking progress. Over time, you’ll know you’re improving when you need your accountability partner less and less because you’re able to notice your triggers yourself – and respond accordingly.

2. Keep a journal. When we look back over time and evaluate our effectiveness, we are biased to focus on the negative events and minimize the positive events. To maintain a more accurate picture of your performance, it can be helpful to keep a log. For instance, if you are working on building your influencing skills so you can contribute to important decisions, you might write about what went well and didn’t after team meetings and other forums where decisions are made. Over time, you can track progress by pinpointing themes in your log or journal. Doing so will help you focus on those key moments when you are still struggling, and give you the confidence of knowing what venues you are effective at influencing in. Consider how the themes of your performance change over time, and determine what needs to be done to continue to advance your skillset.

3. Realize your own perceptions are valuable data. Often, the first step to improving our performance and effectiveness is to improve our comfort with some type of exercise or behavior. For example, one will not become a strong public speaker if they are afraid to get on the stage. Before concerning oneself with effectiveness at public speaking, we must build the willingness and comfort to get out there in the first place. Therefore, success against these particular goals occurs when your internal reactions to the event stabilize. To measure comfort levels, you could ask your audience for their perception of your comfort level. But the most direct way to measure this would be to rate your comfort level yourself after continued exposure to the task. For goals that are internal, your own perceptions can and should be considered a reasonable mechanism for measurement.

4. Remember that multiple measurement is best: Above, I mentioned the nuance and complexity of behavior change at the executive level. It therefore stands to reason that one technique for measurement will not fully encompass the distinctions of the behavior or skill. Using these techniques together, and in conjunction with other more traditional forms of measurement (i.e., feedback from your boss or other key stakeholders, engagement or leadership ratings from staff, formal performance evaluations), will help you further refine your understanding of your leadership effectiveness and impact.

What tips do you use for development planning and responding to feedback? What effective ways have you found to measure behavior change and track progress? Have you ever had a goal you couldn’t stick with because you struggled to establish a feedback loop? Sound off in the comments or reach out to discuss. We would love to hear your experiences.

For more on developing yourself as a leader check out Vantage’s other blogs on professional development and measurement, such as:

We would also like to offer a sincere thank you to our client organizations that participated in our Voice of the Customer study and the individuals who were kind enough to speak with us about their experiences!

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