Building Leadership Habits in the New Year

Research has found that it takes approximately sixty-six days to build a habit. That is, it takes just over two months for a new behavior to become second nature. So think about that as you plan out your new year’s resolutions. Whether you’re committing to hit the gym regularly, drink eight glasses of water a day, or anything else, know that if you push through for the first two months, playing the game of “mind over matter,” then your new habit will finally start to become old hat.

So why does the Quantified team care about how long it takes to build a habit? Because the same rule applies to leadership development practices, as well. If you’re a high-performer looking to develop new leadership skills—or a talent manager looking to develop your team—your goal isn’t “skills development” alone. Really, it’s habit formation.

Whether you’re building leadership communication skills, team management tactics, or business planning strategies, implementing new skills requires more than one-time learning; turning new skills into ingrained leadership habits requires continued effort and consistent practice.

So, given leader’s and high-performers limited time and companies’ limited budgets, how can talent development teams help leaders turn new skills into habits?

1.   Create a Specific Action Plan

You’ve heard and read all about SMART goals, so you know that one of the most important keys to achieving a goal of any size is breaking it into concrete, actionable steps. And that’s key in developing and honing leadership skills, too. If you’re looking to become a more persuasive communicator, for example, the first step is figuring out where to start.

There are books and classes and videos to point you in the right direction, of course, but the most powerful action plans are tailored specifically to their users based on their existing skill sets. So when it’s time to start building a new habit, the first step is to establish a baseline of your current strengths and development areas, and then use that baseline to create a step-by-step action plan, complete with research-based strategies, practice steps, and expert guidance.

2.   Build Practice into Everyday Schedules

Unfortunately, too often, leaders and talent development teams stop with step one. They research the best practices and share action plans with their teams, but that’s the extent of it. And that’s why, too often, our best intentions for making lasting improvements fall short: we don’t put in the time to make them habits.

Of course, here again, leaders and high potentials are busy. It’s unrealistic to ask them to carve hours out of every day, sixty-six days in a row, to practice their new skills. But what if those action plans come with micro-lessons and brief exercises that they can build into their everyday work schedules—and that directly impact their everyday work—to make the ideal of regular practice a reality?

When a leader can spend ten to fifteen minutes working on a skill—and she knows that practice time will directly support her performance that very day—then she’s much more likely to be willing and able to put in the day-to-day work required to turn a new idea into a habit.

3.   Track Progress

And finally, we’re a society that likes to see results. If our efforts aren’t having a measurable ROI, then how do we know they’re working? That’s why the tracking component is such an important part of building a habit. You’ve seen habit trackers built into daily planners and journals, and you may have even used them yourself, crossing off each day you drink your goal amount of water or every morning you hit the gym before work.

When it comes to developing leadership habits, the goal is to take that same principle to the next level of sophistication. Sure, we can make check marks each day we practice our new communication skills, but wouldn’t it be more powerful to continually measure those communication skills and watch them grow? Comparing that initial baseline to a month’s worth of progress, for example, accomplishes two things: first, it helps users hone their action plans based on real progress, and second, it keeps them motivated to keep working so they can see those scores keep climbing.

What are your leadership resolutions for 2020—for you or your team? As you start to implement these new skills, remember three steps: start from a solid foundation with a clear action plan, make it easy to put in the work on a regular basis, and track progress with as much detail as possible. Using this structure, you’ll realize that brand new leadership skills are becoming habit in no time—or, at least, in sixty-six short days.