5 Secrets of Utility Player

6 Secrets of a Utility Player: How to Hire For Indispensable

It’s easy to hire for rock stars—the folks with the exact niche skills you need in the marketplace. But don’t underestimate the value of a true utility player for long-term success.

How (and Why) to Find, Hire (and Promote) a Utility Player

My boss came back from the succession planning discussion with the executive team. “Oh, it’s all good, you’re a utility player.” As a young Gen Xer, I didn’t love the sound of that. Utility player sounds so, well, utilitarian (practical, functional, serviceable). I was young in my career, I wanted to be seen as an up-and-coming rock star, not an easily tradeable unsung hero.

Six months later there was a massive reorganization and a layoff. My hands shook as my boss handed me the new org chart. Our entire department was missing. And then he smiled. “I have two words for you: utility player. You’re fine. Here’s what’s next (a promotion).”

I get it now. Utility players provide you with the flexibility to embrace change fast without a ruckus. It’s why Inc. recommends that startups hire the utility player first.  

Makes sense. I’ve had several new start-up clients call for help because their original team of founders/specialists just didn’t have the skills to lead as they scaled.

6 Indispensable Utility Player Competencies

Of course, you’ve got to hire specialists for certain roles. But when hiring leaders, don’t underestimate the flexibility you’ll get from a few of these key skills.

  1. They love the Game (and by the game, I mean your business.)
    They understand and are energized by the big picture vision. They’re gung-ho and ready to go with the twists and turns. They don’t play games to get ahead. They stay focused on the bigger mission.
  2. They Build Strong, Trusting  Relationships (up, down and sideways)
    Rock stars sometimes alienate their boss and peers and REALLY tick off their direct reports.  Utility players know that other human beings are their lifeline to success. They’re inclusive. They invest in a wide network of go-to relationships up, down and sideways.
  3. They are Curious, Eager Learners
    They don’t know it all, but they sure try to learn as much as they can. They embrace new situations with curiosity and confident humility as they work to understand what’s really happening and how they can help.
  4. They Work Hard
    They dig in harder and longer than most. They care about quality and doing it right.
  5. They’re Resilient
    Although they’re attached and really care about their current mission, when the direction shifts they can cope with that too (okay, they might go into the bathroom and scream first- give them a minute and they’ll come around.)
  6. They Tell the Truth
    They’re willing to have the tough conversations that make the business and the people better. They ditch the Diaper Genie™ and own the U.G.L.Y. in a way that builds trust and maintains relationships.

Your turn. What have you found to be the most indispensable competencies of utility players?

You may also enjoy our recent post: Interviewing: How to Hire For Winning Well Competencies (interview questions to help you hire the best)

leadership competencies: how to hold a great interview

How to Interview For Winning Leadership Competencies

You’re working hard to build a Winning Well culture. You’ve identified your MIT leadership competencies and are working to cultivate and encourage the right behaviors. How you staff your key leadership roles matters more now than ever.

How will you identify the very best candidates for reinforcing your Winning Well culture?  How will you identify the candidates who really exhibit Winning Well leadership competencies, versus those who just talk a good game?

Be sure you’re asking strategic questions that require candidates to share how they’ve actually demonstrated the leadership competencies you’re selecting for.

Here a few strategic, behavior-based interview questions based on eight key behaviors we build in our Winning Well training programs. and keynote speeches.

We encourage you to weave a few of them into your next interview.

Winning Well Leadership Interview Guide


how to help your middle managers find their sweet spot

Tell me about a time when you had way too much to do—how did you decide what was most important? How did you prioritize? What was the outcome?

Describe three ways you work to communicate and reinforce expectations on your team.

Tell me about at a time you helped turn around a serious performance issue. What was your approach? What was the outcome?

play the game don't game the score

What metrics do you use to measure your success in your current role? How do you keep your team focused on achieving those outcomes?

What do you see as the most critical behaviors in this new position? How would you go about reinforcing them?

Can you tell me about a time a supervisor wanted you to focus on something you knew wasn’t a priority for your customer, your team, or the company? How did you handle it? What was the outcome?


Describe the best team you ever worked on. What was your role in making it a success?

When you are working on a strategic project in your current job, how do you go about identifying the relevant stakeholders? How do you get them involved?

Can you tell me about a time you joined a new team and how you built trust with your new teammates?

trust the trenches

Tell me about a project where you successfully delegated some important tasks. How did you decide what to delegate and to whom?

How do you help your team recover from setbacks?

Can you share a time where one of your team members had a new perspective and how you were able to incorporate it into your work?


what makes you a rock star in your role? What makes you a rock star in your current role? How would you leverage those strengths in this new position?

Tell me about a time you had to make a tough decision with limited information. What was the situation? How did you approach it?

What are your favorite techniques for building confidence and competence in your team members?

ditch the diaper drama #WinningWellTell me about a time you had a really tough conversation with an employee. How did you approach it? What was the outcome?

Describe a decision you made that was unpopular and you how implemented it.  What was the situation? Who was involved? What did you do? What was the outcome?

Can you share a time when you seriously disagreed with your boss and were convinced you were right? How did you address it? What was the outcome?


Own the UglyWhat’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made at work? How did you recover?

Describe a time a project you were leading did not turn out as you had hoped.  What was the situation? Who was involved? What did you do? What was the outcome?

What is the most difficult apology you’ve ever had to make at work? What made it challenging? How did you do it?

What tools and techniques do you use to get feedback from your team?

How would you describe your conflict style? Tell me about a time that you had a significant conflict at work where that style served you well. Tell me about a time when that style got in the way.

Who are your most important stakeholders in your current role? How do you go about getting feedback from them?

Some other innovative interview questions that help uncover leadership competencies

Inc. 9 Interview Questions You Need to Be Asking

LinkedIn: Hiring For Trust: 9 Interview Questions

Fast Company: 7 Interview Questions for Measuring Emotional Intelligence

Your Turn

What are some of your favorite interview questions to ensure you have leaders that are committed to Winning Well?

my peers are lazy: how do I stay motivated?

My Peers Are Lazy: How Do I Stay Motivated?

So often we talk with clients or teams who are frustrated because their peers are lazy. Perhaps you’ve been there. What advice would you give to someone dealing with a slacker co-worker? 

Dear Karin and David,

How do I stay motivated when my peers are lazy? I’m working twice as hard as them and I’m sick of picking up the slack. My boss doesn’t seem to notice.


Tired and Frustrated #AskingForAFriend

If Your Peers are Lazy: A Few Dos and Dont’s

Dear Tired and Frustrated,

We’ve both been there, and you have a right to be frustrated. Keep in mind that these peers are temporary, but your track record is forever. Don’t let the #$#%@#%@# slackers tank your hard work. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to consider.

  1. DO keep rocking your role.
    Stay focused on your MITs (most important things) to serve your customers and the business. Stay creative. Chances are your boss is picking up a lot more than you know. Performance management conversations happen behind closed doors. I wish we could tell you how many performance issues we’ve dealt with that we longed to share with the high-performers we knew were frustrated, but couldn’t. Be sure you keep building your brand with a strong track record of results and collaborative relationships.
  2. DON’T gossip or whine about the scene.
    Whatever you do, don’t let their bad behaviors turn you into a jerk. Take the high road, and count on karma. 
  3. DO ask your boss how you can help.
    Resist the temptation to start with the words,  “I know we’ve got a lazy team…,” if it’s true, she already knows. Use this as an opportunity to become go-to support. With a team of slackers, she can use all the help she can get and will be grateful for your support (and a grateful boss can never hurt).
  4. DON’T become a victim. 
    You don’t have to do their work. Stay focused on your deliverables and nail them. If your co-worker consistently drops the ball, let him experience a few of the consequences. Do your best to foster a culture of accountability.
  5. DO build a network of support.
    Seek out folks with similar ambition and work ethic to support and challenge you. Find a mentor. Seek out peers on other teams. Take on a leadership role in a professional association.  Genuine connections are lighter fluid on the fire of motivation. Find people who get you and you admire and find ways to spend more time together.
  6. DO speak the truth.
    (Or as we often say: “Ditch the Diaper Genie“) When a team member breaks a promise or doesn’t deliver on their commitment to you, it’s often useful to have a healthy conversation about it. Start by observing the behavior. e.g. “I noticed that the report you said you’d get me isn’t in my email.” Note the consequences: “We can’t take care of the customer without that information.” Then invite them into the conversation: “What’s happening there? When can you have it to me?” Sometimes just the act of personalizing work and connecting what you need to why you need it can help slackers pick up their pace.

Who wants to play? What advice would you give Tired and Frustrated?


Have a leadership or management question? Send it here and we’ll do our best to share our perspective.


How to make real change happen when you're not ceo

How to Make Real Change Happen When You’re Not CEO

Let’s Grow Leaders Q&A

In a recent post we invited you to send us your biggest leadership challenge. We received a great question from a healthcare leader in the United Kingdom. It’s a question we hear all the time from audience members and workshop participants around the world about how to make real change happen when you’re not in charge.

(Please, continue to send in your questions and leadership challenges – yours may be the next one featured here).

Dear Karin & David:

I’m an innovation team leader in healthcare and we’re tasked with delivering a new model of care. It has met with some resistance – change is quite challenging in some parts of our industry and I don’t have the power to enforce these changes. How do you challenge and convert mindsets to change? How do you change cultural norms? How do you make real change happen when you’re not the CEO?

Dear Healthcare Leader:

Creating change from within an organization is often challenging.

It can be frustrating when the benefit of a new way seems so obvious to you, but is not obvious to others. Most human beings are “wired” to keep doing what they did yesterday because it costs less energy and is safe (after all, what they did yesterday got them safely to today, so why change?).

You ask two questions. I will take them in reverse order:

How do you change culture norms?

The short answer here is often: slowly.

Particularly if you’re not leading the entire organization.

Both Karin and I have made significant changes in internal cultures, but the work starts with the culture you build within your own team.

When people who interact with your innovation team come out of those interactions saying “Wow – that is an awesome group of people doing amazing work. I want to be treated like that, treat others like that, achieve results like that, and be a part of something fantastic!” – then your culture will start to spread.

We call this a “cultural oasis.” You create a culture within the team for which you are responsible. You may have to coach them to remain positive and to stay focused on results and relationships when others in the organization don’t understand them or minimize their work.

Summary: Changing a culture from the inside takes time and starts with the culture you create within your team.

How do you challenge and covert mindsets to change?

From your description, it sounds like you’re hoping others will accept the changes your innovation team is proposing. If that is your goal, I invite you to think differently about “challenging and converting” mindsets. People almost never change their mind because they were challenged.

The good news is that there are several ways you can make it more likely for change to be adopted:

  1. Answer the Question

When we’re asked to change, every human being has one overriding question: “Why should I?”

So answer their question. Before proposing a specific change, take the time to connect-the-dots: What about the current situation isn’t working? How will this change improve their life? Their patients’ lives?

When people buy-in to the “why” moving on to the “what” is much easier.

Know your audience here: one person might care more about that data and research while another is more concerned about the institution’s reputation and a third might be more focused on how changes will affect people.

  1. Make Them Partners

People don’t argue with their own input.

After you’ve shared the problem you hope to solve or the results you want to achieve, ask your peers for their ideas about how to make it work. Acknowledge the limitations and competing priorities they face. Ask “How do you think we can do this AND meet your objectives? What might that look like?”

As they share, find ways to incorporate their ideas. Now you’re all implementing a shared solution, not just something you’ve put on them.

  1. Demonstrate Success

Related to connecting what-to-why: Can you pilot the change in one area to demonstrate how desirable it would be for others? Can you find people in that test-case who can be ambassadors for the change with their colleagues and talk about what it’s doing for them and their patients?

  1. Leverage Leaders

Lateral change is easier to accomplish if your supervisor is supportive and reinforces the message. You may have to ask for exactly what you need. e.g.: “I’m hearing regularly from colleagues that these other initiatives are higher priority. Can you clarify for all of us the order of implementation?”

If your supervisor isn’t supportive, take the time to connect your initiative to their goals. What keeps them up at night? What goals do they need to achieve to be successful? Demonstrate how your changes will help them achieve their goals. Then enlist their aid with colleagues.

Here is an article that discusses these conversations with your supervisor or colleagues in more depth: PERSUADE Model

  1. Make Real Change Happen More Easily

People often resist change because they don’t know how to do it. We are more likely to adopt small behaviors than large ones. To make real change happen, ask yourself: Is there a way to focus on one or two fundamental behaviors and then build from there?

  1. Make It the Norm

The brain takes two shortcuts to figure out what to do: the environment and what other people are doing. What in your physical environment can make the change the default action? Consistently keep the new way of doing things in front of people. Tell the stories about how different people are implementing. They should see it every day so that it becomes the assumed “this is how we do things.”

  1. Share the Score

Find a meaningful way to publicly track progress. It may be a scorecard, a weekly video, or stories from patients. When people look at a score that tells them they’re 70% successful, but their colleagues are 92% successful, they often work to close the gap.

  1. Celebrate Success

Acknowledge people who are doing it well, tell the stories of how it’s working for colleagues and patients. Be specific about what people are doing and why it is important. Celebrate in ways that are meaningful to the people you’re acknowledging. This can help win over some of the reluctant people.

Those are a few thoughts to get you started. If I were in your shoes I would start with a conversation with my supervisor about goals and how these changes are supported.

Remember: it takes time to to make real change happen from within an organization. It is also a fantastic way to build your leadership, influence, and credibility.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share: How do you create meaningful change with your peers and colleagues?

(And don’t forget – we’d love to hear your biggest leadership challenge!)

Creative Commons Photo by Mattanalogue

How to differentiate your performance

5 Ways to Differentiate Your Performance and Stand Out

Working to differentiate your performance can be a real challenge.

“But I exceeded all my objectives. Why am I not rating ‘leading?”

It’s a frustrating conversation no matter which side of the desk you’re on. The truth is, in most companies, meeting or exceeding your objectives is not enough to stand out. In a stack-ranked world, you’ve got to make a bigger strategic impact.

5 Ways to Differentiate Your Performance and Stand Out

Whether you’re looking for ways to take your own performance to the next level, or to help a frustrated team member differentiate their performance, here are a few proven strategies to make  2018 your best year ever.

1. Know what matters most.

Have you ever noticed it’s not necessarily the times in your career that you worked the longest or hardest that got the most positive attention? Sure sometimes there’s a correlation, but chances are it’s more a matter of finding that sweet spot where your skills and talents matched a strategic business need and pointing all your energy in that direction. You’ve got at least 37 priorities on your plate, you can’t exceed expectations on all of them. Talk to your manager,  know what matters most, and be sure you nail that.


“What’s the most important thing I (or my team) needs to accomplish to really impact the business this year?”

Or, I know everything on this scorecard is important, but if I had to fail at something, which of these metrics matters the least, and what do you want me to really blow out of the water?

Or even, “Imagine we’re sitting here this time next year, and you’re blown away by my (my team’s) performance… what would I (we) have accomplished?”

2. Fix something broken.

What’s not working that’s driving everyone crazy? What process could be made more efficient? What can you do to improve the customer experience (not just once) but systematically? How can you make work more efficient not just for you, but for your peers as well? Find something broken and fix it.

3. Build a clear cadence of communication.

Be the guy that makes everyone’s lives easier through a clear cadence of communication up, down and sideways. Treat everyone’s time as a precious resource. Hold meetings that people actually want to attend. Come buttoned up to one-on-ones with your manager, with a clear agenda (this tool will help).

4. Strengthen strategic peer relationships.

Great work never happens in a vacuum. Invest time in building strategic peer relationships where you truly understand, and help one another to achieve, your interdependent objectives. Nothing frustrates senior managers more than dysfunctional turf wars that distract people from doing the right thing for the business and for your customers. Your competition is not the department down the hall, it’s mediocrity.

5. Invest in your own development.

I once had a mentor who said, “Some people have 10 years of experience and other folks have 1 year of experience 10 times.”  Even if you’re not changing roles, be sure you’re constantly learning and growing. Have a clear development plan that stretches you and helps you contribute more to the business each year.

If you want to truly differentiate your contribution–go beyond what’s necessary for today, and work to make a broader impact for your customers, for the business, and for those around you.

Your turn. What’s your best advice for building a year of truly differentiated performance?

See Also our Fast Company Article: 10 Common Excuses that Silently Damage Manager’s Careers

how to get feedback from your peers

Four Powerful Ways to Get Helpful Feedback From Your Peers

I’m sure you ask your boss for feedback. And, I imagine you’re checking in with your direct reports regularly on how you’re doing. If you’re like many managers we work with, you may be less inclined to seek out and get feedback from your peers.

Why? Let’s face it, your peers are not always the friendliest source. In some companies, peers can feel more like “competitors” for resources, a position in the stack rank, or bonus funding. And it’s just possible peers in other departments are the folks most ticking you off: the finance guy who doesn’t see the value in funding your project; or the woman in IT who always has 10 reasons why what you want can’t be done.

Four Ways to Get Helpful Feedback From Your Peers

Your peers see how you act under stress and behind closed doors in ways you might not show your boss or your team. Like the time I regretfully let the F-bomb fly at a peer (#NotRecommendedWinningWellBehavior).

Are you seen as a team player? Do you share resources or just look out for your own team and objectives? How do you act when things don’t go your way? Chances are your peers have a pretty good sense of how you act when “no one is looking.” See also Eight Reasons Your Peers Rate You Low on Your 360 Assessment  

Here are four ways to get more helpful feedback from your peers.

  1. Make It About More Than You

    Like it or not, sometimes your peers may also see YOU as a competitor and question your motives for seeking out feedback. Your request for insight is more compelling when you ground it in a desire to improve the business or the customer experience.  “What do you think I could do differently to create an even better experience for our customers?” “I really care about our team effectiveness, what specifically do you think I could do to help our team collaborate better?” “This project is on such a tight deadline, what specifically can I do to make our work processes more efficient?”

  2. Model it

    Want great feedback from your peers? Start by being a great feedback giver. Be the guy who your peers can count on to tell them the real deal. Be generous with your specific and timely praise, and develop trust so that they are interested in what else you have to say. It will be that much easier when you turn around and ask, “And how do you think I could be more impactful?”

  3. Get Specific

    “Do you have any feedback for me?” Is likely to be met with a generic “No, man, you’re doing great,” response. This might feel good, but is not all that useful. Instead try, “What is one behavior I could change that would make me more impactful on this project?” Or, “I’m really working on improving my communication skills, can you give me one suggestion to help me improve my communication with you?”

    Once they give you one idea, then you can always say, “Great! Thank you. What else?”  Or you can take it one step further and conduct a  DIY 360.

  4. Respond

    If they’re right, act on it. And if you think it’s B.S., ask a few more folks for their perspective. The best way to get more feedback is to accept it graciously. Even if you don’t agree, always say thank you.

    See also: How Do I get my peers to trust me?  

Your turn. What are your best tips for soliciting feedback from peers?

Three Connections That Energize Every Great Leader

Three Connections That Energize Every Great Leader

Let’s face it, leadership is hard. Every great leader faces this reality.

You give it everything you have, but sometimes, it feels like it’s just not enough. When that happens though, here’s what you have to tell yourself…

You’re not alone.

Or, I should say…you don’t have to be.

When I was in San Francisco to deliver a keynote, I visited the famous California Redwoods. Standing beside the tallest living things on the planet was astounding.

Some them are thousands of years old. I saw the tallest tree–tall as a 36 story building with a trunk that would take ten or twelve people to encircle. Wow!

When I returned to my hotel that night, I went online to learn more about these trees. Specifically, I wanted to know about their roots. The roots I had seen were shallow and short.

What I found surprised me.

I expected the redwoods to have deep root systems, but they don’t. Their roots only go down five or six feet…but they extend outward 100 feet. In fact, the roots of nearby trees entangle, connect, and even fuse with one another. Together, the trees anchor one another through thousands of years of storms, wind, and floods.

Think about that for a moment–the tallest living things on earth don’t get tall by themselves.

They do it together.

As a leader, your trajectory and success – especially when things get tough – depend on your connections. There are three connections I’ve found that energize every great leader.

Connection #1: Your Team

Of course, you are there to serve your team.

But a funny thing happens when you do this. You will find your team also serves you. You don’t have to problem-solve on your own. You can rely on them.

Where you need to grow, they’ll challenge you. When your team trusts you, they’ll do amazing work with you. When you lead well, your team makes you stronger.

You can bring the tough questions to them and they’ll problem solve with you. They’ll hold you accountable. Karin and I have both had team members confront us when we weren’t leading up to our own standards.

Connection #2: A Community of Peers

Leadership is challenging work. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always feel good. It can be difficult, but extremely rewarding to find a good group of colleagues who will encourage you and help you problem-solve. If you’re looking for this kind of leadership community, consider our International Leadership Cohort of people just like you who are committed achieving breakthrough results – without losing their soul.

In addition to mutual encouragement and problem-solving, you also benefit from time spent with people outside the “bubble” of your organization. You’ll see your own situations with fresh eyes and better perspective.

Connection #3: A Mentor or Coach

Who is helping you get better?
Many leaders have a series of mentors and coaches over their lifetime…but it’s your responsibility to find them.

Recently, I saw an aspiring great leader sit back on a social media forum and post something like, “Hey, I really wish you’d mentor me!” It was a generic comment that felt needy and as if he were a victim, powerless to help himself.

Most mentors won’t respond to that sort of energy. You want to find people who are farther down the road, who are doing what you want to do or have the kind of influence you want to have, and then approach them with a specific and actionable request.

You might say, “I’ve noticed you are very effective at cross-departmental relationships and problem-solving. I’ve been challenged in this area and have some specific questions I think you could help with. Would you be willing to mentor me in this? You’ll find that I take your suggestions seriously and put them into practice as soon as possible.”

Accept their answer. If they say yes and have a particular way they want to work, go with it, and follow through. If they say no, honor that too. The chemistry must be there for mentoring relationships to work.

There are also times you’ll want to rely on a coach. Coaches can provide targeted, objective feedback and skill-training to shorten your learning curve and help you make rapid progress with your leadership challenges.

Your Turn

Remember, just like redwoods, a great leader gets to be great based on the strength of their connections to their team, to a community of colleagues, and with mentors and coaches.

Where do you need to connect?

Leave us a comment and share how you stay connected to your team, a community of leaders, and mentors & coaches who help you grow.

how to next your next interview

How to Nail Your Next Interview–Honing Your Story

Even if you’re the right candidate for the right job, if you don’t have your story together in your interview, the job’s going to the other guy.

In fact, I’ve sat through too many panel interviews over the years with my heart breaking because I knew the RIGHT guy was telling the WRONG story…or the RIGHT story in the wrong way.

And the “committee” chose the bozo instead.

It’s not just what you’ve done, but how you tell it that matters in a behavior-based interview. With a little preparation, you can avoid the common mistakes that prevent you from bringing all your Winning Well wisdom to the scene.

Common Mistakes in a Behavior-Based Interview

In a Behavioral Based Interview, candidates are asked to describe a situation, share what happened, and communicate the results. In other words, to share a story.

Behavior-based questions work well because they require candidates to draw on real experiences and communicate stories in an articulate way.

They can also backfire when great candidates bomb the interview because of lack of preparation.

Avoid These Interviewing Mistakes

  • Picking the wrong story. (Usually, the first one that comes to mind.)
  • Selecting a story with a bad ending (backing yourself into a corner, and wishing you told another story.)
  • Getting carried away in your story-telling, sharing too many details and going in circles.
  • Leaving out the detail, leaving too much to the imagination.
  • Forgetting to share the point of your story.
  • Sharing a story in which you did not have a central role (or in other words, sharing someone else’s success.)
  • Over-using the word “I” when you are describing an effort you led (remember to include the team.)
  • Continuing to use the same story with a different twist, leaving your interviewer to conclude you’ve only got one example of success.

How to Prepare for Success

  • Make a list of the competencies or skills most required for the job.
  • Go back through your work experiences, and find the best examples (stories) that showcase your skills in these areas. If you’re a spreadsheet guy or gal, go for it.
  • Develop a plan for which stories you plan to share.
  • Build out your stories to include brief context, specific actions, and results.
  • Practice telling them to a mentor or friend.

But wait–don’t wait until you need a job. Start now.

Some of the best interviewers (and leaders I know) keep journals of their best stories along the way to use when they need them–in interviews, mentoring, heck, who knows, maybe even a keynote someday. Capture the details while the story is fresh so it will be easier to recall when the time is right.

How to Get Noticed as a Leader– Before You've Led a Team

Last week “John” shared his “No Diaper Genie!” frustration in the middle of our high-potential leadership development program.

Yeah, I get that I’m here… and the company is investing in me and all that. But my boss keeps saying, “You’re not ready to be promoted, you’ve never led a team. I can’t recommend you for that particular promotion now, give it time”

but the truth is, my job is 18 times more complex than any front-line supervisor. I’m neck-deep in a complex organizational structure doing really strategic work and making an impact. How do I get noticed?”

Flashback to about 20 years ago, when I looked at my boss, Mary Ann, and said almost EXACTLY those same words. I had a masters degree and most of a Ph.D., I was gung ho working really long hours, thinking strategically, and contributing in any way that I could.

And she said the words I found remarkably frustrating and stupid at the time…

Karin, “What’s for you won’t miss you. We’ve got a lot of old-fashioned ways of thinking and being around here… but you’re bigger than all that. Stay the course. Show up as the leader you think the guys three levels up should be.”

And so I did. And as it turns out, Mary Ann was right. It didn’t miss me.

Five Ways to Get Noticed As a Leader Before You’ve Led a Team

Be so good it’s hard to notice. Here are five ways to make a leadership impact before you have a team.

  1. Master the art of the tough conversation.
    Be the guy that can give tough feedback to peers, project team members and even your boss in a way that makes them feel valued and grateful. People will then seek you out as a trusted advisor). Here’s a tool that can help INSPIRE feedback model for project managers For some additional inspiration, you can see part of my Managing the Art of the Tough Conversation keynote here.
  2. Rock your role.
    Yes, yes, you’ve heard this from me before (see related advice here).  But I can’t tell you how many people come to me each week frustrated that they’re not at the next level, and when I ask about their current performance they shrug that off because “they’re bored and ready for more.”  Not a chance. I would never promote you if you’re not showing up consistently as a high-performer, and neither should your boss.
  3. Be sure every meeting you attend is better because you were there.
    You can pull that off in a variety of ways: help keep the team on track by separating “Where are we going?” conversations “How will we get there?” discussions; help to clarify and summarize action items, “Who will do what by when and how will we know?” Invite softer spoken team members to offer their contributions.  See more ideas for running effective meetings here.
  4. Keep your boss informed of your strategic contribution.
    When done well, it’s not bragging. It’s useful– and when you’re adding more value, so are they. Here’s a free huddle planner to help you have more productive one-on-ones with your boss.
  5. Practice Two-level thinking.
    When faced with a difficult business problem or when you’re asked to do something that feels challenging think, “Why is this important to my boss’ boss?” If you can’t come up with a good answer, ask your immediate manager to help you think it through. Everyone wants to have team members who “get it” and want to make a more strategic impact on the business.

If you want to stand out as a leader, don’t wait until you have a formal title. Leading without authority is the best way to stand out “as a natural” and get noticed for what you bring to the scene.

How Do I Find a Great Mentor?

I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me to be their mentor, and when I asked what they were looking to accomplish–I was met with a blank stare. I guess they were just looking for me to start espousing wisdom to help get their career to the next level.

But mentoring doesn’t work that way.

To find a great mentor, start by being a rock star mentee.

Four Ways to Be a Better Mentee

Just like everything else in your career, the more you put in, the more you get out. Show up with a plan to launch an enriching relationship.

  1. Know What You’re Looking to Accomplish
    Determine specifically what you’re looking to achieve from your work together. Is there something about your mentor’s background or skill set that you want to learn? Perhaps they’re particularly good at navigating the political landscape, or great during times of stress. Or maybe you’re looking for better insights into how you’re being perceived in the organization or support in expanding your network with a few key introductions. As with all relationships, you’ll be more successful if you both are clear on your expectations for your work together. Have an open conversation about expectations upfront to determine if you’re aligned.
  2. Be Truly Open to Feedback
    If you’re going to ask for feedback and advice, be sure you’re listening. You don’t have to agree or act on it, but be sure to be open and say thank you. Nothing will turn off your new mentor more than a defensive argument about why their perception isn’t accurate.
  3. Offer to Help
    The best mentoring relationships are reciprocal– both human beings grow in the process. Ask what you can do to be helpful to them– even if it’s rolling up your sleeves and pitching in on a project they’re doing.
  4. Bring Conversation Starters
    The first few mentoring sessions can be a bit awkward if you don’t know your mentor very well. It can be good to come with a few “starter” questions.
  • What are you most excited about in terms of the future of our organization? Why? How can I best prepare to add the most value?
  • What are the things that excite and energize you about your work here? What are the things that drain or frustrate you? What have you done to reduce this frustration?
  • What are some of your outside interests? Are you able to leverage any of those skills here?
  • What are the skills and behaviors you think are required to be successful in my role? What advice do you have for accelerating my learning curve on those?
  • What skills and behaviors have helped you be successful here?
  • What do you know now that you wish you learned sooner?

The best mentoring relationships are grounded in deep-trust– and that takes time. Be patient and invest the time it takes to truly get to know and support one another.

See also:

Your Mentor May Not Be Helping Your Career

9 Ways to Strengthen Your Personal Brand

Speed Mentoring: Jump Starting Deeper Conversations

Three Behaviors That Will Convince Your Boss You’re a Rock Star

Yesterday “Doug,” a participant in one of our Winning Well workshops, asked, “Karin, if I were to walk into your office right now with the goal of convincing you I’m a rock star, what behaviors would get your attention?”

I’m always intrigued by what comes out of the other end of my microphone during spontaneous Q & A— the raw advice bubbling straight from my heart without the benefit of the backspace key.

So, here’s my answer to Doug, and for you if you’re looking to make a bigger impact.

How to Convince Your Boss You’re a Rock Star

 Of course, the table stakes are integrity—a reputation of doing what you say. I’m going to assume you’re there. On top of that my big three are…

  1. Are You Gung-Ho?
    Of course, I’d never tell an interview candidate “You’re just not gung ho,” but I can spot an all-in, positive spirit within the first few minutes of an interaction with another human being. “Gung ho” can take many forms: the quiet introvert who comes prepared with a spreadsheet of our biggest organizational challenges and his thoughts for fixing them; the passionate extrovert sharing stories of customer turn-around efforts she’s led; or the eager employee bringing new ideas for a special project.“Gung ho” means you’re as excited about this work as I am—and you’re ready to give this job everything you’ve got to be successful.
  2. Do You Offer Solutions?
    Let me be clear, “gung ho” is necessary but not sufficient to hit the Karin Hurt rock-star radar. There’s always a long line of people “gung ho” with ideas of what I could do to make things better. I want to know what you’re eager to do and how you’re planning to do it. True rock stars bring solutions—not just problems. They view constraints as creative challenges, not road blocks. They’re willing to try new approaches and are resilient and determined to overcome setbacks.
  3. Do You Have the Respect of Your Peers?
    Even if you’re gung-ho and full of creative solutions—if you’re driving your peers batty, something is amiss. And no—it’s not because you’re that much better than everybody else (and if you even hint that you believe that—I’m not buying your “I’m a rock star” sales pitch.) It’s impossible to Win Well in the long run without trust, collaboration, and sharing of best practices. I’d take a team of B+ performers who know how to truly collaborate over a few smart lone rangers every time.

If you’re looking to convince your boss you’re a rock star, show up with confidence in your skills and the willingness to go the extra mile to make an impact, along with the humility to know what’s broken and how you can help. Be committed to achieving breakthrough results through collaborative relationships.

That’s Winning Well.

Before You Forget, Stop and Do This Immediately

Have you ever met a truly humble person– someone who’s entire life is a sacrificial commitment to a cause they deeply believe in? As I spoke with Sister Louise in Thailand about her 50-year commitment to helping women and children out of extreme poverty and danger, I was blown away by her selfless mission.

Although she’s Catholic, her focus is not about a conversion of her 95% Buddhist community–it’s about “saving (with a little “s”) lost sheep.”

She just wants to give as many women and children as possible a shot at an empowered life.

And she and her teams are transforming lives. She’s Winning more Well than I could ever hope to.

I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m so haunted by the story she shared when I asked her what was the most challenging part of her work.

She didn’t miss a beat. And her answer surprised me.

There Was This One Time

There was a woman who had come to us for help many times. We worked with her on skills like hairdressing and sewing, but she struggled. She would give up, quit, and then come back.

Several times we just gave her money to get her out of a jam. We didn’t give up.

And then one day after being gone for quite a while, she came back to us and she proudly showed me a stack of money she had earned.

Relieved, I said “Oh you must be so grateful for this blessing.”

And then she screamed at me, “THANKFUL? BLESSING?  I DID THIS ALL BY MYSELF!!!!”

Sister Louise looked at me with tears in her eyes, “Can you imagine? How could she not see all the people who had worked so hard to help her? To be grateful to those who didn’t give up?”

Sister Louise had no expectations that this sheep would believe in God, but held out hope for a little gratitude for the work of his “hands and feet” in the form of her volunteers.

And there she stood, arguably the most humble human I’ve ever met– dumbfounded by the lack of a simple expression of gratitude.

Everyone needs to hear that they are making a difference.

Who Do You Need to Thank?

When we’re working really hard, it’s so easy to delude ourselves into thinking we did it all by ourselves.

I hear it all the time “I EARNED this promotion.” “I WORKED MY BUTT off to get here.”

I’ll admit. I’ve said those words.

But the truth is, none of us got here on our own– no matter how hard we worked.

There are managers and teachers and parents and peers who all helped in some way. There’s even the boss you hated, that finally convinced you that you weren’t as strong as you thought you were…and you worked harder to prove her wrong.

Who helped you today? Last week? Last quarter?

Who had an INSPIRE conversation that made an impact? Who helped become more confident? Who consistently takes the time to sweat the small stuff so you don’t have to?

What if you stopped right now and said thank you?