Twenty years ago, after years of working as a leader in humanitarian organizations with operations all over the world, I was asked to take on a project to improve the communication, collaboration, and partnership among the executives of a large corporation.
These individuals were highly accomplished, educated, and renowned in their fields. Their strengths and credentials were vividly obvious.
I was to discover that their challenges were real but were primarily due to the absence of several basic and essential practices for relating effectively with their colleagues. Our work together launched my second career, that of a leadership and communication consultant, which has included working with academic and industry leaders in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
When asked what key insights I would share with the readership of the WICB column and the ASCB Newsletter, I reflected upon my decades of work with leaders in all sectors and from all over the world. As I revisited in my mind’s eye individual after individual and situation after situation, I was able to see that there are indeed a finite number of key insights or teachings that I use regularly in my work with individuals and with groups. These are basic practices that carried the day with the original client and that continue to improve workplace functionality and catalyze increased productivity for individuals and teams across a broad spectrum of sectors and individual leadership levels. Some of these practices are common sense; some are simply good manners; all have been used for centuries and require a high degree of thoughtfulness, maturity, and self-awareness. And importantly, in my consulting practice I find that effective leaders commonly use these practices.
Because of the simple universal nature of these practices and because I was young when I first learned some of them from my beloved French grandmother, Antonia, I call them “Leadership ABCs—the Little Things that Make a Big Difference.” Here they are:
Practice Good Manners
Be aware of others and their sensibilities. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Be polite. Be pleasant. People matter. People forget your accomplishments but never forget how you made them feel. No matter where they are on the professional hierarchical scale, people want to matter, want to be noticed, and want to make a difference. Be one who notices others.
Everyone Has a PhD in Something and Is in Kindergarten in Something Else
This concept was first shared with me by my grandmother to explain the hurtful behavior of my brilliant grandfather, who was an acclaimed professor and author. When I asked her how one knows which side of a person is which, she replied, “By listening, ma Petite, by listening with curiosity and interest.”
Because I grew to understand that each of us has a PhD and is in kindergarten too, I was not intimidated by or overly impressed with any individual, nor was I dismissive of or impatient with any individual. In fact I learned to listen with interest for their fine gifts and to be compassionate regarding their shortcomings. And, after some years, I learned to apply this formula to my relationship with myself as well.
Sometimes we miss an individual’s brilliance because we are blinded by our awareness of his or her struggles. Similarly, sometimes we give up our own common sense because of the influence of an individual who might even be an acknowledged genius, but who is engaging in an arena where he or she lacks sensitivity. Or sometimes we are not able to relate authentically to someone because we are hurt by their mannerisms and therefore craft a role to protect ourselves.
The concept that each of us has a PhD and is in kindergarten too allows us to forgive others for their shortcomings and to remove or reduce our personal emotional response from the equation. Then, in a problem-solving situation, we can put our focus on listening and can, in fact, listen to others purposefully and without distraction for whatever is missing or is needed and will carry the day.
Lead with Listening and Listen for Gold
After practicing listening for solutions throughout the first decades of my life, the concept later became my mantra as I negotiated my way through difficult passages as the CEO of an international nonprofit. I practiced “listening for the gold” and encourage you to try this approach: Lead with listening and listen for what’s missing and for common ground and then offer what you hear back to your colleagues as a way to reframe the challenge and as a possible way forward. You will soon experience that all solutions are there begging to be discovered through the listening of engaged individuals like yourself. Listening for gold allows you to initiate an upward spiral in your workplace, family, and community.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
In a workplace or team environment, always communicate explicitly, even when you assume someone already knows what you wish to convey. He or she often does not already know and is waiting to be included. I have found time and again in my work with accomplished professionals that the source of a breakdown was inevitably due to missing communication and not, as one might think, to incompetence, intentional undermining, or apathy. So communicate and over-communicate. You and your colleagues will discover the right balance. Follow these practices:
- Do not speak in code.
- Do not leave out aspects of the message.
- Do not be overly verbose, but do be absolutely complete.
- When in doubt, communicate. Unless you are communicating strictly “need to know” information, include everyone who touches the project.
Inclusion and communication are vital keys to success.
Be Careful of Uncorroborated Assumptions, or at Least Check with Someone!
I cannot tell you how many times one of my sophisticated, intelligent clients has been damaged by or has inflicted damage upon another person due to an assumption that remained unexamined. Whether it be:
- The scientist who did not attend a crucial meeting on his specialized subject matter due to feeling that their lack of an invitation was the organizers’ intentional choice; or
- The senior vice president who assumed that the team of directors who had worked around the clock on a project had already received the news of its approval by the board of directors; or
- The managing partner who assumed that paralegals and assistants attending the celebration luncheon were covered by the company credit card, while he departed actually having paid only for his fellow managing partners.
So examine your assumptions, find out what is true, and take appropriate action.
To sustain participation and productivity in anything, I have found an essential element to be FUN. You have to find ways to make it fun for you and for others too. One way to have fun is to be fun. Create a commitment to bring a spirit of playfulness to the workplace. Identify activities and ways of being that are fun and put them on your priority list.
I can illustrate the use of the above concepts with a common challenge of leadership: making difficult decisions. All effective leaders realize and accept the responsibility and importance of making tough choices or resolutions albeit through fair practices and consensus building. An example is when a department chair has to make difficult decisions on allocation of limited resources with no clear consensus from faculty members on how to proceed. Effective leaders proceed by noticing others and listening for gold to air and acknowledge potentially divergent inputs and by communicating explicitly about options to ensure stakeholders are cognizant of choices and to avoid assumptions within the group. Of course these practices don’t ensure that all will agree with the final decision, but they promote consensus building and fairer procedures.
The key to following these simple Leadership ABCs is to practice, practice, practice. To do so you will need to begin with yourself:
- Practice good manners with yourself. Treat yourself kindly.
- Identify your PhDs and your kindergartens and be aware of each.
- Lead with listening and practice listening for gold to your own creative thoughts and desires.
- Be in good communication with yourself. Check in daily.
- Beware that your assumptions about yourself do not hold you back.
Catherine A. Parrish is President of NextLevel Leadership, Inc. Her website is
Goleman D, McKee A, Richard E. Boyatzis RE (2002). Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business Review Press.
Landsberg M (2015). The Tao of Coaching: Boost Your Effectiveness at Work by Inspiring and Developing Those around You. Profile Books.