Five simple (but hard) tips to increase your leadership effectiveness

June 6, 2016

A leader wants to implement an automated accounting system. As he speaks, his thinking quickly turns from having the right technology to the thing he’s really worried about… getting peers and bosses to buy-in to the idea that investing in his system is as valuable as investing in outreach and product innovation. It’s an influence problem, not a technical one.

A leader wants to drive the development of an innovative savings product to serve low-income women. She wants to be a strategic mover but, as a manager, she feels caught in the seemingly endless churn of the annual financial cycle: budgeting, reporting, audits, closing the books and starting all over. Her real struggle, she realizes, is letting go of the micro to free her to do big thinking (and moving). It’s a delegation problem, not a technical one.

A leader wants to expand his business to reach new, untapped women customers. To achieve this growth, he needs to seek funding and put pilot programs in place. As he thinks this through, he turns to what’s really keeping him up at night: does his organization have the right talent in place to achieve growth? It’s a people problem, not a technical one.

These are the kinds of issues that senior executives often discuss when they participate in Women’s World Banking’s leadership and management development programs. The Executive Forum, the first in-person touchpoint of the year-long Leadership and Diversity for Innovation Program (the Program) was no exception.

Working with leaders of financial inclusion-focused companies over the years has taught us that most technical challenges are actually management and leadership challenges and, that the best way to make leadership lessons stick is to immediately apply them to real business challenges. The Program helps senior executives and their organizations make progress on a strategic business initiative that will allow them to better serve the women’s market. The Program also helps participating organizations build a more gender-diverse leadership pipeline by partnering with a high-potential woman leader through the program.

Here are five (non-technical) tips from the Program to help participants—and YOU—move forward with business challenges:

  1. Understand yourself

Effective leaders work to understand themselves and the people around them. To facilitate this understanding, we use the Neethling Brain Instrument™ (NBI™), a psychometric instrument that helps individuals understand the extent to which they prefer certain types of thinking. Understanding these preferences can increase personal, team and leadership effectiveness by revealing how you connect with others, appreciate difference and adapt work strategies to enhance team creativity. One Program participant discovered strong preferences in two particular areas and vowed to work to become a more balanced leader by building her skills in less preferred areas.

  1. Be aware of your biases

When leaders suffer from confirmation bias they only look for, trust and act on information that supports preconceptions, often leading to errors. On the other hand, unconscious bias, or preferences that we all have for people or groups at the subconscious level, unintentionally influences behavior and decision making. Decreased innovation can be a side effect of either type of bias in action. One leader told us that, after becoming more aware of the dampening effects of bias on innovation, she will return home and work to shape a more inclusive culture.

  1. Listen and ask the right questions

One of the most underrated, but powerful, skills of effective leaders is the ability to listen. We all listen all the time. Few of us do it well. Taking the time to give someone the space to be truly listened to can be transformative. Equally powerful is a well-structured and well-timed question. We work with leaders to ask questions that don’t just satisfy the listener’s curiosity but actually expand the thinking of the other person, help him or her see new possibilities and generate solutions. When reflecting on the leadership qualities most needed for institutions to serve women well, a participant noted that listening and questioning are key to be able to design products & services that address the needs of women.

  1. Set priorities – make time for “Q2” activities

StevenCovey Activities Quadrant
Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People


Stephen Covey’s simple but powerful matrix divides activities into four quadrants based on their importance and urgency. Our tendency is to take those things that are urgent and important and spend all of our time getting them done. We are always putting out fires and can ultimately burn out. Where we really want to be is in quadrant 2 (Q2) doing things that are important but may have a longer time horizon like visioning, setting strategy, experimenting, learning, developing others. Participants in the program receive remote, executive coaching sessions to help them move forward on their strategic business initiative and leadership development objectives. Coaching is an example of a Q2 activity that may not always seem urgent but is important for long-term strategic action.

  1. Be an adult, not a parent

Some leaders may fall unwittingly into a “parental” state with their staff—either by being overly authoritarian and critical or overly acquiescent and nurturing, taking away the agency of staff members who consequently adopt a “child” state. The curriculum introduces Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis “Three Ego States” (Parent-Child-Adult) Theory as a way of thinking about how to communicate in order to achieve more effective results, particularly when faced with difficult situations. When we opt for Adult-Adult communication, we are objective, open and avoid judgment, blame and defensiveness, ideally resulting in a team culture where everyone feels they have a valid perspective and leaders and their teams are able to take joint ownership for their communication and outcomes.

After leaving the Executive Forum in New York, participants will return to their respective institutions with a new perspective and approach for addressing their business challenge; that it’s not technology or technicalities that make the difference between failure and breakthrough success for serving more low-income women. It’s the people around them,Set featured imageand their own leadership.