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Four ways to reflect that help boost performance

Powerful modes of reflection are crucial for leaders and their teams, especially when dealing with a crisis.

Reflection for seasoned leaders has always been a personal process. Step back. Regroup. Look in the mirror. Push the pause button. There is often an intuitive belief that reflection carries restorative powers and can even be transformational.

In theory, it goes like this: On top of a mountain, a leader retreats to ask him or herself a set of questions about life, stress, and sacrifice, capturing the answers in a beautifully bound notebook. The questions don’t vary much. Where are you going? How are you living your values? What gives you meaning, purpose, or fulfillment? Are all the components of your life managed as you need them to be managed: career, family, friends, finances, health, and spiritual growth?

The power of this reflection comes from digging deep and being in touch with your core. It is very much an affair of the heart. With the insights from this exercise, you come back to your role renewed, focused on what matters to you and clearer about how you will lead this year.

Although this kind of deep reflection (on an imagined mountaintop) is a useful process, it may not be enough to tackle the range of problems a business encounters in the course of a year because it focuses solely on the leader. In our experience working together and independently coaching leaders, we find that they and their teams benefit from four ways of more targeted reflection that help refocus and reframe challenges (see “The four kinds of reflection”).

This is particularly true when the world as we knew it has so dramatically changed and the challenges we face will be of a new kind.

Each type of reflection amplifies the power of the others. They serve different purposes and occur at different frequencies. We’ve talked about the solitary mountaintop experience. Here’s why the other types of reflection are important.

Leadership health check reflection

In our experience, the leadership health check should be done twice a year. Its purpose is to refine how you lead in order to elicit better performance, engagement, or commitment from those around you. Rather than a look at yourself in a mirror, you distill the views of others concerning your words and actions. Informally or formally, you gather the answers to the following questions from people you trust, such as a coach, colleagues, and mentors. And you collect the perspectives of key critics.

  • How am I doing?
  • What adjustments in my style or approach will get a better result?
  • What am I avoiding?
  • What am I ignoring?
  • What should I keep doing?
  • What feedback am I hearing?
  • Where do I need to turn the volume up or down?

Each type of reflection amplifies the power of the others. They serve different purposes and occur at different frequencies.

This is where you get your readout of your vital signs. It is outside in, and its power comes from listening and being open to feedback. It means facing up to the perceptions of people who interact with you. With the insights from the answers to these questions, along with an honest evaluation of what’s important, you can decide which changes will get better results and make the appropriate adjustments.

Twice a year, a CEO we know sits down for a personal scorecard review. His coach interviews board members, executive team members, supporters, and critics to find out what the CEO is doing as a leader that is effective, and what each person wishes he would do differently. The conversation is affirming and at times painful. In one instance, the CEO learned that although he thought his town halls were creating honest dialogue, the people attending saw them as rehearsed, canned, and full of management speak. That perception mattered to the CEO, so he set about changing how he delivers his opening remarks and how he addresses questions. The town halls now feel less like a broadcast and more like a candid conversation.

Looking back on past decisions reflection

The look-back occurs as needed, but we’ve found that the most helpful frequency is at least two or three times in a year. It seeks to demystify outcomes whether they were expected or not, good news or bad. It is based on checking the assumptions behind key decisions before they are superseded by the stream of events.

For example, a business unit head recommended that his company buy a small tech company in Silicon Valley to speed up the firm’s digital transformation. After the deal closed, the key talent of the startup firm walked out the door. What exactly was the unit head and everyone else thinking at the time? What did they fail to see about the needs of people in the acquired company? The acquiring company’s chief competitor took a different approach to digital transformation, one that generated more powerful customer engagement than expected. So why did the unit head and his people think as they did? The reflection process showed that they had no one on the team representing the perspective of a tech startup. The important questions were not asked until too late in the process.

The look-back is a team effort aimed at creating an open playing field for what comes next. It brings out of the shadows wrong thinking and poor decision making, and it shines a light on the real reasons for successes. Its power comes from the disciplined pursuit of truth and cold reality.

  • How are things working?
  • What were we thinking or doing?
  • What weren’t we thinking or doing?
  • Why were we thinking and doing the way we were?
  • What do we know now that we didn’t know last quarter (or six months ago)?
  • What have we learned about ourselves?
  • What would we do differently next time?

With the insights gained from this reflection, make a conscious decision as a team on what you will keep doing, stop doing, and start doing. Write out those decisions, distribute them to the team, and keep referencing them. Tools, such as after action reviewsPDF, are useful for engaging in exactly this sort of reflection.

Scanning the horizon reflection

Finally, there is looking out ahead and scanning the horizon. This is the reflection that we’ve found should be the most frequent, about every two to three months. It is the most creative and least connected to the drumbeat of everyday business. It takes about an hour and involves having your team share via any means they choose — words, drawings, videos, speakers, and stories — fresh takes on what is going on outside the walls of your organization and your industry. The effort casts a wide net over what you have been too busy to notice, things that at the end of the day point to the future.

  • What’s interesting?
  • What do you want to know more about?
  • What are people outside your team talking about?
  • What is new in science, entertainment, fashion, or smartphone apps in any field?
  • Who are you interacting with?
  • Who do you never get to meet?
  • What is happening at universities?

When you scan the horizon you don't consider what you are feeling, how you are doing, or what you were thinking, but simply try to see what is going on that you and your team might overlook unless you look out the window. The power of this type of reflection lies in observation.

We worked with a leader who was curious about what younger staff were thinking, so she asked her children and her newly hired employees what they were watching and reading. They talked about new streamed services, memes, and their favorite news feeds. She challenged her team to ask the same questions of their younger employees and to report back on their discoveries. The team then explored which forms of communication and entertainment appeal to the next generation. They brought in an expert to talk about new ideas. Although this exercise did not immediately lead to a change in communication strategy for the business, it did make for easy connections with the younger employees. Most likely, the insights generated will eventually impact business decisions.

Rarely does scanning the horizon lead to immediate actions — and that is exactly the point. Being curious about what is going on in the world outside your business is often what leads to ideas about new opportunities and changes to consider more thoroughly.

The power of the right type of reflection

Reflection is about stepping back, setting aside the urgent, and considering what is important (which might in itself be urgent). It zeroes in on specific issues, but also casts widely on no particular issues. It taps into the power of the mind beyond the usual modes of debating, planning, and checking. Furthermore, it is an essential skill for coping with uncertainty.

Each of these four kinds of reflection will yield totally different perspectives: long-term, short-term, right now, and the distant future. Each is important for getting a grip on what is going on. You will emerge with greater clarity about the past, improved visibility into your current status, and a surer alignment of what you expect of yourself and your organization.

Author profiles:

  • Stephen Newman has been a teacher, trainer, program director for executive development, and advisor to companies on learning. He was the cofounder of the Future of Learning Forum at Columbia Business School and the originator of the Magnet for Global Innovation program in Silicon Valley.
  • Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast Out of the Comfort Zone and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise.
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