5 Tips for Growing as a Leader without Burning Yourself Out
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Leadership Careers Jun 1, 2023

5 Tips for Growing as a Leader without Burning Yourself Out

A leadership coach and former CEO on how to take a holistic approach to your career.

father picking up kids from school

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Sanjay Khosla

Most people realize that growing as a leader takes effort. But the path forward is not always obvious, says Sanjay Khosla, senior fellow and adjunct professor of marketing at the Kellogg School and trained executive coach.

“Becoming more efficient and working harder is sometimes a complete waste of time,” he warns. “All you’re trying to do is become better on the same treadmill, often mindlessly responding to emails and completing tasks.”

Khosla, former president of Kraft Foods International (now Mondelez International), says that anyone looking to bolster their leadership skills should think strategically about how to prepare themselves for new opportunities without burning themselves out.

He has developed a five-step coaching model that helps leaders do just this. Here, he walks us through it.

1. Know yourself

Before you can grow, you need a good sense of your own strengths and development needs, as well as what you actually enjoy doing. It is helpful to get continuous feedback from others, including your manager. This often is done using 360-degree surveys. It is then important to match feedback from others with your own self-reflection.

When Khosla began coaching Maya (not her real name), a senior computer scientist at a large multinational company, she aspired to be the Chief Digital Officer of the company, but it wasn’t clear to her how she would get there. Based on feedback from her manager and colleagues, she realized that before she could be a strong candidate, she would need to be perceived as more than a technical expert, which would require better business and commercial understanding.

Moreover, after some self-reflection, Maya realized she was spread too thin—both at work, where she was unable to break out of her day-to-day tasks, and at home, where the demands of her job made it hard for her to spend quality time with her two children.

She knew she would need to develop her skills while simultaneously freeing up time in her schedule for her family.

2. Manage your energy

The next step is to make sure you are spending time on the right things.

“When you’re stressed out, there’s a mismatch between what you want to be doing and what you’re actually doing,” Khosla says.

To address that mismatch, Khosla recommends stepping back and evaluating what’s important to you. Think of this as an “energy audit,” he says, because “time is a surrogate for energy.”

“Look at your calendar over the last six months and divide how you spent your time into a few themes,” Khosla says. “Then ask yourself: From this list of themes, what is working for me, and what is not? What are the things that really get me excited and engaged?”

When Maya did this, she noticed something striking: she was not delegating enough at work, so she ended up doing everything herself. This left her attending back-to-back meetings, mired in details, and constantly distracted by a growing to-do list—while still not having the time to expand her own skillset.

“When you’re stressed out, there’s a mismatch between what you want to be doing and what you’re actually doing.”

Sanjay Khosla

3. Pick focus areas

Once you have conducted your energy audit, the next step is to realign your actions in the next six months to match your priorities, Khosla says. He encourages people to draw up a list of specific areas of focus—with a limit of five priority areas.

Khosla has one rule for developing this list: it should start with a nonwork-related priority as a way to ensure a personal balance beyond the job. Maya’s first priority was to start dropping off and picking up her children from school because that is something that gives her a lot of joy.

Maya’s second focus area was deciding what not to do—which in her case required her to learn to delegate. Initially, she found this extremely uncomfortable, but delegating has given her more space in her calendar, allowing her to be proactive rather than just reactive. This also gave Maya time to acquire new skills.

4. Build a circle of influence

Khosla also recommends building what he calls a “circle of influence” to help you identify and take advantage of leadership-development opportunities. If you communicate your strengths to this circle of influence, they can help you position yourself for projects that may have seemed inaccessible before.

“As a growth-oriented leader, you need to take an active role in expanding your options,” he says. “To do this, you strategically assess where you want to go, who can help, and how you can approach them.”

Your circle of influence should include colleagues and managers both inside and beyond your company, and ones who can help you make an impact.

As part of her circle of influence, Maya identified her manager, a few peers, a senior sales leader in her company, and a handful of people outside the company. Just as importantly, she committed to connecting with each of these people in her circle on a specific, regular basis.

For instance, another one of Maya’s focus areas was to build experience working directly with customers. For this, she turned to the senior sales leader in her company and was included in some customer projects, working alongside the sales team.

“Maya is developing new skills, gaining more exposure, and has a deeper appreciation of the levers of business,” Khosla says. “She’s learning by doing.”

5. Choose how you show up

Finally, Khosla advises leaders to take a hard look at how they present themselves and their views in meetings and at events.

Often people waste time sharing information that could have been reviewed in advance or get stuck in technical details instead of getting to the heart of what needs to be discussed. If you focus too much on the information that you want to share, you may miss what your audience wants or needs to know. Instead, Khosla recommends leaders flip their perspective.

“Look at everything from another person’s point of view, rather than just telling them what you’re doing,” he says. Doing this requires intentionality. Before any meeting, brainstorm what questions may be asked of you and prepare your answers.

For example, as Maya prepared for a presentation to senior leaders in her company, her original instinct was to produce a huge PowerPoint deck, immersed in technical detail. But with Khosla’s coaching, she reconsidered.

“There is no point murdering the audience with mindless PowerPoints,” says Khosla. “Look at it from the audience’s point of view, and ask what would inspire and excite them?”

Instead, Maya focused her presentation on recent interactions with customers, as a way to signal business impact. She ensured that the presentation included information that was actionable, as well as some “asks” of her colleagues.

“It’s about being crystal clear on what success would look like at the end of each interaction,” Khosla says. “It’s the same subject, but with a different lens.”

Featured Faculty

Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Susan Margolin is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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