Leadership and self-awareness

Why being self-aware is critical for NEDs – and seven steps you can take to improve

Can you see yourself clearly? Being more self-aware promises a raft of benefits for Non-Executive Directors (NEDs), with research suggesting it can improve everything from decision making and communication to job satisfaction.

Most leaders understand the benefits and believe they have high levels of self-awareness – but is that actually true and if so, what can you do to improve?

Organisational psychologist and executive coach Tasha Eurich has spent years studying what it means to be self-aware. After 10 separate investigations with nearly 5,000 participants, her team found just 10–15% of people are truly self-aware, even though the vast majority thought they were.

We looked at what it really means to be self-aware and seven ways you can work on it, so that you can help boost your performance as an NED.

The two main types of self-awareness

There are two types of self-awareness, according to Tasha, and both are important to effective leadership.

1. Internal self-awareness

How clearly you understand your own values, fit with your environment, reactions and impact on others.

2. External self-awareness

Understanding how other people view you in those areas.

External self-awareness is particularly powerful for NEDs. The greater the coherence between your self-perception and how members of the management team see you, the easier it is to build trust and communicate.

Introspection doesn’t guarantee self-awareness

Interestingly, Tasha’s research found no correlation between internal and external self-awareness. She discovered that it’s really common for people to have a clear sense of their inner workings without fully understanding how they’re perceived by others.

So, how can NEDs develop their self-awareness and become better leaders?

We’ve shared seven practical steps you can take to improve your self-awareness below and recommend watching Tasha’s TED Talk.

Seven key ways to improve your self-awareness as a business leader

1. Get feedback

Actively seeking out and valuing other people’s opinions improves the understanding you have about yourself.

Experience can give people a false sense of confidence. This is a particularly dangerous trap for NEDs, who have normally had long, successful careers.

Try setting aside time to ask someone in your network – your coach or mentor if you have one – to review your performance. That could be scheduled once every quarter or every six months depending on the depth of your engagement.

2. Assume positive intent

Feedback about your performance or conflicting opinions on tackling a situation can feel negative – and it’s easy to get defensive. You might become fixed on justifying your stance, rather than being open-minded and learning.

To avoid this, give the people you’re working with the benefit of the doubt. Step back and try to assess the situation, so you can do a better job of understanding their position and how you’re being perceived. 

3. Make space to reflect on your performance

Life can be hectic for NEDs and business leaders. It’s easy to slip into a frenetic way of operating – and fail to give yourself the time to reflect and learn.

The benefits of reflection are immense. It allows us to develop new approaches to problems, learn from situations and understand ourselves better.

Booking time in your diary to look at particular projects or making space to think about things more generally will help you develop as a leader. That could mean deep-diving into some data or simply taking a walk to process your thoughts.

4. Ask “what” rather than “why”

As noted above, there’s no clear link between having good internal and external self-awareness. While introspection can be incredibly positive, we’re not always that good at it.

We tend to simply repeat our existing thinking or thought processes, which entrenches biases and fears, rather than getting us closer to the truth.

Tasha suggests asking ourselves “what” rather than “why” when self-reflecting. “What” questions give us the power to move forward because they lead us towards insights we can act on.

Here are some examples of turning “why” questions into “what” questions:

  1. “Why is the CEO failing to motivate his sales staff?” “What types of communication does the CEO have with his sales staff?”
  2. “Why wasn’t it possible to turn around a failing company?” “What steps did we recommend the leadership team take?”
  3. “Why am I qualified for this Board role?” “What capabilities can I bring to this Board role?”

5. Be authentic

Authenticity is a key driver of trust and good communication, making it a fundamental pillar of effective leadership.

Being authentic is acting in a way that shows who you really are, without changing your behaviour to please others. It takes courage to be truly authentic in leadership roles. 

Striving for authenticity and building your self-awareness go hand in hand.

6. Assess the models you use

A big part of an NED’s role is helping leaders understand situations and providing advice drawn from experience.

The danger is that the models and situations you rely on go unchallenged and fail to develop over time. 

Part of being self-aware is investing in learning and developing the views you hold:

  • Look for dissenting views on approaches you recommend
  • Write out and examine the premises in your argument
  • Challenge assumptions based on the performance of a similar type of company or leader

7. Think about your offer as an NED

Whether you’re drafting a CV for your first NED role or are an experienced Board member, it’s important to work on the service you offer. A sparkling corporate career or entrepreneurial success story isn’t enough on its own – it needs to be developed into a compelling NED offering.

It’s important to carefully think through your USP. You’re seeking to enter a brand new marketplace. In the same way you would advise a company to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses before entering a new market, you should do the same.

Get help becoming more self-aware

Transpire helps its members excel in Board-level roles through education, community and mentoring. We believe being more self-aware is critical to developing as a leader and an NED. 

If you want to develop your capability as a leader, check out our Stepping Stones programme, High Performing NED’s Toolkit or One to one coaching.

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