Knowledge Expansion

Self-awareness leads to improved leadership skills and career development

Insight Article

Leadership Development

Shannon Geis

As the healthcare system continues to shift and change, practice administrators must heighten their focus on leadership skills and career development to stay competitive. 

What makes a good leader? “Competence will get you the job, but character is what will make you a good leader,” according to Tracy Spears, founder of the Exceptional Leaders Lab. 

Bergitta Cotroneo, FACMPE, MGMA member, deputy chief executive officer, Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine, Alexandria, Va., and former MGMA board chair, added that leadership skills can be refined by understanding temperament, learning how to “manage up” and creating an achievable action plan.

Understanding temperament — yours and your team’s

One of the most important aspects of leadership, according to Spears, is understanding your own temperament and the temperaments of those around you. “Leadership is the most pride-swallowing job there is because you have to think about other people’s needs,” Spears said.

But it’s not just about understanding others. “A good leader understands what they are not good at as well,” she explained.

A number of self-assessments are available that examine temperament, including Myers-Briggs, the Color Code test, StrengthsFinder and DiSC. “I do think that self-assessment, self-reflection, is important — asking yourself hard questions, finding out sort of what am I thinking, where am I right now, what are the tendencies I have,” Cotroneo said. “And then the hardest thing to do is to ask a colleague what do they see, because sometimes what we see in ourselves isn’t really what we are reflecting out publicly.”

Regardless of how you examine your temperament, a better understanding of how you typically relate to the world can help you to adjust how you interact with others so that those relationships are more productive.

“As you work with people on your team, you have to consider their temperament and meet them there,” Spears said. “Leverage the different temperaments. Use people’s strengths to your advantage.” 

“Knowing yourself makes you a better leader,” Cotroneo added, “but it also makes you a better co-worker.” 

Managing up

Learning to work well with your boss and those higher up the chain is also critical to advancing your career. One of the best techniques for honing this skill is what Spears called “managing up.”

This strategy is based on consciously working for the mutual benefit of your boss and yourself. “[Managing up] is a deliberate process to create a better relationship with the people you work with,” Spears explained. It is not a manipulative or covert strategy, and it is not “kissing up.” 

The key to managing up is to identify your boss’s personal needs and communication style, and to learn how to present problems in a productive way.

“Be in the solution business,” Spears said. “Don’t come into a meeting without a solution.” When you present a solution along with the problem, she added, you are demonstrating your willingness to collaborate. Spears suggested the following steps when approaching your boss with a problem: 

  1. Describe the problem.
  2. Identify your solution or approach.
  3. Explain the implications.
  4. Discuss the benefits.
  5. Accept responsibility for the outcome.


She also emphasized the importance of considering your boss’s priorities and how you can help your boss to achieve these goals. “Know how he or she is measured, compensated and recognized,” Spears said. “Figure out how you can help in areas outside of your current role. Can you make up for one of your boss’s weaknesses?”

By paying attention to these priorities, you can help your boss to recognize your value — to the organization and to your boss, Spears said. 

Creating an action plan

But understanding temperament and managing up can only get you so far. At some point, you have to start looking at your future — setting goals for yourself and creating an action plan for achieving those goals, Cotroneo said.

“Developing a career plan for your next five years is really imperative to being successful [and] also being fulfilled in what you do,” she said. “To create your own personal action plan is to say, ‘These are the things I’m going to focus on. Here’s where I’m going to spend my energy.’”

Cotroneo suggested starting with an end in mind and asking yourself:  

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going to get there?
  • Why do I need to make a change?
  • What’s missing in my arsenal?
  • When should I begin my preparation?
  • Who is my champion?

Once you have identified your goal, where do you start? “First, identify your gaps — in skill, knowledge, relationships — so that you can create a plan that addresses these,” she said. 

This step calls for self-awareness, she said, to articulate personal versus professional needs and goals, develop a baseline assessment of your current state, cultivate emotional awareness and acknowledge the gaps.

Once the gaps have been identified, decide how to move forward, Cotroneo said. Develop a problem list, decide where to begin, determine resource requirements and design the long-term plan.

Next, find the resources necessary to achieve your goals. One of your biggest assets (or liabilities) in this step is your team, she said. Seek to build and maintain a cohesive leadership team. Cohesive teams build trust, eliminate politics and increase efficiency by knowing one another’s unique strengths and weaknesses, openly engaging in constructive ideological conflict, holding one another accountable for behaviors and actions, and committing to group decisions.

A personal board of directors

Also, consider setting up what Spears and Cotroneo called a personal board of directors. Find “board members” — people who believe in you or inspire you in some specific way — who have done something you want to do and will give you honest feedback about your performance. Then reach out to these people and engage them in helping you to navigate your blind spots and step out of your comfort zone by providing you with constructive criticism and keeping you accountable to your goals.

The final step is to learn, adapt and innovate, Cotroneo said. Your action plan may make sense to you now, but certain factors may change, so don’t be afraid to re-evaluate. Adjust your plan as your situation changes and as you learn more. Be willing to change and improve, she said, and hold yourself accountable.

About the Author

Shannon Geis
Shannon Geis
Staff Writer/Editor MGMA

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