5 High-Performance Habits and Qualities of a Good Leader

Wondering what it takes to lead well? These are the five habits and qualities of a good leader that set high-performing managers apart from the rest.


Ready for a not-so-fun-fact from Management 101?

Despite the brains, talent, and no-guts, no-glory work ethic that gets new managers promoted in the first place, 6 out of 10 new leaders underperform in their first two years of leadership. 

If you are a new manager wondering what it takes to lead and lead well, then you might be curious:

What are the 4 out of 10 high performers doing differently?

In this post, we detail five qualities of a good leader and the high-performance habits that will help you become one yourself.

If you’re pressed for time today, you can use the table of contents below to skip ahead to a topic of interest. But, if you’re looking to have a particularly amazing rookie year in management, it is recommended that you read the article start to finish.

Quality of a Good Leader No.1 "Gets" that they are the Subject Matter Expert on THIS one thing

Most first-time leaders share a tight grip on a fundamental misunderstanding of their role. And that is this:

A leader must know how to do everything everyone on their team does, only better.

Effective managers know better. They feel no need to match - or surpass - the talents and skills of their team members.  Instead, they understand that their role is this:

To learn how to apply their team members’ talent and skills in a way that solves problems and seizes opportunities.

They “get” that the sooner they become the Subject Matter Expert on their team’s talents, skills, and interests, the sooner they’ll produce value for the company.

High-Performance Habit No.1 Quickly becomes – and stays – the Subject Matter Expert on their team’s talent, skills and interests

Managing a team for the first time typically means taking on the challenge of meeting your company’s goals - and your manager’s expectations - using a collection of talent, skills, and personalities cobbled together by someone else.

If you’ve inherited your team members from your predecessor, then the only way for you to know what you’ve got in terms of talent and skill is to get to know who you’ve got.

To get to know your team well, and fast, I recommend getting answers to four specific questions from each of your team members, preferably in one-on-one sessions. Those questions are:

The 4 questions that will quickly make you a subject matter expert on your team

Question 1

What's something you've worked on recently that you are really proud of? 

Click the button below to find out what, exactly, your team member's answer to this question will tell you about them.

Question 2

What's something that you've learned recently? What's something you would like to learn how to do?

Click the button below to find out what, exactly, your team member's answer to this question will tell you about them.

office brainstorm session
Question 3

Can you give me an example of a problem you recently solved and your approach to solving it?

Click the button below to find out what, exactly, your team member's answer to this question will tell you about them.

Question 4

How would you describe your ideal work environment? 

Click the button below to find out what, exactly, your team member's answer to this question will tell you about them.

1. What's something you've worked on recently that you are really proud of?

What their answer to this question will tell you:

Your team member’s response will give you a glimpse into their values in terms of work and career. It will also give tell you a bit about what they feel they’re good at.

What makes this question so juicy is that there are so many places your team members can take their responses.

And, if you listen closely enough, you’ll hear several opportunities for “tell-me-more” follow-up questions. For example, if s/he named winning an award of hitting a sales goal, follow up with:

What do you think were the biggest factors in taking home that award? 

2. What's something that you've learned recently? What's something you would like to learn how to do?

What their answer to this question will tell you:

First, you’ll get a sense for whether – and how much - your team member values continuing education.

And second, you will learn something about their personal drive and initiative.

And third, their answer will reveal a bit about their sense of self awareness.

3. Can you give me an example of a problem you recently solved and your approach to solving it?

What their answer to this question will tell you:

You’ll find out whether or not you’ve got a creative, critical thinker on your hands and you’ll get a feel for their work style. Listen carefully as your team member describes their approach.

Take note of the following:

Their go-to tools and resources.

Whether solving the problem required technical skills, people skills or a balance of both.

Whether solving the problem required detailed strategizing or big-picture thinking.

If they mention collaborating with co-workers.

Your team member’s response to the problem-solving question offers up insight into what tangibles and intangibles this person might bring to the team and department.

To find out if they can draw connections between their work and the production of company value, you can ask a follow-up question like:

When the problem was solved, what did the company gain?

4. How would you describe your ideal work environment? 

What their answer to this question will tell you:

Your team member’s thoughts will give you an idea of whether or not your company’s culture ‘works’ for them.

If, for instance, s/he describes a clean, well-lighted place that smells like Nag Champa and sounds like babbling brook and your office looks, smells, and sounds more like the Boiler Room floor, then beware: you might need to explore whether the office environment is negatively impacting your team member’s potential.

This ‘fit’ assessment also serves as an early opportunity to build rapport. Listen closely to what, if any, accommodations can be made. And, if you can, make them.

PIN IT: A good leader is the SME on their team's talents, skills, and interests

Effective leaders don’t waste time trying know, be, and do everything themselves.


Instead, they invest time and energy upfront to get a baseline understanding of where their team’s talents, skills, and interests lie.


You can do this, too.


Start with an actual inventory informed by four questions outlined here, then, to enforce the habit, revisit with your team members to update your inventory on a quarterly basis. They may have learned new skills, developed new interests, or found themselves burnt out on old ones.

Quality of a Good Leader No.2 Recognizes the power of 2 primitive tools

During your first few weeks in your leadership role and every week thereafter...

You will be introduced to people that you will be working alongside and what, exactly, they do.


People will share important upcoming dates with you.


You will hear acronyms you’re not familiar with.


People will ask you to get certain things done.


You will be asked to work with programs, systems, and processes that are new to you.


You will have great ideas.

One of the most impressive leadership qualities that all effective leaders seem to possess is an uncanny ability to remember all of this.

What’s the deal with that?


Were these people born with superhuman recall skills? Blessed with photographic memories?


No!


They simply understand that the memory is not the place for important details. So, they whip out their pen and notebook and write it all down.

High-Performance Habit No.2 Goes nowhere without a notebook

Want to dramatically increase your leadership abilities for under $10?

  1. 1
    Go buy yourself a notebook and pen.
  2. 2
    Put important ideas, dates, questions, and lists there
  3. 3
    Either at the end or beginning of each day, review your notes from the previous few days.

It doesn’t get easier.

This is not a commentary on your ability to retain information. It’s a public service announcement that, should you experience a mental power failure, your notebook makes for one handy back-up generator.

Also - your notes serve as a cheat sheet of sorts that you can study each night.

Take a few minutes to review them at the end of each day or in the morning and every single day you will be a little better at what you do than the day before.

PIN IT: A good leader goes nowhere without a notebook

If you can recall first names with hesitation, if you can draw connections between your tasks and key dates, if you can learn acronyms, ask great questions, offer great ideas and accomplish tasks in a timely fashion, others will be impressed.


If you can’t, they won’t.


This one is profoundly simply and profoundly effective.

Quality of a Good Leader No.3 Has THIS perspective on knowledge gaps

New managers, beware. You are about to enter a world of New-to-You. There will be:

(1) tasks you don’t know how to complete and


(2) situations you don’t know what to do about.


For many new leaders, swallowing a handful of paper clips sounds like a much better time than admitting you don’t know something, especially in front of your boss or a team.

High performing managers? One of their most distinctive leadership qualities is their ability to see knowledge gaps differently than anyone else.

To the high performer, a knowledge gap is nothing more than a learning opportunity.


With our next high-performance habit, you’ll learn how to identify critical knowledge gaps and prioritize the order in which you should close them. Read on to find out how to create a “What’s New” Inventory.

High-Performance Habit No.3 Creates – and keeps - a “What’s New” inventory

Creating a “What’s New” Inventory is a super simple process.

Its purpose is to help you identify knowledge gaps (a.k.a. what’s new to you) and prioritize them, such that the most impactful gaps get closed first.


I recommend organizing your inventory into three “What’s New” buckets.

  1. 1
    Lack of familiarity with priority processes and job functions.
  2. 2
    Lack of familiarity with tools and resources.
  3. 3
    Lack of familiarity with your team’s use of time and how long it takes to get certain tasks done.

We’re about to explore each of these buckets in detail.

What's New Inventory Bucket No. 1: Priority processes and job functions.

What does this mean?

This looks like a shortlist of your top three priority processes and/or job functions.


Don’t know what your top three priority processes or job functions are?


That’s okay! You have two excellent resources for finding out.


2 best resources for pinpointing your priority processes and job functions

First, your manager.

Book a 30-minute session on his or her calendar. Bring your job description or any notes from your interview to the meeting, if you think it might help.


Ask your manager to pinpoint which three processes or job functions he or she would like you to become an expert in within the next 90 days. If s/he points out five or six items, say this: “Great. This helpful. Is it possible to rank these in priority order?” Give most consideration to the top three.

Second, your team.

Either in one-on-one sessions or during a group meeting, ask your team to share their perspective on what THEY need YOU to learn in the near-term in order for the department to run smoothly.


Spend some time with your notes [the one’s you put in your notebook] from your boss and team, then, use your best judgment to make your shortlist of top three priority processes and/or functions.

IMPORTANT!

Within each bucket, you’ll want to get as specific as possible when it comes to “inventorying” items. So, list specific processes or job functions here.


Let’s have a look at an example:


Ensure compliance with regulatory standards.


This isn’t detailed enough.


Why? Because we don’t know what processes, products, or programs need to be compliant and with which regulatory standards. Let’s add some more detail here:


Ensure the six new products in our chocolate bar line are certified Vegan, USDA Organic, FairTrade and Gluten-Free.


Now, this’ll do.


This is the level of detail that lets those knowledge-gap uncovering questions more quickly come to the surface. Questions like:


Do I know which agency certifies product as vegan?


Do I have experience getting organic products certified by the USDA?


Am I familiar with how to become FairTrade certified?


Have I gone through the gluten-free certification process before?


Any processes, functions, groups, agencies, products, etc. that you are NOT familiar with get added to your “What’s New” inventory.

What's New Inventory Bucket No. 2: Tools and Resources.

What does this mean?

Here, your “What’s New” inventory looks like a list of the tools and resources that your department uses that you are not familiar with.


By tools and resources, I mean everything from software to hardware to third-party services.


Two resources you can use to begin your inventory include your team and your IT department.


2 best resources for discovering the tools and resources you should be familiar with

Two resources you can use to begin your inventory include your team and your IT department.


Ask your team which tools they use get their work done: desktops, laptops, mobile phones, printers, copiers, Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe Creative Cloud, Slack, Concur, Asana, Trello, etc. Also ask for a list of consultants the department works with and the services they provide.


You’ll also want to ask your team how often each tool is used. Daily? Weekly? Once a quarter? Etc.


If they haven’t already, ask your IT department to connect you with the same access and user rights to all platforms your predecessor used. If your team overlooked any platforms, add them to your inventory.

Look at the list you created with insight from your team and IT. 

Place a star next to the tools and resources you are not familiar with using. Your list of starred items becomes your shortlist of ‘need to know now’ tools and resources.


Don’t forget to factor in frequency-of-use into your priority learning tasks. In terms of time management, you’ll want to get schooled on tools and resources you use most often first.

What's New Inventory Bucket No. 3: Lack of familiarity with your team’s use of time and how long it takes to get certain tasks done.

What does this mean?

This part of your inventory looks like a list of your team members, their years of experience, their main responsibilities, and a rough estimate of how they spend their time each week.


Your go-to resource for this part of your “What’s New” inventory if, of course, your team.


In a series of one-on-one sessions with each team member, get answers to the following questions:

  1. 1
    What's your title?
  2. 2
    How long have you been with the company?
  3. 3
    How many years of experience do you have in this field or function?
  4. 4
    What are your priority processes and main job functions?
  5. 5
    Roughly what percent of your 40-hour week do you spend working on each function?

You might find that your team can easily answer Questions 1-4, but struggles when it comes to putting a percentage to time spent by task.


While that’s normal, it does need to change.


Task your team with tracking how much time they spend on their projects and tasks for the next few weeks, then revisit this question in a subsequent meeting.

PIN IT: A good leader creates and keeps a "What's New?" Inventory

New managers who are afraid to “admit” they don’t know something have an unchecked fear of making mistakes and looking stupid in front of others. They end up taking action with limited - or inaccurate - information.


Do you know what these managers end up doing? Making a lot of mistakes and looking stupid in front of others.


If you’re looking to undermine your rapport in a jiffy, by all means, don’t ask questions.


If you want to demonstrate that you are honest, genuine and willing to learn and learn fast, use a “What’s New” Inventory as a systematic, repeatable way to identify knowledge gaps and prioritize the order in which you should close them.

6 out of 10 new leaders underperform in their first year of leadership. This is what the 4 out of 10 are doing differently. | 5 High-Performance Leadership Qualities and How to Make Them Yours

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Quality of a Good Leader No.4 Keeps THIS one thing impeccable

A new management role can mean any – or all – of the following:

All of these firsts? They lend themselves to yet another topic less-experienced managers must quickly learn to get a grip on - the stress of leadership.


Most new managers underestimate two critical things:

  1. 1
    Just how stressful the first year in a new leadership role can be.
  2. 2
    How much of an impact stress can have on the level of success they achieve in that first year.

Stress impairs our ability to focus, solve problems, and to act like a leader.

What does “acting like a leader” look like? 

I’m sure you’ve got a few adjectives you’d use to describe a leader. To me, an effective manager consistently – and unflinchingly - demonstrates the following:

  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Humor
  • Patience

Having an impeccable attitude is one of the qualities of an undeniably good leader. 


Younger leaders who choose compassion, humility, humor and patience over other, less productive, emotions will excel in their first year of leadership.


And here’s why:

Leaders don't lose their cool. They just don't. 

This is what sets them apart from followers after all.

High-Performance Habit No.4 Practices staying freakishly calm and cool

Choosing to remain calm and cool on the outside regardless of what horde of flying monkeys comes in on the wind will help you earn the invaluable reputation of having an impeccable attitude.


Of being ‘unshakeable’.


That’s an eerie level of self-control that most people just can’t identify with.

 

This makes you a little terrifying…in the best, most positive, way.

So, how can you get freakishly calm and cool?

First, you can make stress management a part of your management strategy. 


Again, most new leaders fail to do this, to their professional – and personal – detriment. 


Second, you can make Listen First, Act Fifth one of your management mantras. This simply means that you create a systematic delay between taking in stressful news and acting on that news.

Here’s what Listen First, Act Fifth looks like in action:

Listen First, Act Fifth

First, just listen.

Your ears are ALWAYS your first-line management tool. Let them do their job first and to completion. Practicing taking in information without the additional noise of emotional chatter, is first step postponing reaction.

Listen First, Act Fifth

Second, process solo.

The next step is to process information alone. You do not want the unchecked emotions of others to influence your judgment. When Listening Round 1 is over, close the office door. Book a conference room. And then process. Review what you heard and use this time to do one thing: come up with questions you need answers to.

Listen First, Act Fifth

Third, listen again.

Next, you get answers to your questions. Select your questions carefully, using them to get clarification, more detail, or somebody else’s side of the story. Never react without this second round of listening and be sure to loop in all important perspectives.

Listen First, Act Fifth

Fourth, process as a small group for solutions.

Now that you’ve got additional information, it’s time to revisit the situation, this time with a focus on next steps and/or solutions. You might need or want the input of others at this point. Perhaps you need your team, maybe you need HR, maybe you need input from another manager or your boss. Gather your resources and make a plan of action.


Want the very best results? (Include others with impeccable attitudes.)

Listen First, Act Fifth

Fifth, take action.

Now, act. Deliver your thoughts, your thought process, and what you will do or like to see done next. Thanks to the time you’ve taken here in the Listen First, Act Fifth process, by now, you can do this in a calm, cool manner.

After stress management and Listen First, Act Fifth, the final critical element of a freakishly composed reputation is...

...to opt out of office gossip and negative talk. Difficult to do simply because you’ll be offered so many opportunities to participate, but, truly, that’s a sandbox that leaders just don’t play in.


How to excuse yourself from the narrative…

When things get gossipy, try these lines:

“Huh. I hadn’t heard that.” Then walk off.

When someone’s spouting negativity about someone else:

“Sounds like there needs to be a conversation with So-and-So. Can I help to facilitate in anyway?” Find out if you can help or not, then walk off.

When someone’s spouting negativity about something.

“Wonder if you could share your ideas for turning things around with [whoever can do something about the situation].” Then walk off.


Unless of course, you’re the one who can do something. In that case, Listen First, Act Fifth. 


The point here is this: for an impeccable reputation, be impeccable with your word.

PIN IT: A good leader stays freakishly calm and cool.

Most leaders don’t proactively manage the stress of leadership. 


They, are not the high performing ones. 


Younger leaders who have the discipline to choose compassion, humility, humor and patience over other, less productive emotions will excel in their first year of leadership.

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Having an impeccable attitude is an eerie level of self-control that most people just can’t identify with. Here’s how new managers can become freakishly calm and cool leaders.

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Quality of a Good Leader No.5 Knows how to create a powerful 30-60-90 day plan

Last on our list of stand-out qualities of a good leader is a game-changer when it comes to first-year productivity and beyond.

High performing managers know how to create powerful 30-60-90 Day plans. 


Leadership guru and New York Times best-selling author John C. Maxwell puts it like this “A good leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”


Now, this quote from John C. Maxwell is one of my favorites, because it’s true.


But, it can also be a little discouraging when read, you know, literally. Let’s have another look:


"A good leader knows the way…"


Well, crap. Stop right there.

How is someone managing people, money, and strategy for the very first time supposed to ‘know the way’?

Does this mean that a first-time leader’s shot at being any good is, well, shot?


Not at all. It simply means, in the short term, a new leader’s plans will have different outcomes than the plan of a more seasoned manager.


Specifically, a new leader’s early plans will emphasize the quick closing of knowledge gaps. His or her early goals will focus on research and discovery related to products, processes, people, etc.


In other words, for a new manager, “the way” is an organized research and discovery effort.


High performing managers will use an air-tight 30-60-90 day plan to organize and execute this research and discovery effort.

High-Performance Habit No.5 Consistently creates powerful 30-60-90 day plans

A well-crafted 30-60-90 day plan is a must-have tool in any leaders toolkit, but it’s especially important for new managers and here’s why:


A good 30-60-90 day plan puts boosters on your efforts to build rapport, earn your boss’ trust, and build your own self-confidence – all factors that are critical to a successful first year in leadership.


This is the kind of plan that ensures all of your resources are flowing together in a singular direction, with singular purpose.


This is what allows you to move from the defense to the offense. Instead of putting out wildfires, you’ll be coordinating a totally-contained beach bonfire and inviting everyone to join you for s’mores and sing-alongs.


If you’re a new manager interested in quickly becoming a savvy leader, you need to know that not all 30-60-90 Day Plans are created equal.


You want a particularly kick-ass one.

Where does a new leader get such a plan?

I've created a 30 60 90 day plan guide and template to help you build your powerful plan and fast. Enter your details below and I'll send the FREE download to your inbox. You'll then want to pop over to the more detailed posts I've written on the subject of 30 60 90 day plans and other subjects related to project management.

30-60-90 Day Plan Template by ManagerMaker.co

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PIN IT: A good leader consistently creates powerful 90-day plans

“A good leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”

- John C. Maxwell


A good NEW leader will put early emphasis on research and discovery in his or her 30-60-90 day plan and use that plan to build rapport, earn their boss’ trust, and build their own self-confidence – all factors that are critical to a successful first year in leadership.

Recap: 5 high-performance habits and qualities of a good leader

Just 4 out of 10 new managers find their footing in their first year of leadership.


In this post, we detailed five qualities of a good manager and the high-performance habits that will help you become one yourself.


Remember! Together, these five habits are an All-Star team. Put more than one in play for an amazing rookie year in management.


The infographic below was created to help you keep these concepts organized. Feel free to download and print it out, save it to Pinterest, or embed it on your own website using the code below!

Just 4 out of 10 new managers find their footing in their first year of leadership.

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Hello! My name is Morgan. I created ManagerMaker.co to help new managers quickly find confidence and success in their first leadership role. Here you'll find programs, tools, and guides designed to fast-track your journey from first-time manager to confident, creative leader. The best place to start? Our 10-Day Leadership Skills challenge where you'll learn how to leap over the five biggest hurdles that keep most new managers from finding their footing in their first year. Sign up below, its free!

Morgan Greenwood

Creator, ManagerMaker.co

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