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Build Your Own Ladder, ‘Read the Air,’ & More – The Leadership That Works Newsletter

by | Sep 30, 2023

At ConantLeadership, we’re committed to lifelong learning and continuous improvement. In service to your leadership growth, each month we curate the Leadership That Works Newsletter, a digest of timely resources from around the web. We prepare this resource in order to:

  • Share actionable advice from top leadership luminaries
  • Celebrate a range of viewpoints (inclusion is not an endorsement)
  • Contextualize workplace trends through a leadership lens
  • Illuminate cultural recalibrations in the world of work
  • Support your personal development in life, leadership, and beyond

In this month’s Leadership That Works Newsletter: Build your own ladder, ‘read the air,’ tap into the ‘moveable middle,’ hone your ‘narrative intelligence,’ align your work with your values, and more. As alwayswe’re sharing the content from our newsletter here on our blog in case you’re not subscribed to our mailing list. If you find these links enriching, you can sign up to receive our newsletter right here.

‘Read the Air’ to Get Ahead

In this New York Post coverage, Michelle Penelope King, author of the new book How Work Works: The Subtle Science of Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself, shares tips for using higher awareness to advance career success. King draws inspiration from the Japanese term “kuuki wo yomu,” which translates to “read the air,” which is similar to the western advice to “read the room.” She says reading the air is “about knowing the shared norms that govern our everyday interactions,” and it includes “a deep understanding of your work environment, regardless of the setting.” There are five key ways to apply the skill.

1. Manage your connections: “Get to know your informal network,” and invest in “building a range of diverse contacts.”
2. Practice self-awareness: “When people are self-aware, they understand the gap between how they see themselves in terms of performance and behavior and how others see them . . . they don’t simply rely on their own assessment.”
3. Seek informal learning: “We develop by learning new skills and ways of working on the job,” and co-workers are resources too: “They help you understand if your behaviors are effective or not.”
4. Know your strengths: “Reading the air is about knowing how to be yourself, your best self, and manage the impact your behavior has . . .the aim is to understand how you can lean into your strengths.”
5. Be intentional: Success “happens through the actions we consistently take to manage our careers,” and many people “are still relying on our workplaces to direct our career paths.” Reading the air requires taking the reins.

King says, “if you know how to read the air, you know how to get the job done.” Get the full story here.

Build Your Own Ladder

Climbing a career ladder used to be more straightforward. But times have changed as companies pivot quickly to keep pace with technology and AI continues to threaten or transform knowledge work. In this Wall Street Journal piece, Rachel Feintzeig reports on why it may be time for professionals to reimagine their approach to advancement: “The set paths that used to shape so many careers are eroding fast these days,” and, “no matter the profession, the promise of a system propelling you steadily forward is now often a facade.” Feintzeig’s interviews with a variety of experts and professionals reveal advice for building your own ladder to career fulfillment.

One CEO of a career development firm says to start with the question, “What is it I want to be known for?,” rather than envisioning a particular job title or promotion. Others say to think more creatively and non-linearly about your path and to consider this unique moment in time “as an opportunity to have more choice in the work you do, rather than following a trail someone else carved out.”

Overall, it helps to practice acceptance that external forces are outside of your control; being prepared for the future requires looking inward and considering a variety of options and interests, because “hitching yourself to one path leaves you vulnerable when things change.” Get the full story here.

**For more on this, explore the 6-step Blueprint process which includes a series of prompts for reflection and exercises designed to help leaders connect with their true values and aspirations.

Leaders Need ‘Narrative Intelligence’

Narrative intelligence is the ability to create patterns and attach meaning to what’s happening in the world around us through stories,” writes Christina Blacken in this Quartz piece. Blacken says “storytelling is the oldest form of communication and has incredible power in how we adopt ideas and build relationships,” and that stories actually light up the brain and increase “neural activity.” She says leaders must hone their narrative intelligence because “leadership is storytelling with a goal,” and that using stories to build connections and trust “has massive impacts on behavior and leading people to take action.” Blacken offers five ways to improve narrative intelligence.

  • Become conscious of social and cultural narratives that shape yours and others’ lived experiences
  • Self-reflect on your personal and organizational narratives
  • Perform a story audit
  • Practice and collaborate
  • Match stories with action

Find a richer explanation of each of the five tips in the full story here.

**For more on this, explore the power of story by learning why we believe “your life story IS your leadership story.

How to Be True to Your Values

“Our careers take up an enormous amount of our time and energy, and it’s essential to feel that we’re creating careers aligned with our moral values,” write the authors of this Harvard Business Review piece. The authors acknowledge that there are very real economic barriers that can make “charting a moral career challenging.” However, through their research and teaching, they’ve “gleaned some key lessons about how people can pursue careers that allow them to live out their moral values.” They share three tips.

1. Tune into revelations about the morality of your work. Stay alert to “moral reckonings,” which “wake us up to misalignments between what we’re doing and who we want to be.”
2. Question “purity” roles. Push back on the assumption “that we should be willing to sacrifice aspects of our personal lives and deprioritize our needs in order to take morally ‘pure’ jobs.”
3. Seek communities that share your moral values.To truly build careers aligned with our moral values, we need to be willing to reconsider whom we seek guidance and validation from.”

Find a deeper exploration of each tip in the full story here.

Tap into the Power of the ‘Moveable Middle’

“In an age dominated by extreme narratives and the loudest voices, the transformative potential of a quieter but significant group—’the moveable middle’—remains unnoticed and under-prioritized within organizations,” write the authors of this Big Think article on how to use “belonging leadership” to widen engagement. They note that, “people in the middle are often left out,” and “their potential is underestimated,” which is unfortunate because they tend to be more open-minded, flexible, and receptive: “The ‘moveable middle’ in any organization is inhabited by individuals and groups that are not only more open to change and evolution, but crave it.” To tap into the power of this important middle group, the authors offer five fundamental “belonging rules,” that can help everyone thrive.  

1. Turn into the power. Interrogate “power structures, forces, and accepted traditions.”
2. Listen without labels. Engage the middle “without judgement.”
3. Choose identity over purpose. Show the middle “a cultural framework that gives them greater awareness of company identity, behavior, and values.”
4. Challenge everything. Promote “an open environment for inquiry, free of conflict, devoid of oppositional energy, and driven by a positive spirit of curiosity.”
5. Demand 100% of the truth. “What the middle most craves is truth,” and “belonging leadership” requires full transparency.

Get the full story on how to tap into the power of the “moveable middle” here.

The 7 Elements of Respect

Many busy leaders find that their punishing schedule and workload can cause the interpersonal aspects of their job to suffer. Sometimes, step-by-step frameworks can help ensure that empathic connection isn’t the first thing to go out the window when the pace of work increases or when conflict arises. In this episode of The Science of Happiness Podcastdiscover how one overworked ER doctor used Dr. Diane Johnson’s “7 Elements of Respect” practice to develop deeper relationships in a challenging emergency medicine environment that requires doctors to “form a relationship with a patient within the first five seconds.”
Dr. Johnson’s 7 elements of respect are:
  1. Acknowledge the conflict and affirm your commitment to understanding and moving forward.
  2. Ensure that you are staying honest and true to yourself.
  3. Hear new perspectives by practicing deep listening.
  4. Recognize the importance of empathetically interacting with others.
  5. Let go of any pretenses or sense of ego by practicing humility.
  6. Notice how these actions affect your internal motivations.
  7. Practice building relationships and connections with others.

Listen to the full story or read the transcript here.

**For more on this, explore our post ‘
Empathy Is the Secret Source of Connection’—Brené Brown and Doug Conant on Leadership in the Pandemic Era

Go from Little ‘c’ to Big ‘C’ Culture

While most modern leaders understand the importance of company culture to delivering high performance and fostering employee engagement, “very few organizations get it right,” writes Amy Leschke-Kahle in this MITSloan Management Review piece. Despite good intentions, many companies fall short because “the overarching experience of working on a team varies greatly from one group to another,” meaning that the culture is “conditional.” Leschke-Kahle says the “little ‘c’ culture that employees experience in a team,” needs to align with “the big ‘C’ culture of the organization as a whole.” She says big ‘C” culture, unlike little “c” culture is, “unconditional,” and “exemplifies an organization’s employer brand as a promise, a unifying experience, and an expectation.”  With big “C” culture, every single employeeregardless of job title or work groupshould understand “what they can expect it to feel like to work at the organization.” This kind of culture must be:
Differentiating. “A meaningful culture is differentiated and specific to your organization.”
Clear. “Descriptions of culture should be ridiculously understandable.”
Credible. “Yes, actions do speak louder than words.”
Consistent. “The culture element can’t be ‘kinda, sorta, maybe, sometimes.'”
Get the full story here.

Amp Up Your Etiquette

At ConantLeadership, we define leadership as “the art and science of influencing people in a specific direction.” To achieve mastery, leaders must be persuasive, which requires deft people skills. In this CNBC post, public speaking expert John Bowe shares the nine phrases that are most effective in interpersonal communication and he promises: “If you use any of them every day, you have better etiquette skills than most.” These magic phrases are:

  • “What I’m hearing you say is . . .”
  • “You may be right.”
  • “You were right, I was wrong.”
  • “Thank you for doing this . . .”
  • “I’ll leave you to it.”
  • “Can you help me with something?”
  • “Your [hair/shirt/tie, etc.] looks so nice today!
  • “That’s interesting.”
  • Say nothing at all.

Get the full story here.

**For more phrases that are highly effective in a leadership context, explore our post on why you should always ask “How Can I Help?”

Insights & Resources from ConantLeadership


Making a Difference: Leadership That Works

In this new piece in LEADERS Magazine, Doug Conant shares why a philanthropic spirit is central to his leadership work and reminds other leaders that “it’s all about the people.”

‘Courage Is the Mother Skill’—Why Leaders Must Learn to Be Brave

In this new blog, learn why courage is the most essential leadership competency for the modern age and get tips for becoming more brave.

Lead with Your Heart, Not Just Your Head’ — Bill George & Doug Conant on How Emerging Leaders Can Find True North

In this recent blog, Doug Conant and Bill George share tips for new leaders who are seeking practical ways to lead more authentically.

August’s Leadership That Works Newsletter

In last month’s newsletterThe 8 paths to humility, stop saying ‘hybrid work,’ learn to celebrate rejection, recognize ‘screen apnea,’ and more.

Did You Miss The BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit?

This past week, ConantLeadership hosted the 6th biannual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit, a week-long special event bringing together the top leadership minds and luminaries in the business space.

If you missed it, no worries—we’ve linked all available recordings below. And you can also access our library of previous summit sessions here including conversations with Brené Brown, Susan Cain,
 Indra Nooyi, Amy Edmondson, and many more.

RECORDINGS (Fast forward to roughly minute 4 to skip intros & housekeeping)

Amy FedermanAbout the Author: Amy Federman is ConantLeadership’s Director of Content and Editor in Chief, and co-author with Doug Conant of the WSJ bestseller, The Blueprint.

(Cover photo by Shakil Mridha on Unsplash)

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

The Blueprint

The Blueprint

6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights

By Douglas Conant with Amy Federman

Have Doug Speak at Your Event

Doug works collaboratively with event organizers to customize his material for each audience.