How to make a personal development plan that works


Many leaders reach the top because they develop rapidly and well, often using personal development goals. But any Internet search reveals conflicting opinions on what actually works.

We have solid evidence of change, based on accomplishments by our executive participants in the Ascent Leadership Fellowship. These CEOs or comparable leaders set “big goals,” ambitions for themselves and their companies likely to conclude over one or more years (five years for one). Past research says that on average only 25% of participants make measurable change based on training, fewer in executive education.

Our fellowship did better in just six months:

  • 100% of our participants made meaningful progress

  • 75% got at least halfway

  • 18% completed their first goals

  • 25% progressed on a second goal

You can see a sample plan here, but there’s far more science underneath. Four key points:

  1. Goals vary by level and by purpose and can nest: a energizing “big goal” can have smaller, stepwise “SMART” goals within them as you learn enough to set them. Sometimes your goal is just to gather information.

  2. SMART goals in isolation demotivate; as a measurable step to a big goal, energize.

  3. Goals must motivate the person. A goal that does not matter will be ignored or rejected.

  4. “Networked” goals work better than alone: Announcing goals makes them more likely to complete; involving others at different steps provides a support network, reinforcing feedback, and concrete help when needed.

There’s far more to be said, and we do in our programs. Drop us a line to discuss!


Why your Company Should Offer You a Mentor

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A mentor is an employee – superior, junior, or a peer to you in rank - within your organization, acting as a resource to guide your career and offer support. This can mean emotional and social support, in addition to skill-related support; they also act as models for how to behave and motivate others. 

If we’re being honest, we all could use one. Here’s why: 

  1. You’ll be more successful.  Who can’t Organizations benefit with the development of stronger, more diverse and equitable networks. 

  2. You’ll make a friend. Mentors benefit as much as their mentees! Not only personal satisfaction and “giving back,” but also growing one’s reputation and learning. 

  3. Dynamic mentoring – a developmental network - is the wave of the teamwork-future. Groups of people mentoring one another provide appropriate, timely and diverse support to give each individual the most well-rounded feedback and coaching.  

Two Boston-area researchers, Kathy Kram and Wendy Murphy, identified three types of developmental networks: 

  • Multi-level: up, down, sideways – providing usefully different perspectives: people with influence, people being influenced, and people in similar roles 

  • Multi-relational: multiple people as part of a network, which broadens the opportunities for help 

  • Intra- and extra-organizational:” insiders help negotiate organizational complexities; people outside provide safe counsel and objectivity.  

Relationship quality is crucial. This is especially true for top leaders at the C-level and CEOs who often struggle to collect direct and honest feedback.  We learned quickly that diversity of perspective and experience adds tremendous value to our participants. 

Everyone belongs to the larger network we build across programs, but within a fellowship people organically develop their own sets of advisors and mentors to help them develop themselves and carry out long-range executive goals.

Murphy, W. & Kram, K.E. (2014): Strategic Relationships at Work. New York: McGraw Hill


How Top Leaders Successfully Navigate Change (Part V): Self-Management

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A paradox of top leaders is that they must steadily sustain themselves in rapidly changing times.  Potential, without sustained effort, will never fully manifest.

Many cite resilience as a means to respond to the accelerating pace of change in business.  This focuses more on surviving failure rather than maintaining energy over inevitable ups and downs.  And, many successful leaders see setbacks not as failures, but as opportunities for greater success. 

So, how does a leader maintain? 

Research identifies several key characteristics to sustain and renew motivation over time: 

  • Ongoing refocusing: Finding ways to keep bringing your eyes back to the prize. The first popular version of Windows took eight years to develop. No one can stay focused continuously that long, but one can set up reinforcers outside oneself to remind and refocus repeatedly. 

  • Attributing failure properly: Do you attribute failure to your own enduring lack of ability or to the nature of this situation today? Martin Seligman found that salespeople attribute failure externally to a specific time, in a specific place (e.g., “this client didn’t want to buy today”). We find that leaders not only do that, but also own the responsibility (not blame) to tackle failures. 

  • Poking your motives: Setting up means to push your own buttons. Achievement-motivated people set goals to track improvement; Influence-motivated people look for impact on others. 

When dealing with rapid change and the need to move quickly, keeping yourself positive, focused, and energized will enable you to overcome the inevitable barriers of life and fully manifest your potential. 

We help leaders tackle this through our approach to setting “big goals,” CEO-level aspirations, with a stepwise plan supported by a network of reinforcers: mentors, peers, and measurement. Our participants have accomplished those goals at a rate of four to eight times higher than other executive development programs. Get a glimpse of how we do it at 

Reference: Seligman, Martin (1990, 1998, 2006). Learned Optimism. 


How top leaders successfully navigate change (Part IV): Empowerment

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Individual innovators are often driven by achievement and have good lateral and conceptual thinking, but they also feel empowered to experiment.  

That’s what leaders do: enable the whole company to try new (even risky) things. Innovation leaders are different from innovators; rather than innovating themselves, they empower others to do so, and indeed are motivated to influence, not just invent.  

When confronted with regular business decisions: Do you stick with your declining cash cow business? Do you spend to do something new but risky? There is no single answer, but top change leaders typically bring three elements that help. 

First, you need a clear strategic vision to enable others to make aligned choices and decisions independently.  Then they understand the game and the goalposts. Steve Jobs focused Apple on just three key areas when he returned, e.g., the iMac, with a home-use focus. Then the innovation aligned. Otherwise, innovation can go in all different directions. 

Second, you must engage people with that vision and third, encourage manageable risk around it. A risk you can learn from and use regardless of outcome (i.e., it won’t destroy the company) is worth taking. Great change leaders let people experiment within reasonable limits for a clear purpose, keeping in mind that most experiments fail. If only the CEO thinks they can take risks, you’ve reduced innovation to one person. Give others a supportive hand. 

Learning and using new information - and making sense of it - are critical, especially if you are motivated.  The next step is for your followers to navigate change and innovate with you. 

We help executives communicate, collaborate, and manage stakeholders through immersive exercises using individual assessments and trackable goals. 100% of our participants made significant progress, and many completed major individual goals – in six months. To see how, look at


How Top Leaders successfully Navigate Change (Part III): Tapping into Emotion


How can leaders respond to the accelerating pace of change in business? Learning means you can take on and use new information, and making sense of it is critical, but what if you simply don’t care to improve? 

Caring is critical to executive potential, if only because executive roles become all-absorbing: CEOs are CEOs all the time. If unmotivated by their role, they can easily burn out just doing their jobs. Motivation points to what you have potential for

Motivation is why people actually do what they do. There are two types: what you consciously think is important (explicit) and what energizes you emotionally (implicit). The former helps make choices -“What do I need to do now?” and the latter propels and focuses people over time - “What do I want to do overall?” 

Top implicit motives (everyone has all three):  

  • Achievement: the primary motive of entrepreneurs, sales people, innovators, and process managers: doing things better 

  • Influence: the primary motive of leaders, coaches, change agents, and managers 

  • Affiliation: the primary motive of humanity in general – wanting to be part of a group and/or get along with others in a personal way 

By exploring one’s own motives objectively; for example, learning what you truly enjoy, or seeing how you spontaneously respond to ambiguous situations; we can separate motives from conscious values - which may or may not align.  

We’ve seen leaders start with a role well-suited to their motives and succeed so well that their role becomes unsatisfying, e.g., from startup CEO to major company leader means moving from an Achievement-based role to an Influence-based role.  

Implicit motives remain stable without significant effort, so it’s important to know the relative balance of your three as you choose a role. Otherwise one may have CEO ability but lack the necessary motivation. Learn your motives, and you can make the best use of motivation and organization: making clear choices based on your head and your heart. 

Take a look at how we have helped people of many motives align themselves for growth.


How Top Leaders successfully Navigate Change (Part II): Putting it Into Practice


The ability to learn means you can take on and use new information, but how do you put it into practice?  

There are three key cognitive abilities - beyond basic IQ - that senior executives rely on to master rapid change: 

  1. Analytical, cause-and-effect thinking for the long haul. Most high-ranking leadership roles require analytical thinking, but we find the best senior leaders can follow a logic chain out much further than the matter at hand; even years ahead. 

  2. Conceptualizing. Crafting a concept or vision that enables others to act with clarity despite complexity is a major advantage. This capability first emerges among middle managers but reaches strategic levels in senior executives making sense of a global, evolving market. The very best can make you say, “why didn’t I think of that?” 

  3. Lateral, creative thinking. Contrary to what people think, looking for alternatives and possibilities instead of converging on a reasonable answer is a game-changer. This isn’t just a bolt from the blue; you can teach people to maximize the natural creative ability of the human animal. 

The combination can far exceed than the sum of the parts, e.g.: exploring broad options (#3), following each through to conclusion (#1), and prioritizing and organizing the best solution for the most crucial problem (#2). Brought together, these power strategic thinking. 

Business hones analytical thinking from the beginning; conceptual thinking sifts out those who can prioritize as managers from those who get lost in complicated business situations. Lateral thinking is both less emphasized and most readily developed, since everyone is creative, and greatly increases innovation. We’ve put executives in safe places to encourage intellectual exploration and ran them through exercises with diverse people to promote creative, lateral thinking through comparison and contrast with others’ experiences and ideas.  To see what we’ve done already, go here.


Wai, Jonathan (2013): Investigating America's elite: Cognitive ability, education, and sex differences. Intelligence 41 (2013) 203–211.


How Top Leaders Successfully Navigate Change


Change happens all the time, and faster than ever in the business world.

The average age of an S&P 500 company was 60 years in the 1950s, but is now under 20 years, according to Credit Suisse. Technology and its accompanying disruption is a major cause of this. 

How can leaders respond to such unpredictable change and technology? They need:

  1. Brainpower to make sense of what they see at a high level, 

  2. Influence-based leadership abilities to get others on board with change,  

  3. Motivation to change, 

  4. Managing one’s motivation and focus over time for persistence, 

  5. But none of these work without the ability to learn – and learn fast! 

The ability to learn is the keystone of executive potential, and that helps make the best use of the other four. One can be brilliant but still not take on new information, or motivated without insight, or influence people to do the same thing. What do we mean by learning? It is not just absorbing information: it is accepting ideas that may differ from your own, and using them. Ask for insight from knowledgeable people, and trust it. Many people seem to think that asking for help makes them look stupid, but in fact it impresses people more.

The challenge is getting trustworthy information when people may be either reluctant or even unqualified to provide the information you need for your level of leadership. 

The solution: intensive, immersive learning from those out on the leading edge, and ideally in diverse groups of peers who add insight and support from similar but different perspectives.




Celebrating Ascent Fellows


For frequent airline passengers, the words – “Put your oxygen mask on first” – are very familiar and heard before each flight.  Why?  Because if you run out of oxygen, you cannot help anyone else who may be struggling with their own oxygen mask. 

We know leaders drive performance of an organization, but they often spend too much time running from crisis to crisis, providing oxygen to others, while depriving themselves of the oxygen they need to look and act farther ahead, preparing for future crises and changing times. This narrow focus on short-term results can lead companies to underinvest in the future of their leaders, to enable them to better take care of others and the business. 

With the recent conclusion of our inaugural Ascent Fellowship - focused on family-run and founder-led businesses - we have had the honor to spend the past six months with 27 incredible leaders who did take the time to invest in their ability to respond to rapid changes and increase productivity and profits. 

Their organizations understood that developing high-performing employees not only improves their performance but also rewards them, becoming a virtuous cycle to attract, retain, and develop the leaders of the future. When tailored to the specific needs of individual leaders, this development becomes particularly effective and powerful.

“Being a senior executive for 25 years, I believed I knew who I was and how to run my business life. Ascent gave me a much clearer picture of myself and helped me define the path to follow in order to become a better professional.”

— Frederic Vieil, President and CEO, Hexagone

Development of leadership need not be a crapshoot, relying only on the lucky few. Evidence shows that most leaders benefit visibly from intensive development when provided core knowledge, opportunities to grow, and networks to support that growth.

Everyone has the capacity to learn, grow, and strengthen the practice of leadership. We applaud our Ascent Fellows for their commitment to personal learning and development.