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Begin at the End: Preparing Your 2023 Leadership Story Now

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Habit number two of Stephen Covey’s renowned book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “start with the end in mind.” As learning professionals many of us have used this idea in a variety of activities—including having leaders imagine their 90th birthday and what others would say about them or even write their own obituaries. While these activities are effective for enabling leaders to think through their life vision and goals, the habit itself can also help us think through what we want to accomplish during the year. More importantly, the habit promotes thinking about the type of leader we want to be when December rolls around.

Recently, thought leader Terri Klass shared her expertise and ideas for writing an end of the year leadership story with the ATD Forum. She suggests a six-step methodology to use as a framework. The steps include:

1. Setting a meaningful mindset
2. Taking stock of where you are
3. Learning lessons from your actions, especially your missteps
4. Creating a final chapter
5. Establishing clear actions to take
6. Making commitments and sticking to them

While Terri provides a plan for writing the story reflectively, as it happened in the past, the actions you take do not start at the end of the year; they start at the beginning of the year by thinking about—and visualizing—where you want to be as a leader at the end of the year. And that includes taking specific steps and actions to move from where you are in January to the desired end state you want in December.

As we hear repeatedly at this time of year, setting goals is critical. However, improving a skill, learning a new skill, or stopping a habit requires establishing where you are—an assessment of the current state. It also requires knowing where you want to be, analyzing the gaps between the two, and developing a bridge to overcome the gaps.

As the Forum discussion evolved during the recent session, many participants shared ideas for how they proactively enabled some of the most difficult parts of the plan—including setting goals, tracking accomplishments, and periodically assessing the current state. Having all of this information documented enables a smooth transition to gaining major insights for writing a summary story.


The top suggestion for setting goals included using the SMART concept (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) and aligning personal goals with performance goals. Recent blogs and LinkedIn posts have mentioned McKinsey’s 3x3x3 approach for succeeding with goals: Have no more than three goals at the time, a timeline of three months, and three people to help or assist.

There are other ways to determine and capture goals and actions to get the desired results including creating a visual action plan. However, prior to setting goals, it is critical to know where you are with your leadership skill set, what qualities are important for you to be successful and stay current with your work and your role, and how to enhance your skills to be more aligned to the business objectives of your organization.

But learning about your leadership and your impact happens daily and informally, not just when establishing goals. How might you intentionally enhance your ability to gain insights from your projects, colleagues, and practices in the flow of daily work? How might you grow your leadership every day?


The participants at the webinar provided many examples for how they tracked and documented their accomplishments, missteps, and lessons learned. All of these actions take time and discipline; however, they support personal commitment and enable success. Some of the suggested actions included:

  • Keeping a detailed calendar for all activities and projects, both digitally and manually, and reviewing it periodically
  • Capitalizing on your annual performance goals with the organization’s goal-setting system and reflecting on them every couple of weeks or monthly or using a structured format such as an Impact Map
  • Establishing checklists to support the actions associated with accomplishing goals and becoming more effective
  • Periodically using reflection tools such as What Squares, the Plus/Delta chart, or the AhHa sheet to glean insights
  • Compiling a portfolio for the year by describing and documenting your actions using samples and visuals
  • Capturing weekly highlights including successes and missteps and then compiling them monthly or quarterly helps to see progress and tweak goals or practice
  • Developing a vision board or collage to synthesize the actions you have taken and what you have learned. This can be monthly, quarterly, or annually, or it might even be project by project using a story board.

Of course, once you have all the data, you need to conduct an analysis and synthesize the big lessons and takeaways to answer the so what part of the equation. This includes figuring out the highs and lows for the year, the wins and the losses, what worked and why, and what failed and why. Conducting a gap assessment includes not only what you have done, but also what feedback you received, whether formally or anecdotally. These assessments should be completed periodically—minimum every three months—not just at the end of the year.

Lewis Carroll wisely advises us that if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. If you want to be able to write your annual leadership story in December, start now with an inkling of what you want to report. Use the Klass model as a framework, document your actions and results along the way using the suggestions from the Forum session, capture feedback both formally and informally, and periodically assess your progress. When December arrives, you will be ready for your story because you followed the excellent habit of starting with the end in mind.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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