A Dozen Practical Suggestions for Leadership Effectiveness

By Dale Benson, MD, CPE, FAAPL
May 24, 2018

Mentoring, monitoring, communicating and evaluating are some of the tasks that can help improve a physician’s approach to leadership challenges.

1. The Harry Roberts “personal quality checklist” is a powerful tool that can enable you to move toward achieving your vision of becoming an effective leader.  

As a leader for decades in the quality and productivity movement, Roberts became an advocate for developing and using what he called a personal quality checklist.1 It is not a list of things to do. But rather it is a list of things to be. It can help each of us to become the kind of person, and the kind of leader, we want to be.

Roberts suggested that we focus on waste reduction and value-adding activities. The list could also include personal habits or characteristics that you would like to enhance or be rid of. Here are some of his examples:

  • Do not procrastinate — do today’s work today.
  • Arrive at all meetings on time.
  • Greet all colleagues pleasantly every morning.
  • Provide positive reinforcement to at least one co-worker every day.
  • Keep desk organized.
  • Return phone calls the same day.

You don’t need or want an extensive checklist. Even one or two “to be” items will get you started.2 You also could include on your list one or more important components from your personal leadership philosophy such as your essential principles, desired results or leadership style.3

Roberts said that you should review your list every morning and at the end of each day. Score yourself on how you did. Plot your scores over time. It is all about developing the habits that will make you effective and successful.

2. Focus your management energy on helping each of your people to achieve.

If you want your organization to achieve its potential, you must be committed to helping your employees reach their potential. It is one of your most important tasks.

An effective leader gets up in the morning and says, “What can I do today to make someone else better?” Making your people better is not only a task, but also a trait of leadership. At least once every year (in addition to the formal performance evaluation), sit down one-on-one with each of the employees for whom you are responsible and ask questions such as:

  • How is life going?
  • How is your career going?
  • What would you like to be learning?
  • Do you have a career development plan?
  • How are you doing on it?
  • How can I be more helpful to you?
  • How can the organization be more helpful to you?

These are not performance evaluations. They are “how is it going?” conversations. Mentoring. Affirming. “Where do you see yourself in five years? In 10 years? How can I, as your supervisor, be helpful to you in achieving your educational and career plans? How can the organization be helpful to you in achieving your educational and career plans?”

By the way, here is a fringe benefit to these sessions: When your people are progressing toward their potential, they can make you look awfully good.

3. Formally remind yourself each month what it is that you are supposed to be accomplishing.

Throughout my career I used a monthly tickler file. In that file for every month was a copy of my job description, my annual goals and objectives, my most recent performance evaluation, my current Roberts “to me” list and a copy of my personal leadership philosophy.

On the first day of each month, I reread my job description — to be sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.  I reread my annual goals and objectives — to be sure I was accomplishing what I was supposed to be accomplishing. I reread my most recent performance evaluation — to be sure I was improving what I was supposed to be improving. I reread my current “to be” list — to be certain that I was becoming what I wanted to become. And I reread my personal leadership philosophy — to be sure that what I was doing and the decisions I was making were consistent with how I wanted to approach leadership.

I reread all five items, every single month. Twelve times each year. Does this take some time? Certainly. Were there other items in my inbox at the time? Sure. Was it important to make this a top priority activity? Absolutely. It was well worth the time and effort. It kept me focused. It kept me aligned with my organization’s priorities and with my personal priorities.

12 tips email

Proofread and spellcheck each email before it is sent. People make judgments about the sender based on the appearance of his or her emails.

4. Be extremely careful how you use emails. Emails can assist you and make you more efficient. They can also destroy you. 

Never forget that the quality of your emails is as important as the quality of your other documents and the rest of your work. They send a message about how important quality is to you. Emails are not text messages written with your thumbs. Proofread and spellcheck each one. It will be worth the little extra time invested. People make judgments about you based on how your emails look.

Never forget that any email you write could end up being forwarded to anyplace in the world and to hundreds or even thousands of people. Most important, it could also be forwarded to the person you are talking about in your email. Never send an email you might regret.

If you feel like sitting down and writing a sizzling response to an email you received, you can do so if it will help you feel better. But don’t put the address in until you are ready to send it. If the address is already there because you clicked “reply,” take it out before you write anything. You absolutely don’t want it going out accidentally.

Don’t even think about sending it until you have had a day or two to cool off and consider very carefully how it is worded and how it will be received. It is likely that you may decide that there is a better way to respond.

Always think: What is the worst thing that could happen if I send this email? Because it could happen. Never conduct a battle by email. You will be asking for big-time trouble, and it is very likely that you will lose.

Don’t ever send what could be interpreted as personal bad news in an email. When you must deliver news that is going to impact or change someone’s life, do the right thing: Do it in person. 

When I was a hospital vice president in Chicago, Illinois, I sent a job candidate an email saying he did not get the job. The address was incorrect and the email went to a random person who wrote back and told me that he thought this was a pretty scruffy way of delivering bad news. He was right. From that point on, my policy became to always personally call and talk to anyone I have interviewed for a job and who did not get it. It is a huge issue of respect.

5. Communication must be your top priority. if communication is not your top priority, your other priorities are at risk.4 Communication is always a problem in any organization.

Lavish communication is key.5 It is better to be guilty of overcommunication rather than undercommunication.

It’s OK to communicate half the picture, if that’s all you know. Say to your employees: “Here’s what I know now. It’s not complete, and it may change tomorrow, but I want to keep you in the loop.” This builds credibility.

Think every day about communication. “Do my people know what they need to know to do their jobs and be effective contributors to our mission?” Ask them on occasion for feedback on how you are doing in communicating, and what they feel they need to know that they are not hearing from you.

Keep in mind that well-placed positive feedback can often improve performance more than negative feedback.

6. Use the power of concurrent feedback with your people. We are not talking about the annual performance evaluation, but rather day-to-day, in-the-moment feedback.

The technique that is most effective in changing performance (and is actually the most effective form of training) is concurrent feedback. Feedback once per year during the annual evaluation is of limited usefulness. Feedback that is timely — same day, same hour — has a much greater impact. The closer to real time, the better. The feedback does not have to be negative or critical. Keep in mind that well-placed positive feedback can often improve performance more than negative feedback.

Feedback should always be respectful, with due consideration for privacy and confidentiality. If it is negative or constructive, it needs to be done in private. But it should be direct, honest and timely.

7. Begin each formal evaluation with a review of the employee’s life and career objectives. 

Talk about how the organization can help in achieving these objectives. It sends a strong, positive message that you care and that what happens to the employee is important to you. Don’t even look at the evaluation form for at least the first 30 minutes. Discuss from memory your employee’s strengths. Talk about ways to increase effectiveness.

Focus on strengths, not on weaknesses. Spend your time talking about how to make the strengths stronger. Weaknesses tend to remain weaknesses, no matter what you say or do. Strengths remain strengths. So build on the strengths. In the long run, focusing on improving weaknesses will not get you very far.

An effective way to fill out the evaluation form is to do it together. (You should have already filled out a copy of the form prior to the evaluation session so the employee will know that you are taking this seriously.) Let your employee tell you what, in his or her judgment, the ranking on any given item should be. Tell your employee what number you put down. Often the two numbers are the same.

Occasionally, the employee picks a different number. Talk about the differences. This will be good and useful information. You might even change your mind.

Do the performance evaluation in the month that it is due. Even better, schedule it for the anniversary date. It is an important way to show respect. You can do this if you plan it far enough in advance. On the first of every month, schedule your performance evaluations for that month. The performance evaluation is an important management responsibility. You need to make it the priority that it truly is.

8. Be aware that you are a mentor every day whether you want to be or not. If you are a leader, you are, de facto, an informal mentor. 

If you are a parent, you know that your kids are watching you all the time. You are informally mentoring your kids.

What do you want people to see in you every single day, no matter what? What do you want your people to learn from you every day, no matter what? Your integrity? Your actions? Your reactions? Your approach to problems? Your approach to people? You need to be sure to practice what you preach.

9. Let the people who are going to be working with the candidate do the interview and make the selection recommendation. They know what the job entails. They know who will fit in. Plus, if you hire their recommendation, they are invested in making their candidate successful.

12 tips interview

Let employees who are going to be working with a job candidate do the interview and make a recommendation. This approach gets them invested in making the hire a success.

Remember the saying, “We hire people for what they know and we fire them for who they are.”6 Spend your time in the interview finding out who they are. Their resume will tell you what they know. The resume does not always tell you who they are. Remember that the closest we ever come to perfection is when we write our resumes. You have to get inside that resume and find out who the candidate really is.7

If you interview a good candidate and a position is not available, stay in touch. Email contact every two to three months ultimately can be rewarding. If you interview two good candidates and can only hire one, stay in touch with the other candidate. You never know when another opportunity may develop.

10. What percentage of your day do you spend attempting to resolve internal conflicts?

As leaders or managers, we often get put between two employees who have some sort of battle going on. Instead of confronting each other, one of them comes to you and expects you to straighten out their wayward co-worker.

Or sometimes, they just are not happy with what a co-worker is doing — or not doing.

If one employee came to me to complain about the performance of another employee, I would immediately volunteer to accompany the first employee to talk with the second employee. Together we would get the concerns out on the table. What often happened was that the first employee would decide that the issue wasn’t really that important, that we really did not need to go talk with the second employee. But just as often, when we did go ahead and meet with the second employee, the issue was dealt with and resolved.

11. We talk a lot about putting out fires. Problems occur frequently. Many are preventable.

It seems as if every day the fires keep popping up and must be put out. They are Stephen Covey Quadrant I or III problems — urgent, maybe important, maybe not. They take time and energy that could better be invested elsewhere.

But it is even more important to spend time and energy on fire prevention. Every time you have a fire, and after it is put out, spend some time reflecting on the cause of that fire. Think about what you could be doing differently that might have prevented that fire. And then start doing differently whatever that might be.

I have found that the one-on-one sessions with employees become a very good fire prevention tool. Very often they give you an opportunity to be the smoke detector. Catch the fire before it happens just by listening very carefully to what your people are telling you.

I have always felt that managers who boast about spending their day putting out fires are not effective. Your goal is not to be successful at putting out fires. Your goal is to eliminate fires. Make a point of spending a significant part of each week on fire prevention activities.

12. Here is a list of the most important phrases in the vocabulary of an effective leader and manager.

  • “You did a great job.” Be honest, but be quick to praise. Praise is the most effective form of feedback.
  • “What do you think?” I need and respect your opinion.
  • “I will listen to you.”
  • “My fault.” One way to earn the eternal gratitude of those around you is by being willing to take blame. When you can do this, you will rarely have to take all of the blame, because no one will let you. It is not necessary to debate whose fault it is. Once you utter these words, who is at fault is no longer an issue. You can move on.
  • “Thank you.” Say this every day. It is not difficult to say. At the end of every day, go find someone who helped you that day and thank that person.
  • “We.” We are a team. We are in this together.

Use these phrases without hesitation. They will make a huge impact on your leadership effectiveness.

Dale Benson, MD, CPE, FAAPL, is the former vice president of innovation, quality and practice management, and director of the leadership development institute at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, California.  He was the founder, and for 30 years, the CEO of HealthNet, a community health center network in Indianapolis, Indiana.  


  1. Roberts, HV. Using personal checklists to facilitate total quality management. Selected Paper Number 73. The University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business.
  2. Roberts, HV. Quality Is Personal: A Foundation for Total Quality Management. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, May 2010, p. 324.
  3. Benson, D. Creating your personal leadership philosophy. Physician Leadership Journal,2(6):64-6, Nov-Dec 2015.
  4. Pinchot, G, Pinchot E. The Intelligent Organization: the Seven Essentials of Organizational Intelligence. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1994. p. 65.
  5. Edinger, S. If you want to communicate better, read this. Forbes, Mar 20, 2013.”
  6. Barna,  Master Leaders: Revealing Conversations with Thirty Leadership Greats. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009, p. 75.
  7. Maxwell, J. The Five Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2011.

Topics: Leadership Journal

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