Clear Direction

Practical strategies to develop your leadership skills Darcy Eikenberg

The Actuary recently sat down with Darcy Eikenberg, PCC, executive coach and founder of leadership development firm Red Cape Revolution, to talk about common topics facing today’s leaders—the challenges they encounter, how they deal with fast-paced environments and how they work with teams both in the office and remotely. Whether you are the leader of a large team or a small group, or just trying to lead yourself, you’ll find her responses relevant. Here’s what Eikenberg had to say.

Biggest challenges facing leaders today

There are too many choices! It’s harder and harder right now for leaders to feel confident and solid in their decisions because there are so many options. A challenge is not becoming distracted by all the possibilities—because the reality is we make thousands of choices every single day. We have to work harder to stick to our values, to stick to our business goals and to only make choices that are right for us.

Tools Leaders Use to Grow Their Careers and Teams

I love the word “tool,” because in many ways it implies a practicality. But we’ve gone overboard a little—looking for the perfect tool, the magic wand, the silver bullet—especially in the world of leader and manager development.

When I look at successful leaders who are really making a difference in developing their teams, as well as their own reputations and careers, they’re choosing more conversations and fewer presentations. They’re getting back to talking face-to-face.

Trust is at the heart of being a leader, and face-to-face is still the gold standard to build trust. We need to have trust in order to grow our team and our business.

But trust doesn’t happen because we have some magic survey or we install some fancy recognition program in our organization. We have to focus on building that trust by being honest and transparent, and doing it over time.

Leading Virtual Teams

The word “virtual” always cracks me up because these people aren’t virtual; they’re real! They just happen to not be in the same location you are.

Better leadership starts with taking the time to learn and ask bigger questions about that person. It’s like what you do when you’re in closer proximity with somebody—you learn and find out things naturally—because collision creates conversation.

When we’re remote, we as leaders need to make an extra effort to get to know that person. We need to schedule time to have this conversation, or to have a check-in that isn’t just about the to-do list.

Some leaders resist this because we’ve been taught to stay out of people’s personal business, but work is personal. When we are working at longer distances and without all the benefits of seeing people face-to-face, we need to make the effort to learn that personal information in other ways.

Showing Appreciation for Employees

Offering fair compensation, and being clear about how they are compensated and rewarded, is essential. We’re seeing a lot of research right now about unconscious bias in pay. That doesn’t just apply to women; it may also apply to people who work remotely or who work in another country. Leaders have to think about the rewards of the business.

Also, one thing that keeps coming up is taking time for appreciation. That means recognizing something specific, perhaps in public at the beginning of a meeting or before you’re having a one-on-one. You can say, “I noticed how you went out of your way to help the new guy on the team, and I just want to thank you for that.” Calling out those things can really help show people that they’re noticed, that they matter and that they’re appreciated. That goes a long way toward engaging, retaining, motivating and creating a great culture.

Managing a Rapidly Changing Environment

There is so much temptation to be everywhere, to do everything, to fix every problem. What’s critical, though, is continuing to hone the skill of knowing and aligning your activities around what’s most important.

That means mastering the art of saying no and being able to say, “I understand that’s a problem, and no, we’re not going to focus on it right now because we’re focused on this bigger thing.”

We can’t just keep adding things to our to-do lists. I was in a meeting as an executive coach the other day, and they were talking about their 10 top priorities. You can’t have 10 top priorities and expect to succeed.

That means being able to resist the siren call of saying, “Oh, that won’t take long,” or “That’s just a couple of days’ work.” It’s easy to fill our days doing busy work, but a good leader understands what is most important and helps people stay focused so they can do their work.

Recommended Books and Resources

One of the best things a leader can do is continue to read work from outside the world of business, and even the world of leadership. One of my favorite books is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a book originally written for writers.

He talks about what gets in the way of doing our best work, which he calls “the resistance.” This concept is helpful for anyone who wants to be a leader. When you are moving toward something bigger, when you are growing, when you are doing something that is good for you, you’re going to get this pushback; you’re going to get this resistance. It happens to all of us. The book does a nice job of giving words to those blocks that happen to every person who wants to continue to learn and grow.

Encouraging Creative Thinking

Creativity comes from taking things we already know and putting them together in different ways. One of the things that can really help an organization and a team—and even an individual—get more creative is to take them out of their existing environment.

Go somewhere else that maybe you know but haven’t looked at in the light of your current problem or situation. For example, I’ve taken teams to a museum or a zoo and said: “Here’s the problem we’ve been trying to solve in the office. Now, you’ve got 90 minutes to come back with new ideas to solve our problem, based on what you’re seeing here.” And every time we take a field trip and do that exercise, something fresh comes out of it. You find inspiration in real life.

Darcy Eikenberg, PCC, is a frequent presenter at major SOA events such as the Life & Annuity Symposium and the Valuation Actuary Symposium. She is also a regular contributor to The Stepping Stone, the newsletter of the Leadership & Development Section. Visit for more information.