Editor’s note: Tom Stevens has gained practical leadership and management experience serving a dozen years as a CEO in the health industry before launching Esquare Leadership, LLC. In addition, Stevens was elected mayor of Hillsborough, NC in 2005. He will serve as a speaker at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s upcoming ‘Entrepreneurs Only Workshop: Are You The Right Person To Lead This Company?’ on June 27. This column is the latest in a series publishing in partnership between the CED and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. – Why do you check how you look in a mirror before presenting yourself to the world? Simple, to see things you couldn’t otherwise see and make adjustments accordingly. Mirrors give vital information from a different perspective.

There is a set of leadership tools that provides the equivalent of a mirror so you can see yourself from a new perspective and creates an opportunity for developing leadership.

Leadership ability is gained primarily by experience. In fact, it is hard to get it any other way. But experience alone does not guarantee development, i.e., new learning that can be applied to future situations. For development to occur, one must reflect on experience in a way that allows one to both to make changes as needed and to reinforce what is working well.

Below are a few tools that, if used well, can help you both assess and develop your leadership competencies while gaining the experience in leading your venture to success.

360° Evaluations — These products systematically collect leadership performance information from everyone around you. In many organizations this consists of people you report to, people who report to you, colleagues on the same level with you; and may also include customers, vendors, funders, or partners. Typically, the information is collected in survey form, although interviews can also be used. There are several 360° products available and some consultants can create custom surveys as well. If done right, 360° evaluations provide outstanding baseline data about perceived strengths and weaknesses.

Instruments and Assessments — Most people are familiar with these typically multiple choice questionnaires. Some of the most popular are the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DISC, FIRO-B, and Change Style Indicator; although there are hundreds for all kinds of purposes. These can be very useful if used appropriately, but misleading to disastrous if poorly applied.

Coaching —A coach engages an individual or a team in a process that focuses efforts to reach objectives. Once considered mostly for ‘remedial’ issues with otherwise high-talent individuals, coaches are now generally accepted as important resources for leaders to stay on top of their game. If star athletes all have coaches, why not star entrepreneurs? At this time there is no universally accepted credentialing of coaches, so it is wise to base your selection on relevant experience, track record, and personality match.

Executive Peer Groups — These provide a structure for executives or business owners from non-competing industries to form long-term advisory relationships. TEC is probably the most well known, but there are others, including groups sponsored by many Chambers of Commerce.

Leadership Training and Programs — There is a wide variety of specific training and development opportunities that can genuinely help develop leadership skills, but choose carefully to avoid wasting your time and money. If you have a specific need, find a workshop or simulation that gives you focused experience on that topic; for example, if you need help with presentation skills find a suitable workshop or join a Toastmaster’s group (CED has one).

For general leadership development you can find any number of comprehensive leadership programs that last from a couple of days to several weeks or more. These programs are provided by independent leadership consultants, organizations such as the Center for Creative Leadership, and many colleges and universities; often through their MBA schools. Most include a combination of assessments (360° evaluations and/or other instruments), experiential learning or simulations, standard classroom learning with discussion and case studies, and sometimes coaching. Often the biggest question is the benefit trade-off about attending an outside program where you spend time with people from other companies, verses designing an in-house program that focuses on learning from the specific experiences of your own company.

Tom Stevens is the president of Esquare Leadership LLC and can be reached at tis@esquareleadership.com or visit: www.thinkleadershipideas.com