Unlocking Potential: The 3-2-1 Approach to Transformative Leadership

Jan 17, 2024 | Leadership

Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them. Great companies hire motivated people and inspire them.” ~ Simon Sinek

Ever feel like you ace the technical side of your job but when it comes to managing people, it’s like navigating a maze blindfolded? You’re not alone – and the maze has gotten more complicated.

In today’s dynamic workplace, the ability to unlock and nurture your team’s potential is what is setting great leaders apart. But what if your team isn’t even aware of their own potential? Or maybe you’re also in the dark with them – wondering what sets you apart as a leader?

Adding extra complexity to this leadership conundrum is the evolving talent landscape, where there’s a noticeable shift away from readily available, directly skilled talent. Underscoring the growing importance of cultivating internal talent.

So, how do you tap into and cultivate those elusive seeds of natural talent or skill, especially when they might be invisible to your team. Or even to you.

The solution is surprisingly straightforward – foster moments of intentional self-reflection.

And no, this doesn’t mean you have to dive into dense leadership books or complex methodologies (let’s face it, who’s got the time?). Instead, consider trying a straightforward yet effective exercise: the 3-2-1 Activity.

Why it works: it’s quick, straightforward, and unobtrusive, making it ideal for even the busiest schedules. It’s also predictable, for the planners on your team.

Despite how simple it looks, it packs a punch. It can be amazing how it gets people to open up and reflect in ways they hadn’t before. Like quietly watering a plant and watching it grow — before you know it, your team starts showing signs of growth they didn’t even know were happening.


Here’s how the 3-2-1 approach works

In a predictable rhythm (we’d suggest at least once a month), set aside 15 minutes – perhaps part of a routine 1:1 – to ask your team members:

    • What are 3 things you’re celebrating about yourself?
    • What are 2 things you’re noticing about yourself?
    • What is 1 thing you’re improving about yourself?

Note: It’s key to have these activities be during 1:1 interactions, at least until everyone is familiar with it and used to reflecting in this way. At that point you could try this together in a team setting.


What to expect when you start

Like anything new, expect an adjustment period. Self-reflection can be new territory for some. Staying curious and encouraging will help as others adjust to considering themselves in these new ways.

In our experience, some liken this activity to being forced to eat veggies (you know it’s good for you, but you don’t really enjoy it) – but it doesn’t take long to see the value and clarity it can bring.

By consistently incorporating this activity into your meetings, you’ll find those on your team who like to prep ahead of time will show up to your meetings, self-reflections already in hand. It’s this proactive approach, this self-initiated dive into reflection, that is truly a game changer.


Here’s the magic behind each question, common response traps, and how it should sound


3-2-1 Approach: Celebrating

We start with celebrating because it’s often the most neglected part of our self-reflection. Recognizing our victories, big or small, lays the groundwork for understanding what makes us special and unique. It’s about acknowledging our talents and strengths, and it often requires practice. That’s why you need to identify three.

Common traps:

    • “I’ve got nothing to celebrate since last time.” Nope, not buying it. Every day has its wins; it’s all about keeping your eyes (and heart) open.
    • The tendency to celebrate an event, not your contribution. Focus on the qualities you brought to the table.


    • Instead of just saying, ‘I’m celebrating getting through the quarter-end crunch,’ – be more specific. Think about framing it as, ‘I’m celebrating my strategic time management and resilience during this hectic quarter. By balancing intense workloads with essential downtime, not only did we meet our targets, but I also honed my stress management skills, leading our team to success more effectively.’

*Tip: If the word ‘celebrating’ doesn’t resonate, try ‘proud.’ What are 3 things you’re proud of about yourself? Or any word that frames achievements positively.



3-2-1 Approach: Noticing

This part is all about listening to what’s going on inside, even with all the outside noise. It’s about spotting those little things about ourselves that we might usually miss.

Common traps:

    • Attaching a label of good or bad to your noticing. It should be a non-judgmental observation. A data point. It simply is.

How it might sound:

    • Instead of simply stating, ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed with these project deadlines,’ you could reflect more deeply by observing, ‘I notice a sense of pressure building up as we approach major project deadlines. It’s revealing to see how this impacts my focus and energy allocation throughout the day.’


3-2-1 Approach: Improving

We all have that list in our heads of things we think we need to fix or get better at. So while self-development and growth is valuable, we need to be careful what weighting we give it, so we only detail 1.

Common traps:

    • Giving this one area of improvement more airtime than the previous 3 celebrations. Remember, we see what we focus on, so if all you focus on is how you need to improve, you’re never going to see what it is about you that is truly outstanding.

How it might sound:

    • You could say, “I’m trying to get better at pausing before I respond in conversations.” It’s not just about fixing something; it’s acknowledging an area where you want to grow, without losing sight of the strengths you already bring to the table.


Watering the seeds

Do this activity a few times with your team members, and you’ll start to uncover patterns — themes that might even be new to your team. These insights can be eye-opening. For instance:


Theme: Adaptability in High-Pressure Situations

    • Reflections: Employees might frequently mention celebrating staying calm and resourceful under tight deadlines.
    • Leadership Opportunity: Recognize this adaptability as a potential for leadership roles in crisis management or high-stakes projects. Encourage and provide training for these employees in project management and leadership skills, preparing them for future roles where quick decision-making and pressure-handling are crucial.

Theme: Creative Problem-Solving

    • Reflections: Some team members might consistently reflect on their unconventional approaches to solving routine tasks or challenges.
    • Leadership Opportunity: This theme indicates a latent talent for innovation. You can nurture this by assigning these employees to roles or projects that require out-of-the-box thinking. Consider workshops or courses that stimulate creative thinking and innovation to further develop this skill.

Theme: Empathetic Communication

    • Reflections: If reflections often highlight understanding colleagues’ perspectives or mediating conflicts, there’s a theme of empathetic communication.
    • Leadership Opportunity: These employees could excel in roles that require strong interpersonal skills. To develop this talent, provide communication training, mentorship opportunities, and gradually increase their responsibilities in areas requiring soft skills.

Embracing the 3-2-1 Activity is more than just a reflective exercise; it’s a strategic tool for transformative leadership. And even better, it’s a quick, go-to tool you can use whenever it seems fitting.

Remember, luscious gardens start from small seeds. Help your teams plant and water those seeds and you’ll be surprised at your own ‘home grown’ garden of talent that will appear, seemingly out of nowhere!


This blog and the simple 3-2-1 Activity was developed by Tiffany Baker, and she uses it daily while coaching Masters of Business Administration students at the Alberta School of Business. Her students also initially likened the activity to eating veggies – but within weeks were shocked by the revelations brought out of each meeting and their power to shift thinking, behaviour, and ultimately career success.

Tiffany Baker

Tiffany Baker, ACC, CLC, CPHR

To learn more about our Upskill Consulting team, visit: https://upskillconsulting.ca/aboutus/



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