Helping people realize their potential as leaders means clearing a path for them to grow, but it also means identifying what they need to work on in the current job. This is where leadership gets very personal. There’s no substitute for ongoing face-to-face dialogue with people about what’s going well and what isn’t. You can’t let fear of their response undermine your know-how in helping leaders grow and improve.

Stuart, the CEO of a global manufacturing and services company, found a simple way to save Kate, who had the potential to be a great CFO but was having trouble adapting to the company’s Midwestern culture. Kate was hired for her tremendous talent in finance, and she made contributions in her first year by surfacing important issues and having the tenacity to keep them on the table. But others on the executive team complained regularly that she was too gruff with her peers and too intimidating to the people below her. She just didn’t seem to fit in. Stuart recognized the talent and contribution and decided to be frank with her about what she had to change. He even got her a coach, but he was careful in choosing one. He didn’t want Kate to lose her edge; he wanted her to continue to raise tough issues and set a high standard, just to do so more constructively. Her coach was frank about what was at stake and made some specific suggestions. One of them was to emphasize the positives as well as the negatives in her subordinates’ presentations. Instead of cutting people down in front others, signal what was good, then make specific suggestions about what to improve. And stop using four-letter words — that was an absolute. Within a couple of weeks, people noticed the difference. The company retained a high-caliber individual, and Kate herself is working hard to improve with encouragement from her colleagues, who see the change in behavior.

The 360 evaluations many companies use can be helpful, but you have to be thoughtful about how you use them. Don’t try to cover everything; zero in on one or two things the person has to work on. For one leader, the 360 showed a low rating (less than 3 on a 5-point scale) in every item having to do with peer relationships. He was one of four internal candidates to succeed the CEO, and the low rating puzzled his boss. The CEO knew him to be a great performer who regularly delivered 70 percent of company profits, and he was a born learner who stayed at the top of his game. He was also a good conceptualizer. But obviously there was something going on when it came to working with colleagues. By persistently digging and asking pointed questions, his boss got to the nub of the problem. When he respected the other person, the guy was great. When he didn’t, his disdain was very visible. This type of behavior was keeping him from reaching his potential. The CEO brought this pattern to the leader’s attention, and he instantly agreed that it was true and promised to try to curb that behavior. This kind of reflection, whether you do it on your own or with the help of a mentor or coach, improves your judgment and is essential to mastering each of the know-hows.