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Book Summary: The Leader Lab – Core Skills to Become a Great Manager, Faster

The Leader Lab (2021) is a handbook for anyone who wants to improve their management skills fast. Through extensive research, and training more than 200,000 managers, the authors have identified the core behaviors and skills that all great managers share. They offer simple, practical tips, and methods that can be applied for rapid results.


Communication Skills, Management, Leadership, Business Management, Business Decision Making, Decision-Making and Problem Solving

Introduction: Fast, simple ways to become a better manager.

Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger are leadership experts. Over the years, they’ve studied the behavior of countless managers and analyzed their skills. The best managers tend to have some pretty obvious things in common. Good listening skills, a knack for feedback, and so on.

But what may surprise you is just how easy it is to develop these skills. Easy, and quick. There are simple tips and tools that anyone can use.

And that includes you, whoever you are. If you’re new to management, this summary will be particularly useful. And if you’re a manager with decades of experience, and you think you know it all . . . think again.

You can become a better manager today, starting right now. So take a deep breath – you’ll find out why that matters in just a moment . . . and let’s begin.

[Book Summary] The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager, Faster

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • specific questions and phrases to use in difficult conversations;
  • a framework for effective coaching; and
  • the dos and don’ts of giving feedback.

Anyone can become a great manager quickly by focusing on specific techniques and skills.

Let’s say you’re an average manager – not the best, but not the worst either. One morning, you call in sick. You tell your team you won’t be in. When they get the notification, how do you think they feel? What are they thinking?

Well, we hate to break it to you, but . . . they’re probably relieved. According to a study, 88 percent of people are relieved when their manager is off for the day. Most people just don’t think much of their boss.

Poor management has a cost – an estimated $7 trillion a year across the world, due to inefficiency and staff turnover. It also takes a toll on employees’ mental and even physical health.

Maybe that’s something you’ve experienced firsthand with your own manager. If you’ve ever had a bad manager, you know how it feels – that sense of dread when you arrive at the office.

Put simply, management matters. We need better managers.

The authors, Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, are experts on management and leadership. Through their organization LifeLabs Learning, they’ve trained thousands of leaders at companies across the world. And through painstaking research, they’ve identified some key behaviors and skills – the tell-tale signs of a good manager.

These aren’t necessarily innate qualities. They’re things that anyone can learn and develop. And while it’s true that you can learn on the job, why wait? Start now. By the end of this summary, you’ll have picked up some simple, practical tips for improving your management style.

We can’t cover all of the skills and behaviors in the book, but we’ll focus on the most important ones. They’re easy to learn, and you can start using them right away.

In order to make the most of this crash course, we recommend a bit of self-reflection along the way. With every example or scenario, ask yourself, Do I do this? or, How could I do this differently? After all, becoming a better manager is an active process. So listen actively.

Also, for even faster learning, share what you learn with someone else. There’s a phenomenon known as the protégé effect – we learn faster when we’re teaching. So in between chapters, you could pause, and share your newfound wisdom with your manager or a coworker. You can even tell your cat.

Now, get ready to read and learn – you and your cat.

In conversations with team members, start by asking questions, and paraphrasing what they tell you.

Imagine you have a team member named Olivia. She’s never shown much interest in management, or work in general. Olivia isn’t the most motivated of people. One day, she comes to you with an idea – she wants to hire an intern for the summer.

You’re caught off guard. Also, you’re not keen on the idea. So you say something like, “Sorry, Olivia, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Interns can take up a lot of time.”

Is that what you would say? What if there was a better way to respond?

Let’s rewind and try that again. Olivia mentions her intern idea, and this time, you say . . .

“Thanks for asking me. How come you’re thinking of getting an intern?”

Do you see the difference? The second time, you can still decline Olivia’s request. But before you do that, you ask her a question.

The authors call this technique “Q-stepping.” Before you launch into “telling” mode, ask at least one question. Q-step.

Asking questions is a great way to identify problems, develop people’s skills, and keep your team committed. Ask Olivia “Why do you want an intern?” and she’s more likely to feel engaged and propose other ideas in the future.

So now ask yourself a question. When was the last time you responded to a suggestion with a question? Think about it.

People want to feel that they’ve been heard and understood. Another way you can do this is through a technique the authors call “playback.”

It’s just what it sounds like. Playback is paraphrasing what someone says. You tell them your understanding of what they just said.

Let’s say you’re talking to Olivia again, and she says something negative about the team project. How do you respond?

Well, as we’ve just seen, you could ask her a question, like, What’s going on?

But playback might be even better. Try saying something like this, “It sounds like the team project is the main thing on your mind.”

The great thing about playback is that it immediately creates clarity, and helps to avoid any potential misunderstanding. It also builds trust.

So try it next time. When someone tells you something, respond by paraphrasing. Use a phrase like, “Sounds like you’re feeling left out.” Or, “It seems like what you need is a little reassurance.”

Responding with a question – Q-stepping – and using playback are both simple, effective techniques. Good managers use them all the time. You can use them too, starting from the very next conversation you have.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

It’s time for a quick break. Take a deep breath in . . . and out . . .

No, this isn’t a glitch. You’re still reading the summary to The Leader Lab, not some guide to meditation. But pausing – as you did just now – is another effective technique that good managers use. It leads to better results, increasing productivity and creativity.

Also, did you know that pausing is one of the best ways to resolve conflict? The psychologist John Gottman discovered that pausing is a strong predictor of successful marriages. Couples who pause and de-escalate during moments of conflict are much more likely to stay together.

The same thing goes for workplace interactions. You’re not married to your coworkers, but you might spend more time with them than with your partner. So as a manager, you need to know how to handle relationships and deal with conflict.

Let’s say your team member Olivia is upset. She says to you, “I can’t believe I was left out of the meeting.”

What do you do? That’s right. You pause . . . just wait a moment.

There’s no need to respond immediately. Just pause. Let Olivia say more, or calm down. The situation will de-escalate much more quickly and you can potentially avoid an argument.

Other kinds of pauses can be beneficial too. For instance, give your team short breaks. It can make them more productive in the long run and encourage innovative thinking.

Pausing is great, but it doesn’t come naturally. And in moments of stress or conflict, we’re more inclined to panic than pause.

But pausing is something you can practice, and turn into a habit. To become a good manager faster, the authors recommend planning your pauses.

For example, pause every morning, and decide what you want to achieve that day.

Or choose a time and place in your office for pausing. The authors interviewed a senior leader who regularly spent an hour at his desk just sitting and thinking. He did this not only for himself but also to show his team how important it is to pause.

So, before we move on to the next chapter, let’s practice what we’ve learned. Pause. Take a moment to reflect, and let everything sink in.

Good managers know how to extract learning – for themselves and others.

Okay. Feeling rested, and ready to learn more? Next, it’s time to turn our leader lab into a chemistry lab, as we focus on another key behavior – extraction.

In chemistry, extraction is the process of isolating a substance from a mix of components. Thanks to extraction, we have vanilla from beans and vodka from potatoes.

Similarly, the best managers aim to extract. Not vodka, but learning. Together with their teams, good managers regularly analyze what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what can be done differently next time.

These kinds of team reviews or debriefings are really valuable – you can learn so much. But they can be uncomfortable experiences, especially at first. It helps to make them regular, predictable rituals, so your team knows exactly what to expect.

Also, it’s not just about what you learn. As a good manager, you should help your team to extract their own individual learnings. Ask them questions, and encourage them to reflect.

For instance, if Olivia tells you something went “better than expected,” how do you respond?

“That’s great!” and then change the subject?

Let’s try that again. If she says it went “better than expected”, ask her why. Find out more. That way, you’ll both learn.

Extracting learning isn’t limited to review sessions. Any conversation can be an opportunity. In fact, something the authors have noticed is that the best managers are always actively extracting. They’re constantly seeking out feedback and trying to learn more.

There are many different ways to extract learning. The simplest form is asking yourself – and others – what you’ve learned, and how you can apply these lessons in the future.

A more unusual approach to extraction is a “premortem.” Before your team starts a project, imagine it’s going to be a disaster. Next, work backward to find out the cause of the failure, and then brainstorm ways to prevent it.

By the way, extraction is probably the most important technique for managers who want to improve quickly. It acts as a kind of accelerant for other useful skills. To become a better manager faster, make a habit of extraction.

And if you think you might forget, come up with an “extraction cue.” For instance, every time you step into the elevator at the end of the day, ask yourself, What did I learn?

You can even try it now. Let’s extract. Ask yourself, What have I just learned?

To improve your coaching skills fast, use the “SOON” framework in conversations.

So far, we’ve been focusing on techniques – Q-stepping, playback, pausing, and extraction. But to be a truly great manager, you need something more. You need to develop your core skills.

Skills are a little more complex than techniques and take longer to learn. Even so, developing certain skills is easier and quicker than you might think.

To finish off, we’re going to focus on two of the most important skills – coaching and feedback.

First, coaching. For the authors, it’s the number one skill managers need to master.

In just a moment, we’ll give you some tips, and a framework for coaching. But first, let’s clarify exactly what coaching is, and what it isn’t.

When you hear the word coach, what do you picture? Maybe you imagine a sports coach yelling from the sidelines. Or you associate coaching with words like directing or advising.

In the modern workplace, coaching is something else entirely. A coach is someone who helps people to develop capacity and insights so they can achieve results. A coach catalyzes insight in other people.

Okay, but how, exactly? Well, a good start is to look for coaching opportunities.

If someone comes to you with a complaint or problem, for example, that’s the perfect moment to coach. Grab the opportunity as soon as you spot it, so you can become a better coach – and a better manager – quickly.

During the conversation, try using a framework. It’s called the “SOON” framework. You’ll see why in a moment.

Let’s say Olivia has come to you with a problem. It’s the team project again – she feels it could be done better.

When you talk to Olivia, start by asking Success questions. For example, What’s your idea of success? or, What do you want to achieve?

Once you’ve established a definition of success, it’s time to ask Obstacle questions. What are the obstacles? What’s worrying you?

Next, ask about Options. Something simple like, What are the options? or, What have you already tried?

As you discuss this, be patient. Pause, and wait for Olivia to come up with ideas before you suggest your own.

To finish the conversation, ask about Next steps. For particularly complex problems, you may not be able to reach this stage in a single conversation. That’s okay. You can pause again. Suggest continuing the discussion later.

But if things are going well, wrap up with some questions. Again, it can be really simple: So, what are the next steps? Or, What’s the first small step you can take?

And that’s it – the framework for successful coaching.

Before we move on, here’s a quick recap. Ask questions in these categories in this order – Success, Obstacles, Options, Next steps. S, O, O, N. Soon. As in, “soon, you’ll be a better manager.”

If you find yourself in the middle of a coaching opportunity and you forget the framework, don’t worry. There’s a handy short-cut – Q-stepping. Remember that technique from earlier? Simply ask your team member lots of questions.

Asking questions – that’s the secret to great coaching and management.

Use the Q-BIQ method to give feedback effectively.

Coaching is the most important core skill for managers, but feedback is a close runner-up. So that’s what we’ll be looking at in our final chapter – how to give feedback well.

When you’re about to give negative feedback to someone in your team, how do you feel? Perhaps you rehearse what you’re going to say beforehand, struggling to find the right words.

It can be pretty daunting. And if feedback frightens you, you’re not alone. But in just a few minutes, you’ll be prepared for next time, armed with a simple, easy-to-remember method for giving feedback.

First though, let’s clarify the definition of feedback, just as we did with coaching. Feedback is often confused with advice, but they’re not the same thing.

When you give advice, you tell someone what to do. Whereas when you give feedback, the other person decides what to do.

When you give feedback, let the other person decide.

And whatever you do, don’t believe the myth you see all over the Internet. Some people still insist that the best way to deliver negative feedback is to sandwich it. Praise first, then criticism, then more praise. A method also known as the “shit sandwich.” Research has shown that this kind of feedback is confusing and reduces trust, so forget it. No one wants a shit sandwich.

Instead, let’s look at a much more effective method used by the best managers.

It’s called the Q-BIQ method. Q-BIQ is an acronym for Question, Behavior, Impact, Question. Let’s go through them one by one.

To give feedback, start by asking a question. Make it a simple invitation, preparing the other person for the feedback. For instance, Are you up for hearing my thoughts on the presentation? Or, “Is this a good moment to discuss your response time?

Once they’ve consented to the feedback session, you can describe the behavior that was helpful or harmful. Try to be as specific as possible, avoiding ambiguous words or phrases. For example, say something direct like, “At the moment your response time is 30 minutes. But our team standard is 10 minutes.”

After outlining the behavior, explain the impact clearly. Let’s say a fast response time is a company requirement, and the person risks demotion or dismissal. If that’s the case, tell them. Explain the impact and potential consequences.

Now that you’ve shared your feedback, ask another question. Something like, What are your thoughts?

Finally, wrap up by agreeing on next steps, so there’s no miscommunication. You’ll get the best results from a feedback session if everyone’s on the same page.

That’s all there is to the Q-BIQ feedback method.

Let’s recap quickly. Start with a question, then describe the behavior in specific terms. Next, explain the impact. Finish with another question, and next steps.

So, next time you’re about to give feedback, remember Q-BIQ. When you know what to say, you’ll be much more relaxed – no more sweaty palms. You’ll be able to deliver feedback clearly and effectively.

Final Summary

The most important thing to take away from all this is:

To become a great manager quickly, make a habit of certain techniques, like Q-stepping, playback, pausing, and extraction. You can develop essential skills like coaching and feedback by asking the right questions in the right order. When you manage in this way, you help your team to succeed and you become a role model of excellent leadership.

And here’s some more actionable advice:

Use specific language when talking to your team.

To avoid miscommunication, think carefully about the language you’re using, and try to be as precise as possible. For instance, phrases like “ASAP” and “some point this week” are ambiguous. Instead, be specific. Phrases such as “by 5:00 p.m. today” are much clearer. According to a study in the journal Group Dynamics, talking about time in this way can improve time awareness and job performance.

About the author

TANIA LUNA is the co-founder of LifeLabs Learning—a leadership skills accelerator for culture-conscious companies, including Google, TED, Slack, Reddit, and The New York Times. She is also a psychology researcher, TED speaker, writer for Psychology Today and Harvard Business Review, and co-host of the podcast Talk Psych to Me.

LEEANN RENNINGER, PHD, is the co-founder and lead researcher at LifeLabs Learning. She has a doctorate in cognitive psychology, with an emphasis on idea transfer and rapid skill acquisition. She has lectured at Columbia Business School, Princeton, MIT, Yale, and the University College London. She is also the co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.

Table of Contents

The Backstory
How to Use This Book
PART I: The Core BUs
1: Q-step
2: Playback
3: Deblur
4: Validate
5: Link up
6: Pause
7: Extract
PART II: The Core Skills
8: Coaching Skills
9: Feedback Skills
10: Productivity Skills
11: Effective One-on-Ones
12: Strategic Thinking
13: Meetings Mastery
14: Leading Change
15: People Development
Leader Lab Wrap-up
About the Authors


What if you could become a great manager, leader, and communicator faster?

The Leader Lab is a high-speed leadership intensive, equipping managers with the Swiss Army Knife of skills that help you handle the toughest situations that come your way.

Through painstaking research and training over 200,000 managers, authors Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, PhD (co-CEOs of LifeLabs Learning) identified the most important skills that distinguish great managers from average. Most importantly, they’ve discovered how to help people rapidly develop these core skills. The result? You quickly achieve extraordinary team performance and a culture of engagement, fulfillment, and belonging.

Too often, folks are promoted without any training for the countless crucial responsibilities of the modern manager: being part coach, part player, part therapist, part role model. The Leader Lab serves as your definitive guide to what it means to be a great manager today – and how to become a great leader faster. This book is based on LifeLabs Learning’s wildly successful workshop series. It combines research, tools, and the playful, fluff-free style that’s made LifeLabs the go-to professional development resource for over 1,000 innovative companies around the world.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Quickly improve performance and engagement
  • Handle tough conversations with confidence
  • Identify and resolve the underlying issues holding your team back
  • Create a culture of inclusion
  • Spark innovation
  • Reduce stress and burnout
  • Finetune your coaching, productivity, feedback, one-on-one, strategic thinking, meeting facilitation, people development, and leading change skills
  • Learn the same high-leverage skills that new managers at the world’s most innovative organizations are using to create impactful change in business and in life

This interactive, accessible, and brain-friendly resource will help you and your team ramp up and reach the tipping point of managerial greatness fast.

We learned how to become a great manager faster so you can too!

The science behind becoming a better manager.

Being a manager these days is harder than ever — and becoming great at it takes a lot of time and energy we often don’t have. But the world needs great managers right now, as only 20% of employees across the world strongly agree their managers actually motivate them. What if there were a way to simplify the complexity of leadership and become a great manager faster?

The Leader Lab book provides that solution with simple, highly-effective skills that will level up the way you lead. As you master the skills our LifeLabs Learning experts have laid out, you’ll notice your life getting easier, and you’ll see yourself making a bigger difference in the world every day.

What makes a great manager great?

First, some context — here at LifeLabs Learning, we’ve spent over a decade studying what makes great managers different in order to identify the specific, observable behaviors that matter most. We’ve taught over 200,000 managers all over the world from thousands of innovative companies like Reddit, TED, Etsy, Dropbox, Lyft, and Tinder.

Turns out, not all skills are created equal.

We’ve zeroed in on the smallest changes that lead to the biggest impact in the shortest time. We call these ‘tipping point skills,’ and this book will help you master them to unlock countless other skills and handle any challenge that comes your way. Think of these tipping point skills as the primary colors—there are only three of them, but together they combine to make infinite, complex colors.

So, what skills matter most? Of all the skills we studied, 8 kept rising up to the surface as tipping point skills:

  • Coaching
  • Feedback
  • Productivity
  • Effective 1-1s
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Meetings Mastery
  • Leading Change
  • People Development

Try it yourself with this mini-lab moment:

Just knowing the skills that matter most makes your life easier and helps you focus your energy on the highest leverage development areas — but we’ve also identified how to help managers gain these skills faster. How? We take a lab-based approach to learning in our workshops and in the book. Think about the difference between chemistry class vs. a chemistry lab — in a class, you memorize concepts, but in a lab, you mix together chemicals and blow stuff up. There’s a reason it’s called the Leader Lab — it’s always more helpful (and fun!) to get hands-on.

Let’s say your direct report comes to you and says: “I’m interested in taking on this new project, I just need to get your approval first!” You’re afraid they’re already at max capacity with responsibilities. What do you say? Pause and think about it now before you read on.

While your initial instinct may have been to immediately tell them no, there’s a better way to get to the heart of their request. We’ve found that great managers ask more questions than average. In fact, they actually default to questions instead of statements — a habit we call “Q-stepping.” Come up with 5 DIFFERENT questions you can ask your direct report. Here are some examples to get the inspiration flowing:

  • What’s exciting to you about this project that’s making you want to take it on now?
  • How do you feel about your workload at this time?
  • What are some areas where you could use additional support?
  • What tradeoffs do you anticipate making?
  • How might we incorporate aspects of the project that excite you into the work you’re doing now?

What if you could become a great leader faster?

The Leader Lab is a high-speed leadership intensive, equipping managers and execs with the Swiss Army Knife of skills to handle the toughest situations. The result? Leaders quickly achieve extraordinary team performance and a culture of fulfillment and belonging.

Through painstaking research and training over 200,000 managers, Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, PhD identified the most important skills that separate great managers from average. Most importantly, they’ve discovered how to help people rapidly develop these core skills—from micro habits like “split-tracking” and “deblurring” to macro skills like feedback and strategic thinking.

Too often, people are promoted without any training for the countless crucial responsibilities of the modern manager: being part coach, part player, part therapist. The Leader Lab serves as the definitive guide to what it means to be a great manager today—and how to become a great leader faster.

Based on LifeLabs Learning’s wildly successful workshop series, this book combines research, tools, and the fluff-free style that’s made LifeLabs Learning the go-to training resource for over 1,000 innovative companies around the world. The Leader Lab is ideal for folks who were promoted to a manager role and need a high-impact toolkit to excel quickly as well as experienced leaders looking to up their game.


“This book will make you a better leader of people, full stop. I learned a ton. Why can’t all business books be this fresh, interesting, and immediately actionable?” – DAN HEATH, co-author of Switch, Made to Stick, and The Power of Moments

“The definitive guide to the most valuable ‘tipping point’ skills needed by modern managers and leaders. These skills are elegantly dissected, combined, illustrated with practical real-world examples, and backed by research. I loved every minute of this read!” – TOM DRAPEAU, Director of Engineering, Squarespace

“This book is transformational and practical—LifeLabs Learning nails the HOW in a field that often stays abstract. An enjoyable and truly helpful read!” – DR. HEIDI BROOKS, Professor, Yale School of Management

“This is a book that I believe every People Manager and aspiring leader should read. By demystifying and breaking down the traits of great leadership, LifeLabs Learning has given every curious person a key to unlock what being an exceptional manager might look like for them…. If everyone read this book, workplaces would be a lot more empathetic and human-centered and managers would feel capable of being great at their jobs. Leadership is learnable, and this book shows you how.” – RACHEL PECK, Director of Learning and Development, Harry’s

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