Archive for September, 2008

Getting the Most from Your Coach

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

A research review on the unique challenges and strategies involved in helping successful people get even better revealed some interesting findings, including:  Successful people are much more likely to accept coaching from those whom they respect and whom they see as successful. Successful people are less likely to value coaching from those whom they do not see as successful. This phenomenon tends to occur even if the content of the coaching from less successful people is very similar.

This point was made even more clearly when Beverly Kaye, Ken Shelton, and I asked great thought leaders and teachers to describe a key event when they learned something that made a significant difference in their lives. This led to our book Learning Journeys. More than half of the respondents described a situation in which they had received coaching from someone that they deeply respected.

In many cases, this coaching did not come from someone in a formal coaching relationship (like a consultant, manager, or teacher). Interestingly enough, most agreed that the same message would not have had much impact if a different person had delivered it. This made us realize that, when dealing with successful people, the source of coaching can be as important as the content of the coaching.

Another clear finding of our literature search is that positive behavioral change is much more likely to last if the individual who is trying to change has a “support group” (or at least “support person”) who is assisting in the change process. In order for these supportive coaches to be helpful, there needs to be a “two-way” respect relationship. They need to respect us and we need to respect them.

In helping you achieve a positive, measurable change in behavior, your best coaches will not necessarily be outside experts (like me) who have credentials or training in this field. Your best coaches may often be people that you respect and who impact your life on a daily basis.

A common misconception about coaching is that your coach has to be an “expert” to be helpful. This is not true. A helpful behavioral coach can be anyone that you respect. Your coach can be anyone who observes your behavior on a day-to-day basis. Your coach can be a person that is part of any valuable relationship.

Your spouse, friends, or partners may not be experts on interpersonal behavior, but they may be experts at understanding how your interpersonal behavior impacts them! They can usually describe the behavior that you need to demonstrate so that you can become more effective (at work) or happier (at home).

Who should your coaches be? In selecting coaches, you may wish to consider the key people who are impacted by your behavior. This list might include your manager, direct reports, colleagues, customers, friends, and family members. A key guideline is: don’t ask for their advice if you don’t want to hear it! Involve the people who you believe can help you get better.

After determining who you want your coaches to be, it is important to gain their commitment to the coaching process. Have a one-on-one dialogue with each person whom you are going to recruit as a coach.

Ask them if they would be willing to spend a few minutes each month during the next year to help you achieve a positive change in your behavior. When they respond, look closely at their faces; don’t just listen to their words. Only involve people who are sincerely willing to try to help you.

Be honest and direct in these dialogues. Let them know that you are going to make a sincere effort to improve. Don’t promise that you will succeed. Be realistic - let them know that you will probably “fall off the wagon” during the next year. Let them know that you will be very sensitive to the value of their time in this process.

I have found that the answers to the three simple questions that follow can be great predictors as to their future success in being your coach and in helping you change.

1. Are you willing to “let go” of my past behavior and try to help me change my future behavior?

One of the great mistakes that we make when we try to help others change is to focus on the past, not on the future. How many times have we been “helped” by a spouse, friend, or partner who is able to impress us with their near photographic memory of our previous “sins”? How much does this generally help anyone? None of us can change our past; all we can do is change our future. Focusing on the past can be demoralizing. Focusing on the future can be energizing.

For better or worse, it is often useless to have a dialogue with successful people about what they have done wrong in the past. The successful person who “receives” the feedback often becomes defensive, denies the feedback, and tries to prove that the sender is “wrong” or “doesn’t understand”. The “sender” of the feedback may feel awkward, embarrassed, uncomfortable, or even afraid. Successful people tend to resist negative feedback about their past; they almost always appreciate constructive suggestions for their future.

By focusing on the future, the coach can usually “cover the same material” in a much more constructive way. Rather than focusing on “Let’s talk about how you made an ass of yourself in front of the executive team!” the coach can focus on, “Ideas for making more effective executive presentations in the future.”

Having your coach focus on the future will make this process a lot more fun (and a lot less painful) for you. Do you really want someone pointing out everything that you have done wrong? Wouldn’t you rather work with someone who is willing to “forgive yesterday’s sins” and try to help you get better tomorrow?

2. Are you willing to be a supportive coach, not a cynic, critic, or judge?

Successful people tend to respond very well to future-oriented advice that will help them achieve their goals. Successful people tend to resist advice when they feel that they are being judged or manipulated.

Improving an interpersonal relationship involves a two-way effort. If we work hard to change our behavior so that we can have better relationships with others, and we only receive cynicism or criticism, we will generally give up on the process. Why should we work so hard to improve our relationship with people when we feel punished for our efforts?

The person whom you are recruiting to help you needs to understand that your efforts to change behavior (over the next year) will often result in failure. We all have a tendency to revert back to old behavior. The more stressful the situation, the more likely this is to be true. If your coach does not give up on you when you fail in the short run, you will be much more likely to succeed in the long run. If your coach expects you to fail and says, “I knew you could not change,” your odds for successful change go down.

The people whom we respect can create either positive or negative self-fulfilling prophecies concerning our behavior. Optimism is a key ingredient in helping people change. If your coaches consistently communicate a belief that “you can do it”, you will be much more likely to succeed. If they do not believe that you can change, they may do more harm than good.

3. Will you commit to being honest with me when you give me suggestions for the future?

Coaches who are unwilling to be honest are generally not that helpful. If the coaches are unduly negative, the person being coached may become unnecessarily demoralized. If the coaches are unduly positive, the person being coached may be getting positive reinforcement for negative behavior. Neither option is useful. Just ask your coaches to tell the truth as they see it. Point out that they are the only people in the world who can accurately provide their assessments of your behavior.

In my corporate work, hundreds of my clients have asked their colleagues these questions. The huge majority of people say yes to all three. In some cases, people say no. Perhaps the relationship has been too strained too long for them to want to fix it. Perhaps they are uncomfortable providing honest suggestions.

Perhaps they are too busy. It doesn’t really matter. If they don’t want to participate, don’t force the issue. Just thank them for their honesty in telling you how they feel. In almost all cases, there will be more than enough people who are willing to help. Work with them.

Following-up With Your Coaches

After recruiting your support group of coaches, ask them for their ideas on how you can improve. This can be done either formally (through 360 degree feedback) or informally (through merely asking for suggestions for the future).

Identify the one or two behavioral changes that can make the most positive impact. Realize that these behaviors may vary with different groups. Ask them for ongoing suggestions for improvement in these behaviors. Do not promise that you will do everything they say. Do promise to listen to their ideas, to understand their perspective, and to do what you can. Stick with the plan and make sure that you keep following-up.

Results from thousands of people who have followed these steps demonstrate a clear pattern. If you recruit supportive coaches whom you respect, ask them for ongoing suggestions, listen to their ideas, and keep following-up, you will almost always achieve a positive long-term change in your behavior. You will also improve your relationships with the most important people in your world!

Life is good.


Click here for my upcoming schedule

Make a Career Decision

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

“You can do it!” and “Follow your dreams!” We’ve all heard these speeches.

Abandoning one job or career for another is much easier to say than do. Especially when you are, by any measure, a “winner” in life and the place you’re in is pretty good. In spite of speeches that make it sound easy, changing our lives is tough. We may fail. People may laugh at us. In the words of one of my clients, “Even my mother will think that I am crazy if I give up this job!”

Many of us grapple with these issues. My friend Jill is a gifted engineer who has invested years in making a significant contribution to her firm. But her burning passion for her work is starting to cool down. When I asked her to describe her concerns, she grimaced and said, “I just don’t feel like I’m learning that much. I know I’m doing a great job, but I feel like, ‘Been there, done that.’ It’s not the company’s fault. I love my company and feel like they deserve my best. It’s just hard for me to generate the enthusiasm that I know I should.”

“What job sounds fun and exciting to you?” I asked.

Her face lit up as she replied, “I think that I could do a great job managing a project team and eventually leading a larger part of our business. I have seen other managers. I know that I can do what they do. In fact, some of the ones I respect the most have encouraged me to go for it.”

“Why don’t you try for a career in management?”

“I’m afraid of giving up what I have,” she added. “If I go into management, I’m definitely going to lose my technical edge after a few years. Nobody is going to want to hire me as an engineer anymore. I have friends who’ve been in middle management and been laid off. It can be tough for them to get another job. Besides, I’m great at what I do. I make a nice salary, and I don’t have as many headaches. Why should I take the risk?” She became animated as she defended her present position.

I laughed and replied, “Jill, it’s not my life. We’re talking about your life. Being an engineer is fine; being in management is fine. I’m just a friend who wants you to be happy. Who are you arguing with?”

“I guess that I’m arguing with myself,” she said, smiling. “I just don’t know what to do.”

A client, Dave, is also very good at what he does. In some ways he seems to have it all. He’s 50, in great shape, has an MBA from Wharton, and is an investment banker with a net worth of millions of dollars. He has a great wife and nice kids. But his burning passion for his work is also beginning to wane. He wants to teach. I asked him why he loved teaching, and he said, “It’s really fun. Every night when I come home from teaching an MBA course at the local university, my wife notices how great I feel and how positive I am. I really believe I’m making a difference in some of my students’ lives!”

But when I asked, “Why don’t you become a teacher?” Dave talked himself out of his newfound passion.

“Compared to being an investment banker, college professors don’t make any money. To make it worse, none of the real professors seem to respect me that much. I don’t have a PhD; in some ways, they kind of think that they are better than I am. Why should I put up with their crap? Many of them don’t know anything about the real world like I do. Why should I give up a great job with lots of money, status, and respect to be a second-class citizen?”

“To begin with, why do you care about money?” I laughed. “You already have more than you can spend. By the way, who are you arguing with?”

It’s very easy to talk with our friends about “going to the next level.” How many times have you heard people talk about the job that they “would love to have someday”? How many of these people actually end up doing the work they dream about?

The next time you hear yourself talking about “that job I would really like to have,” look in the mirror. How willing are you to lose what you have? All opportunity involves risk. How willing are you to face the possibility of failure or diminished success?

If you have been having the same long-standing debate — either with friends or just in your head — it’s time to make a decision. If you want to go for it, don’t kid yourself about the risk. You have to be willing to accept the possibility of failure and get started. If you decide you don’t want to give up what you have, make peace with it.

Quit wasting time debating with yourself about a future that will never happen.

Who are you arguing with?

Life is good.


People Skills

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

How would you hire people if everyone is highly skilled, well educated at the same school, and locked in a dead heat of accomplishment, posting exactly the same “lifetime batting average”?

How would you decide whom to promote and whom to cast aside?

Chances are you would start paying very close attention to how people behave — how they treat colleagues and clients, how they speak and listen in meetings, how well they extend the minor courtesies that either lubricate daily work life or create friction. Welcome to the real world at the higher levels of organizational life.

We apply these behavioral criteria to almost any successful person, whether it’s our CEO or our plumbing contractor. But sometimes we forget to apply them to ourselves. And in turn, we forget that our behavior may be holding us back.

All other things being equal, your people skills (or lack thereof) become more pronounced the higher up you go. In fact, even when all other things are not equal, your people skills often make the difference in how high you go. Who would you rather have as a CFO? A moderately good accountant who is great with people outside the firm and skilled at managing very smart people? Or a brilliant accountant who’s inept with outsiders and alienates all the smart people under him?

Not a tough choice, really. The candidate with superb people skills will win out every time, in large part because he will be able to hire people smarter than he is about money and he will be able to lead them. There’s no guarantee that the brilliant number cruncher can do that now or any time in the foreseeable future.

We all have certain attributes that helped us land our first job. These achievements go on our resumes. But as we become more successful, those attributes recede into the background and more subtle traits emerge. It’s not enough to be smart. You have to be smart — and something else. At some point, you get the benefit of the doubt on skill issues.

For example, we assume our doctors know medicine, so we judge them on their bedside manner. And not many people remember that Jack Welch has a PhD in chemical engineering. That’s because none of the problems he encountered in his last 30 years at GE were in any way related to his skill at chemical titration or formulating plastics.

When he was vying for the CEO job, the attributes holding him back were strictly behavioral: his brashness, his blunt language, his unwillingness to suffer fools. The soft behavioral skills came to the fore only after he delivered profits and ascended the GE ladder. That’s when the GE board wanted to know if he could behave as a CEO.

What if you had to prepare a resume where you couldn’t highlight the elite college you graduated from, or your five years at McKinsey, or even your title at your current job?

You can’t boast about the profits you posted, the sagging division you turned around, or the product you launched and turned into a stand-alone brand. The only data you can put on your resume are your interpersonal skills (which, for the purposes of this exercise, must be documented and authentic). What would they be?

* To be able to listen?
* To give proper recognition?
* To share — whether it’s information or credit for a success?
* To stay calm when others panic?
* To make midcourse corrections?
* To accept responsibility – and admit mistakes?
* To defer to others, even (especially) those of lesser rank?
* To let someone else be right some of the time?
* To resist playing favorites?

You see where I’m going?

This quick list of attributes, while attractive in a junior employee, is not the sort of thing that junior employees get lauded for. But further along in your career curve, when it’s time to step up into a leadership position, you’re going to need these qualities in spades.

Stripped of your technical mastery and your hall-of-fame-quality lifetime batting average, what are the interpersonal skills that will make you rise above the leadership pack? Pick one, any skill that you feel you’re lacking. And start developing it . . . now.

Life is good.


September 15, 2008 - New York - SHRM - contact Marshall if interested

October 2, 2008 - The Conference Board - Download Schedule - Register with discount: NM1

October 8, 2008 - Boston - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

October 13, 2008 - Palm Desert, CA - Global Institute of Leadership Development - Register with discount: GILD08-PW

October 29, 2008 - Japanese Business Executives - Tokoyo, Japan

October 30, 2008 - Japanese Business Coaches - Tokoyo, Japan

December 2, 2008 in San Francisco - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

To view my complete schedule, click here.

Advice from Your Best Expert

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Do you know what’s most important in your life?

I want you to imagine that you’re 95 years old – and on your death bed. Before taking your last breath - you’re given a great gift: the ability to travel back in time - the ability to talk to the person who is reading this column - the ability to help this person be a better professional and, more importantly, lead a better life.

The 95-year-old you understands what was really important and what wasn’t, what mattered and what didn’t, what counted and what didn’t really count. What advice would this wise “old you” have for the “you” who is reading this page?

Take a few seconds to answer this question – personally and professionally. Jot down words that capture what the old you would be saying to the younger you that is here now.  My next suggestion is simple - just do whatever you wrote down! Make that your resolution for this year and next.

A friend of mine actually had the chance to interview people who were dying and ask them what advice they would have had for themselves. The answers he got provide wonderful advice for all of us.

One recurring theme was to “find happiness and meaning - now,” not next month or next year. The great Western disease lies in the phrase, “I will be happy when . . .” The wise old you has finally realized that the next promotion, the next achievement, or the corner office really won’t change your world that much. Many older people said they were so wrapped up in looking for what they didn’t have that they seldom appreciated what they did have. They often wished they would just enjoyed life as they were living it.

Another common response revolved around friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company, and you may think that your contribution to that organization is very important. When you are 95 years old and you look at the people around your deathbed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving good-bye. Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care. Appreciate them now and share a large part of your life with them.

Older people offer other valuable advice: “Follow your dreams”. Figure out your true purpose in life, and go for it! This doesn’t apply just to big dreams; it is also true for little dreams. Buy the sports car you always wanted, go to that exotic locale you always imagined yourself visiting, learn to play the guitar or the piano.

If some people think your vision of a well-lived life is a bit offbeat or even goofy, who cares? It isn’t their life. It’s yours. Old people who pursued their dreams are always happier with their lives. Few of us will achieve all of our dreams. Some will always be elusive.

So the key question is not, “Did I make all of my dreams come true?” The key question is, “Did I try?”

I was involved in a major research project involving more than 200 high-potential leaders from 120 companies around the world. Each company could nominate only two future leaders, the very brightest of its young stars. These are the kinds of people who could jump at a moment’s notice to better-paying positions elsewhere. We asked each of them a simple question: “If you stay in this company, why are you going to stay?”

The following are the top three answers.

“I am finding meaning and happiness now. The work is exciting and I love what I am doing.”

“I like the people. They are my friends. This feels like a team. It feels like a family. I could make more money working with other people, but I don’t want to leave the people here.”

“I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me a chance to do what I really want to do in life.”

The answers were never about the money. They were always about the satisfaction. When my friend asked people on their deathbeds what was important – and I asked young, global leaders what was important – we got exactly the same answers!

When you’re looking for what’s most important, don’t look ahead. Look behind. Be happy now - enjoy your friends and family – and follow your dreams.

This is great advice for everyone who wants a fulfilling career. It’s also great advice for everyone who wants to live a meaningful life.

Life is good.


Upcoming Schedule:

September 15, 2008 - New York - SHRM - contact Marshall if interested

October 2, 2008 - The Conference Board - Download Schedule - Register with discount: NM1

October 8, 2008 - Boston - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

October 13, 2008 - Palm Desert, CA - Global Institute of Leadership Development - Register with discount: GILD08-PW

October 29, 2008 - Japanese Business Executives - Tokoyo, Japan

October 30, 2008 - Japanese Business Coaches - Tokoyo, Japan

December 2, 2008 in San Francisco - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

They’re Not You

Monday, September 1st, 2008

A lot of executives assume that their staff members should act exactly as they do — and enjoy what they enjoy. Leaders are especially prone to this mistake when it comes to their communication style. When I began working with Bob, the CEO of a successful company, I saw this problem play out before my eyes.

The feedback on Bob didn’t quite add up. On the one hand, it said he often stifled open discussion. On the other, it said he was always changing his mind. These two characteristics are often mutually exclusive. People who discourage open discussion aren’t usually people who are always changing their mind.

Things only made sense after Bob’s chairman told me, “You have to understand, Bob is the world champion at debating with others and at arguing with himself. He was a star on one of the best college debating teams in the world.”

Time and again, Bob’s natural response with any new idea was to go into debate mode and try to shoot holes in it. Let’s say Harry, three levels below Bob in the organization, expressed his opinion in a meeting. Bob would leap into the conversation and present the other side of the argument. Harry, considering his status, wasn’t likely to be as quick as Bob and almost certainly not as good at debate. Bob just made Harry look very stupid in front of his colleagues.

Harry’s reaction to the debate was very simple: Quit expressing opinions that Bob may not want to hear. Even better, play it safe and quit expressing opinions at all. Bob thought he was debating; Harry felt like he’d been stepped on.

Bob compounded the problem by debating with himself as well. Someone would say, “Why don’t we try this?” and Bob would approve. But a few days later, after he had enough time to debate his decision with himself, he’d change his mind, saying, “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.” In his head, he was open-minded. In his staff’s collective brain, he was confusing the hell out of them.

My job was to make Bob see the problem, which I like to call the “golden-rule fallacy.” He assumed that his people were just like him and, therefore, liked to be treated the same way he did.

When I told Bob about the feedback he had received, he quickly blurted out, “There must be some misunderstanding here! I love it when we can all take the gloves off and tell each other what we really think.”

“That’s nice. But they aren’t you,” I said.

“What’s wrong with me expressing an opinion, and someone else expressing an opinion, and we have a healthy debate?” he asked.

True to form, Bob had lured me into a heated debate. I replied, “Well, yes, but you’re the CEO — and they aren’t. You have advanced degrees and a big IQ — and they may not. You were the star debater at your top university — and they weren’t. Their odds of beating you at this game are close to zero. So they opt not to play.”

“What about Jim?” Bob countered. “The other day he and I had a heated disagreement. He told me what he thought about one of my plans in no uncertain terms. We had a real head-to-head discussion and ended up with a solution that was better than either one of us started with. Jim told me how much he appreciated my candor and how much fun it was to argue. How do you explain that?”

After laughing at Bob’s animated version of his discussion, I replied, “Jim is a younger version of you! He has a great education; he’s brilliant and quick. You don’t intimidate him. Unfortunately for you, very few people in the world are like Jim, or for that matter, like you. If they were, your style would be perfect.”

All of a sudden, the light bulb went on for Bob. He saw that he was operating under a bogus assumption about how to treat others. So he changed his behavior.

He paid close attention to his debating urges and stifled them when they put his staff at a huge disadvantage. He routinely invited people to voice their opinions in meetings and thought once, twice, three times before challenging them.

As a CEO, he started making clear decisions and quit causing confusion by publicly debating with himself. After 12 months, Bob’s team perceived him as a better boss.

The golden rule doesn’t always work in leadership. If you manage your people the way you’d want to be managed, you’re forgetting: You’re not managing you!

Life is good.

Marshall’s Upcoming Schedule:

September 15, 2008 - New York - SHRM - contact Marshall if interested

October 2, 2008 - The Conference Board - Download Schedule - Register with discount: MG1

October 8, 2008 - Boston - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

October 13, 2008 - Palm Desert, CA - Global Institute of Leadership Development - Register with discount: GILD08-PW

October 29, 2008 - Japanese Business Executives - Tokoyo, Japan

October 30, 2008 - Japanese Business Coaches - Tokoyo, Japan

December 2, 2008 in San Francisco - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program