Small Step, Big Results

Part of my coaching work with executives consists of conducting feedback interviews with 10-12 of their supervisors, peers and direct reports. This provides insight into the perceptions of those who know the person being coached in a working relationship. Typically, three or four underlying behaviors arise that clients seek to improve during our coaching sessions.

While it’s better to have a detached third-person – like a coach – explore areas around what are Susie’s biggest strengths, where are ways Billy can be more successful and describe John’s communication style, you can do this on your own.

Choose a few folks who you interact with on a regular basis and ask them to sit down and share how they see you… giving them permission upfront to be candid. Listen closely to what they’re saying, taking a few ‘headline’ notes without being absorbed in capturing every word. Be sure not to react to anything you hear. This isn’t an exercise in right or wrong, good or bad; it’s exploratory research and a chance to learn.

These conversations should last less than 15 minutes. End each one by asking is there anything else I should know that would help me be a better leader? Then simply say thank you. There’s no need to accept, reject or negotiate any of their viewpoints. After you talk to everyone review your notes and look for patterns where you could do better. Chances are if there’s something you need to change more than one person mentioned it. Choose two or three that are important to you, and put together a self-improvement plan.

Circle back to tell each person how much you appreciate his or her helping you, and share the first things you’re going to address. This lets them know it wasn’t just a conversation that ended without action. Finally, select one person to serve as your accountability partner to ensure you stay focused on achieving change, and schedule brief ‘check in’ updates every few weeks for several months. Soon you’ll start seeing a better you.


Master Stroke

Since age 24, I have always maintained an exercise program. For several years I lifted weights, before deciding push-ups and sit-ups get the job done in a lot less time. I jogged until I was 30, then put 10,000 miles on a Schwinn AirDyne bike. In 2001, I went back to running. As age 50 crept ever closer the past few months, my body complained often about recurring aches and pains. I sensed Father Time was telling me to find another way to stay in shape.

So I decided to take up swimming and, given my desire to do it right, enrolled in a 10-week training class at the YMCA. Upon arriving at the first session five days before my birthday, I discovered the other 12 participants all have been participating in this program for at least a year; several are former competitive swimmers. I also learned the sport of swimming is a lot harder than Michael Phelps makes it look. After 20 minutes – having ingested, I’m certain, more than a safe amount of chlorine and feeling I was close to hyperventilating – I told the instructor, “I don’t think I can do this. Running is so much easier.” She politely said: “Yes, you can. Give me three weeks and you’ll be swimming laps with everyone.”

Tomorrow is that three-week mark, and while I’m still not good – that’s me bringing up the rear in the beginner’s lane, struggling to figure out how to take a breath during freestyle and sitting out about every third rotation – I’m starting to get the rhythm of swimming. Looking down the road to August 18th when this session ends, I have a clear vision of signing up for the next one and spending many more days in the pool.

The lesson here is this: Implementing something new and important – whether it’s business strategy or personal development – doesn’t come without a large dose of learning, a big serving of frustration and a giant piece of humble pie. The key is to put one arm in front of the other, keep kicking and breathe calmly. Looking in the mirror each morning and channeling your inner Stuart Smalley helps too: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”


Future State

As part of our coaching program for executives, I conduct feedback interviews with 10-12 people who work closely with the client. These are superiors, peers and direct reports who provide a broad perspective about a client’s strengths and weaknesses. As coaching goes, this is one of the ‘gold mines’ for identifying potential areas for improvement.

Last week, one of the high-level executives I interviewed recommended this approach for the client we were discussing:

“It starts with recognizing what made him successful before is not going to get him to the company’s desired future state. If he does a better job improving his skill sets then he can help us get there. These provide opportunities to search the soul and think about what he can do to help us. He needs to identify three weaknesses – and we all have them – and challenge himself to turn those into strengths.”

Too often leaders at all levels incorrectly assume that the skills and traits that made them successful – and likely earned them a promotion – end up being mostly irrelevant as their roles evolve into higher responsibility. That’s why great sales people struggle to be great sales managers… why outstanding workers struggle to be outstanding managers… why knowledge experts struggle to be generalists.

The key to making a successful transition up the leadership ladder is to avoid fooling yourself into thinking anything you did previously has relevance in your new role. While what you previously did provided a solid foundation, it is imperative you learn new ways to work with and engage people. Your main responsibility as a leader is to lead, not do. Marshall Goldsmith wrote it best in his 2007 bestseller by the same name: “What got you here won’t get you there.”