Executive Coaching High Achievers: Do People Ever Really Change?

A year before his death, Steve Jobs told me, with intentional irony, that one of the only things that ever got him to consider a behavior change was facing his own mortality.  Chances are you probably know more than one gifted, intelligent pal whose heart attack and bypass led to a radical improvement in behavior—temporarily. Not only did he get better, he annoyed you for months about your bad habits as he set a better example. A year later, he’s obviously gaining weight sneaking off to eat cheeseburgers at the drive-thru on the way home. Even life-threatening illness doesn’t seem to create permanent change.


Why don’t we change even with a proverbial burning platform? Boards of directors, VCs and private equity investors call me exasperated by how stubborn even the most gifted leaders can be. It’s no longer enough to manage or “embrace” change. You’ve got to drive it or be run over by disruptive competitors! Here are three primary reasons why leaders fail to cross the chasm, and how to transform those risky habits into continuous improvement:

1. Evidence vs. Support: As losses swelled, newly recruited Ford CEO Alan Mulally challenged his senior executives to deliver performance reports that showed how the company wasn’t hitting the right targets. Sitting in his office overlooking Detroit, he smiled and shook his head as he described how the team showed up with rosy forecasts at the first meeting. Mulally reminded his colleagues that Ford couldn’t be $17 billion in the red if everything was green on their dashboards. And if things seemed okay to those leaders, he warned that he’d find people capable of revealing the brutal truth.

One senior executive did something so rare at a subsequent meeting that it’s hard to imagine it in most companies.  He provided a shocking report that showed crimson across the board. You couldn’t blame his peers for wondering whether this honest, but naïve fellow would be shot at the end of the session.  He shared the problems openly, and more importantly, he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he did not have all the answers.

The CEO stood up at the conference table for a moment of hushed silence.

What happened next was unprecedented. He gave the fellow a standing ovation and acknowledged that he didn’t have the answers either. He pledged the resources within Ford and around the world to help find and fund the changes necessary for growth. It was a breakthrough that had been prevented by a long tradition in most companies well versed in management science that suggests that we insist our team only bring us solutions. For that reason, we often don’t get the bad news until it’s too late.

Before he retired, Mulally was widely viewed as a rock star among high performance CEOs, and the executive who had the courage to face him with the red dashboard was Mark Fields, who not surprisingly became the next CEO of Ford!

We train our teams to lie to us. Despite all the lip service to the contrary, we have a long, well-established track record in many organizations in which we shoot the messenger, punishing them for having let it occur and browbeating them for disclosing it without a profound answer to the problem.

“Situational leadership is great, but in this one respect it doesn’t go far enough,” says the world’s no. 1 executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. While it would be ideal to have all the solutions instantly available and obvious to us as leaders in a rapidly changing environment, it’s not realistic. We often unintentionally force our teams to mislead themselves and others, or hesitate too long in sharing the brutal truth. We must encourage our people to provide the evidence AND then they’ll watch our behavior under a microscope: They’ll watch carefully to see if we’re telling truth about providing the support and safety needed to embrace change.

“We’re judged by what we do to confirm the behaviors we’re seeking in others, not just what we say as leaders!” Goldsmith said. “When it comes to embracing change, it’s very easy to see what we don’t like about ourselves in other people. It’s harder to see what we don’t like about ourselves.”

2. The Diet & Exercise Myth: Among the most popular books on Earth are those written about cooking and, separately, the diets necessary to survive that consumption. On a valiant mission to ‘get in shape’ after warnings from your doctor, what better way to be accountable for change than to set a BHAG that is unambiguously clear and gives you bragging rights like running a marathon. It’s a great metaphor for what we must all do in our lives and business, right? Well, maybe. If you also happen to fall in love with distance running, that’s fantastic. The problem is that many people who set that marathon as the ultimate goal often win that battle, but lose the war. The relief that comes with victory means they never run again and promptly return to their prior weight and lack of condition. Diet and exercise are not intrinsically compelling goals. So what works for lasting change?

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. While that should be cliché by now, it’s amazing how temporary we make most of the measurements of change that we wish to see. That’s because we set goals for change that don’t really matter to us. In fact, the new exercise plan probably creates real sacrifices and discomfort, and so it’s often doomed unless we give ourselves with something more meaningful to hold onto—or perhaps even more fun.

Set more meaningful goals for long-term change. If we must lose weight, then what activity gets you on your feet that keeps you in shape that you might actually enjoy? Can you engage in the new habit with people you want to be with, or is there some way to take the sting out of the sacrifice? These are details worth sweating if we want the new exercise program to stick. It may not seem as heroic as a marathon, but this is a case where finding a passion that really matters to you if you want to have even the most remote possibility of permanent change.

3. Role Modeling vs. Rule Making: The day will come when it’s time for you to leave your job. For the charismatic CEO ofCisco, it was a well planned transition. After 17 years, John Chambers moved to a role as Executive Chairman this summer. Part of his success has been his willingness to “be the change” that he wants to see. When I was invited to keynote Cisco’s largest customer conference, I found Chambers backstage interviewing clients—a never-ending practice I’ve witnessed for two decades. In his patient southern drawl, he’s forever asking questions and listening deeply for ways Cisco can step up to a solution. For a guy who’s so people focused, Chambers’ dyslexia has never made public speaking a picnic for him, but nevertheless he insisted that every speaker at the conference would receive customer feedback scores, and he’d be judged by the audience along with the rest of us. Chambers is forever determined to role model the behaviors he demands from others.

You succeed not only because of your talents, but despite (not because of) your bad habits. Success is not the best teacher when it comes to creating change. It’s all too easy (and ironic) for leaders to ask others to take the big leap toward continuous improvement rather than hold ourselves accountable to the principles that we ourselves evangelize. In fact, a long track record of achievement makes us more resistant to initiate change. It’s also easy to assume that just because we’ve been successful in the past, every habit we have has contributed to that success or is forgivable. The truth is that we’re successful because of some talents and skills, and despite bad habits not because of them. My coaching partner Marshall Goldsmith wrote about this in his bestselling book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. What we’ve done in the past often won’t get us where we need to be tomorrow if there is a change of behavior required. It’s common to indulge in wishful thinking and overconfidence about the future prospects of past victories, or fearful that a new path might risk what’s worked so well for so long.

“We’re here to learn and to serve,” Chambers whispered to me in the kitchen at my neighbor’s house as he readied himself to receive guests for a cancer charity event in Silicon Valley last weekend. “That’s the only part that never changes.” Never stop asking questions. Never stop being the role model for innovation. If you’re listening carefully, the world will tell you how you can be the change you wish to see.

Source: Forbes.com

Mark Thompson: CEO of Virgin Unite Entrepreneurship Academy

Bring Mark Thompson to your next event.

Find out more information, including fees and availability.