Coaching for Growth

Leadership Excellence

by Marshall Goldsmith and Patricia Wheeler

The best coaching advice you’ll ever receive in life comes from a wise old person. Listen carefully: First, take a deep breath. Now, imagine that you are 95 years old and about to die. Before you take your last breath, you are given a wonderful, beautiful gift: the ability to travel back in time and talk with the person you are today. The 95-year-old you has the chance to help the you of today to have a great career and a great life.

The 95-year-old you knows what was really important and what wasn’t; what really mattered and what didn’t; what really counted and what didn’t count at all. What advice does the wise ‘old you’ have for you? Take your time. Jot down the answers on two levels: personal advice and professional advice. And once you write down these words, take them to heart.

In a world of performance appraisals, this may well be the one that matters most. At the end of life, if the old you thinks that you did the right thing, you probably did. If the old you thinks that you screwed up, you probably did. At the end of life, you don’t have to impress anyone else–just the person you see in the mirror.

Four Recurring Themes
When a friend once talked with old people facing death and asked them what advice they would have given themselves, their answers were filled with wisdom–and four themes: 1. Take time to reflect on life and find happiness and meaning now. Afrequent comment runs along these lines: ‘I got so wrapped up in looking at what I didn’t have that I missed what I did have. I had almost everything. I wish I had taken more time to appreciate it.’

2. Look to the present. The great disease of ‘I will be happy when…’ is sweeping the world. You know the symptoms. You start thinking: I’ll be happy when I get that . . . BMW . . .promotion . . . status . . . money. The only way to cure the disease is to find happiness and meaning now.

3. Don’t get so lost in pleasing the people who don’t care that you neglect the people who do–your friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company and believe that your contribution is important. But when you’re 95 and on your death bed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving goodbye! Your friends and family will likely be the only people who care.

4. Give it a try–follow your dreams. Older people who tried to achieve their dreams were happier with their lives. None of us will ever achieve all of our dreams. If we do, we will just make up new ones! If we go for it, we can at least say at the end, ‘I tried!’ instead of, ‘Why didn’t I at least try?’ When we interview high-potential leaders worldwide and ask them: ‘If you stay in this company, why will you stay?’, we hear the same answers: ‘I’m finding meaning and happiness now.’ ‘The work is exciting, and I love what I am doing.’ ‘I like the people here. They are my friends. This feels like a team–like a family. I might make more money if I left, but I don’t want to leave the people here.’ ‘I can follow my dreams. This organization gives me the chance to grow and do what I really want to do in life.’ To make a new beginning in life or in your leadership, look ahead to the end and then decide what to do.

Growing Into Success
Why do some people reach their creative potential early while equally talented peers don’t? We’ve all seen the near-misses: people who have talent to spare but never quite make it; and those, like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, who enjoy eventual success that once seemed out of reach to most observers.

If you believe you are born with all the smarts and gifts you’ll ever have, you tend to approach life with a fixed mind-set. However, those who believe that their abilities can expand over time live with a growth mind-set–and they’re much more innovative.

As coaches, we encounter people who have a stellar track record, off-thechart IQ, great technical expertise, and a track history of success–but who then reach a career plateau. In contrast, we work with individuals who, despite a rather pedestrian early track record, lack of Ivy League pedigree, surpass those who appear to be the ‘chosen ones.’ How does this happen– and what can you do about it? This is good news for those who do not grow up feeling chosen or special.

Feeling much more like the tortoise than the hare, you may stumble along while others seem to sail through life easily and successfully–or so it seems.

In reality, the pampered and pedigreed are often the ones who stumble, due to adopting a fixed mindset. We’ve all seen folks who were tapped as stars early in life. Cheered on by doting, praise-lavishing parents, they develop the sense that their talents are Godgiven qualities that they can count on for future success.

What’s the problem with this? They feel entitled to succeed and become riskavoidant, fearing the embarrassment of failure. They deal with obstacles by giving up, feigning disinterest or blaming others. Or, having enjoyed so many early wins, they keep on doing what made them successful, despite all the changes around them–not a great recipe for ongoing success.

Mark was a bright, results-oriented VP in his company and yet he offended his peers with his brusque style and impatience. His manager doubted that he could, or would, change. And Mark had no patience with fluff. He needed a clear business case for making any behavior change. Once he understood that listening more and increasing his patience would lead to better buy-in from others and improve his department’s product, he embraced the change enthusiastically. Mark implemented his development plan diligently with great results–to the astonishment of his manager.

What propelled Mark’s progress? He embraced a mindset of growth. Never a natural star or charismatic presence, he’s a regular guy who approached challenges with curiosity and saw roadblocks as signs that he needed to change strategy, increase effort, stretch himself, or try new behaviors (high emotional intelligence).

In our early meetings, Mark took a learner’s approach to his 360-degree feedback. Although surprised with the negatives, he didn’t deflect or blame his stakeholders. Although a very private man, he faced his fear of disclosing more about himself to others to enhance his leadership. In other words, he embraced the possible.

You can adopt an attitude that enables you to grow and change.

First, listen to yourself–to the internal music and lyrics that you hear inside your head? Are you telling yourself to give up? That your challenges are the fault of others, less wonderful, less ‘enlightened’ people? Or do you tell yourself that you can figure out what abilities you need to grow or stretch toward to succeed? These belief systems are the underpinning of the success–and failure–of many.

Second, create a regular time and space to reflect on who you are–your beliefs, your vision, your inner dialogue.

This will be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for those who value speed and are used to a track record of stardom. My advice: do it anyway.

Third, find a partner to serve as ‘spotter’ and dialogue partner as you grow. This could be a trusted colleague or an experienced executive coach.

They’ll help you leverage your strengths and stay out of the way of your blind spots.

Recently, Mark described how he now observed patterns in meetings.

‘Now that I know myself better,’ he said, ‘I see how other people use different behaviors to manage stress. I’m less impatient with them because I know what they’re trying to do, and I don’t let it get to me.’ In fact, Mark now uses his new knowledge in developing and mentoring others. His department is delivering results more effectively, and other leaders are asking him and his team to participate in highly visible and strategic projects.

So what started out as a simple selfimprovement project by an ordinary guy has turned into a big win for his company–largely because he has a mindset of growth. LE Marshall Goldsmith is best selling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There Visit www.MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

Patricia Wheeler is an executive and team coach and Managing Partner in the Levin Group. E-mail Patricia@TheLevinGroup.com or call 404 377-9408.

ACTION: Cultivate a mindset of growth.