Does Anyone Ever Really Change?


December 5, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

Are you ready? The million dollar question for anyone in the coaching field is: “Does anyone ever really change?” I was first asked this perfectly reasonable, and for me life-altering, question by a Fortune 100 company executive vice president for whose company I was preparing training sessions. I’m not sure why he asked me this question. Perhaps he had an eye on the training budget? It’s hard to say. At the time, though, I had trained thousands of people, received fabulous feedback about my coaching, and I had dozens of letters from people who believed they had changed. I was a successful coach; I had worked with some of the best companies in the world, and nobody had ever asked me this question. Worse than that, it had never even entered my mind. I never went back to these companies to see if my training sessions had had any effect or if people actually did what they had promised to do in the training sessions. I had just assumed that they understood the benefits of my imminent wisdom and would do what they had been told.

I took immediate action. I became Mr. Follow-Up. I scoured all the research and went back to my client corporations, assembling data that answered the question, “Does anyone really change?” My pool of respondents eventually numbered 86,000 participants, involving eight major corporations, each of which had invested millions of dollars a year in leadership programs. As I studied the data, three conclusions emerged:

1. First, not everyone responds to executive development, at least not in the way the organization desires or intends.

Some people are trainable; some aren’t. At the eight companies I surveyed, I asked participants at the end of each session if they intended to go back to their jobs and apply what they had learned. Nearly 100 percent said yes. However, a year later, when I asked their direct reports to confirm that these leaders had applied the lessons on the job, 70 percent said yes, leaving 30 percent who said their bosses did absolutely nothing! Why would 30 percent of executives go through the training, promise to implement the changes and then do nothing? Quite simply, most of the time they were just too busy and too distracted by the day-to-day demands of their jobs to implement what they had learned. This led me to my second conclusion.

2. There is an enormous disconnect between understanding and doing.

Most leadership development revolves around one huge, and false, assumption: If people understand, then they will do. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the adamant smoker. This person knows that smoking cigarettes is bad for his health, but refuses to quit. However, this insight didn’t tell me if the 70 percent who understand and do actually got better. That’s when I realized the missing link was follow-up, not only in my training concepts, but also in getting people to change. I rewired my objectives and began measuring people to see not only if they got better, but why. Tracing five of my eight companies to measure the level of follow-up among the executives, I found the results were astonishingly consistent. When leaders did little or no follow-up with their subordinates, there was little or no perceived change in the leaders’ effectiveness. When leaders consistently followed up, the perception of their effectiveness jumped dramatically. This led to me to the third conclusion.

3. People don’t get better without follow-up.

Leaders who don’t follow up aren’t necessarily bad leaders; they are just not perceived as getting better. Follow-up shows you care about getting better. It shows you value your coworkers’ opinions. Following up consistently, every month or so, shows you are serious about the process and that you are not ignoring your coworkers’ input. Think about it. A leader who seeks input from coworkers, but ignores it or doesn’t follow up on it, quite logically will be perceived as someone who doesn’t care much about becoming a better leader.

My experience discovering the value of follow-up taught me a fourth and final very valuable lesson: Becoming a better leader (or a better person) is a process, not an event. Executive development is more than an event, training program, motivating speech or inspiring retreat. It doesn’t happen in a day. It doesn’t happen because someone understands the training. Leaders develop over time and the only way to know if someone is getting better by actually doing what they learned at a training program is to follow up. Follow-up turns changing for the better into an ongoing process – for leaders, their people and their teams.

(For the complete methodology, statistical results, the companies involved and my conclusions, please see “Leadership Is a Contact Sport: The Follow-Up Factor in Management Development,” written with Howard Morgan, in Strategy and Business, Fall 2004.)