Helping Successful People Get Even Better


By Marshall Goldsmith

In my role as an executive coach, I am asked to work with extremely successful leaders who want to get even better. They are key executives in major corporations. They are very intelligent, dedicated and persistent. They are committed to the success of their companies. They have high personal integrity. Most are financially independent. They are not working because they have to. They are working because they want to. Intellectually, they realize that the leadership behavior that was associated with yesterday’s results may not be the behavior that is needed to achieve tomorrow’s innovation.

While most of us can easily see the need to change the behavior of others, we often have great difficulty in changing ourselves! As we become more successful, it seems even harder to change. As Charles Handy has pointed out, the “paradox of success” occurs because we need to change before we have to change. However, when things are going well we often feel no reason to change.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

I have recently completed a review of research related to the topic of helping successful people change their behavior. Most research on behavioral change has focused on dysfunctional behavior with clear physiological consequences (e.g. alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders or smoking). A substantial amount has been written on why successful people succeed. Not surprisingly, very little has been written on the unique challenges involved in helping successful people change. The entire concept is somewhat counter-intuitive.

My assumption is that you, the reader, are a successful person. You may not be a key executive in a major corporation. However, I would guess that you are successful by most socio-economic standards. My second assumption is that you are working with other successful people. Many of the people that you work with are knowledge workers. They know more about what they are doing than you do. In most cases

, understanding what behaviors are desired will not be their major challenge. Their major challenge will be demonstrating these behaviors.

An example of the value of involving leaders in developing their own profile occurred with a CEO client several years ago. When he received feedback from his co-workers (on his own behavior), he looked skeptically at one of the lower scoring items and asked, “Who was the person that wanted to include that item?” I replied, “You!” He then remembered why he wanted to include the item. He also began to face the fact that the real problem was his own behavior, not the wording of an item.

The first reason that people deny the validity of behavioral input is “wrong behaviors”. The second reason is “wrong raters”. If successful people select the raters, they will be much more likely to accept the validity of the ratings. Most executives respect the opinion of almost all of their key colleagues. By letting the successful person pick the raters, you can avoid the potential reaction, “Why should a winner like me listen to a loser like him?”

One argument against letting the people we coach pick their own raters is that they will pick their “friends” and the input will not be representative. I have not found this to be true for two reasons: 1) Almost all of the executives I have met end up selecting raters that are similar to the group I would select anyway. The only time they do not want to include someone is if the person is about to leave the company or they have a deep disrespect for this person. In my experience, I have never had an executive want to exclude more than two raters. 2) When 360 feedback is used for developmental purposes, the “items for improvement” that emerge from self-selected raters are quite similar to the items that come from other-selected raters.

Bev Kaye, Ken Shelton and I recently asked over 50 great thought leaders and teachers to describe a time when they learned something that made a key 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 feedback or a challenge from someone that they deeply respected. 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 the source of feedback and suggestions can be as important as the content of the feedback and suggestions. If successful people respect the source of information, they will be much more likely to learn and change.

Successful people will almost always respond constructively to advice and input when they are involved in selecting the behaviors and selecting the advisors. By making the process confidential (not identifying raters), people will tend to focus on what they need to improve, not who did the rating. It is hard to deny the validity of items that we say are important as evaluated by raters that we respect!

After receiving input, have the person select 1-2 important areas for behavioral improvement.

I used to suggest that executives pick 1-3 areas for behavioral change. After doing “before-and-after” interviews (one year after receiving input), most executives have let me know that three is too many. Many of the successful people that I meet are too busy now. As was mentioned earlier, a main reason that people do not “stick with” their change plan is over-commitment. They don’t need another “laundry list” of goals. I now suggest that two should be the maximum number of behaviors to change. Changing one high-leverage behavior (that makes the most impact) can create a very positive difference.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

Challenge the people you are coaching to work on only the behaviors that can make a real difference. I was asked to review the 360 degree summary report of one of the world’s most successful high-tech CEOs. After receiving his confidential feedback, he considered his lowest item (listening) and asked himself, “If I become a better listener, will this make our company a better company? I am busy. Is working to become a better listener the most effective use of my time?” Before he began to work on changing behavior, he “checked it out” with the Board and with people he respected. He then decided that this change was indeed worth his effort. I was greatly impressed with his thoughtfulness and maturity in dealing with this type of information. He had a clear mission and did not want to be distracted by dealing with behavioral change that was not relevant to the achievement of the mission.

If successful people see the connection between their behavioral change goals and their personal goals, they will be much more likely to change. They need to understand the difference between “because of” and “in spite of” behaviors. Some interesting research indicates that the desire to achieve the skills associated with success is more highly correlated with achievement than the desire for success itself. If the successful people that you are coaching see the connection between changing behavior, achieving their vision and living their values, they will be much more committed to “do what it takes” to achieve lasting change.

Have the person involve respected colleagues in the behavioral change process.

Ongoing involvement from supportive colleagues is almost always associated with positive behavioral change. Colleagues are much more likely to help if they feel that they are respected and that their advice is requested (as opposed to expected).

In involving key colleagues, we teach successful leaders to have brief conversations with each colleague during which they:

1) Thank each colleague for his/her feedback and express gratitude for the positive recognition that was received.

2) Let each colleague know the 1-2 areas for improvement that have been selected and why they are important.

3) Ask each colleague to help them by providing constructive, future-oriented suggestions that may help the leader achieve positive, measurable change.

4) Recruit the respected colleague to provide ongoing supportive coaching to help them improve.

Findings on the usefulness of this process are very clear. When successful people write down goals, announce these goals to respected colleagues and involve the colleagues in helping them improve (in a supportive way), positive measurable change is much more likely to occur.

Teach the successful person’s colleagues to be helpful coaches, not cynics, critics or judges.

Unlike some forms of achievement (e.g. academic achievement), behavioral change is dependent on an interpersonal relationship that involves more than one person. If successful people feel that they are being encouraged and supported by the people around them, they will be much more likely to “stick with it” and achieve positive, long-term behavioral change. If they feel they are being judged or manipulated, they will tend to become hostile to the process and quit trying.

Years ago, I had an experience of this “turn off” effect with the CFO of a major computer company. He was perceived as being “aloof” and “arrogant”. He saw himself as introverted and somewhat shy. (It is not uncommon that introverted high-level executives are perceived as arrogant.) One suggestion from employees was that he “get off the top floor” and spend more time with the finance staff. On his first visit to practice “management by walking around”, he was greeted with sarcastic comments like, “What’s the matter, is the air conditioning broken up there?” and “What are you doing down here, slumming it?” He found the experience negative and embarrassing. I later discussed this with one of his employees. While the employee thought this was “funny”, he did not realize that he was sabotaging his manager’s efforts to meet his own request for behavioral change.

In our coaching process, we work not only with the executive; we work with the people around the executive. We do not get paid unless positive, measurable change occurs (after at least one year). The executive does not define whether he or she achieved positive, measurable change; the people around the executive determine it. We help these co-workers help the executive by doing the following:

“Letting go” of the past and focusing on the future. 

Successful people are much more likely to change by envisioning a positive future than by reliving a humiliating past. Proving that a successful person was “wrong” is often a counter-productive waste of time. Successful people respond well to getting ideas and suggestions for the future that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals. The analogy used by racecar drivers is, “Focus on the road, not on the wall!” The executive should not be expected to do everything that their colleagues suggest. Leadership is not a popularity contest. However, well-intended and constructive suggestions for the future are almost always useful.

Being a supportive coach, not a cynic, critic or judge.

Successful people attribute more validity to the sincere recognition of progress than to the sincere acknowledgement of failure. Behavioral change is almost always “non-linear”. Almost all adults will have “set backs” when attempting to change behavior. Co-workers need to realize that this is a natural part of the process and not “give up” on the executive. We all have a tendency to revert back to behaviors that were correlated with success in the past. The more successful we are, the easier it is to rationalize this return to past behavior. If the executive is encouraged to move beyond set backs and the colleagues do not dwell on these set backs, the odds for long-term change greatly improve. The colleague’s goal should be to help the executive feel like a “winner” as they participate in the process of change.

Develop a follow-up process that provides an opportunity for ongoing dialogue on selected behaviors with selected colleagues. 

Our research on follow-up has clearly shown that leaders are much more likely to achieve a positive, measurable change in behavior if they consistently involve selected colleagues (through follow-up dialogues) in the change process. These follow-up dialogues are very focused and need take only a few minutes. They can be done by phone or in-person. In one study (involving 8,000 respondents in a “Fortune 100” corporation), only 18% of all leaders who received 360 degree input, but did no follow-up, were rated as a “+2 or +3” on increased effectiveness in one year (on a “-3 to +3” scale). This was no better than a control group who had received no training and no input. On the other hand, 86% of leaders who did consistent (or periodic) follow-up received top ratings on increased effectiveness.

When co-workers are trained to be supportive coaches, the follow-up process provides an ongoing opportunity for constructive suggestions and recognition. It reinforces the individual’s public commitment to change. Ongoing dialogue creates a process in which both parties are focused on improving the relationship, not on judging each other.

Mini-surveys can be a simple and efficient way to measure behavioral change. Mini-surveys are usually very short and focus only on the behaviors that have been selected by the person being coached. They are designed so that the raters evaluate behavior that occurs only during the coaching period. They focus on the rater’s perception of improvement. If the executive agrees upon the desired behaviors for change, selects highly respected co-workers as raters, takes the process seriously and follows-up, positive change will almost always occur. After receiving the mini-survey results the executive thanks the raters, involves them in future change and continues the process. This is almost always a positive experience for the executive and for the co-workers.

In summary, helping successful people change behavior is both an opportunity and a challenge. Our “before-and-after” research has taught us a great lesson – successful people will not change behavior because they go to a course. They will get better because of their own efforts and the efforts of their respected colleagues. By understanding the unique issues involved in helping successful people change, organizations can get a huge return on investment from their development efforts. There is generally a “normal distribution” curve for most types of achievement. The marginal gain for helping a highly successful person move from the “top 5%” to the “top 1%” may be greater (to the organization) than the gain from helping the average performer move from the “top 50%” to the “top 20%.” This is especially true with high-potential leaders who represent one of the greatest sources of value for the organization of the future. While much more research needs to be done on this topic, there is a clear body of knowledge that can help make the best performers even better!

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