Pick One Thing

Leadership Excellence

January 8, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

As a young executive coach and consultant, I would challenge my clients to pick three areas for personal improvement.

As I gained more experience, I realized that three was too many. My clients were all brilliant, dedicated leaders, but they were also very busy. They all had more goals than they could possibly remember, let alone achieve! So, I then started telling my clients to select two behavioral change goals. Now I tell people: just pick one! Pick the one area for personal change that will make the biggest difference, and focus on that. If you pick the right area, increased effectiveness in this one behavior will influence many other aspects of your relationships.

For example, becoming a better listener will help you treat people with more respect and become a better friend and family member. Pick one behavior that really matters! Make sure that the benefits are truly worth your effort.

My friend, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a renowned psychologist and author, taught me a simple exercise that helps answer the ‘Is it worth it?’ question.

Seat about six people around a table and ask each person to select one behavior that he or she may want to change. One person begins by saying, ‘When I get better at…’ and completes the sentence by mentioning one benefit that will accompany this change.

After everyone has mentioned their behavior and the first benefit, the cycle begins again. Now each person mentions a second benefit that may result from changing the same behavior, then a third benefit, then more benefits until the facilitator says ‘stop.’ Then participants discuss what they have learned.

This process works! Once Nathaniel and I were facilitators at a conference that included many well-known leaders.

The military officer sitting next to me was responsible for thousands of troops. He was also highly judgmental.

For example, when participants discussed character, he growled, ‘I respect people with real character. I don’t believe in this situational crap!’ When we began the exercise, he flippantly picked, ‘When I become less judgmental…’ as his behavior to change. The first time around, he grunted a sarcastic comment. The second time he was even more cynical.

Then something changed. When he described the potential benefit the third time, he was serious. Several rounds later, he had tears in his eyes: ‘When I become less judgmental, maybe my children will speak to me again.’ I have since conducted this exercise with thousands of people. One harddriving executive chose, ‘When I get better at letting go…’ His first benefit was ‘my direct reports will take more responsibility’– his final benefit was ‘I will likely live to celebrate my 60th birthday.’ As the exercise progresses, some people become convinced; ‘It is worth it!’ My advice to these people is simple: Get started now. Others begin to feel that they are just ‘making up’ benefits. My advice to them is this: Don’t waste your time! You won’t put in the effort.

You can do this exercise. Pick a behavior that you may want to change. Complete the sentence, ‘When I get better at…’ and listen closely as you recite potential benefits. You’ll quickly determine whether this change is worthwhile for you! As a coach, I don’t try to make people change. I know that the deepest source of inspiration for you has to come from inside you. So, look inside yourself. You may find someone who has been waiting to give you some of the best advice you’ll ever hear. PE

Marshall Goldsmith is an executive coach and author or coeditor of 22 books.Visit www.MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

ACTION: Pick your one thing.