The Power to Change

BusinessWeek

April 11, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Tim Irwin, a corporate psychologist and the author of the recently released Run with the Bulls Without Getting Trampled, talked with me from Atlanta about how individuals change and grow. Tim is managing partner of IrwinInc-Psychologists to Business. He can be reached at tim@runwiththebulls.net. His Web site, www.runwiththebulls.net, contains downloadable information about change and other topics related to leadership.

Run with the Bulls is a thoughtful book with some fascinating observations about what makes us thrive in the workplace. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

I have to ask you first about the title of your new book, Run with the Bulls Without Getting Trampled. 

Several years ago my son and I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, during the festival of San Fermin. After surviving the chaos of the bull run, I concluded that the running of the bulls depicts the workplace for many of us. We constantly hear the thundering hoof beats of the corporate bulls raging around us – bad bosses, co-workers with different agendas, demanding customers, tough competitors, downsizings – and if we don’t run skillfully and wisely, we’re going to get trampled, maybe even gored.

In your career, you’ve interviewed thousands of executives, and all those individuals’ stories and experiences formed many of your insights. Your book identifies seven critical success factors that make people truly competent, including the ability to change. Most people find it very difficult to change. 

Change requires that we paddle upstream – it’s obviously much easier to go with the flow. Most of us find it hard to let go of the familiar and to move out of our comfort zones, but successful executives realize that in order to reach their full potential, often they must make crucial changes. [Author and former CEO and chairman of Herman Miller] Max Dupree said: “It is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”

What usually ignites someone’s awareness that they need to change? 

An “emotional wake-up call” is what often launches us into an awareness of the need to change, like a mild heart attack getting our attention that we need to change our diet and to start exercising. I’ve worked with executives, for instance, who were told by their boss that they must either change how they treated their employees or they would have to leave the organization. It sometimes takes a transformational event such as a crisis to get our attention.

Do you think change is only sparked by a negative wake-up call? 

Not at all. When I work with an executive to help develop his or her leadership competence, I always ask what’s driving the interest in changing. Often, it’s a positive wake-up call, such as feedback that the organization sees the person as a key player in the future, and wants the individual to accelerate their development in order to handle greater responsibility.

Is it the transformational event itself that brings about the desired change? 

No, it’s like looking in the mirror and not liking what we see. We don’t lose weight by looking in the mirror, but it does get the ball rolling. It galvanizes our attention. At that juncture, we can affirm the feedback or deny it.

Denial of a boss’s feedback often sounds like, “I’m really not that way,” or “I’ve changed,” or “I just have a terrible boss.” Affirmation says, “I don’t like the feedback I’ve received, but I believe it’s accurate, and I need to do something about it.” Denial perpetuates the status quo, while affirmation opens the door for the possibility of change.

So, what it is that really motivates us to change? 

In most cases there are forces pushing us toward change that I like to call the “compelling whys.” Inevitably, there are also strong forces in opposition to change, such as our life circumstances. These opposing forces can sometimes be daunting.

For example, it’s very difficult for a single parent to go back to school. Most accomplished people find a way to mitigate those forces in opposition to change. They understand the forces for and against change in their lives, and then they either find a stronger “why” to change, or weaken the forces opposing change – or both.

The most notable changes seem to occur when someone connects with a deep inner commitment to a purpose such as making a difference in the lives of others. [Holocaust survivor and renowned author] Victor Frankl said: “He who knows the why will be able to bear almost any how.”

A lot of people embark on efforts to change and fail to follow through. How do we sustain momentum to make the changes we’re trying to make? 

We’ve all failed to keep a New Year’s resolution after only a few weeks of effort. The key to sustaining change is accountability in a supportive environment. This is one of the primary reasons that coaching is often such an effective approach in leadership development.

A coach provides the encouragement and the accountability over some period of time – a time that is critical in forming and cementing changed behaviors so that they become habits. I recommend to client organizations that a coach work with an executive for at least 12 months, if not 18, in order to get beyond just the adoption of some superficial new behaviors. Real, lasting transformation takes time.

I agree with you. My research with Howard Morgan shows that if leaders don’t follow up, they don’t get better. If someone wants to pursue these ideas more fully, how can they do that? 

Many have found the free online assessment on my Web site (www.runwiththebulls.net) to be very helpful in identifying what they need to change. An in-depth report is e-mailed to the respondent and provides numerous developmental recommendations about how to change.

The Web site also includes a downloadable exercise that helps the respondent identify the compelling forces for change and then mitigate the forces opposing change. Run with the Bulls without Getting Trampled goes into more depth and illustrates how these principles work in practice.

I loved the story in your book about how your son became a better baseball player. It was a wonderful illustration of how positive change occurs. His not making the Little League team served as an emotional wake-up call that set in motion a number of important changes – not only the development of the technical skills of pitching, but also in his self-management and relationship skills. 

His supportive coach who held him accountable to stay focused was actually a very powerful example of how the executives I work with experience change. Thanks for talking about this critical subject.

Thank you!