Helping Successful People Be Even More Successful

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. copyright 2006

You get more bang for your bucks if you help successful people get even better. I am privileged to work with extremely successful people who want to play at the top of their game. However, when I first started out working with executives, most of my clients were valued executives who had derailed and needed to get back on track. They were usually executives who were interpersonally challenged or insensitive and were ticking off people right and left. Surprisingly, that was easier work from my standpoint and I ended up looking like a miracle worker mostly because I helped the executive stop inflicting pain on others. When the executive stopped inflicting pain and started treating people more respectfully and with greater finesse, the impact was immediately felt and greatly appreciated by all parties. Nevertheless, as you can see in the accompanying graph, although it’s important to help derailed executives, helping star performers (Executive A) is an even better investment.

How do you help smart talented people grow/change when what they’ve been doing has served them so well and no one is complaining about them? Complicating the issue is that they tend to be so busy doing their job that they have difficulty taking the time to reflect. Even more problematic is that senior executives receive little constructive developmental feedback.

CEOs, for example, rarely receive constructive feedback from their Boards. Yes, they receive annual reviews where they are rewarded for achieving goals or… they get canned when they don’t… and the latter can happen at any time. The next level of executives also rarely receive constructive feedback even though they are required (mostly in larger companies) to provide it for their subordinates. I recently asked a C-level executive client from a Middle-Market privately held company ($300M revenue) when was the last time his boss (CEO) gave him a full-fledge performance appraisal; “Three years ago”, was his response.

Regardless of the lack of developmental feedback, most of the executives I’ve interviewed or worked with know that there is always room for them to grow. So what must they do to go to the next level?

I periodically conduct a literature review of the research on leadership development to see what my colleagues find is both important and valid. Coupling that knowledge with my own experience working with senior executives, I’ve learned that most executives can improve on at least one or two behaviors that in the “eyes” of their subordinates and key stakeholders are important. Yes, you got it right. If you concentrate on improving behaviors that others believe would make a positive impact, you’re likely to be more effective.

However, let me be clear, I’m not talking about a popularity contest where you try to please others and pander to their desires. I’m referring to the remarkable ability that intelligent people have in knowing what one or two behaviors their leaders can improve upon that will have a positive impact on their followers. Think about the last time you said to yourself, “I wish my boss would just ____ more or less often.” And, in my experience, when you ask for this type of developmental input, there usually is remarkable consistency in what key stakeholders deem is important.

For example, a CEO client of mine hired me to help him and his executive team “raise the bar” on their performance as a team. During a series of interviews I conducted with his direct reports and a set of key next level down employees, I learned that the CEO needed to learn to withhold commenting during leadership team meetings until everyone else had put in their ideas/suggestions. He was a classic visionary leader who could make conceptual leaps with ease. Unfortunately, his team learned very quickly that when the boss chimed in during meetings, he had stopped listening because he had come to “the answer.” He was inadvertently disempowering his subordinates through his unbridled enthusiasm. He was completely unaware that he was stifling his executives’ creativity. There were other behaviors and attitudes that his team also needed to work on but, this one piece of knowledge was extremely important for the CEO.

After we debriefed on my findings, the CEO explained to his team that based on their very helpful feedback, he was going to practice “sitting on my hands” during team meetings and refrain from chiming in until everyone else had a chance. Furthermore, and this is what set him out from the crowd of “good enough” executives, he gave them permission to tell him if he slipped backed into his old behavior. In a follow up with the team a year later, the positive effects of changing just this one behavior were still reverberating.

The key for successful executives is to be willing to solicit constructive developmental input from people they trust and hold in esteem. Feedback from people they don’t value will fall on deaf ears. However, soliciting constructive feedback is more challenging than it seems because most people have difficulty giving face-to-face developmental feedback, especially to a boss. Standard 360 feedback surveys really don’t work well for this type of work. You need to have a dialogue with the respondents to dig for the nuggets that only come out in a conversation. Hence, the need for an independent third party who can establish trust with the feedback givers, enforce confidentiality guidelines and sort through the data to find the gold.

Furthermore, packaging and delivering the feedback in a way that the executive can digest is equally important. I remember the head of a division of a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company telling me after I gave him feedback, “I was really worried that the feedback would be much worse.” This was from someone who was considered one of the top people in the industry not to mention the company! Everyone, including the most competent, dread developmental feedback.

Once you sort through the feedback, you need to identify the top one or two behaviors that you could change or learn and begin to work on those. It’s been my experience that no one can effectively work on changing more than two behaviors at a time, and I usually recommend concentrating on just one. If it’s a key behavior, changing or learning it will have an impact that noticeable. And, learning new behaviors takes practice over time. It has to become second nature and that only comes through repetition.

Then, after you’ve integrated the new or changed behavior into your behavioral repertoire, you can go back to the well and pick another key behavior and work on that.

I’m reminded of Tiger Woods who, at the top of his game, decided he needed to refine his stroke. He hired a new coach and completely relearned how to hit the ball. Benny Goodman, the famed clarinetist, also decided on his own that he needed to improve. In his case, he had to remove the calluses from his fingers so that he could learn a new way to play the clarinet and then rebuild new calluses. That’s what star performers do. They keep raising the bar. They don’t wait for their bosses to tell them to.