It’s a fact of life: you get more bang for your buck 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. When I first started out working with executives, most of my clients were valued but derailed executives who needed to get back on track. They were usually executives who were interpersonally challenged or insensitive and weren’t able to connect with their coworkers.
This was relatively easy work for me, and I ended up looking like a miracle worker because I helped these executives step into their roles with less interpersonal friction. When the executive stopped being abrasive and started treating people more respectfully, the impact was immediately felt and greatly appreciated by all parties. Through my work, however, I’ve realized that although it’s important to help derailed executives, helping star performers is an even better investment.
Of course, this begs the question: how do you help smart, talented people grow and evolve when their mode of operation is working and no one is complaining? Luckily, there are a few ways you can help these already successful executives thrive.
Receiving Constructive Feedback
Complicating the issue of elevating successful people is an executive’s tendency to be so busy with their job that they have difficulty taking the time to reflect. Even more problematic is that senior executives receive little constructive developmental feedback.
Example: CEOs rarely receive constructive feedback from their boards. This can happen even though they are required in most cases to provide it for their subordinates. Although they receive annual reviews where they are rewarded for achieving goals, if executives aren’t aware of how they can reach these goals through regular feedback it can hinder their ability to be successful. Executives at all levels can end up lacking the constructive feedback they need to improve. I recently asked a C-level executive client from a privately held company when his CEO last gave him a full-fledged performance appraisal. His response? “Three years ago.” That’s too long to wait on critical feedback.
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 can they do to make it to the next level? 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 a very noticeable impact.
Identifying Where They Can Improve
I periodically conduct a literature review of the research on leadership development to see what my colleagues find 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 their subordinates and key stakeholders value. If you concentrate on improving behaviors others believe would make a positive impact, you’re likely to be more effective.
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 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 ____ more or less often.” In my experience, when you ask for this type of developmental input, it can result in remarkable consistency in what key stakeholders deem important.
How to Solicit and Receive Feedback
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. Of course, soliciting constructive feedback can be challenging because most people have difficulty giving face-to-face developmental feedback, especially to a boss. Standard feedback surveys don’t usually work well for this type of work. Executives need to have a dialogue with the respondents to dig for the nuggets that can only come out in a conversation.
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.” Everyone, including the most competent, can dread developmental feedback.
Putting Theory Into Practice
Learning new behaviors takes practice over time. It has to become second nature and that only comes through repetition. 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 to focus on.
For example, a CEO client 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 employees, I learned that the CEO needed to learn how to withhold commenting during leadership team meetings until everyone else had put in their ideas or 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 feedback was extremely important in helping the CEO identify ways in which he could improve.
After we debriefed on my findings, the CEO was able to explain to his team that he was going to practice refraining from chiming in during team meetings until everyone else had a chance to contribute. This was all thanks to their helpful feedback. Further setting him apart from “good enough” executives, he gave them permission to tell him if he slipped back 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.
Continuing to Raise the Bar
It’s never too late to reevaluate where you stand and improve on your behaviors. 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. Another great example is Benny Goodman, the famed clarinetist, who decided on his own that he needed to improve. He learned how to hold the clarinet differently and needed develop new calluses on his finger tips to replace the ones he had from 20+ years of playing. That’s what star performers do — they keep raising the bar in whatever way they can.