Changing Leadership Behavior

leadership self development
leadership self development

My mission is to help successful leaders achieve a positive change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams.

While I am best known as an executive coach, coaching represents only 25% of what I do. The remaining three quarters of my time is spent in teaching others what I know (either executives, high-potential leaders, HR professionals, or university executive education participants), writing or editing books and articles or working in consulting networks that can provide a wide range of coaches to leaders around the world.

Almost everything that I do as a professional is related to my mission.

Our “Pay for Results” Behavioral Coaching Approach

All of the behavioral coaches that I work with use the same general approach. We first get an agreement with our coaching clients and their managers on two key variables: 1) what are the key behaviors that will make the biggest positive change in increased leadership effectiveness and 2) who are the key stakeholders that should determine (one year later) if this change has occurred.

We then get paid only after our coaching clients have achieved a positive change in key leadership behaviors as determined by key stakeholders.

I believe that many behavioral coaches are paid for the wrong outcomes. Their income is a largely a function of “How much do my clients like me?” and “How much time did I spend in coaching?” Neither of these is a good metric for achieving a positive, long-term change in behavior. In terms of liking the coach – I have never seen a study that showed that clients’ love of a coach was highly correlated with their change in behavior. In terms of spending clients’ time — My clients’ are all executives whose decisions often impact billions of dollars. Their time is more valuable than mine. I try to spend as little of their time as necessary to achieve the desired results. The last thing they need is for me to waste their time!

Qualifying the Coaching Client:

Knowing When Behavioral Coaching Won’t Help

Since we use a “pay only for results” process in behavioral coaching, we have had to learn to qualify our coaching clients. This means that we only work with clients that we believe will benefit from our coaching process.

As this book so clearly points out, there are several different types of coaching. I only do behavioral coaching for successful executives – not strategic coaching, life planning or organizational change. I have the highest respect for the coaches in these categories that are represented in this book. That is just not what I do. Therefore, I only focus on changing leadership behavior for individuals and teams. If my clients have other needs, I refer them to other coaches.

Have you ever tried to change the behavior of a successful adult that had no interest in changing? How much luck did you have? Probably none. I only work with executives who are willing to make a sincere effort to change and who believe that this change will help them become better leaders.

Some large corporations “write people off”, but rather than just fire them, engage in a pseudo behavioral coaching process that is more “seek and destroy” than “help people get better”. We only work with leaders that are seen as potentially having a great future in the corporation. We only work with people who will be given a fair chance by their management.

Finally, I would never choose to work with a client that has an integrity violation. I believe that people with integrity violations should be fired, not coached.

When will our approach to behavioral coaching almost always work? If the issue is behavioral, the person is given a fair chance and they are motivated to try to get better, the process that I am going to describe will almost always work.

Involving Key Stakeholders

In my work as a behavioral coach, I have gone through three distinct phases.

In phase one – I believed that my clients’ would become better because of me. I thought that the coach was the key variable in behavioral change. I was wrong. Since then we have done research will over 86,000 participants on changing leadership behavior. We have learned that the key variable for change is not the coach, teacher or advisor. It is person being coached and their co-workers.

In phase two – I spent most of my time focusing on my coaching clients. This was much better. I slowly learned that a hard working client was more important than a brilliant coach! I learned that their ongoing efforts meant more than my clever ideas.

In phase three (where I am now) – I spend most of my time not with my coaching client but with the key stakeholders around my client. My results are dramatically better.

How do I involve key stakeholders? I ask them to help the person that I am coaching in four critically important ways:

1) Let go of the past. When we continually bring up the past, we demoralize people who are trying to change. Whatever happened in the past happened. It cannot be changed. By focusing on a future that can get better (as opposed to a past that cannot), the key stakeholders can help my clients improve. (We call this process feedforward, instead of feedback).

2) Be helpful and supportive, not cynical, sarcastic or judgmental. If my clients reach out to key stakeholders and feel punished for trying to improve, they will generally quit trying. I don’t blame them! Why should any of us work hard to build relationships with people who won’t give us a chance?

3) Tell the truth. I do not want to work with a client, have them get a glowing report from key stakeholders and later hear that one of the stakeholders said, “He didn’t really get better, we just said that”. This is not fair to my client, to the company of to me.

4) Pick something to improve yourself. My clients are very open with key stakeholders about what they are going to change. As part of our process, our clients ask for ongoing suggestions. I also ask the stakeholders to pick something to improve and to ask for suggestions. This makes the entire process “two-way” instead of “one way”. It helps the stakeholders act as “fellow travelers” who are trying to improve, not “judges” who are pointing their fingers at my client. It also greatly expands the value gained by the corporation in the entire process (see the following case study).

Steps in the Behavioral Coaching Process

The following steps outline our behavioral coaching process. Every leader that I coach has to agree to implement the following steps. If they don’t want to do this, I make no negative judgments. They are many valuable things that leaders can do with their time other then work with me! Our research indicates that if leaders won’t do these basic steps, they probably won’t get better. If they will do these basic steps, they almost always get better!

1) Involve the leaders being coached in determining the desired behavior in their leadership roles. Leaders cannot be expected to change behavior if they don’t have a clear understanding of what desired behavior looks like. The people that we coach (in agreement with their managers) work with us to determine desired leadership behavior.

2) Involve the leaders being coached in determining key stakeholders. Not only do clients need to be clear on desired behaviors, they need to be clear (again in agreement with their managers) on key stakeholders. There are two major reasons that people deny the validity of feedback, wrong items or wrong raters. By having our clients and their managers agree on the desired behaviors and key stakeholders in advance, we help ensure their “buy in” to the process.

3) Collect feedback. In my coaching practice, I personally interview all key stakeholders. The people that I am coaching are all potential CEOs and the company is making a real investment in their development. However, at lower levels in the organization (that are more price sensitive) traditional 360 degree feedback can work very well.

4) Determine key behaviors for change. As I have become more experienced, I have become simpler and more focused. I generally recommend picking only 1-2 key areas for behavioral change with each client. This helps ensure maximum attention to the most important behavior. My clients and their managers (unless my client is the CEO) agree upon the desired behavior for change. This ensures that I won’t spend a year working with my clients and have their managers determine that we have worked on the wrong thing!

5) Have the coaching clients respond to key stakeholders. The person being reviewed should talk with each key stakeholder and collect additional “feedforward” suggestions on how to improve on the key areas targeted for improvement. In responding, the person being coached should keep the conversation positive, simple and focused. When mistakes have been made in the past, it is generally a good idea to apologize and ask for help in changing the future. I suggest that my clients listen to stakeholder suggestions and not judge the suggestions.

6) Review what has been learned with clients and help them develop an action plan. As was stated earlier, my clients have to agree to the basic steps in our process. On the other hand, outside of the basic steps, everything that I give my clients is a suggestion. I just ask them to listen to my ideas in the same way they are listening to the ideas from their key stakeholders. I then ask them to come back with a plan of what they want to do. These plans need to come from them, not me. After reviewing their plans, I almost always encourage them to live up to their own commitments. I am much more of a facilitator than a judge. I usually just help my clients do what they know is the right thing to do.

7) Develop an ongoing follow-up process. Ongoing follow-up should be very efficient and focused. Questions like, “Based upon my behavior last month, what ideas to you have for me next month?” can keep a focus on the future. Within six months conduct a two-to-six item mini-survey with key stakeholders. They should be asked whether the person has become more or less effective in the areas targeted for improvement.

8) Review results and start again. If the person being coached has taken the process seriously, stakeholders almost invariably report improvement. Build on that success by repeating the process for the next 12 to 18 months. This type of follow-up will assure continued progress on initial goals and uncover additional areas for improvement. Stakeholders will appreciate the follow-up. No one minds filling out a focused, two-to-six-item questionnaire if they see positive results. The person being coached will benefit from ongoing, targeted steps to improve performance.

The Value of Behavioral Coaching for Executives

While behavioral coaching is only one branch in the coaching field, it is the most widely used type of coaching. Most requests for coaching involve behavioral change. While this process can be very meaningful and valuable for top executives, it can be even more useful for high-potential future leaders. These are the people who have great careers in front of them. Increasing effectiveness in leading people can have an even greater impact if it is a 20-year process, instead of a one-year program.

People often ask, “Can executives really change their behavior?” The answer is definitely yes. If they didn’t change, I would never get paid (and I almost always get paid). At the top of major organizations even a small positive change in behavior can have a big impact. From and organizational perspective, the fact that the executive is trying to change anything (and is being a role model for personal development) may be even more important than what the executive is trying to change. With top executives, behavior may be the only leadership attribute that can be changed in a cost-effective manner. At that level it is usually “too late” for technical or functional education.

Can Internal Coaches Use this Process

GE Capital did some wonderful research using this behavioral coaching model with internal HR coaches. Their results were just as positive (if not more so) than the same research that we have done with external coaches.

Internal HR coaches can use this process if:

1) They have to time to do it. In many cases coaching is an “add on” for HR professionals and they are just not given the time to “do it right”.

2) They are seen as coaches, not judges. Clients may not “open up” to HR professionals if they are later going to use what is being shared as part of a performance appraisal.

3) Their internal clients give them credibility. In some cases internal people can say exactly the same thing as external coaches but not be listened to.

Using this Process to Improve a Team and the Larger Organization

Read our case study, “Expanding the Value of Coaching“, which will give a great example of how this coaching process can expand beyond an individual executive and ultimately have a positive influence on hundreds of people!

Life is good

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Marshall Goldsmith
Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as the #1 Executive Coach in the World by, and one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement is published in his newest book Triggers (Crown, 2015).