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Executive Coaching High Achievers: Do People Ever Really Change?

Source | LinkedIn : By Mark C. Thompson

A year before his death, Steve Jobs told me, with intentional irony, that one of the only things that ever got him to consider a behavior change was facing his own mortality.  Chances are you probably know more than one gifted, intelligent pal whose heart attack and bypass led to a radical improvement in behavior—temporarily. Not only did he get better, he annoyed you for months about your bad habits as he set a better example. A year later, he’s obviously gaining weight sneaking off to eat cheeseburgers at the drive-thru on the way home. Even life-threatening illness doesn’t seem to create permanent change.

Why don’t we change even with a proverbial burning platform? Boards of Directors, VC’s and private equity investors call me exasperated by how stubborn even the most gifted leaders can be. It’s no longer enough to manage or ‘embrace’ change. You’ve got to drive it or be run over by disruptive competitors! Here are three primary reasons why leaders fail to cross the chasm, and how to transform those risky habits into continuous improvement:

1. Evidence vs. Support: As losses swelled, newly recruited Ford CEO Alan Mulally challenged his senior executives to deliver performance reports that showed how the company wasn’t hitting the right targets. Sitting in his office overlooking Detroit, he smiled and shook his head as he described how the team showed up with rosy forecasts at the first meeting. Mulally reminded his colleagues that Ford couldn’t be $17 billion in the red if everything was green on their dashboards. And if things seemed okay to those leaders, he warned that he’d find people capable of revealing the brutal truth.

One senior executive did something so rare at a subsequent meeting that it’s hard to imagine it in most companies.  He provided a shocking report that showed crimson across the board. You couldn’t blame his peers for wondering whether this honest, but naïve fellow would be shot at the end of the session.  He shared the problems openly, and more importantly, he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he did not have all the answers.

The CEO stood up at the conference table for a moment of hushed silence.

What happened next was unprecedented. He gave the fellow a standing ovation and acknowledged that he didn’t have the answers either. He pledged the resources within Ford and around the world to help find and fund the changes necessary for growth. It was a breakthrough that had been prevented by a long tradition in most companies well versed in management science that suggests that we insist our team only bring us solutions. For that reason, we often don’t get the bad news until it’s too late.

Before he retired, Mulally was widely viewed as a rock star among high performance CEOs, and the executive who had the courage to face him with the red dashboard was Mark Fields, who not surprisingly became the next CEO of Ford!

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