YOU KNOW THOSE MAPS in shopping malls that say, “You Are Here”? They exist to orient you in unfamiliar territory, to tell you where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there.
A few people never need these maps. They’re blessed with an internal compass that orients them automatically. They always make the correct turn and end up where they intended via the most economical route.
Some people actually go through life with this unerring sense of direction. It guides them not only in shopping malls but in their school years, careers, marriages, and friendships. When we meet people like this, we say they’re grounded. They know who they are and where they’re going. We feel secure around them. We feel that any surprises will only be pleasant surprises. They are our role models and heroes.
We all know people like this. For some of us, it’s our moms or dads—people who served as moral anchors in our stormy childhoods. For others it’s a spouse (the proverbial “better half”). For others (like me) it’s a college professor who was the first person to puncture our pretensions (more on that later). It could be a mentor at work, a coach in high school, a hero from the history books such as Lincoln or Churchill, a religious leader such as Buddha, Mohammed, or Jesus. It could even be a celebrity. (I know one man who solves every dilemma by asking himself, “What would Paul Newman do?”) What all of these role models have in common is an exquisite sense of who they are, which translates into perfect pitch about how they come across to others.
A few people never seem to need any help in getting to where they want to go. They have a built-in GPS mechanism.
These people do not need my help.
The people I meet during the course of my working day as an executive coach are great people who may have lost their internal “You Are Here” map. For example: Case 1. Carlos is the CEO of a successful food company. He is brilliant, hard-working, and an expert in his field. He started out on the factory floor and rose through sales and marketing to the top spot. There is nothing in his business that he hasn’t seen firsthand. Like many creative people, he is also hyperactive, with the metabolism and attention span of a hummingbird. He loves to buzz around his company’s facilities, dropping in on employees to see what they’re working on and shoot the breeze. Carlos loves people and he loves to talk. All in all, Carlos presents a very charming package, except when his mouth runs ahead of his brain.
One month ago his design team presented him with their ideas for the packaging of a new line of snacks. Carlos was delighted with the designs. He only had one suggestion.
“What do you think about changing the color to baby blue?” he said. “Blue says expensive and upmarket.” Today the designers are back with the finished packaging. Carlos is pleased with the results. But he muses aloud, “I think it might be better in red.” The design team in unison roll their eyes. They are confused. A month ago their CEO said he preferred blue. They’ve busted their humps to deliver a finished product to his liking, and now he’s changed his mind. They leave the meeting dispirited and less than enthralled with Carlos.
Carlos is a very confident CEO. But he has a bad habit of verbalizing any and every internal monologue in his head. And he doesn’t fully appreciate that this habit becomes a make-or-break issue as people ascend the chain of command. A lowly clerk expressing an opinion doesn’t get people’s notice at a company. But when the CEO expresses that opinion, everyone jumps to attention.
The higher up you go, the more your suggestions become orders.
Carlos thinks he’s merely tossing an idea against the wall to see if it sticks.
His employees think he’s giving them a direct command.
Carlos thinks he’s running a democracy, with everyone allowed to voice their opinion. His employees think it’s a monarchy, with Carlos as king.
Carlos thinks he’s giving people the benefit of his years of experience. His employees see it as micromanaging and excessive meddling.
Carlos has no idea how he’s coming across to his employees.
He is guilty of Habit #2: Adding too much value.
Case 2. Sharon is the editor of a major magazine. She is highly motivated, energetic, articulate, and loaded with charisma. For someone who has spent much of her adult life working with words and pictures, she has developed impressive people skills. She can coax delinquent writers into meeting their deadlines. She can inspire her staff to stay at their desks late into the night when she decides to tear up the next issue at the last minute. She believes she can persuade anyone if she really puts her mind to it. Her publisher often invites her on sales calls to advertisers because of her charm and her ability to sell the magazine.
Sharon is particularly proud of her ability to spot and nurture young editorial talent. The proof is in the bright energetic editorial team she has assembled. Editors at competitive magazines call them the Sharonistas, because of their almost militant allegiance to Sharon. They’ve been working with her for years. Their loyalty is unwavering. And Sharon returns their affection with equally fierce loyalty. That loyalty may seem excessive, especially if you work for Sharon but don’t quite qualify as a Sharonista.
In today’s editorial meeting, where future assignments are meted out to the staff, Sharon offered up an observation that might make a good cover story. One of the Sharonistas immediately seconded the idea, saying it was “brilliant.”Sharon assigned the story to her. And so the meeting proceeded, with Sharon handing out plum assignments to her staff favorites—all of whom returned the favor by fawning over Sharon and agreeing with everything she said.
If you happened to be one of Sharon’s favored staffers, the lovefest at the editorial meeting would be the highlight of your month. On the other hand, if you were not one of Sharon’s favored staffers or happened to disagree with her, the sycophancy level in the room would have been transparent and sickening.
After a few months of this treatment, you would have been emailing your résumé to other magazines.
None of this was apparent to Sharon, who was otherwise extremely shrewd about people and their motives. She believed she was being an effective leader.
She was developing people who shared her vision for the magazine. She was building a solid team that could operate seamlessly.
Sharon thought she was encouraging the staff to grow and eventually emulate her success. The staffers outside her inner circle thought she was encouraging sucking up.
Sharon is guilty of Habit #14: Playing favorites.
Case 3. Martin is a financial consultant for a prominent New York City firm. He manages money for high-net-worth individuals. The minimum starting account is $5 million. Martin is very good at what he does. He takes home a seven-figure salary. That’s a lot less than most of his clients make in a year.
But Martin doesn’t envy or resent his clients. He lives and breathes investments. And he loves providing a valued service for his well-heeled clients, many of them CEOs, some of them self-made entrepreneurs, some of them entertainment stars, and the rest of them beneficiaries of inherited wealth. Martin enjoys rubbing shoulders with his clients. He likes talking to them on the phone and giving them the benefit of his expertise over lunch or dinner—almost as much as he likes beating the market by four points each year. Martin is not a manager of other people. He operates as a lone wolf at his firm. His only obligation is to his clients and seeing that they’re happy with the state of their portfolios from year to year.
Today is one of the biggest days of Martin’s life. He’s been invited to manage a portion of the investment portfolio of one of America’s most admired business titans. People with enormous net worth often do that, parceling out their millions to several money managers as a protective hedge. Martin has a chance to join an elite group in the titan’s stable. If he’s successful, there’s no telling how many more clients will spring from this relationship.
He’s calling on the titan in his office perched high atop Rockefeller Center.
Martin knows that this will be his only chance to make a good impression on the titan. He has one hour to gain his confidence and trust—and the millions in his account.
Martin has done this many times. He has a veteran’s poise and confidence when he sells himself to a prospect—and he also has a superlative track record of market-beating returns. So it’s a little surprising that he doesn’t rise to the occasion in his meeting with the titan.
Immediately upon entering the titan’s office, when the titan says, “Tell me a little about yourself,” Martin starts selling his expertise. He tries to dazzle the titan with a rundown of his more prescient trades, explaining in great detail his investment rationale and how he ended up miles ahead of the competition.
He talks about some of his more prominent clients. He outlines some ideas he has for the titan’s portfolio and where he sees various markets heading in the near and long terms.
Martin is on such a roll that he doesn’t notice that the scheduled hour has gone by in a flash. That’s when the titan stands up and thanks Martin for taking the time to see him. Martin’s a little surprised by the abrupt ending to the meeting. He never got the chance to ask the titan about his goals, his attitude to risk, and what he was looking for in a portfolio manager. But as he rewinds the meeting in his mind, Martin is satisfied that he presented a strong case for himself, hitting all the high notes in his pitch.
The next day Martin receives a handwritten note from the titan thanking him again but informing him that he will be going in another direction. Martin has lost the account and he has no idea why.
Martin thought he was winning over the titan with overwhelming evidence of his financial acumen.
The titan was thinking, “What an egotistical jackass. When’s he going to ask what’s on my mind? I’m never letting this fellow near my money.” Martin is guilty of Habit #20: An excessive need to be “me.” It’s not that these people don’t know who they are or where they’re going or what they want to achieve. Nor is it that they don’t have an adequate sense of self-worth. In fact, they tend to be very successful (and their self-esteem can often be excessive). What’s wrong is that they have no idea how their behavior is coming across to the people who matter—their bosses, colleagues, subordinates, customers, and clients. (And that’s not just true at work; the same goes for their home life.) They think they have all the answers, but others see it as arrogance.
They think they’re contributing to a situation with helpful comments, but others see it as butting in.
They think they’re delegating effectively, but others see it as shirking responsibilities.
They think they’re holding their tongue, but others see it as unresponsiveness.
They think they’re letting people think for themselves, but others see it as ignoring them.
Over time these “minor” workplace foibles begin to chip away at the goodwill we’ve all accumulated in life and that other people normally extend to colleagues and friends. That’s when the minor irritation blows up into a major crisis.
Why does this happen? More often than not, it’s because people’s inner compass of correct behavior has gone out of whack—and they become clueless about their position among their coworkers.
The film director Harold Ramis once commented on the reasons behind the fading career of Chevy Chase, one of the stars of Ramis’s Caddyshack. Ramis said, “Do you know the concept of proprioception, of how you know where you are and where you’re oriented? Chevy lost his sense of proprioception, lost touch with what he was projecting to people. It’s strange because you couldn’t write Chevy as a character in a novel, because his whole attitude is just superiority: ‘I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.’” Well, I work as an executive coach with successful people who have a slightly dented sense of proprioception. They look at the map of their life and career. It tells them, “You Are Here.” But they don’t accept it. They may resist the truth. They may think (like Chevy Chase’s famous line), “I’m successful and you’re not.” Which is their license to think, “Why change if it’s working?” I wish I had the power to snap my fingers and make these people immediately see the need to change. I wish I could beam them into Groundhog Day (another Ramis film and one of my all-time favorites because it’s about how people can change for the better), and make them relive the same day—perhaps their worst day—over and over again until they mend their ways. I wish I had the temperament to shake them by the shoulders and make them face reality. I wish I could turn their flaws into life-threatening diseases—because it would compel them to change, on pain of death.
But I can’t and I don’t. Instead, I show these people what their colleagues at work reallythink of them. It’s called feedback. It’s the only tool I need to show people, “You Are Here.” And in this book, I will show you how to wield that weapon on yourself and others.
It doesn’t take much to get people reoriented—out of the maze and back on the right path. The problems we’ll be looking at in this book are not life-threatening diseases (although ignored for too long they can destroy a career). They’re not deep-seated neuroses that require years of therapy or tons of medication to erase. More often than not, they are simple behavioral tics—bad habits that we repeat dozens of times a day in the workplace— which can be cured by (a) pointing them out, (b) showing the havoc they cause among the people surrounding us, and (c) demonstrating that with a slight behavioral tweak we can achieve a much more appealing effect.
It’s a little like a stage actor who keeps stepping on a pivotal line in a comedy, thus ruining any chance of securing a big laugh from the audience. It’s the director’s job to notice this and alter the actor’s delivery so that the line elicits the essential roar of laughter from the audience. No laugh, no play. If the actor can’t adjust his delivery successfully, the producer will find someone who can.
Well, think of me as a caring director who helps you deliver your lines for maximum effect.
A journalist once told me that the most important thing he’s learned in his career is this: “Put a comma in the wrong place and the whole sentence is screwed up.” You may have an admirable skill set for a journalist.
You can investigate the facts like the CSI team. You can interview people as if you’ve known them all your life. You can empathize with victims and excoriate the bad guys. You can spin words together beautifully on deadline and create rich meaningful metaphors that leave readers gasping with admiration. And yet, if you put a comma in the wrong place, that tiny sin of commission can wipe out the rest of your contributions.
Think of me as a friendly grammarian who can shield you from bad punctuation.
A chef at one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego told me that his signature dish succeeds or fails on one secret ingredient (which, like CocaCola’s heavily guarded recipe, he refuses to reveal). Leave it out and the patrons’ plates come back to the kitchen only half eaten. Sprinkle it in the proper amount and the plates come back clean.
Think of me as the honest diner who sends back the meal untouched to let you know that something is missing.
Actors stepping on a line. Writers misusing commas. Chefs leaving out a key ingredient. That’s what we’re talking about here in the workplace: People who do one annoying thing repeatedly on the job—and don’t realize that this small flaw may sabotage their otherwise golden career. And, worse, they do not realize that (a) it’s happening and (b) they can fix it.
This book is your map—a map that can turn the maze of wrong turns in the workplace into a straight line to the top.
In the arc of what can be a long successful career, you will always be in transit from “here” to “there.” Here can be a great place. If you’re successful, here is exactly the kind of place you want to be. Here is a place where you can be the CEO of a thriving company. Here is a place where you can be the editor of one of America’s top magazines. Here is a place where you can be an in-demand financial manager.
But here is also a place where you can be a success in spite of some gaps in your behavior or personal makeup.
That’s why you want to go “there.” There can be a better place.
There is a place where you can be a CEO who is viewed as a great leader because he doesn’t get in the way of his people. There is a place where you can be a great editor who builds a strong team and treats all of her direct reports with respect. There is a place where you can be a financial pro who listens well and delivers the message that he cares more about his clients’ goals than his own needs.
You don’t have to be a CEO or leading editor or financial wizard to benefit from this book. Look at your own personal map. Trace the distance between your vision of here and there.
You are here.
You can get there.
But you have to understand that what got you here won’t get you there.
Let the journey begin. [See Chapter 2, below]
CHAPTER 2 Enough About You. Let's Talk About Me
WHO AM I TO TELL you how to change? My career as an executive coach began with a phone call from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. I had just given a leadership clinic to the CEO’s human resources department. That’s what I was doing back then in the late 1980s: Advising HR departments about identifying future leaders in their companies and creating programs to form them into better leaders. The CEO attended the session and must have heard something that struck a nerve. That’s why he was using his very valuable time to call me. Something was on his mind.
“Marshall, I’ve got this guy running a big division who delivers his numbers and more every quarter,” said the CEO. “He’s a young, smart, dedicated, ethical, motivated, hard-working, entrepreneurial, creative, charismatic, arrogant, stubborn, know-it-all jerk.
“Trouble is, we’re a company built on team values, and no one thinks he’s a team player. I’m giving him a year to change, or he’s out. But you know something, it would be worth a fortune to us if we could turn this guy around.” My ears perked up at the word “fortune.” Up until then I had been teaching large groups of leaders how to change behavior—their own and that of their peers and direct reports. I had never worked one-on-one with an executive before, and certainly not with someone who was one click away from the CEO’s chair at a multi-billion-dollar company. I didn’t know this fellow, but from the CEO’s terse description I had a good picture in my mind. He was a success junkie, the kind of guy who had triumphed at each successive rung of the achievement ladder.
He liked to win whether it was at work, at touch football, in a poker game, or in an argument with a stranger. He could charm a customer, turn everyone around to his position in a meeting, and get his bosses to want to help him advance through the organization. He had “high potential” stamped on his forehead since the day he entered the company. He was also financially independent—rich enough that he didn’t have to work, he wantedto.
All of these ingredients—the talent, charm, and brains, the unbroken track record of success, the screw-you money in the bank that let him think he could flip off the world—made this fellow a potent mix of stubbornness and pride and defensiveness. How could I help someone like this change, someone whose entire life—from his paycheck to his title to the hundreds of direct reports who did his daily bidding—was an affirmation that he was doing everything right? More important, even if I had an inkling how to do it, why would I want to beat my head against this particular wall? I was intrigued by the challenge—and the word “fortune.” I had coached plenty of mid-level managers in groups before. These were people on the verge of success, but not quite there yet. Could my methods work on a more elite flight of executive material? Could I take someone who was demonstrably successful and make him or her more successful? It would be an interesting test.
I told the CEO, “I might be able to help.” The CEO sighed, “I doubt it.” “Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll work with him for a year. If he gets better, pay me. If not, it’s all free.” The next day I caught a return flight to New York City to meet the CEO and his division chief.
That was twenty years ago. Since then I’ve personally worked with more than one hundred executives of similar status, brainpower, wealth, and achievement, who have at least one incredible career-damaging interpersonal challenge.
That’s what I do now. I have a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from UCLA and 29 years of experience measuring and analyzing behavior in organizations. Now I apply it one-on-one with very successful people who want to be more successful. My job is not to make them smarter or richer.
My job is to help them—to identify a personal habit that’s annoying their coworkers and to help them eliminate it—so that they retain their value to the organization. My job is to make them see that the skills and habits that have taken them this far might not be the right skills and habits to take them further.
What got them here won’t get them there.
But I don’t work only with the super-successful. That’s a critical part of my business, but I spend most of my time teaching people who reside somewhere below the absolute top rungs of the organizational ladder.
They need help too. There is no correlation between an individual’s standing in the corporate pyramid and what his coworkers think of his interpersonal skills. Middle managers are no less immune than CEOs to being perceived as arrogant, inattentive, rude, and unfoundedly omniscient. My target audience is the huge cohort of people who are successful in their own minds but want to be even more successful.
I train people to behave effectively in the workplace—by enrolling them in a simple but brutal regimen.
First, I solicit “360 degree feedback” from their colleagues—as many as I can talk to up, down, and sideways in the chain of command, often including family members—for a comprehensive assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
Then I confront them with what everybody really thinks about them.
Assuming that they accept this information, agree that they have room to improve, and commit to changing that behavior, then I show them how todo it.
I help them apologize to everyone affected by their flawed behavior (because it’s the only way to erase the negative baggage associated with our prior actions) and ask the same people for help in getting better.
I help them advertisetheir efforts to get better because you have to tell people that you’re trying to change; they won’t notice it on their own.
Then I help them follow upreligiously every month or so with their colleagues because it’s the only honest way to find out how you’re doing and it also reminds people that you’re still trying.
As an integral part of this follow-up process, I teach people to listen without prejudiceto what their colleagues, family members, and friends are saying—that is, listen without interrupting or arguing.
I also show them that the only proper response to whatever they hear is gratitude. That is, I teach them how to say “Thank you” without ruining the gesture or embellishing it. I am a huge apostle for thanking.
Finally, I teach them the miracle of feedforward, which is my “special sauce” methodology for eliciting advice from people on what they can do to get better in the future.
It’s often humbling for these overachievers, but after 12 to 18 months they get better—not only in their own minds but, more important, in the opinions of their coworkers.
As I say, it’s a simple process but how I got here could fill a book—this book. And I hasten to add that it is a book that can help a lot more people than just the super-successful among us. That would be like writing a golf instructional just for PGA Tour players. An interesting exercise, perhaps, but useful to only .000001 percent of the golf playing universe. It’s not worth the effort.
I don’t use a golf analogy lightly. I live next to a golf course, where I can observe golfers, and I am convinced that in the context of helping successful people get better, nothing is more relevant than golf instruction. Golfers suffer all the symptoms of successful people, perhaps even more acutely.
For one thing, they’re delusional about their success. They claim (and even believe) they’re doing better than they really are. If they break 90 one time out of a hundred rounds, that exceptional round will quickly become their “usual game.” Golfers are also delusional about how they achieved success. That’s why they award themselves second shots (called mulligans) when the first ones go in the wrong direction, move the ball from an awkward lie, conveniently neglect to count the occasional errant stroke, and otherwise fiddle with the rules and scorecard, all in an effort to buff up their handicaps and take credit for a better game than they actually possess.
Golfers, like business people, also tend to be delusional about their weaknesses, which they deny. This explains why they spend much of their time practicing what they’re already good at and little time on areas of their game that need work.
How are these traits any different than bosses who claim more credit for a success than they’re entitled to, who stretch the truth to gain an advantage, and who think they’re strong in areas where others know they are weak?
Golfers, like the leaders I coach, have one singularly noble quality: No matter how good they are, whether they sport a 30 handicap or play to scratch, they all want to get better. That’s why they’re always practicing, scheduling lessons, trying out new equipment, fiddling with their swing, and poring over instructional advice in magazines and books.
That’s the spirit underlying this book. It’s aimed at anyone who wants to get better—at work, at home, or any other venue.
If I can help you consider the possibility that, despite your demonstrable success and laudable self-esteem, you might not be as good as you think you are; that all of us have corners in our behavioral makeup that are messy; and that these messy corners can be pinpointed and tidied up, then I can leave the world—and your world—a slightly better place than Ifound it.
Okay. Enough about me. Let’s get back to you.