As published in Forbes.
What one change, if you made it and were able to stick to it long term, would have the greatest potential to positively impact your professional success?
Having asked this question of thousands of senior-level leaders, I know the answer is often a personal one: eat better, walk more, stop watching late night TV, turn off the phone on weekends. For you, perhaps it would be to better manage your time or the focus of your mind?
Most of us know we could be better listeners, clearer communicators, less distracted and more productive professionals (or parents, spouses or friends), and more effective in working with and through others (aka leadership). However, getting ourselves to change in even the one area we know would contribute most to our happiness and effectiveness is often nearly impossible. We make excuses, complain, point fingers, or wait and expect others to do what we ourselves cannot: change.
My job is to assist organizations to become more successful by helping their top leaders to become ever more effective. This is a tall order, as I frequently work with some of the world’s best and brightest. However, over the last 16 years that I have had the good fortune to listen to the inner concerns, frustrations, and problems of senior-level leaders, I have learned that most of our larger challenges are rooted in the personal.
The only instrument of leadership is one’s self. It follows then that learning how to manage, motivate, and lead ourselves is critical for the successful leadership of others. This makes sense. It even sounds easy. It isn’t.
As Marshall Goldsmith asks in his latest book Triggers, “Why don’t we become the person we want to be?” His answer: we significantly underestimate how difficult change is. Adult behavior change is really, really hard.
It is hard to change ourselves. I know this intimately as I am in the business of behavior change and I struggle myself. Making a change in my youth was easy because I could often focus on it entirely and I was not yet so set in my ways. Now, I have a spouse, two children, two homes, a dog, and a business to manage. Trying to deliver on this alone is often all I can muster. So, when I seek to change myself or help my clients change, two elements are needed: compassion and focus.
We can never beat ourselves up enough to feel good. After all, the reason we want a change in the first place to allow us to feel better about ourselves! Feeling good is critical to being better for others, as what occurs on the inside always manifests on the outside. Hurting people hurt other people. We will not give attention, encouragement, and coaching to another if we do not first give these things to ourselves. Thus, change starts by disciplining our mind towards loving, supporting, and encouraging ourselves.
“When hard times come, the greatest danger does not necessarily lie in the circumstances we face, but rather in the way we treat ourselves at the time. Nothing is more dangerous than self-hate. Nothing makes it more difficult to heal or to find the grace of peace than self-attack and the agony of self-doubt.” Stephen Schwartz
Change starts when our thoughts resemble a cheerleader: “You’ve got this. Go for it! Just try a little more today.” When we fall short of our ideal behavior or the results we were aiming for, our thoughts should sound like a great coach: “What did you learn? What action could make this better now? What will you recommit to tomorrow?” It is through inner compassion that we have the greatest potential to sustain ourselves long term. I don’t know a single successful person who isn’t kind to themselves. It is hard to be human, and exceptionally hard to be a good human. Kind thoughts are the foundation to a happier, more peaceful and loving you – a person who can then be an effective leader for the many lives you touch. Never underestimate the power of your inner dialogue.
We are most effective when we focus on making one change at a time. Take one behavior you wish to change and focus on it until it becomes a habit, something you do automatically. I did this when I transitioned to a vegan diet. I started by changing only one thing: replacing cow’s milk. I tried a host of plant-based milks until I found one I liked, and now unsweetened almond milk is what I buy and consume without thinking about it. Once this became a habit, I was motivated to tackle the next change. A year later, I was fully vegan. Similarly, if you want to become a more effective listener, focus solely on that.
Once you feel that you have really advanced your listening skills, choose another area to focus on, perhaps clear communication or time management. You will probably discover that even though you’re focusing on and improving in one area, other skills naturally fall into place. Better listening, for example, will almost certainly make you a better communicator.
If you are a senior level leader, you are already doing so many things well. Feel good about this and encourage others. As Sir Richard Branson said over a dinner I was blessed to attend, “No one needs criticism. People need praise, praise, and more praise. They might also need some feedback on how they can be more successful, but mostly just praise.” You need this too. It would be wonderful if the world would give it to you. But, more often than not, as an adult and senior-level leader, you will need to give this to yourself.