1: The CEO had a problem.  

“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.” 

The first nine traits all sound great. The last three? Not so much.

“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.”

The CEO was talking with Marshall Goldsmith, one of the top executive coaches in the world. Marshall’s job is not to make executives smarter. “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,” he writes in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

What got us here won’t get us there. Indeed.

2: The bigger the title and responsibility, the more likely our problems are behavioral.

“At the higher levels of organizational life, all the leading players are technically skilled. They’re all smart. They’re all up to date on the technical aspects of their job,” Marshall observes. We “don’t get to be, say, our company’s chief financial officer without knowing how to count, how to read a balance sheet, and how to handle money prudently. 

“That’s why behavioral issues become so important at the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. All other things being equal, our people skills (or lack of them) become more pronounced the higher up we go,” writes Marshall.

With interpersonal skills, we are often held back by a personal failing we either do not recognize, have not been told about, or are aware of and refuse to change.  

3: So, where do we start? The answer Marshall believes is found in a quote from management guru Peter Drucker: “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

Creating a “stop doing” list can often be exponentially more potent than adding another item to our “to-do” list. “That’s the funny thing about stopping some behavior. It gets no attention, but it can be as crucial as everything else we do combined,” Marshall observes.

Learning to stop doing something is also easier to pull off. Assume we are regarded as not a nice person. We decide we want to change this perception.  

Option one: Decide to be nicer. How might we pursue this goal? We “have to start complimenting people, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ listening to people more patiently, treating them with verbal respect, etc., etc., etc. In effect, we have to convert all of the negative things we do at work into positive actions,” Marshall writes.  

“For many people, that’s a daunting assignment.” We are talking about a “complete personality makeover,” Marshall notes, “closer to religious conversion than on-the-job improvement.”

The good news? There is a better way. Instead of “being nicer,” we focus instead on “stop being a jerk.”

All we have to do is . . . nothing.  

“When someone offers a less-than-brilliant idea in a meeting, don’t criticize it. Say nothing,” Marshall suggests. “When someone challenges one of our decisions, don’t argue with them or make excuses. Quietly consider it and say nothing.”

Which is easier? Becoming a nice person or stop being a jerk? It’s not even close.

To make an interpersonal change, we start by getting out our notepads. Instead of adding items to our “to-do” list, we create a “stop doing” list.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What interpersonal behaviors are getting in my way?

Action: Start a “stop doing” list today.

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