1: Imagine a room full of out-of-shape people, Marshall Goldsmith writes in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  

They “listen to a speech on the importance of exercising, then watch some videos on how to exercise, and perhaps then spend a few minutes simulating the act of exercising.” 

Would we be surprised a year later if most of the people in the room were still unfit?

Marshall’s point? “The source of physical fitness is not understanding the theory of working out. It is engaging in regular exercise.”

Marshall’s bigger point? “Well, that pretty much sums up the value of executive development without follow-up. Nobody ever changed for the better by going to a training session. They got better by doing what they learned in the program.”

2: Marshall is one of the world’s top executive coaches. As part of his work, he has researched the importance of follow-up to behavior change. “At the eight companies where hundreds of employees [had] gone through my leadership development training, I asked the participants at the end of each session whether they intended to go back to their job and apply what they had just learned.”

The response? Almost 100 percent said yes. 

“A year later I asked the direct reports of these same leaders to confirm that their boss applied the lessons on the job,” he recounts. “About 70 percent said yes and 30 percent said the boss had done absolutely nothing.”

The 70/30 ratio was consistent across all eight companies. It also didn’t matter whether the leaders were Americans, Europeans, or Asians. “In other words, it reflects human nature, not cultural imprinting,” Marshall surmises.

Lesson #1 from this research? “Not everyone responds to executive development, at least not in the way the organization desires or intends,” Marshall writes. “Some people are trainable; some aren’t.” 

Does this sound harsh? Perhaps. But it’s not because people don’t want to get better.

“They failed to implement the changes because they were simply too busy,” Marshall writes. “After the training session, they all returned to their offices to find piles of messages to return, reports to read and write, clients and customers to call. They were distracted by all the day-to-day demands of their job.”

Which leads to lesson #2: “There is an enormous disconnect between understanding and doing,” Marshall notes. “Most leadership development revolves around one huge false assumption: If people understand, then they will do. That’s not true.”

Most of us understand. But not all of us do.  

Which leads us to lesson #3.

Doing this research, Marshall realized he had never followed up to measure the impact of his clients’ follow-up. So, he rewired his “objectives and began measuring people to see not only if they got better but why,” he writes.

Marshall’s hunch was that follow-up was the critical factor in whether someone would successfully implement the behavior change they had committed to making.

“I traced five of my eight companies to measure the level of follow-up among their executives. Follow-up was defined as interaction between would-be ‘leaders’ and their colleagues to see if they were, in fact, improving their leadership effectiveness.”

Marshall measured the degree of follow-up each executive demonstrated, from “frequent interaction” to “little or none.” 

Once again, the results were “astonishingly consistent,” Marshall recounts. “At one end of the spectrum, when leaders did little or no follow-up with their subordinates, there was little or no perceived change in the leaders’ effectiveness. At the other extreme, when leaders consistently followed up, the perception of their effectiveness jumped dramatically. 

“My conclusion was swift and unequivocal: People don’t get better without follow-up. That was lesson three,” he writes. “Follow-up was the missing link not only in my training concepts but also in getting people to change.”

3: The big takeaway? “Leaders who ask for input on a regular basis are seen as increasing in effectiveness. Leaders who don’t follow up are not necessarily bad leaders. They are just not perceived as getting better.”

Marshall’s research echoes an essential insight from the forward-looking Hawthorne Effect studies 100 years ago in which Harvard professor Elton Mayo researched workers at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works factory.  

“The Hawthorne Effect posits that productivity tends to increase when workers believe that their bosses are showing a greater interest and involvement in their work,” Marshall writes. “In its most elemental form, it’s the reason employees are more alert at their job when they know the boss is watching. In its more subtle forms, it’s the reason entire factor floors work harder with greater morale when they see that their bosses care about their welfare.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Do I ask for feedback from my colleagues on how I am improving as a leader?

Action: Make a plan to solicit feedback consistently from my colleagues. Follow through. Do it.

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