What got you here won’t get you there

goldsmithWhat got you here won’t get you there: How successful people become even more successful by Marshall Goldsmith is a book that I’ve put off reading for some time. It was recommended by a friend in Christian ministry who I consider to be very successful. I could see how it would be relevant for him. He’s the kind of guy who keeps taking things to the next level. I figured that I needed the prequel – How to get here in the first place – if there was such a book! I was also put off by the emphasis on success in the title. Is this really going to be helpful to people working in the church who view success not in terms of competition and profits, but in terms of service and faithfulness? Now that I’ve read it, I can confess to being rather surprised. There is much to learn from this book.

This book is primarily about blind spots, the problems we have that we can’t see or don’t recognise. It’s our blind spots that often get in the way of our progress. If we’re going to keep moving forward, then it’s likely we’re going to need to understand the things about ourselves that stand in the way. We’ll need to work out how to see these foibles and this will most likely require the humility to let others, who know our failures only too well, tell us what we need to change.

Goldsmith believes that it’s successful people who most need to hear these things. Unsuccessful people are more likely to look at what’s not working, what needs fixing, and how they might be contributing to the problems. Successful people can rest on their previous successes and assume that what got them here will still get them there.

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!” The challenge is to make them see that sometimes they are successful in spite of this behaviour.”  (p21)

Successful people tend to be overly optimistic. They expect success and pursue opportunities with enthusiasm. They can find it hard to say ‘no’ to opportunities. The danger with this is it can lead to staff burnout, high turnover, and a weaker team. Overcommitment then becomes a serious barrier to success.

Successful people believe that they are doing what they choose to do, because they choose to do it. The more successful a person is, the more likely this is to be true. The problem is the more we believe that our behaviour is because of our own choices and commitments, the less likely we are to want to change our behaviour.

The upshot of this is that successful people are less likely to want to change, to see the need for or the desirability of change, or even to be able to make changes. When things get difficult, they are more likely to stay the course, rather than navigate a change. Sticking with what they know, rather than risking a disaster, is the irony of their thinking.

The second section of this book lists The twenty habits that hold you back from the top: in which we identify the most annoying interpersonal issues in the workplace and help you figure out which ones apply to you. (p33) Brace yourself and see whether you can recognise one or two – in you, not in others!

  1. Winning too much: winning at all costs, whether it really matters or not.
  2. Adding too much value: adding our two cents to every discussion.
  3. Passing judgment: the need to rate others according to our standards.
  4. Making destructive comments: needless sarcasm or cutting remarks.
  5. Starting with ‘No,’ ‘But’ or ‘However’: overusing negative qualifiers.
  6. Telling the world how smart we are: boasting about our successes.
  7. Speaking when angry: usually results in saying something you regret later.
  8. Negativity, or ‘Let me explain why that won’t work’: even when we’re not being asked.
  9. Withholding information: in order to gain an advantage over others.
  10. Failing to give proper recognition: inability to praise and reward.
  11. Claiming credit we don’t deserve: almost guarantees resentment from staff or coworkers.
  12. Making excuses: that justify our annoying behaviours forever.
  13. Clinging to the past
  14. Playing favorites
  15. Refusing to express regret: inability to apologise.
  16. Not listening: the most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
  17. Failing to express gratitude
  18. Punishing the messenger: attacking those who are usually just trying to help.
  19. Passing the buck: blaming others for our mistakes or failures.
  20. An excessive need to be ‘me’. Exalting our faults as virtues, simply because they’re who we are.

If you recognise that any of the annoying habits belong to you, then you are doing well. Many of us need to ask the people around us to point them out, and this is what the authors suggest we do. They suggest a few approaches to identifying and changing our behavioural problems.

Firstly, seek feedback from the people around you about your annoying habits in the work place. (You could probably benefit from trying this at home with your wife/husband and kids too, if you’re brave enough!) The ideal question is ‘How can I do better?’ It might help if you give people the opportunity to provide confidential feedback.

Pure unadulterated issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to (a) solicit advice rather than criticism, (b) be directed towards the future rather than be obsessed with the negative past, and (c) be couched in a way that suggest you will act on it, that in fact you are trying to do better. (p122)

Goldsmith’s approach takes much much of the negativity and fear out of feedback and encourages the proactive positive contribution of others to helping you do a better job – which, in is exactly what is going to help them. When you get the feedback, treasure it as a gift. Don’t argue or debate it. Just thank people for it.

Secondly, apologise to all those affected by your failings. Do it promptly, clearly, and succinctly. Then everyone can get back to work!

Thirdly, let people know regularly that you are working on improving. It can often be harder to change people’s perceptions of your behaviour than it is to change your actual behaviour. It doesn’t hurt to ask people how you are doing. It will also model the importance of change to others.

Fourthly, listen to what people say without judging or debating it. Goldsmith believes that 80% of our success in learning from others is based on how well we listen. He identifies three things that all good listeners do: they think before they speak; they listen with respect; and they always temper their response by thinking about how it might make the other person feel.

Fifthly, thank people for their feedback and support. Only good will ever come of this.

The sixth step is follow-up. This is the most important step. Roughly once a month you should re-connect with the people who gave you feedback initially to get more input as you go. This helps to keep you focused and will keep your efforts in front of others. Ask ‘How am I doing?’

Lastly, Goldsmith says to pursue feedforward. Feedforward is simply asking people ‘How can I do better?’ Pick the one area you want to focus on and discuss this personally one on one with others. Ask them to help you work on the area. Feedforward helps turn your potential critics into allies who are invested in you making successful changes.

My thoughts

This book was not what I expected. It’s not a bunch of business speak. Nor is it a book that necessarily breeds selfishness. There is much to learn about relating well to others, and especially others we work with. Many of the ideas in this book will be of great value in the workplace, wherever you work. I think it also speaks to how we relate with our families in our homes. There is probably greater potential for blind spots at home than anywhere else.

Goldsmith aims this book at successful people, but I believe that unsuccessful people probably have just as many blind spots, if not more. It might be why they remain unsuccessful. I suggest that the problem is really one of pride, whether we are successful or not. We don’t like having to confront our weaknesses. Failing to acknowledge our weaknesses merely adds another weakness! We would do well to remember the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 and 2 Corinthians:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’  (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

But he (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

As a staff member on a ministry team, I can see the value in reviewing the things I do that might make it difficult for others. This is especially relevant at present, as my role has changed so much. I would do well to ask my colleagues to help me out here. I think our team, like many others, has a fear of feedback and feedforward that we need to overcome.

The idea of feedforward is especially helpful. I’ve used it for years in helping people prepare talks. It seems more helpful to get the talk right before you ‘go live’ than wish you’d changed it afterwards. However, I haven’t applied the ideas of this book to help me focus on changing particular things in my behaviour. I think this would be useful.

What are the areas I most need to change? I can see a few in the list above, but this book reminds me that it’s less what I think and more about what the people around me think. They see things that I can’t. Receiving their feedback will help me tune into my blind spots.

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