By Jordan Stark
Partner, Next Step Partners
If the suggestions of other people fundamentally don’t fit with your natural style or address the deeper issues you are grappling with, you are setting yourself up for continued and sometimes greater failure.
Dave was a senior manager at a management consulting firm. He graduated from one of the top business schools in the country with a distinguished award. He was smart, worked hard, and put in personal time to contribute to the well-being of the company.
In short, he had everything it took to become a partner . . . except that he wasn’t getting there. Others, including his supervisors, volunteered advice about what Dave needed to do to move forward. Yet months after the advice was given, Dave was still stuck. Was the problem Dave’s lack of discipline? Or was the real problem his notion of taking other people’s advice?
At Dave’s firm, experienced managers were expected to drive projects largely independently. Although Dave was doing many things well, he consistently struggled to put together a solid business solution for his clients without substantial help. One partner suggested that Dave lock himself in his office so that he could bear down and just do the work. Dave tried this approach—repeatedly—but it wasn’t working.
The partners were perplexed. They liked Dave. He was great with clients and with people generally. He seemed to have the intellectual capability to handle the work. How was it that such a smart, capable person couldn’t seem to make the necessary shift into behaviors that worked? Dave couldn’t see a way out of this problem, and neither could the partners. Dave was starting to wonder if he had what it took to be a partner after all. Did he just need to face reality and accept his limitations?
Dave’s situation is an example of how relying on other people’s advice can lead to failure, not success. Advice doesn’t lead you astray because of malice or lack of intelligence on the part of those who give it. The person giving the advice may be quite bright and sincerely interested in your development. The problem is that much advice is based on the personal experience of the advice giver, and on what worked for him or her, rather than arising from a true understanding of who you are and the root cause of the issue.
Any lasting solution for professional growth has to support your innate working style. So in our coaching engagement, we started with who Dave is.
Dave was a true extrovert. He was energized by being with others. Dave processed ideas, possibilities, and decisions by talking them out rather than by thinking them through alone. So imagine giving Dave a complex problem and telling him to just sit in his office … alone…for three hours. How likely was that to work? Not likely at all, and even if it did work temporarily, it was not a behavioral strategy that was destined to stick.
We asked Dave how he felt about sitting in a room by himself and just cranking through his work. “It sounds awful,” he said. “I hate doing that. I don’t want to do that.” So whatever change strategy we came up with, it would have to allow Dave to make use of his true self, which included doing a lot of thinking out loud with other people.
Let’s look a little deeper at Dave’s challenge. He didn’t like to work alone. But maybe he just needed to get over the fact that work wouldn’t always be fun. Was Dave simply undisciplined? Not willing to work hard? It might appear that way—Dave did procrastinate to a certain extent. But why did he procrastinate? That’s the better question.
Upon further probing and discussion, it became clear that Dave procrastinated because the work was hard and he was afraid he was going to get stuck again. He was procrastinating to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of potential failure, which would be a significant blow to his high-performer identity. He had created his own thinker’s block, and his development plan needed to include a strategy to manage this tendency.
Once we identified Dave’s natural operating style, we devised ways for him to do more brainstorming with his teams. He explained his extroverted thinking style to his teams and shared his new insight with the partners. He planned brainstorming sessions early in the consulting process, engaging his teams to put their brains to work with him through dialog and discussion.
Dave loved working this way, and it turned out that his teams loved it too. It wasn’t how things were typically done at the company, but that didn’t matter, because Dave was getting results. His new approach also turned out to be a great development mechanism for all involved. Dave got to think out loud and his teams learned more about tough business issues by thinking with him.
Not every aspect of Dave’s job was suitable for thinking out loud. For instance, Dave still had to prepare meetings alone by framing the core strategies, ideas, and agenda items. He still needed to show thought leadership, even when his insecurities kicked in. How could he manage that? What would he do when he got stuck? He came up with a plan to work with “stuckness”:
These five simple steps were a powerful way for Dave to self-coach in the midst of confusion. Together, they were a mechanism for him break the situation down. This enabled him to relax and access his formidable brainpower. Dave was able to look at the questions he faced rather than stewing in confusion. Once he could identify the questions, he was back in the game.
Getting advice from others can be both helpful and detrimental to your success. If the suggestions of other people fundamentally don’t fit with your natural style or address the deeper issues you are grappling with, you are setting yourself up for continued and sometimes greater failure. It is possible to change even deeply ingrained habits if you can identify a change strategy that you can stick with. “Try this, it worked for me” usually isn’t that strategy.