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Management by Coaching

Are past successes limiting your future?

Learning to recognize flaws is especially hard for people who are always successful

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC


For most of us, the presidential debates are now a distant memory. Our candidate either won or lost and the debates provided much less than we hoped for from both participants. And there's a reason for that and a very valuable lesson—success can be a limiting factor.

As I watched the debates, these 90-minute spectacles provided a dramatic case in point of how we can get caught in the trap of our own success. In the second debate, Romney, locked in the style of the "I'm in control CEO," assertively commands the leader of the free world to "wait, you'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking." On the other hand, Obama, a staunch believer in his transformational leadership qualities, relied on the sheer power of his personality to persuade voters that he deserved a second term. And, despite our yearning for something more from the candidates, both men seemed incapable of changing their games.

Like Obama and Romney, many successful people fail to see that what got them where they are may not be enough to get them where they want to go. The reality is, the more successful we are the harder it can be to adapt.

How past successes get in the way

We think we're better than we really are—Successful people don't see a reason to do things differently. Things have worked well in the past, so why risk messing up a good thing?

Sounds good in theory, but in the real world successful people believe they are performing at a much higher level than they really are. They tend to overestimate their contribution, overrate their strengths, take credit for successes that belong to others and elevate their standing relative to peers.

If you think that sounds harsh, consider this: In surveys, 90% of doctors consistently place themselves in the top 10% of physicians. When principals in a group of independent agencies were asked about the percentage of profits they personally contributed, each agency's total always exceeded 100%.

Successful people see life through the lens of success. They remember the brilliant moment in the meeting and forget the moment when they should have kept their mouths shut. They replay the sales presentation that closed the major new client and forget the ones that failed. They rerun the highlight reel of their best moments in their heads. They get positive reinforcement from replaying their past successes.

Seeing life through the lens of success is a good thing. It erases doubts and gives people the courage to take risks. It instills the confidence and optimism needed to get out of bed every morning and tackle the challenges of the day. But the flip side of that coin is that it can blind people to their weaknesses and their opportunities for even greater levels of success.

Blind spots—Successful people can be a potent mix of stubbornness, pride and defensiveness. They can be tone deaf when it comes to feedback. Past success is affirmation that the successful person is doing things right. Criticism simply doesn't apply to them because, if it were valid, they wouldn't be so successful.

Just about everyone—no matter how successful—has an interpersonal flaw that costs him or her big time. Take Richard (fictitious name), a CEO/coach from a large Midwest regional brokerage firm. He's a high-energy, creative, caring and very engaged leader. But he was a chronic "value-adder." Whenever an idea was presented to him, he always needed to add something. A standard response for him was, "That's a great idea but it would be even better if you . . ." He saw this input as doing his job well. Feedback from his staff, obtained in a 360 assessment, revealed that they saw it differently. Richard's constant need to improve upon their work product left them feeling demoralized and that, no matter how hard they tried, it was never good enough. What Richard saw as one of his key strengths was destroying his relationship with a management team he really valued.

High levels of self-efficacy encourage people to take on more than they should—Successful people have high levels of self-efficacy—a fundamental belief in their ability and capacity to accomplish tasks and deal with challenges. They believe they can make things happen. They raise their hands, always willing to take on more projects. Because of their track record for success, people tend to turn to them when things need to get done. Their plates get too full. Eventually they can no longer deliver.

Katherine, a local office manager of a top-10 insurance broker is a perfect example.

She was a superstar who was rapidly rising in her company. At 31, she was the youngest person ever to head a local office in her firm. She had a reputation for getting the job done. Eager for recognition and confident in her own abilities, she never refused an assignment and was quick to step up to the plate when anyone needed help. Two years into the job, Katherine's stress level was sky-high and she was getting sick often. She began missing deadlines and disappointing both family and colleagues. Her relationships at home and at the office were in trouble. Katherine simply couldn't face up to her own limitations.

Confusing cause and effect—Successful people live under the assumption that they are successful because they behave in a certain way. Sometimes there is no causal connection between a specific behavior and success. In fact the opposite may be true—success may be in spite of the behavior. The key is recognizing the difference.

Pete is a second-generation owner of a well-respected agency in South Carolina. His leadership style is different from that of his father. Pete's dad was a real people person. The agency staff loved him and would always go the extra mile for him. Pete brings different talents to the table. He's expanded the agency through strategic acquisitions, streamlined operations, and beefed up the sales operation through better hiring, more training and increased accountability. His results are impressive. Since taking the helm two years ago, he improved agency profitability by 18%. But, while profits were up, so was employee turnover. That's when I started coaching Pete. It didn't take long to figure out what was behind the turnover problem. Pete spent the bulk of his time in his office focused on strategy and monitoring results. As a result, his staff viewed him as an inaccessible and uncaring leader.

Pete viewed his hands-off approach as one of his leadership strengths. He often bragged to other agency owners about how removed he was from day-to-day operations. He felt it was a major contributing factor to the agency's recent successes. He argued that his remoteness was a controlled, calculated tactic to get people to think for themselves.

When we talked about his leadership, it became clear that Pete was unconsciously avoiding interactions with his team. He was uncomfortable in this aspect of his job. Rather than risk not measuring up to his father, he ignored interpersonal skills and chose to excel in other ways. Pete linked his hands-off style with the agency's success. In reality one had nothing to do with the other. Left unchecked, this unrecognized weakness would have ultimately jeopardized his success.

Believing that the past is indicative of the future—Successful people assume that, since they were successful in the past, they will be successful again. This unflappable optimism leads them to see circumstances through rose-tinted glasses. If they commit to something then it must be right. They stay the course when the going gets tough and tend to remain steadfast even when the facts indicate that a change in direction is needed.

Consider Frank, a seasoned commercial lines producer who traditionally topped the agency's new business leader board. Over the past two years, Frank hasn't hit his numbers. Yet he still keeps working his formula of "X" number of new business calls per week and "X" number of new business proposals. The problem is that his old success formula isn't working in today's market. Every month Frank tells his sales manager that he's working on a big account that he knows will come through; and next month he'll be ahead of goal. But it doesn't happen.

Frank is so invested in his past success that he can't see a reason to abandon or adapt his formula.

Successful people have lots of motivation to "dance with the one who brung 'em."

How do you crack the protective shell they have around them? How do you get them to see themselves for who they are and separate the behaviors that truly make them successful from those who are holding them back?

The answer lies in feedback. It must come from multiple sources and people whom the individual respects.

I do lots of assessments with clients. When it comes to feedback on a person's flaws, the initial reaction is almost always denial. That is why it is so important that the person hears it from multiple sources. When a person remains in denial, I often suggest they ask the people who know them best—a spouse, a close friend or children if they're old enough. What we can't see in ourselves, is very obvious to others.

Successful people obviously do a lot of things right but there are aspects of their behavior that limit success. Recognizing and making small tweaks in those behaviors can yield significant results.

The author

Kimberly Paterson is a business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com), where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, customer insight and leadership skills to energize people and achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at kpaterson@cim-co.com.

 

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