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  • Writer's pictureRenee Conklin

4 career changes you need to try – even if you’re a skeptic

Melissa’s colleagues thought her communication style was too aggressive and direct. She was also getting too involved in the minutiae of her team’s work and her stakeholders didn’t see her as a leader that was ready to step up into a more senior role.

That’s when Melissa called me.

Executive coaches are often hired to help a leader or a high-potential employee excel in their current role, prepare to step into a bigger role or address behavioural issues that are blocking their success. But how can leaders make the journey from Point A to Point B? First, awareness must be raised of the issues in order for the leader to understand them, accept them and make a game plan to change.

This is where Melissa and I started working together.

I recently finished reading two books by Marshall Goldsmith, the preeminent academic and leadership coach who works exclusively with C-suite executives at some of the world’s most prestigious global organizations. Goldsmith has written many books, but two of his most popular are: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful and Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want to Be.

Many of Goldsmith’s coaching techniques have been adopted and adapted by coaches around the world and much of what I’ll highlight in this article derives from Goldsmith’s methods. As you read this article, you’ll see that many of the techniques seem simple but they are not easy. If they were easy, everyone would be achieving all of their goals all of the time and coaches would all be out of a job, including me!

Many of the techniques seem simple but they are not easy.

Trying to change your behaviour at work is particularly challenging. You are not just changing for yourself. You are trying to address feedback and change the perceptions of those around you – your peers, clients and stakeholder group. These are the people who often determine your bonus, your promotions or exciting stretch assignments. In many ways, it’s not about you. It’s about what others think of you. As Goldsmith says, “If you want to really know how your behavior is coming across with your colleagues and clients, stop looking in the mirror and admiring yourself. Let your colleagues hold the mirror and tell you what they see.”

Afraid to look in the mirror? Typically, at the start of a coaching engagement, an executive coach will conduct interviews with all of your stakeholders to collect feedback on your performance. It might sound scary and it can be. However, you and your coach will agree in advance on the list of stakeholders and the questions that will be asked. Your coach will then consolidate all of the feedback into an anonymized report that is shared with you verbally. Listening to and processing this stakeholder feedback is the first step toward making change.

There is a gap between who we believe we are and who others believe us to be. The Johari Window is a useful tool for determining how others see you.

The 4x4 matrix is fairly self-explanatory so I won’t explain all four quadrants. “Blind” is the important quadrant. This is where things are unknown to ourselves but seen and acknowledged by others. Coaches often talk about blindspots and career derailers. These blindspots and career derailers sit in this quadrant and will often be revealed during feedback discussions. As Goldsmith says, we can deny our problems to ourselves, but they may be very obvious to the people who are observing us.

Focusing on the “Blind” quadrant can help us to recognize that gap and take steps to close it. So how can you get this kind of feedback if you don’t have the luxury of your company sponsoring an executive coach for you? Sure, many organizations have 360-degree feedback as part of their performance review process, but that is often muted or not completely honest due to confidentiality or political reasons. Without the benefit of an executive coach, here are a few tips to help you uncover your “blind” behaviors.

Ask for feedback Be specific when you ask for feedback from others. Don’t just say “Oh, do you have any feedback for me?” Let your peer group know exactly what behavior you are trying to change in advance and ask them to look out for it during a particular meeting, presentation or sales pitch. For example, you could say, “I am trying to improve my listening skills, especially when interacting with other departments. Can you give me feedback on how I’m doing during our next few weekly team meetings?” When feedback is too general, it is not helpful. Help others help you.

Melissa started with asking her colleague Helen to observe her and give her feedback on her communication style for two weeks.

Observe the way others react to you Our words are not the only way we speak. Goldsmith recommends “turning off the sound” next time you are in a meeting or interacting with colleagues. Tune out the sound of the words and pay attention to body language, hand gestures and facial expressions. Do your colleagues sit next to you or find a seat at the other end of the table? Do they roll their eyes when you are talking or scroll through their phone? You will notice more than you normally would in a typical conversation or meeting.

Melissa practiced the “speak last at meetings” rule, giving others a chance to have their say and holding onto her thoughts until she knew what others thought.

Find an accountability partner Part of the role of a coach is to hold you accountable to the hard work of behavior change. However, if you don’t have the advantage of working with a coach, find someone else in your life who will hold you accountable on this journey. This can be a mentor, a peer or a friend. Typically, your boss or your spouse are not good options since they will have an ulterior motive and your existing relationship may adversely influence any successful outcome. Be specific about what you need from that person and how they can support you. Then, hold up your end of the bargain!

After receiving feedback from her peer Helen for a few weeks, Melissa spoke to her 4 direct reports and brought them into her accountability circle. Through this, she realized that it was easier to try taking different approaches to her communication style when working with her junior team rather than her senior stakeholders.

Keep a log All of this newfound knowledge is only useful if you find some way to reflect on it and later action it. The best way to do this is to keep a log: a journal, post-it notes, Kanban board - whatever medium works for you. Seeing things in black and white makes the feedback more concrete. The simple act of writing things down and keeping a record helps us to recognize themes. Generally, these themes will coincide with the area you are already trying to improve and give you some ideas for how to move forward.

Melissa found it difficult to keep a daily spreadsheet, but she made a mental log of three things each day that made her angry or frustrated at work. From this exercise, she recognized some patterns and deployed techniques to remain calmer and listen more.

Sounds simple, right? And it is. But it isn’t easy.

So what happened with Melissa? Ultimately, she resigned from her role at a luxury retail company to pursue a more senior opportunity in a different industry. Through our coaching together, she developed the courage to realize that not only had she changed, but her company had changed around her and it no longer aligned to her values.

There are a multitude of other techniques that are effective in enacting behavioral change but these are just a few that may be achievable on your own or with an accountability partner. If you want to speak to an Executive Coach to consider how these ideas might work for you, get in touch!

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Renee Conklin is a Coach and HR Consultant who coaches individuals to career success and consults businesses on people-focused solutions. Check out more of her articles on LinkedIn.

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