One of my all-time favorite quotes is from author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn:

To a fault, I often see executive coaching clients separate their professional development from their personal development. In fact, it is quite common to see executives focus exclusively on knowledge building and tactical skill development. They overlook the profound return that personal development will deliver to their career trajectory. 

Game – Set – Match

Consider how a professional tennis player approaches training. Of course, they are working on their topspin and their serve every day, but if their mental fitness is not where it needs to be when it comes to games, their physical performance will be limited. Timothy Gallway talked about this in his book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. Gallway views performance coaching from the inside out, which is exactly how I view executive coaching at its best. 

This is usually a stumbling block for people because they look at personal development as simply soft skills. They want to focus on tactical knowledge to move themselves forward in their careers. That works fine if you are an individual contributor but the minute you move into the world of leadership, the skillset needs change dramatically. Suddenly, the need to elegantly navigate complex interpersonal situations grows exponentially and soft skills become more than just a nice thing to have.

Pick Up the Baton

One skillset that I see people struggle with is the ability to leave behind individual contributor tasks and instead become an orchestra leader. These individuals have a tough time letting go of projects that are better fit for their direct reports. Instead of taking an overarching leadership role coordinating everyone, they find themselves stuck in the “weeds” of the work. This is incredibly challenging for many leaders, and it is something that I often work on – even at the C-suite level – where this skillset should have been mastered long ago! 

In fact, I am working with one executive now who has recently gone through this transition. Aaron (not his real name) has been CEO of his company for almost a decade. We have engaged in executive coaching for a year, and he has made more personal and professional changes in this past year than in all his years of leadership combined. How? We focused on his personal development. Aaron worked on building multiple lenses to see situations differently and ask different questions. He started to become aware of how he was standing in the way of the growth of the organization due to decisions he made. 

Aaron’s company is on the smaller side, and he thinks of his employees as family members. Many of them had been with him on his journey for many years so he could not imagine letting them go. But once he learned to pick up the orchestra conductor’s baton, he saw that many of those people were not at the right level to move the company forward. It was extremely hard for Aaron to make those decisions and have those difficult conversations but he did it for his company’s future.

Aaron turned inward for change. After reflecting on his role, he realized that he needed to get over his compulsions to act and react in ways that did not serve his leaders or the organization. By jumping in, micromanaging, and attempting to do the work himself, he was creating a bottleneck of problems for his team. He practiced being mindful rather than operating from habit. He focused on choosing rather than reacting. He focused on making better decisions rather than taking the easy road. He focused on doing a better job of evaluating his talent and coaching and developing his people. 

The ROI for his business has been astronomical. The entire company has been affected. The foundation and soul of the organization remains the same but the people, the accountability, the leadership, and the performance are quite different… and his business is getting much improved results. All these results came from rigorous inner work. 

Aaron was finally able to give up his whack-a-mole leadership style and embrace a deeper, more reflective approach. Embodying soft skills like increased resilience, self-awareness and confidence while eliminating reactivity, impulsiveness and procrastination allowed Aaron and his organization to exponentially increase their success.

Commit to Doing the Work

Aaron is a notable example of someone who is committed to doing the inner work. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Other leaders will say they know that change is possible, but they think it will be a lot of work. Yes – of course, it’s a lot of work! You are retraining your brain to overcome deeply grooved patterns that do not serve you or your leadership. You are getting a new prescription “lens” to view the world through.

If I could place a crystal ball in front of you right now and show you the future that becomes possible when you put in the work on yourself, I doubt there is anyone who would not want that. The future “you” will be quite different. And the future “you” would be perceived and experienced by others to be quite different as well. A common refrain I hear from clients is “Where were you ten years ago? Where would I be today if I had invested this time in myself when I was younger?” 

Of course, you need technical competence and a level of subject matter expertise to be a good leader, but instead of focusing solely on tactical changes, you will be more impactful and influential if you also build your emotional intelligence. That is the ability to identify, assess and manage emotions in oneself and in others. It includes being self-aware, having the capacity to understand the dynamics of organizational politics as well as the capacity to manage your time thoughtfully. It’s essential to use your time more judiciously in order to be able to continually move up the corporate ladder without falling victim to executive overwhelm.

Every Choice is Important

I cannot stress enough that every choice you make in your life has an impact, even if it is a small choice. Without fail, I see this come up every January when people commit to New Year’s resolutions, but usually by this time, they have already given up on them. 

Let us look at health as an example because I am guessing every one of us, me included, resolved to change something in their life to be healthier at the start of the year. Whether exercising more, eating less meat, drinking more water, getting more sleep or whatever your health goal is, we often think of these items as boxes we can check off throughout the day: 

  • Went to the gym and ran on the treadmill. Check.
  • Drank a gallon of water. Check. 
  • Ate a vegetarian lunch. Check. 
  • Went to bed a half hour earlier than usual. Check. 

While that checklist is beautiful, you need something more. You need a vision statement to understand who you want to become and why. So, why do you want to be healthier? There could be a myriad of reasons, such as:

  • You want more energy.
  • You want to feel better. 
  • You want your body to be able to handle the adventures you love doing. 
  • You want to avoid doctors and disease.
  • You want to have a strong immune system.
  • You want to live a lengthy life. 

When you understand what you want to change about yourself and why, you can understand that every choice you make in a day either supports this goal or takes you farther away from it. We tend to make easy choices because they feel good, and we are not even conscious of it. It feels better to stay in bed when your alarm goes off instead of getting up and going to the gym, so we hit snooze and say we will work out tomorrow. But that choice lacks discipline and weakens your focus on your goal of becoming a healthy person, who you want to be. A person who aspires toward health is going to exercise daily. Doing it when you do not feel like it is going to build discipline which then shapes “who you are.” 

And that is the goal. You want it to feel like – this is who I am. It does not take any more effort to get up and work out than brushing your teeth every morning once you develop the habit. When you choose a healthy lifestyle, it becomes wired into you, and you become a healthy person. That is performance-based personal development, and it is sustainable. You lean into who you want to become, and you make the actions of the person you envision. If you are not there yet, look at the gap, and make better choices. Make them consistently until it becomes who you are. 

Why Work on Self?

That personal discipline applies professionally as well. I see this same move from leaders who understand the importance of developing emotional intelligence, but do not want to work on their inner self. They think, “I am fine. I am making a six figure salary. I have been moving up my entire career.” They are choosing comfort instead of living up to their potential. You must remove all interferences to your potential. 

To avoid getting in the way of your performance, you must start working on yourself from the inside out. We do that by building self-awareness. The goal is to catch yourself in the five milliseconds before you act (or react) in any given situation so that you are aware and can make the right choice in the moment. After enough repetition of behaving this way, you start to do it subconsciously. 

Instead of making resolutions, you would be better off deciding who you want to become and identifying the work you need to do to get there. Build the action steps and watch how you get in the way through your self-awareness. Everything you are doing on a tactical level is really determined by who you are becoming, and who you are becoming is far more important than what you are doing. You can rationalize having the checklists, but it is far more difficult to rationalize your values, ethics, and your commitment to who you are, how you see yourself and how you want to lean into who you want to become. 

And, while it’s not lost on me that the “what” you are doing creates who you’re becoming, if you don’t commit to who you want to be and live into that, the “what” you are doing becomes a mere checklist, which can easily fall to the wayside when we succumb to the deeper habits and obstacles that have kept us from achieving what we want. So, game-set-match. Are you ready to commit?

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