Obey Nature’s Laws – Part One

Our blog is devoted to helping executive coaches, and the organizations that use their services, to succeed. For our purposes, “succeed” means this: Executives will achieve sustainable behavior change that transforms and improves their leadership skills. People want to follow high EQ leaders. 

Ignore Mother Nature at Your Peril. 

To achieve sustainable behavior change, the relevant laws, or principles, of psychological science regarding learning must be understood and followed. Otherwise, you will swim upstream and get disappointing results. These principles of learning have been bred into human beings since the dawn of time. And remember: Mother Nature always wins. 

Fortunately, once understood, these principles are easy to follow. In this post, and the next one, we’ll talk about how you can apply the ten principles to your leader development program. This post describes the first five principles. The next post will describe the other five. (For extended discussions of these topics, please see the EQ Leader Program2.0, page 7 ff.)

Principle One: Clearly define the goal(s) of the program. 

Stephen Covey was right when he said “Begin with the end in mind.” Development programs can be complicated, making it easy to get caught up in details, necessary as they are. When you carefully establish your goals, the decisions you make about execution details become much clearer.

TIP: I’ve had great success defining goals by asking client organizations, “When we’ve finished, what will make you say, ‘That was worth our investment of time, money, and effort!’?” Different organizations have different answers. Some examples include:

  • Our high potential leaders will be ready for the next level of responsibility when we need them. We’ll feel good about our succession plan!
  • Our senior leadership team will be able to work together to overcome barriers to our organization’s growth. Thanks to them, we’ll be able to get past our stuck points and expand the way we’ve wanted to!
  • Our mid-level leaders will be better able to lead front line supervisors, rather than just managing them.
  • Our leaders will have learned to coach and develop their direct reports.

Principle Two: Motivated Participation

When a company says to its leaders, “We’d like you to take part in this leadership program we’ve planned,” folks show up, sure. But unless we win their hearts and minds, i.e., unless we are able to get people excited about learning, nothing sustainable happens. Lasting and meaningful behavior change is hard. Think about times you have dieted, quit a vice, or mastered a complex skill. How many false starts were there? Leadership program participants face the same challenges. High motivation is an essential element.

Winning hearts and minds means that participants shift . . . 

From: being there because the boss said so, 

To: “I’m involved because I want to be.” 

If you want to win hearts and minds, the first step is to answer participants’ question: “What’s in this for me? How will this program of learning help me?” Next, select presenters and coaches who have high EQ themselves. Having EQ skills means that they can engage their audience and get people excited about what the program can offer. These two factors can create sufficient motivation for participants to want to take the next steps.

IDEA: CLOs can contribute to the success of the program by avoiding coercion. Consider taking the position that: 

  1. There is a performance bar that must be met. 
  2. The organization is happy to provide developmental experiences that will support meeting the bar. 
  3. If someone opts out of those experiences, no problem. 
  4. But they are still held to the performance bar. 

When people have the freedom to choose, they almost always do the right thing.

Principle Three: Participants Need Privacy. 

I was negotiating an extensive development program with a client organization. As we were about to finalize our agreement, the Senior VP of HR informed me that she would want access to participants’ individual EQ assessment results.


SOLUTION: Fortunately, she was reasonable. What she really wanted was to know whether their company’s selection process had identified those with the highest potential. When I helped her realize that not providing privacy would undermine the development goal of the program, she changed her mind. 

FACT ABOUT ASSESSMENTS: If participants know that assessment results are to be shared with superiors, most will be less candid, leading to inaccurate assessments. Inaccurate assessments lead to poor development planning.

FACT ABOUT COACHING: If participants worry that the sensitive information that they share with their coach will be repeated to management, participants will be hesitant to share. Learning will be minimal. Substantial learning requires the risk of vulnerability.

But the HR director had a legitimate need. I suggested that a much better indicator of potential would be to watch performance as participants went through our year long program. Who showed growth? Who stayed stuck in old patterns? That would tell her what she needed to know about future selection processes and future promotions.

BE ON THE LOOKOUT: In a future blog, we’ll look at how coaches can have joint meetings with clients and their managers in ways that preserve necessary privacy while allowing meaningful communication and input from the manager.

Principle Four: Tailor the Program to Individual Needs. 

Recently, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of empathy in leaders. As important as empathy is, sending everybody to Empathy School is a one size fits all approach that doesn’t work. First, some executives already have well developed empathy skills, but have other development needs that would get ignored. Second, different roles require different skill sets. You wouldn’t send your CFO to a workshop designed to boost engineering skills.  

Development must be tailored to focus on issues that are relevant to busy executives. An EQ assessment can identify which EQ skills are critical development opportunities for each participant. Given that there are sixteen different EQ skills, each participant is likely to have his or her own set of priorities. A good assessment debrief process can help executives identify, accept, and really own what they need to have as their focus, enhancing their motivation to engage in the process. 

Principle Five: Provide tools for change

Many leaders know that they should change. The barrier is that they don’t know how to change! If they knew how, they would have done so. That’s where coaches come in. As coaches, we are experts in change methodologies that our clients have not discovered, because they’ve been busy learning and getting good at other things.

Example: A man’s EQ assessment came back basically saying that he was a quart low in Assertiveness. His response? “No kidding. I knew that!  I need to know what to do about it!” His managers had told him more than once about this deficit. When he didn’t change, they thought he didn’t care. They were wrong. He cared very much.

Fortunately, there are proven methods to help people build Assertiveness and other EQ skills. For example, the EQ Leader Program2.0 has eleven field tested exercises that help people who are too passive, or too aggressive, to learn how to be assertive. 

Summary: Follow these five principles, and the five in our next blog post, and you simply can’t miss. Your program will deliver outstanding results. 

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