The Most Important Thing You Can Do If You Really Want to Change

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

January 19, 2015

by Marshall Goldsmith

Isn’t what you might think.

It’s not deciding what to change or apologizing to those you’ve wronged for past grievous errors. And, it’s not listening to ideas or thanking those who suggest changes you can make to become better.

What is the most important thing you can do if you really want to change? It’s follow-up. Follow-up is the #1 difference maker in the whole change process. Here’s why.

  1. Follow-up is how you measure your progress.
  2. Follow-up is how you remind people that you’re making an effort to change, and that they are helping you.
  3. Follow-up is how your efforts eventually get imprinted on your colleagues’ minds.
  4. Follow-up is how you erase your coworkers’ skepticism that you can change.
  5. Follow-up is how you acknowledge to yourself and to others that getting better is an ongoing process, not a temporary religious conversion.
  6. And, more than anything else, follow-up makes you change. It gives you the momentum, even the courage, to go beyond understanding what you need to do to change and actually do it, because in engaging in the follow-up process, we are changing.

That’s all great you say, but why does follow-up work?

First a confession: I didn’t start out knowing the importance of follow-up. Many years ago, a VP participant of a training session I facilitated asked me the perfectly reasonable question, “Does anyone who goes to one of these leadership development programs ever really change?”

I thought about it. Then answered sheepishly, “I don’t know.” I had worked with some of the best companies in the world and no one had ever asked me this question. Worse still, until that moment, this question had never crossed my mind!

From that moment, I set out to discover the answer to the question: “Does anyone ever really change?” I’m excited to report that many years later I outlined the complete methodology, statistical results, companies involved, and my conclusions about follow-up in an article entitled, “Leadership Is a Contact Sport” written with Howard Morgan and published in Strategy+Business, Fall 2004. Ten years later, we’ve expanded this study to 248,000 respondents from 31 different companies from around the world. And the conclusion is the same: follow-up is the key to successful behavioral change.

From this study, its participants and their teams, I’ve drawn three important conclusions:

  1. Not everyone responds to executive development, at least not in the way the organization desires or intends.In other words, some people are trainable, some people are not. I ask participants at the end of each session if they intend to go back to their jobs and apply what they’ve learned. Almost 100 percent say yes! A year later, when I ask their direct reports if their bosses have applied the lessons learned on the job, about 70% say yes and 30% say no. Why would people go through a training, promise to implement what he/she had learned, and then not do it? Simply because they were too busy! This realization led to my second conclusion.
  2. There is an enormous disconnect between understanding and doing. Most leadership development revolves around the false assumption that if people understand they will do. In truth, most of us understand, we just don’t do. But this didn’t really answer my question. So, I rewired my objectives and began measuring people to see not only if they got better but why. My hunch about follow-up being the difference maker paid off. The results were astonishingly consistent. Those who do little or no follow-up with people have little or no perceived change in effectiveness. The perception of the effectiveness of those who do follow-up jumps dramatically. This led to a swift and unequivocal third conclusion.
  3. People don’t get better without follow-up! If nothing else, this study shows that leaders who ask for input on a regular basis are seen as increasing in effectiveness. Leaders who don’t follow up are not necessarily bad leaders. They are just not perceived as getting better. The reasons for this are: follow-up shows that you care about getting better, that you value people’s opinions, that you are taking the change process seriously, and that you are not ignoring your coworkers’ input. That’s an important part of follow-up. After all, a leader who sought input from her coworkers but ignored it or did not follow up on it would be perceived as someone who did not care very much about becoming a better leader.

All of this led me to a fourth and final conclusion. Becoming a better leader (or a better person) is a process, not an event. Nobody ever changed just by going to a training session. They got better by doing what they learned in the program. And that “doing,” by definition, involves follow-up. Follow-up turns changing for the better into an ongoing process—not only for you but for everyone involved. When you involve others in your continuing progress, you are virtually guaranteeing your continued success!