What Successful People Know that You Need to Learn!

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

June 22, 2015

by Marshall Goldsmith

This might surprise you, but success is all about structure. As a matter of fact, we do not get better, we do not change our behavior, and we do not become successful without it! Yet, most people don’t. Not only is having and utilizing structure a challenge, but you have the added test of incorporating the right structure – meaning a structure that fits the situation and personalities involved, including yours.

Yet, it’s critical. In my years of coaching and research on change, I have learned one key lesson, which has near-universal applicability: We do not get better without structure.

My friend and former coaching client Alan Mulally knew this and used his concept of organizational structure when he was CEO of Ford. It was off-the-shelf structure, but it was his shelf. It mirrored his training and mindset as an engineer. It was a structure of zero tolerance—for personality clashes, for putting self above team, for any deviation from the rules. It worked for him and Ford spectacularly.

No idea looms bigger in Alan’s mind than the importance of structure in turning around an organization and its people. I believe that the Business Plan Review (BPR) process that he has developed is the most effective use of organizational structure that I have ever observed.

When Alan arrived at Ford he instituted mandatory weekly Thursday morning meetings, known as the Business Plan Review(BPR) with his sixteen top executives and the executive’s guests from around the world. No side discussions were allowed at the meetings, no joking at the expense of others, no interruptions, no cell phones, no handing off parts of the presentation to a subordinate. Each leader was expected to articulate his group’s plan, status, forecast, and areas that needed special attention. Each leader had a mission to help—not judge—the other people in the room.

Alan began each BPR session in the same way: “My name is Alan Mulally and I’m the CEO of Ford Motor Company.” Then he’d review the company’s plan, status, forecast, and areas that needed special attention, using a green-yellow-red scoring system for good-concerned- poor. He asked his top sixteen executives to do the same, using the same introductory language and color scheme. In effect, he was using the same type of structure that I recommend in my coaching process and applying it to the entire corporation. He was introducing structure to his new team. And he did not deviate, either in content or wording.

At first a few executives thought Alan must be joking. No adult running a giant corporation could possibly believe in this seemingly simple disciplined routine, repeated week after week.

But Alan was serious. Structure was imperative at a thriving organization, even more so at a struggling one, which Ford was at that time. What better way to get his team communicating properly than by showing them step by step how great teams communicate?

Yet even with their jobs on the line if they didn’t cooperate, two executives refused to change their behavior in the BPR. It wasn’t long before these two resisters decided to become former Ford executives.

Why would executives be willing to pull the rip cord on their careers rather than adapt to such a simple routine? My only interpretation is ego. In the same way that some surgeons reject the simple proven structure of a checklist for washing their hands, many executives are too proud to admit they need structure. They consider repetitious activity as mundane, uncreative, somehow beneath them.

However, “routine” is one of structure’s major contributions to any change process. It limits our options so that we’re not thrown off course by externalities.

Here are some more examples of the benefits of structure…I’ll bet you can think of some yourself!

  • When we follow a recipe we’re relying on structure to simplify the complexity of cooking—and improve our odds of delivering an appealing dish.
  • When we formulate our bucket list we’re imposing structure on the rest of our life.
  • When we join a reading group, we’re imposing structure on our reading habits (and possibly restructuring our social life).

Successful people know all this intuitively. The rest of us discount structure when it comes to honing our interpersonal behavior. We tell ourselves, I’m a confident, successful adult. I shouldn’t have to constantly monitor if I’m being nice or if people like me. Or we’re so satisfied with how far our behavior has already taken us in life that we smugly reject any reason to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, if that’s you hat’s off. Me, I want to be better and I know that having structure and doing my best to stick to it is the way to do that!