I don't watch much TV. But on a recent Saturday morning, I found myself channel-surfing for about 15 minutes. I was amazed at how many of the ads were about getting in shape. Here are some of the exact phrases I heard:
"Incredible — a miracle!"
"It feels terrific! Let us show you how easy it is!"
"Quickly turn your flabby abs into that sexy six-pack!"
My favorite was one that claimed that "visible results" could be achieved in two three-minute sessions!
I am from Kentucky. Excuse the language, but a phrase from my childhood captures my feeling for these claims: "What a pile of bulls — t!"
If you want to know why so many goal setters don't become goal achievers, you can pore over a bunch of enlightening academic studies about goals or you can watch infomercials for 15 minutes. Where did we ever get the crazy idea that getting in shape is supposed to be quick and easy? Why do we think that there will be almost no cost? Why are we surprised when working out turns out to be arduous and healthy foods don't really taste that good?
I see the impact of this kind of thinking all the time. I recently got a call from Mary, an EVP for human resources, who was dealing with the integration of people and systems after her company had made a large acquisition. "Don, our CEO, has been hearing some serious grumbling about Bill, our chief information officer," she groaned. "Bill is 56 years old and has great experience. No one else in the company can match it. Unfortunately, he wants everything to be done his way. There are some brilliant people in the company we acquired who have their own ideas. Several of their top people, including our new COO, are expressing concerns about Bill. Don wants this issue resolved now! He has suggested that we get an executive coach to work with Bill. Given Bill's busy schedule and our immediate needs, Don would like to see a dramatic change in Bill within a couple of months. Because Bill is also very impatient, he won't work with a coach who will waste his valuable time. Do you think that you can help us? When could you start?"
Like all of the folks who buy these miracle products to help them get in shape, Mary wanted a miracle coach to immediately change Bill.
I pointed out that Bill was a 56-year-old executive. Just as with diet and exercise, Bill's behavioral habits took years to develop and won't go away overnight. We all set goals to get some aspect of our lives in shape. All too often, we fail to meet them. Why? There are four major challenges that we mistakenly assess:
1. Time: "This is taking a lot longer than I thought it would," or "I don't have time for this."
2. Effort: "This is a lot harder than I thought it would be," or "I'm tired. It's just not worth it."
3. Competing goals: "I had no idea I would be so busy this year. I'll just have to worry about this later."
4. Maintenance: "After I got in shape, I celebrated by indulging in some of the actions that forced me to set my goals in the first place. Now, for some unexplained reason, I'm back where I started. What am I supposed to do? Go on some kind of diet for the rest of my life?"
We often confuse the words "simple" and "easy." The changes I help people make are generally very simple. However, they are never easy. Just as with diet and exercise, changing behavior involves hard work. It takes time.
During the next year, Bill will be barraged with competing goals that will distract him from his efforts to change. He needs to realize that lasting leadership development is a lifelong process. A temporary change in behavior to "look good" in the short term will only create cynicism if Bill doesn't stick with it. I can help Bill if he is willing to put in the time and effort. If not, hiring me would probably be a waste of everyone's time.
Look in the mirror. Not just at how you look but who you are. If you want to be a better leader, a better professional, or just a better person — don't kid yourself. To achieve meaningful goals, you'll have to pay the price. There's no product, no diet, no exercise program, and (I hate to admit it) no executive coach who can make you better. Only you can do it. If your source of motivation doesn't come from inside, you won't stick with it. This may not be material for a Saturday morning TV ad, but it's great advice for any real achievement. nFC
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and a cofounder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.