David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Teaching Guts

post # 132 — July 13, 2006 — a Managing post

In a prior blogpost about getting feedback , Steve Farber (www.stevefarber.com ) pointed out that the willingness to seek out feedback on yourself takes a lot of guts. He then asked me if I thought you could teach “guts.”

By coincidence, on the same day, I received the following email from Jay Bertram, President of the Toronto office of TBWA, the global advertising agency. This is what Jay had to say:

I know you don’t remember me. I was at a seminar you put on last year. Like many, I was thoroughly moved by your passionate plea for senior management accountability. The difference is I actually did what you challenged all of us to do.

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian and we do what we are told to do, but I took your challenge to heart and acted the first day I came back to my office.

I want to thank you for encouraging me to be a better manager. It is because of you that I am making a real difference for my employees. I have never been happier and more productive.

What Jay had done was to go back to his office and immediately ask all his people to evaluate their overall job satisfaction, their feelings about the office and (most critically) their overall rating of him as a leader. As I had recommended, he announced to all of his staff that, if he did not improve significantly in their rating of him as a leader, he would resign.

I telephoned Jay to thank him for his kind words, and to ask what it was that had given him the impetus to act. This is what he said:

It wasn’t that I learned anything new, but because of your bluntness and forcefulness, you made me act on what I realized I believed was the right thing to do – not what you believed was right, but what I believed was right. You helped me contemplate whether I really was acting in accordance with my own philosophies.

You challenged me to be prepared to be accountable. It struck home when you said that many people kept on lying -to others and to themselves – when they publicly proclaimed their commitment to standards of excellence or missions for their organization.

Mostly, you gave me the reassurance that living up to my standards, and being prepared to be accountable for them, was the right thing to do.

You’ll all gather that when I do seminars and presentations, I ask the organizers for permission to “not hold back.” I like being allowed to tell the truth as I see it, and invite the listener to face up to the “elephant in the room” (the truth that everyone knows but no-one has the courage to talk about.)

For better or for worse, this can be very provocative, confrontative and disruptive. (Not all of my clieents give me permission to take this approach.) But, as in Jay’s case, once in a while you get through to people by being dramatic, forceful and impassioned.

As I wrote about in Are You Abusive, Cynical or Exciting? and in Strategy and The Fat Smoker I understand those who are trying for self-improvement, and I understand those who choose not to try. What I don’t understand (and don’t think works) is to PRETEND to be trying for something without being willing to be held accountable for how well you are doing. I call it lying.

In my consulting and speaking over the years, I have tried various approaches to getting people to get on the self-improvement path by accepting this accountability (including feedback.)

Among the approaches I have used:

  • Making them feel dissatisfied with their current situation
  • Trying to paint a picture of the glamour of the future situation they could find themselves in
  • Helping people see that significant improvement in their lot is actually possible, if only they are prepared to try a little and then keep it up
  • Revealing the hypocrisy of the difference between their words and actions
  • Giving people hope that, yes, it is real-world to operate in different ways

As Jay reports, the most effective way to get people to change, and to accept feedback, has proven to be to cause them (force them if necessary) to articulate what THEY really believe and then to get them to ponder, in the dark midnight of their soul, whether they are truly living up to their OWN standards.


Bill Perry said:

David, this is a very powerful approach. I am involved with a network marketing company, aside from trying to get my website off the proverbial ground. In that company, our leadership teaches us to set a goal and then make it publically known, along with what the negative consequences will be if we FAIL to meet that goal. I guess it goes back to accepting responsibility and accountability for what goes on that is within our control.


posted on July 13, 2006

Kent Blumberg said:

I hold monthly coaching sessions with my direct reports. About once a quarter, I ask them to give me feedback on my leadership. Usually I ask, “What can I do to more effectively support you?” and, “If you were me, what would you do differently right now?”

The answers are often hard to hear, but usually just what I need to hear. And I most often act on what I hear (not always – I’m not perfect!).

It’s not easy to do, but this sort of feedback has been the best development advice I have received. The people I lead are the best judges of my leadership skills – not me, and certainly not my manager.

posted on July 13, 2006

Jennifer Davis said:

Guts is often mistaken with having “no fear.” The truth is that guts is being able to see that there is more to fear in not saying or doing something, than in saying or doing something. In other words, having the guts to take an action requires a person to fear the status quo more than the confrontation or the change. How much people fear confrontation and change is highly personal and highly personality dependent. Some people have low thresholds and others have high.

The key to having guts is to be able to put your fear of change/confrontation in perspective and take the action you feel would deliver the best outcome. I like the suggestions above about how to arrive at that perspective.

posted on July 13, 2006

Aron said:

Has read through yours blog and has learned a lot of new.


posted on March 19, 2007