If What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, What Will Get You There?

by Sep 5, 2019You Are What You Think

Marshall Goldsmith coined the phrase “What got you here, won’t get you there” as a way to succinctly say to leaders that they can’t stop learning and evolving.

That is unless they want to join those who have watched as their companies slide into oblivion. Goldsmith didn’t mean for people to go around repeating his statement as a substitute for actually doing something.

Goldsmith’s idea is an invitation and a challenge to look ahead and determine what actions, taken now, will lead to the desired results. To do so requires the kind of thinking that takes intention, energy, and time. Sounds simple enough until we realize that the human mind tends to use short cuts without understanding what is lost by doing so.

Short cuts, or heuristics, are helpful as we go about our daily lives and do things that are routine, familiar and for which we have developed skill. Driving, walking from one place to another, logging into our computer. More complex tasks, problem-solving and interpersonal relationships, require a different approach if the outcomes are to be as successful as we wish.

People get into difficulty, or don’t achieve what they want, when they use short-cuts in circumstances too difficult, unfamiliar, or complex for a rule of thumb approach. (If you want a deep dive into the research, a good place to start is with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. This book never leaves my credenza, it’s that important.) Kahneman’s work on thinking helps explain why great ideas, like Goldsmith’s, don’t bear fruit unless we give them the attention they deserve, until we interrupt our usual way of thinking and acting.

Why the ordinary needs to be interrupted 

Some of my clients say that one thing I do is interrupt their ordinary ways of working. They don’t mean it as a criticism, even though it can make them uncomfortable. Why do I do this? I do it because my clients don’t want ordinary results. Even those, and in fact, especially those who are doing spectacularly well, want to improve. Importantly, they know that what got them here, won’t get them there. They also understand and act upon the understanding that it’s very difficult to observe your own thinking process and, critically, assumptions.

These leaders are willing to push in the clutch, cognitively speaking that is. They will endure a temporary loss of momentum so they can think about their thinking. One leader I worked with at a Fortune 50 company established a routine for herself that helped her get out of the weeds. Most everyday she took a walk to help her think. Sometimes she invited a colleague to join her, but usually not. She practiced and became very adept at using this time to think about strategic matters. At first, she couldn’t get her mind away from problems and from thinking the walk was a waste of time. Eventually she was able to switch gears more easily and found the time and the effort it took to make her walks a priority, was paying off.

If ordinary results and, indeed, an ordinary life are not what you desire, it is important to think about how well your actions, habits, and beliefs, line up with what you want. Share on X

How to change your trajectory

If ordinary results and, indeed, an ordinary life are not what you desire, it is important to think about how well your actions, habits, and beliefs line up with what you want rather than what you have. Your objective is completely up to you, large or small doesn’t matter just so it is important to you. Here’s how to start, but fair warning, this exercise will temporarily slow you down:

  1. Define your objective. What do you have a strong desire to contribute? For whom? What do you want for yourself?
  2. Leap ahead and work backwards. Starting from where you are, or where your business is, and plotting out a step by step progression will interfere with thinking big.
  3. Get familiar with your outstanding talents. One leader I worked with said hers is “looking at messy situations and seeing the threads of truth, what is most important to pay attention to.” Another leader I know has a superpower of timing. He has patience and impatience, depending upon the circumstance. He’s not always right in which he uses, but his track record has far more success than most.
  4. Invest in adjuncts. Stop trying to ‘fix’ your weaknesses if you can get help with them, even if it means you get help forever. CEOs will always need information and advice from outside their own company, lest they become ossified in their thinking.
  5. Stay awake. The only thing worse than a bad plan is a plan that people stick to out of a misguided need for consistency. Leaders who pay attention to external conditions, people, the culture of their company, and their own thinking processes, are far less likely to be surprised and derailed. Warren Buffet spends most of his time reading. What he does with the information he takes in has taken him where he wants to go and continues to do so.

Getting from here to there requires work, but the right work can’t begin without a shift in thinking. What thinking are you willing to shift?

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