Get leadership coaching like an Ivy League business school

Do you want to improve your leadership skills? Does this describe you:

  • Highly motivated?
  • Limited time?
  • Want to know top-5 business school culture (or just learn to lead like someone from one)?

This series will help you.

Columbia Business School provides a service to its students helpful to anyone — it has each MBA candidate take a 360-degree report and gives each a coach to help interpret the results and create a plan to act on it.

I took the program and have been coaching Columbia MBA students through this program for years. Since we have only one hour but the students are so highly motivated, it’s like super-effective lightning coaching. Many students have gotten enough value to tell me things like “this is why I chose business school at Columbia” and “I can’t believe how much I could change outside the classroom.”

Over time I’ve picked up some common threads valuable to everyone looking to improve their leadership or any other business or social skills. These lightning coaching sessions are like microcosms of longer-term coaching, except that their limited time puts the onus on the client to continue on their own. If you’re looking to improve and haven’t yet decided to get a coach or go to business school, this series may work for you. (The success of these one-hour coaching sessions is why I decided to give my first hours free).

This series first describes the 360-degree report, something helpful to understand even if you don’t get to take one, just to know the process and what information you could act on. Then it describes some things you can do to create and start to implement a personal development plan.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I’ve been posting a lot on personal development, so I’m going to focus on specific leadership and leadership development issues for several posts.

I’ve had the privilege and responsibility of coaching leadership to many Columbia Business School students, both in the regular and Executive MBA programs. For the next several posts I’ll cover a few of my observations in coaching leadership in that environment — usually tips on improving business leadership, but also leadership, leadership development, and personal development in general.

The program offers each student (requires, in the EMBA case) one hour of coaching from a professional leadership coach. When I went there, we only got a written report, so I consider this coaching a great advancement for the school.

And what characterizes that environment?

  • The students are highly motivated
  • They have at least several years of business experience before school, often more
  • Each student has taken a 360-degree feedback that they, their study group-mates, and their former work colleagues fill out
  • They are all taking and studying Columbia’s core Leadership class
  • They have a report of their 360-degree feedback assessment
  • They have one hour
  • They are busy

If you’re motivated and have some experience, much of this advice may apply to you.

You might expect one hour is not enough for meaningful coaching. On the contrary, in combination with the report, which often includes feedback from five or ten people and may have taken weeks to compile, the time constraint forces us coaches to keep a high signal-to-noise ratio (students rate us, so poor performers get weeded out). You have time for only the most important, actionable topics.

In other words, the next several posts will cover some top tips and observations from coaching some of the world’s top students of business under a time constraint.

Note that the students are generally not in business leadership positions at the time, so the coaching is often about developing themselves into leaders, as opposed to improving themselves in their positions.

Stay tuned!

(I will put links here to the tips and observations as I post them)

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: 360-degree feedbacks

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Before going into the details of looking at a 360-degree feedback report, I want to talk about the structure of the 360-degree feedback process and what it tells you about leadership.

What is a 360-degree feedback?

360-degree feedbacks are usually done in corporate and bureaucratic environments as review processes, both to help evaluate performance and to help people improve their performance. The process is that you or someone (typically in the Human Resources department) gets feedback from all sides — people above, below, and to the side in the corporate hierarchy as well as people outside it, like suppliers and clients. ‘360’ refers to this all-sides perspective. The results are compiled into a report.

My experience with them tells me nearly everyone benefits from having one done at least once. You learn a lot you can’t learn otherwise. I don’t know any other ways to get such quantity and type of information.

Columbia chose to start its Core Leadership class with a 360 feedback for each student for a reason — they are a great starting point for understanding both yourself in a leadership context and a fundamental perspective about leadership many never get — that leadership is about your relationships with other people.

Tomorrow I’ll show an example of the main results of a 360 feedback report to show more detail on them. For now I’ll list some high-level pros and cons for context.


The goal is to give you the most information for you to understand and improve how others perceive you and your work. Improving your leadership skills requires understanding how others see you, so 360 reports give you more and more varied information than most other types of reviews.

They give you an important perspective: in leadership, other people’s perspectives matter. Many people in functional roles like engineering, marketing, IT, and so on often think only completing functional tasks matter. Having played both roles, I see the value in understanding how others perceive you, not just your work. Also, it doesn’t matter to others how great you think you do. How they think you do matters to them.


You can’t do one yourself. Even companies that do them don’t do them that often because of the time, attention, and other resources they take.

If you want anonymous feedback, which tends to make it more candid and valuable, you need someone to collect responses from people, usually someone in a Human Resources department.

Getting information from outsiders adds other types of overhead and can burden relationships.

Many places have to outsource reviews like this, which adds complexity. Columbia Business School did.

All feedback suffers from the problems inherent in feedback — most important, to me, that it only covers the past, which you can’t change, and people don’t like to give or receive feedback that could be hurtful. If I ask you for feedback on my presentation and you say three positive things, I don’t know if you had nothing negative to say or you just avoided saying things you thought I might not want to hear.


An alternative or complementary process is feedforward, a technique developed by top executive coach and author, Marshall Goldsmith (whom Wikipedia also states “was a pioneer in the use of customized 360-degree feedback (confidential feedback from direct reports, peers and managers) as a leadership development tool”) that you can do yourself at no cost.

For coaching

360 feedbacks can show weaknesses and strengths, thus revealing areas to work on, which can help make coaching more effective. As we’ll see tomorrow, they can show exactly what to work on most and why, which can help motivate.

A sample 360-degree feedback: Overview charts

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Let’s look at part of a sample 360-degree feedback report. Today I’ll show the highlights — the summary of all the questions.

Even if you’ve never had a 360-feedback for yourself, just knowing how they work can help you. Understanding their structure alone can help you figure out how to improve your leadership skills.

First I’ll explain what you’re about to see. Each person responding to the survey about the person receiving the feedback gets asked to rate the person in several questions in several of the skills that contribute to leadership.

Leadership sub-skills

Why break the questions down into sub-skills? To rate them on “Leadership” alone is too vague. Nor does it help someone to tell them to “lead better.” You can rate them better on, say, “decision-making” and give them theory and exercises to improve their decision-making. Of course, all the sub-skills below are complex and you can break them down further too, depending on what level of depth you wanted to work on. For Columbia’s Core Leadership class, this is the level of detail the school chose.

Also, you can break leadership into different sub-skills than these. I’m sure other schools and rating systems choose different names, numbers of skills, and so on. As long as you break things down somehow, I think you’ll do okay.

Columbia’s sub-skills are:

  • Decision making
  • Perceiving others
  • Motivating self and others
  • Influencing others
  • Managing conflict
  • Working in teams
  • Creativity
  • Interpersonal dependency

The report describes what each sub-skill means. For our purposes, you’ll have to go with just the names.

Actually, the list of sub-skills reads almost like the syllabus of the class. After the 360-degree feedback, the class covers what each sub-skill means and gives theory and exercises for how to develop yourself in each area. The school also offers classes in most of these areas for those who want to go into more depth.

Personally, I like that process: give the students awareness of themselves in these areas from the report to ground them, then teach them what it means and how to improve themselves in each area. What leader wouldn’t want to go through that process?

Actually, many leadership coaches go through a similar process with their clients. Except most of us learn not to try to work on multiple areas at once with a client. Even two areas at a time confuses things too much. So most coaches I know, including myself, work with clients in one area at a time. But for a leadership class, I think covering all topics helps cover the field well.

The two overview charts

Here are two overview charts. They contain a lot of information and take a while to interpret, so we’ll break them down after.

First is how others perceive you versus how you perceive yourself. 360 feedback: how others and yourself perceive you

The Structure of the Overview

I can’t tell you how much such a chart (and the one that follows) can help you understanding your strengths and weaknesses in leadership. If you haven’t received such a report and want to improve your leadership skills, I recommend finding a way to get one (like getting a coach who does them).

Interpreting them will take enough attention and give enough insight that I’ll write on that topic tomorrow. Today I’ll just describe the structure.

The position of each dot shows your performance in some area perceived by different people. This chart is useful for raising your self-awareness.

The letter in the dot shows the leadership sub-skill in question. Its horizontal position shows how you see your skill in that area. Its vertical position shows how others see you in that area. A point on the line says you see yourself how others do, which indicates high awareness, which has value even if your skill in that area isn’t that high.

Points high show others perceive you do well in that area. Points to the right show you think you do well in that area and probably have confidence. Points far below the line show you believe your skills are greater than others think. Points far below the line show others think your skills are higher than you do.

The table on the right shows the same information in tabular form.

Next is how people perceive you versus how they perceive your peers:

360 Feedback: How others perceive you versus peers

The Structure of the Overview

This chart shows how others see your skills (vertically) versus how they see others (horizontal). This chart is useful for comparing how you compare with others. Since leadership has no absolute or objective measure of ability, comparing yourself to others is one of the only ways to measure where your skills stand.

Tomorrow I’ll interpret each chart. Even if you’ve never had such a measurement for yourself, you can guess how you’d do in some areas. Also you can see what types of information you’d need to improve. If you’ve never had a review like this, you can see what paths people have found to raise self-awareness and improve.

Leadership lessons from 360-degree feedback charts

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Just the structure of yesterday’s charts teaches a lot about leadership. They emerged as main tools for communicating leadership ability and guiding improvement so even if you’re never the subject of one, you can still benefit from knowing about them. Let’s see a few reasons why. Let’s look at one again.

360 feedback: how others and yourself perceive youThe chart breaks leadership into sub-skills

My Core Leadership class at Columbia began with asking the professor asking us to define leadership. It’s notoriously difficult to define. So instead of trying to, he pointed out that it has a behavior component and that if you behave in certain leader-like ways, people would treat you like a leader. Once they do, you feel more like one, creating a cycle that, if you keep at it, leads to your becoming a leader. (I like this perspective. I don’t need to know exactly what something is to know that if I do as well as I can and am improving as fast as I can, I can’t to better, which is my perspective on the questions “What’s the meaning of life?”.) Those behaviors are skills and you can learn to practice them, even if you don’t know what leadership means. Just saying “act like a leader” won’t help someone act like a leader. But breaking them down into areas with more specific skills does help. Columbia breaks its skills down as I described yesterday and as illustrated above

  • Decision making
  • Perceiving others
  • Motivating self and others
  • Influencing others
  • Managing conflict
  • Working in teams
  • Creativity
  • Interpersonal dependency

You can break down leadership in other ways — with more, fewer, or different categories — but this division works well. As an exercise, you might ask yourself if this list is complete, if it has unnecessary elements, and how someone may have come up with this breakdown. I find it interesting and informative to analyze leadership in more detail. To review, breaking down leadership performance into sub-skills for both evaluation and learning teaches a few things about leadership

  • Leadership is based in behavior
  • Leadership contains several sub-areas (listed above)
  • You can learn its sub-skills more easily than trying “to be a better leader”

The chart rates you subjectively

In many fields people try to rate performance on objective measures — how quickly you can do relevant tasks, how consistently you perform, how much you increased sales, etc. Leadership may have some objective measures, but ultimately you’re leading other people. How they respond to your behavior is how you lead. The result is that how other people see you subjectively determines how well you lead. You can’t measure leadership skill with a ruler or stopwatch. If you want to know how well you lead, you have to find out how others see you. One of the best ways is to ask, which this type of review does, with the added benefit in most cases of anonymity. By asking people to look at you in sub-skills you get a more detailed picture.

The chart compares your perception against others’

How well you lead still doesn’t determine how great a leader you can become. People don’t wait around in a vacuum waiting for you to show up to lead. They don’t decide to promote you to leadership positions based on your skills alone. Other people want to lead too. Even if they don’t want to, others emerge as leaders, sometimes unwillingly. If you want to lead, you have lead better than the alternatives, so you benefit from seeing how you compare. Another way of looking at this comparison is that you need to calibrate your leadership skills against something. Since we saw no objective measure exists, other people’s leadership skills emerge as a great comparison. Another great comparison not shown in this report is against you in the past. That requires multiple tests over time, which, unfortunately, a few-month course in school couldn’t do, though you might find happen in your career.

There is always some spread in the dots

People get rated differently in some areas than others. This chart shows that you may score higher or lower in an area than another and that you may score higher or lower as rated by yourself or others. The spread reveals your strengths and weaknesses as perceived by yourself and others. Knowing these strengths and weaknesses helps in two main ways

  • Knowing your strengths tells you where you can help most
  • Knowing your weaknesses tells you where you need the most help and where to hold back from contributing if others can do better
  • Knowing your strengths and weaknesses helps you decide where to improve.

Speaking of knowing where to improve, most people, when deciding what leadership area to work on most or first, work on their most extreme weakness — the dot furthest down and left. I have no problem with that strategy, but point out working on any other dot can help as much.

  • Working on the highest right-most dot can make you a specialist, which can add value to many teams.
  • Working on a dot the farthest from the diagonal can align your self-perception most with your peers’.
  • Working on a dot where you feel most motivated — maybe you want to work on decision-making these days or you just found a great book on motivation — may yield the fastest or greatest results.
  • Working on a dot related to a current need in your life — maybe you’re in the midst of a lot of conflict and need the most help in that area or your team’s decision-maker just left — may improve your life or team the most.
  • Moving any dot by the same amount up or to the right improves your leadership ability, so choosing any dot will help, as long as you work on it.
  • Other strategies can work too.

Which leadership development strategy works best for you depends on your greater life or professional strategies.

There’s a diagonal line on the chart

The diagonal line for which dots on it show you perceive yourself how others do, which I think of as a line of high self-awareness. Since no one is perfect in all areas, everyone has areas of relative weakness. To me, weakness could come in two main ways. First, you could have low numbers but close to each other — that is, close to the line — meaning you and others both view you as performing poorly. To cure this problem in the moment, you and your peers both know to try to get someone else before you because you don’t do well there. In the long run, of course, you can try to improve this weakness or bring someone else permanently on the team with skills to complement yours. Second, you could also have disparate numbers, meaning dots far from the diagonal. Not everyone recognizes this problem, and you might never notice it without a test like this. Points below the line imply you see yourself as better than others. You may act like a bull in a china shop, doing things others don’t think you do well. Points above the line indicate missed opportunity. People think you can do things, but you don’t, so you don’t do them. Improving in areas below the line can be easier than ones above the line, since you only have to learn things you didn’t know before. Improving areas above the line often requires become aware of things you didn’t know about yet others did, which can be harder, since you’ve been missing them all this time. Let’s also look at the second chart.

360 Feedback: How others perceive you versus peersThis chart compares how others see you versus your peers

Most of the properties from the previous chart apply to this one. One big difference is that this one compares your abilities to your peers’. This alternative comparison helps you improve your leadership skills in two ways. First, you don’t get promoted in a vacuum, you get promoted compared to others. Likewise, people don’t follow you in a vacuum, they follow you if no one else leads them better for them. Knowing how you compare to them helps you understand where to work. Secondly, without anything to compare yourself with, you don’t know how well or poorly you do. Comparing with others calibrates your skills with peers’. Whew, long post! More tomorrow. I hope this helps you become a better leader.

A sample 360-degree feedback report: more detail

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Yesterday’s post covered what for most people are the highlights of a 360-degree review — charts comparing how your leadership skills compare to others’. Those charts summarize most of the information in a 360-degree feedback report.

One should always remember they summarize. They don’t present all the information. Sometimes details tell a different story but get lost in the summary. Also, details may show how to improve better than a mere summary. Most 360-degree feedback reports include more detailed numbers. Here is a sample of more detailed numbers — the results for one specific question.

360 degree feedback -- one factorYou can probably tell these numbers combine to make one point in each of yesterday’s charts.

These numbers come from more raw data, as shown here.

360 degree feedback -- many questionsAll the numbers in this table get combined into the bar chart above it. You can see there’s a lot of depth to it.

Details like these help when you decide an area you want to improve in by giving you more detail about how people viewed you. It lets you know not just how you did in problem-solving, or whatever sub-skill you’re looking for more detail on, but how specifically you’re doing.

Making sense of all these numbers makes looking at this level of detail difficult out of context. Reviewing them for a purpose makes sense, like after you decided an area to improve and have specific questions about it. Or if numbers in higher-level charts or graphs don’t make sense.

This table also shows the value of getting more people to review you so you get good statistics. When subjects have only one or two respondents, you see blanks here or large standard deviations, showing you don’t know much about that area for that person.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about qualitative feedback.

A sample 360-degree feedback report: qualitative feedback

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Any feedback report has to include qualitative feedback — that is, free form feedback that describes how the subject performs and how to improve.

In my experience the feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been as useful as feedforward. It’s been more feedback, which generally means evaluation of an unchangeable u, but feedback can still be useful.

In any case, here are examples of qualitative feedback. It can’t b e combined with other quantified results, but can give you some of your most useful advice for how to move forward.

360 degree feedback -- qualitative feedback

Needless to say, free form feedback and advice from outside sources who care can be invaluable for know what areas to change and how.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Improve one thing at a time

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

A lot of students see the dots on the charts in their reports and decide they want to improve a few. In this chart, for example, they’ll look at all the dots below the line, think “Uh oh, I’m behind my peers in everything,” and decide to work on everything at once, or at least a few things.

360 Feedback: How others perceive you versus peers

Most coaches I’ve talked to about it agree working on one area at a time makes the best progress not just in the area you focus on but overall. This advice applies to all areas of personal and leadership development for any meaningful changes.

Why one at a time?

There are two main reasons to focus on one, both based in finding that focusing on too many things at once diffuses your attention.

First, it becomes easy to forget about or neglect one of them. My model is that if you juggle too many balls at once you tend to drop one. Or the more balls you juggle, the easier it is to drop one or all of them.

How do we determine that one is the limit of “too many”? From experience. Maybe you can work on more than one at a time without dropping any. If so, go for it, but I bet that skill will come with experience as you transform more areas of your life, not the first time, so if you haven’t been doing personal or leadership development stuff for a long time, I would start with one thing at a time.

Second, focusing on one thing at a time improves your effectiveness in that area. You improve it faster and more thoroughly.

What about the other areas? Does that mean giving up on them in the meantime?

On the contrary. I put to you that working on any area improves all areas because you don’t only develop in the area you focus on. You build experience and develop skills in improving yourself and that experience and those skills apply to all areas of improving yourself. I’ll write tomorrow about specific personal development skills.

Developing personal development skills makes future work simpler and faster.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Personal development skills

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Leaders learn and push themselves to develop personally constantly and consistently. They don’t see it as a burden, just something they do. Nor do they feel compelled from outside to do it. They enjoy learning. Nor do they feel like they need to accomplish some goal. They just enjoy doing things better. At least that’s what I’ve seen and experienced.

One of the reasons stems from an effect of yesterday’s post that working on one complex, long-term thing at a timethe more you develop yourself, the faster and more fully you can develop yourself the next time. Like most skills, you learn personal and leadership development skills and they improve with practice.

For example

  • With experience, transformations become simpler, faster, and more rewarding.
  • As you expectation of success increases, so does your motivation.
  • You become more resilient, meaning problems and setbacks affect you less.

Here are some of the skills you develop with any personal development. You learn to

  • Foresee obstacles before they happen
  • Overcome obstacles after they happen
  • Withstand discouragement from self and others
  • Resist giving up
  • Find emotional reward faster once you start
  • Maintain your motivation
  • Identify areas to improve earlier
  • Find resources to work with sooner

And many other skills.

So even if you feel like you’re only working on improving your decision-making skills, you’re also making it easier and faster to improve your teamwork skills when you get to them. And when you start that long-term exercise habit, you’re also making it easier and faster to improve your relationship with your boss in its time.


Everybody who has challenged themselves to develop personally has faced challenges like these

  • Feeling fake
  • Saying to themselves something like “I’ve been working on this for six months and I’m no better off than when I started. What’s the point?”
  • Facing questions from family, friends, and colleagues
  • Losing motivation
  • Forgetting goals
  • Running out of resources
  • Facing unanticipated challenges

and so on. Overcoming or foreseeing these challenges — or using them to propel you to greater success — each takes skills nobody has until they develop them.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: figuring out what to start with

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

When your 360-degree feedback report features this chart and you want to start improving something, what do you start with?

360 Feedback: How others perceive you versus peers

Keep in mind, you don’t need a 360-degree feedback report to have to decide what to work on. Today’s post applies to any time you want to pick something to improve yourself.

You know from two days ago to focus on one meaningful thing at a time, but which?

Nearly all the students I work with pick the farthest down dot, in this case Influencing Others. Their logic is that they want to fix their greatest weakness. I have no problem with this strategy, but it’s not the only one.

I recommend that they consider what area will have the greatest chance of success and suggest a couple other strategies that might have greater chances of success. Which one will depends on the person and what motivates them. Only you know what motivates you — whether you’re working from a chart like this or some other resource starting you off.

I recommend starting with what will succeed best because success will motivate working on the next one most. The strategy of fixing your greatest weakness may have your greatest chance of success, but not necessarily, so before embarking on a potentially challenging and long-term path, you may want to spend a few minutes to consider alternatives to increase your chances of long-term success.

A range of starting strategies

Fixing your greatest weakness: most students go with this strategy.

Keep in mind, no one is perfect in every area. You can never stop yourself from having a greatest weakness. Also, teams work best when they build on strengths. If you can find people strong in your areas of weakness, your weaknesses won’t be problems.

Strengthening your greatest strength: this strategy can make you a specialist — the go-to person for it at your company or environment. You work on the upper-right-most dot.

Increasing your self-awareness: this strategy can reduce the differences between how you and others see things. Such misunderstandings can create insidious, hard-to-understand problems. You work on the dot farthest from the line.

Working on your area of greatest need: the chart says nothing about what your environment demands. If your work or something else in your environment requires, say, motivating others better than you know how, working in that area may increase your chances of success.

Working on what you like most: maybe you have an affinity for one area and you know you’ll like it most. Expecting you’ll enjoy the process — that is, to experience the most reward or emotions you like — most may motivate you best.

Your area of greatest resources: do you have a mentor in some area? Or can take a class in it?

The fastest: do you expect you can finish a transformation in one area fastest?

Least resistance: do you expect any areas to have the fewest problems?

Other directions: you may want to get ideas from other areas — for example, the qualitative feedback or some other source of ideas.

You’re probably getting the idea and starting to think of your own strategies, even if you’ve never gotten a 360-degree or any other type of feedback.

Remember your goal

If your goal is long-term leadership development, remember, your first area of improvement is only one step. You want to use it to make all future improvements easier, not just achieve one improvement.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: find a relevant exercise

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

No matter what you want to improve about yourself, no matter how important the insight of feedback, and no matter how much you can learn from books, ultimately you have to practice to improve meaningfully.

Find an exercise

I think one of the greatest values a coach can add, especially in a short session, is to give someone who has identified an area to improve and indicated wanting to improve an exercise to have them experience improving in their desired area.

A coach who decides on just the right exercise and leads you through the process well can save you enormous resources in transforming yourself — potentially years of spinning your wheels. If you can’t find a coach, the web has plenty of exercises you could work from.

It helps before giving an exercise to understand the client‘s or student’s situation and help give context — of the value of leadership, of how challenging but rewarding the process can be, of how many have done it before, etc — and to help interpret the report, but it’s hard to beat helping them expand their horizons through personal experience and feel reward doing so.

I can’t list all exercises I’ve given. Many of them I’ve written in my list of social skills exercises, but even they get customized for each client and each student. Another big one is feedforward.

With each student, I do my best to find an exercise they’ll like and that helps. If you’re trying to develop yourself and know in what area, you aren’t the first. The web has plenty of relevant exercises as well as stories of people who progressed past where you are from which you can learn.

So the advice here in brief:

  • If you’re working on your own, look for exercises to experience the skills you want to learn, then to develop them
  • If you have a coach, have them give you exercises
  • If you’re a coach, give your clients exercises
  • Don’t skip exercises in favor of just reading books

You can’t learn leadership from books alone. You have to do the drills and build the experience.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Create accountability for yourself

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Adding accountability to your transformation increases its chances of working and the quality of your work. I hope I’ve written this idea in many other posts. I say it to nearly every Columbia Business School student I coach. It’s a fundamental part of my role with coaching clients.

We all know we get done what we’re accountable for. What we aren’t accountable for we don’t focus on nearly as much. So when you create a plan to improve your leadership style, your life, etc, create accountability if you want it to work.

People who aren’t serious don’t create accountability. Or maybe they’re scared of being judged. There are innumerable reasons people avoid accountability.

How to create accountability

People generally won’t create accountability for you, so you’ll generally have to do it yourself.

The basic way is to tell someone your goal, process to achieve it, and observable milestones along the way they can observe. Then ask them if you can check in with them or for them to check in with you for those milestones.

Another way is to do it publicly, for example with a public presentation or performance along the way. Or by publishing it, like in a blog.

You can do it with a friend or colleague, like I’m doing with my burpees.

You can make important things in your life depend on it, like if you don’t succeed you won’t be able to pay your rent.

You can force yourself to succeed in a sink-or-swim situation. I have a friend who goes to a country where he doesn’t speak the language to develop non-verbal relationship skills.

I’m sure you can come up with many other ways to create accountability for your projects.

How to find people to hold you accountable

I usually find people based on two criteria: whom I know and what the task requires.

Among people I know, I can choose friends who know me and are willing to stand up to me if I get lazy; people who will see it as friendly, not a burden.

Regarding the task’s requirements, sometimes I pick people who are involved with a related project or who will depend on me.

Sometimes I use the public to hold myself accountable. Once I put my name in the hat at the Moth — an easy task — I forced myself to continue publicly — a scary task, but one I wanted to do.

Benefits of accountability

Accountability does more than motivate you to finish.

It does more than motivate you to do a good job.

One of the most effective things it does is change the effect of the rest of the world on you from holding you back to pushing you forward.


When you’re nervous about changing, thinking about the rest of the world tends to make you anxious. You think they may judge you, for example. Or you might think your friends, family, colleagues, etc won’t like the change or think you’re weird for doing it.

When you ask one or more of them to help, you involve them in the process, which motivates them to help you. You get them on your side when you tell them your motivations, goals, processes, etc

Long term

The more you make yourself accountable, the more you get things done, the more you improve your life and leadership skills, resulting in more reward for your efforts, which motivates more improving your life and leadership skills.

Eventually you change from fearing others evaluating you to wanting them involved. Your life becomes more comfortable even as you challenge yourself more. People understand you better for your openness. You improve more about yourself. You view accountability as something desirable. Responsibility too.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Use Feedforward

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

If I talk about coaching, especially in limited times with very talented people, I have to talk about Feedforward. I refer to my previous post on it for a thorough description of it. It’s one of the best tools for finding out what about yourself to improve and how. If you don’t have access to a 360-degree feedback (almost no one does and even people who do only get them less than once per year), you can use Feedforward anyway.

I’ll mention a few benefits specific to the context of leadership development.

If you don’t know what to improve, Feedforward helps you find it

Many people say they don’t know what to improve. You can start your first Feedforward practice with something like (I assume you’ve read my previous post on Feedforward)

“I’d like to improve something about myself. You’ve seen and interacted with me. I’m sure you’ve thought of things I could improve. Can you give me two or three things that could help?”

As general as it seems, it gives people enough direction for suggestions. They’ve seen you for a while. You may consider yourself perfect, but, believe me, they’ll have suggestions.

If you want to be more specific or focus on leadership, you could go with

“I’d like to improve my leadership skills. You’ve seen me in situations with leadership aspects and you’ve seen great leaders. Can you give me two or three things that could help?”

Feedforward will give you answers. You have to figure out the best people to get Feedforward from, but you’ll be able to. Asking enough people will probably yield specific areas you could use the most work in.

If you think about all the people you’d like to change or you wish they did things differently, you’ll realize how much advice you’d give them if they asked. That should give you an idea of how much advice people who know you will be able to give you.

Feedforward is quick and easy

When I run Feedforward exercises in seminars, I ask participants to compare the exercise to having reviews at work. Of course they say how much quicker and easier Feedforward works. Avoiding judgment and looking toward the future are like that.

You don’t need permission or to schedule an appointment to do Feedforward

I often do Feedforward without asking as a part of regular conversations. Everyone agrees it’s easier than doing quarterly reviews. You don’t have to say you’re going to do it. You can just do it. After you do Feedforward a few times you get the hang of it and do it casually.

Feedforward costs nothing and builds relationships

That something that involves only talking to friends or colleagues costs nothing goes without saying. Actually, I’ll add that it hardly costs any time since you can do it casually, like in an elevator. In under a minute you can get useful, doable suggestions custom-tailored for you.

When you ask someone for advice, then don’t judge their advice they tend to feel like experts and appreciated by you. If you want to experience it, ask someone to do Feedforward with you so you get asked and tell me you don’t feel that way — like an expert and appreciated.

When you use the other person for accountability — say, asking to check in with them once daily, weekly, monthly, etc — you develop a relationship based on them seeing you progress. People like seeing others succeed so post-Feedforward accountability often leads to friendships based on mutual support in changing parts of your life.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Focus on the client

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Effective coaching means focusing on the client‘s interests and progress, not the coach’s. I like working with clients, especially students where I used to go to school, so it’s easy to think about my interests. But I know that in the long term, a client telling me they got out of our interaction everything they wanted and more is my greatest reward. To do that my focus has to be on them.

Use the meeting structure to focus on the client

This stuff is basic, but easy to forget. If you work with a coach who doesn’t focus on you, you may want to change coaches or suggest they change to be more attentive and responsive to you.

An hour is short so you can’t waste time. On the other hand, a open, candid, and warm communication helps most people speak and introspect more comfortably and openly than diving right into business. Also, you don’t know anyone’s interests until they tell you them. So chatting a bit at the start helps.

After a handshake, introductions, and making sure they’re comfortable and ready to start, I first tell them I don’t share what we talk about with anyone, including their teachers or classmates, and that we can talk about whatever they want, that most people talk about the feedback report results, but not everyone; some people choose me (the students pick coaches from a list of all available coaches and their bios) for my background in entrepreneurship, science, or having been a student there, and want advice on those subjects more than on leadership. Clients from corporate environments who had many 360-degree feedbacks sometimes choose other topics.

If they choose to work on the report, I first ask if they had any surprises or major topics they wanted to cover first. If so, we go there. If not, I ask how well they understood the report and start by going over what it means.

If they choose other topics, I put them first. Usually that means asking what they want to cover and why, then letting them talk about it and responding as they want. Even when they want to talk about something else, it’s never been far from leadership, so I haven’t had to worry about someone getting off-topic.

Giving advice

In regular life I prefer not giving advice unless someone specifically asks for it, even then double-checking to make sure they want it and are prepared for it. Leadership and coaching situations often force you to give advice. I still check that they’re ready for it and want it. I try to look at the situation from their perspective and understanding their interests (usually helping myself by asking them their perspective and interests).

I also try to give advice not in the form of “Do this. Do that.” I try to say “If your goal is to achieve X, doing Y will generally achieve it, and here’s how.” That is, I try to give them context and a way to achieve their goals, not just telling them what to do.

(Come to think of it, if I haven’t written about this structure for giving advice, I should give it its own post some day. Giving people background of things they could do and their consequences can help people more than telling them what to do.)

Exercises and resources

I wrote the other day about the importance of exercises. I try to have them do at least one exercise and learn how to expand on it later. I also try to give them a resource — usually a book or video — to follow up with if they want.

For the exercises, I try to make sure they genuinely do it, understand the underlying theory, and see how it applies in real life.


With only an hour — fifty minutes, actually — it’s easy to run over. I have to keep an eye on the time. With enough time to answer anything if they answer yes, I ask them if they want to cover anything else before closing.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: foreseeing challenges

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Learning leadership and developing leadership skills isn’t like learning history or any other academic subject.

Learning leadership and developing leadership skills means learning about yourself and other people, understanding your and their motivations, changing how you view the world, for starters. Well, you can learn to lead without those things, but you’ll limit yourself without them.

While learning math or a new language may teach you new knowledge and skills, it’s hard to say they change you as a person. I learned a lot of physics, and I think I became more knowledgeable and learned new skills, but I wouldn’t say it changed me. Certainly I changed over the eight years I focused on it, but not directly from the material; just from living eight years.

I mention academic subjects to contrast the feelings from challenging yourself academically as from challenging yourself in developing leadership. Academic challenges are external. They take time and attention. Leadership challenges are internal. They require courage and faith in yourself. You have to overcome emotional challenges, not just rational ones.

It’s hard to avoid saying learning leadership changes you as a person. I don’t think other fields do, or not nearly on the same scale.

When I coach students and clients I try to prepare them for the emotional challenges they will face. It’s easy when sitting in a room with a coach, calmly reviewing a report, to say when faced with discouragement and resistance from yourself and others that you’ll just power through the challenges. When you’re in a difficult situation, you’re scared or feeling emotional punishment, and you don’t know if you can make it, letting go of your goals, even ones you rationally know you can achieve, starts feeling enticing.

(Psychologists study this effect — so-called empathy gaps. I’ll write more about them soon. For now, I’ll mention some quotes I often list as examples of discouraging thoughts that hit you when you change yourself that you have to overcome or find new ways of viewing (another upcoming post, or rather series of upcoming posts).)

Learning to overcome emotional challenges — discouragement, frustration, anxiety, fear, impatience, etc — consistently and without too much emotional punishment takes practice. Coaching helps. Motivation through challenges is one of a coach’s main roles — think of sports coaches in particular.

Another main way to overcome them is to foresee them so they don’t blindside you, so that with practice you approach them prepared.

I’m sure you’ve said a few of these before.

  • “I’ve been working at this for six months and I still can’t get it. I should just give up.”
  • “I’m worse off now than before I started. I should just give up.”
  • “I feel fake.”
  • “Why am I doing this? Whatever reason I had, I can’t remember it now.”
  • “I should understand this challenge completely before trying to overcome it. I’ll start later.”
  • “People think I’m weird for doing this.”
  • “What’s the point? It won’t work.”
  • “I’m just not the type of person to do that.”
  • “I can’t do it.”
  • “I have to pay rent. This isn’t helping me pay rent. I’ll stick with what I know.”
  • “What if I fail?”
  • “I’ve gotten this far without this. I don’t really need it.”

Thoughts like this, when you’re unprepared and have no outside support, debilitate and discourage you. But everyone who has gotten through them also faced them.

I try, as a coach, to help people foresee these challenges so they know, at least in principle, how to handle them. I say “in principle” because until you’ve faced them a few times, intellectually knowing about them doesn’t compare with emotionally handling them.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Weaknesses are often strengths misapplied

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Today I’ll cover one of the most encouraging perspectives for many students and clients whose reports show they underperform in a few areas. For example, this student’s ability to influence appears low (see my earlier post on these charts can help you understand them)

Client with low influence ability

… in both perspectives …

Client with low influence ability

Anybody would say this chart says this person has a weakness influencing others, right?

Maybe not, and it could be a strength. You may imagine you have an outlying weakness too that may actually be a strength. I’ll talk below about diagnosing such problems and the consequences of mis-diagnosing them.

This effect affects high-performing clients

All my clients perform highly. Getting into Columbia Business School means they’ve overcome many challenges and at least one world-class institution considers them excellent. I suspect if you’re reading this blog, you perform well too, so I expect what I write applies to you too if you have what appears as a similar glaring weakness.

Despite their outstanding abilities, most students who see results like this think they have a glaring problem that they need to work hard to fix. Actually, most students react that way to the leftmost or lowest point, no matter what.

Well, sometimes, but often not.

Why not?

Because leadership differs from most other skills in that its measures are fundamentally subjective. These charts tell us little to nothing directly about underlying skills.

One client illustrates how things can work differently than you’d expect. His case may sound unique, but my experience tells me it’s surprisingly representative, especially among high-performers.

An illuminating counter-example to what you’d expect

He scored very low in Perceiving Others — far below any other category. I expected when I met him to find someone who wouldn’t pay attention or showed low empathy. I observed his skills mixed — he paid attention but interrupted a fair amount.

What surprised me most came at one point when I accidentally lost my train of thought. When I asked him where I was, his answer amazed me. He not only told me exactly what I had said, when he said where I was going, he anticipated my direction perfectly. I felt like he had read my mind. He seemed to perceive me better than most, not worse. I asked him about other things I had talked about and he clearly had perceived me well. Why did he get such low ratings?

A few minutes’ discussion revealed the discrepancy: he perceived so well, he interrupted people before they finished. In his mind, he was trying to save people time. Yes, interrupting hurts your leadership skills, but it’s not a problem with perceiving others.

He didn’t lack perception skills. Nor did he devalue communication skills. He did value saving people’s time. But he didn’t realize the effect of interrupting — a common shortcoming. His colleagues and classmates registered being interrupted as poor listening and therefore poor perception.

His strength in one area — perception — appeared as a weakness. Successful people often have great skills that appear as weaknesses but don’t have an outside perspective to see it.

Note also how differing values obfuscates the issue too. No one would call valuing other people’s time a problem. In his mind, that’s what he was doing. It would be difficult for him to see how his thinking he was valuing their time would appear as hurting their perception of his ability to perceive others.

360-degree feedbacks can reveal such issues, but often a coach’s experience and outside perspective will help.


The consequences can be significant when you create a strategy for change. If you believe your perception skills are poor when they’re strong, you’ll try to work on something you’re strong in and probably bore yourself with useless exercises.

Have you found yourself working on something people told you you needed to work on, yet found the exercises obvious?

In his case I pointed out an integral part of perceiving others was not just perceiving them, but, since all measures are subjective, communicating to them that you perceived them — like a handshake to confirm they know you got the message. In his case, that meant before responding to others asking questions like “Let me see if I understand you correctly, did you say…” and “I think I know what you mean, but let me make sure…”.

Separately, he didn’t realize he interrupted that much. Stopping interrupting is hard for many people, but at least he knew where to focus. I suggested if he felt utterly compelled to interrupt at least to preface the interruptions with “Sorry to interrupt, but I had to respond to something you just said…” or something like that to acknowledge knowing he was doing something potentially annoying and counterproductive.

Could this effect affect you? Other cases

This effect can occur across different skills. You can imagine how a strength in Decision Making could appear as a weakness in Working in Teams for a leader with poor communication skills but otherwise strong team skills.

There are too many combinations of how strengths can appear as weaknesses, but you may do well, especially if you generally perform well and have great skills, to examine if any of your apparent weaknesses are strengths in other areas filtered through misplaced values.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Shortcomings of 360-degree feedback reports

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

In the context of the lessons from coaching Columbia Business School students in leadership, I’ve mostly written about the value of 360-degree feedback processes and reports and how to use them.

Their shortcomings, costs, and problems are mostly obvious, but I’ll cover them anyway since I’ve covered so much about them. I’ll include ones that don’t apply to MBA candidates, despite the context here. I’ll try to mention how to avoid or work around problems too.


First, 360-feedback reports cost a lot, and not just money — also resources like time and relationships. Large, established companies with dedicated HR departments may already have resources to overcome them, but that doesn’t help the rest of us.

Since you usually have to hire an outside company or coach to administer them (see below), you have to spend money.

They take time from the schedules of you, your evaluators, and whoever administers them to administer and interpret your results.

They can take value from relationships with outsiders if you ask clients and other colleagues to report on them just from the time they take. How you respond or interpret feedback can affect relationships too.


Two main shortcomings of the reports affect feedback in general. As evaluations, they look at the past, which you can’t change. Since they ask people to evaluate, and people often feel uncomfortable communicating negative evaluations, you never know how biased they are.

Reports often overcome these shortcomings with qualitative feedback sections. Personally, I recommend feedforward as an effective, free, and relationship-building way to overcome them.

You usually need other people to administer the reports to maintain privacy and keep key personnel from the distraction of administration.

You usually need yet another person to help review and give an outside perspective on the person being evaluated.

For all the value and direction they give, the reports do not intrinsically motivate. Many people never act on their reports, even if they intend to. So you may want yet another person to help motivate and coach people to act on the reports.

For students taking a leadership class, having to take the rest of the course overcomes at least some of these issues. Large corporations with HR departments that regularly administer the reports can help too.

Potential problems

The large amount of information these reports give can also cause problems.

One is overconfidence: you may feel you know everything about yourself you need to change, forgetting that they only give a snapshot in time. Also, however much 360 degrees sounds like all directions, the external world changes all the time and you may miss many important directions.

Another is feeling like if some information and analysis helps some, more information and analysis will help more, sometimes called analysis paralysis. After you get the report, you have to act.

I haven’t exhausted all the shortcomings and problems, nor offered all the solutions and workarounds to overcome them, but I think I’ve covered the main ones.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: School protects you so you can try new things

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Business schools and other vocational schools offer students something supremely valuable not everyone realizes. Everyone knows they give you knowledge, credibility, and a network. They also offer you protection from the outside world. You can do risky things in school that you might not do when your pay check or job depends on not messing up.

In school, especially business school, you can risk failing in ways that might lose you your job, promotion, bonus, or other things of value. Many schools even promote taking such risks. If they create a productive community, they may create an environment where classmates and professors reward people trying new behaviors. I remember seeing people doing things I would have been too anxious or scared to, then envying them for getting more out of school than me, then taking those risks myself.

For someone in a leadership class where progress means changing your behavior and beliefs, a school’s giving you space to experiment gives you an opportunity people who don’t leave the workplace may never experience — potentially a major advantage.

I point this out to students I coach — that they’ll find many opportunities if they look for them. They can try leading their study groups, responding in class when they don’t know the answers but still have some value to add (a potentially great boon for assertiveness), and so on. I did the class play twice, which helped me more than I can describe here, mainly in changing how I view relationships with colleagues — more congenial and friendly. I became friends with professors.

You can take as many risks as you want in the workplace. The protection school gives you helps but is not necessary or the only way to do it. If you’re in a working environment and want to use some of the advice I give students, you can still find ways to use it. If you’re in school, you’d be crazy not to take advantage of it — any vocational school, not just business school.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Practice!

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I mean practice in two senses here.

The first is the more relevant one for the one-hour lightning coaching sessions — as a coach, I try to find ways for my client to practice their new behavior during the session, all the more important in a lightning session when they won’t have access to their coach again. Improvement in leadership means nothing if it only exists in your head and doesn’t translate to new behavior. Leadership is fundamentally social, meaning it requires other people. Other people respond only to your behavior, not to your thoughts, except as communicated through behavior.

So a major goal is for the client to adopt new behavior. I mentioned in an earlier post in this series the importance of finding a relevant exercise. Exercises give people the chance to practice behaviors that will help them achieve their goals better. What skills do you have that didn’t take much practice to get good at? Even walking, which you do without the slightest effort, took you painful months to learn. And you had to learn to crawl first. Most leadership skills require more focus from you. (That’s why I advise thinking of yourself like a baby learning to walk in learning challenging tasks.)

Practicing them with a coach gives them a chance to make mistakes with me, learn from them, and do them better with others. It makes them more comfortable and gives them experience so they won’t do them for the first time with others, but rather the third or fourth time. It lets them explore the practice and learn what it does and doesn’t do. It lets them try it different ways.

Practice never wastes time, at least in my experience. No matter how well a client says they understand the new practice, they always make a mistake they can learn from. Or they discover something they didn’t expect  in the practice. Even when an exercise requires only that they follow a script word for word, they always seem to change a word or more and learn the value of each word.

Practice is the major way short-term coaching turns into long-term results.

Clients always have questions or have moments of realization leading to discussion they couldn’t have followed up if I hadn’t been there.

The second sense of practice is the one you expect, that once they learn the new technique, they have to practice it until they internalize it. Behavioral skills are like any other skill — they develop with experience and atrophy with lack of use. The more you practice them, they better you get at them, the more problems you realize you can solve with them, the fewer mistakes you make, the more you can build on them, the more you anticipate problems before they happen, the more you can teach them to others and improve your environment, and so on.

Long-term practice ties in with accountability, which I covered in an earlier post in this series.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Use your teammates

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Making change stick means practice and accountability.

How do you find people to hold you accountable? The following advice works for everyone, not just business school students. I’ll describe how it applies to your life after writing how I tell the students I do lightning coaching with.

Leadership requires other people. Every time you work or do anything in a team is an opportunity to lead. For this reason Business School students have to work most of their first year in school-assigned groups they don’t get to choose and can’t escape. At Columbia they call them “Learning Teams” now and called them “Study Groups” when I was there. I’m sure you have experience working in teams you couldn’t easily escape from. That’s why learning to lead in such environments is so valuable.

Being stuck together aligns everyone’s interests — not just to get good grades together, but to have productive, effective, and friendly working environments. In other words, it’s in everyone’s interests to improve each other’s team and leadership skills. They have vested interests in your success.

For this reason, I tell students to use their Learning Team to help them with accountability, outside perspectives, feedforward, and whatever it takes to improve. Often the students either so love their teammates or are so frustrated with them they lost the perspective of how to stop evaluating them and start using them for mutual gain (sound familiar?).

Whatever you do, if you have teams that endure beyond one meeting, your teammates have vested interests in your improving as a teammate and leader. Use their motivations to help them. That’s leadership everybody benefits from.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Manage Expectations

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Do you ever have an amazing epiphany about a major change you will make in your life, or how you’ll do it, and get excited about how awesome doing it will be?

This happens a lot in coaching sessions, especially after their first 360-degree review and coaching session. They often have major realizations and make fantastic, far-reaching plans destined for enduring success.

All that is awesome, but this realization came in the privacy of a distraction-free room, working with someone working to understand and support them. Often within minutes of walking out the door, they get hit with emails, calls, interruptions, reminders of homework due later that day, and so on. Your life has similar intrusions.

In other words, they risk empathy gaps slowing or halting their progress. Even straightforward and simple plans, when made in pristine environments, can fall apart when hit with the rest of life, leading people to give up.

As a coach I look out for too-high optimism. I don’t want to lower the optimism, but I want to prepare them for obstacles. I manage expectations to make them more capable to handle challenges. I try to have them conceive of situations that may slow them down and prepare how to handle them. Things like

  • Someone judging them
  • Not having as much time as they expected to focus on them
  • Other projects temporarily taking priority
  • Running out of a resource
  • Feeling like they’ll never finish six months in
  • Forgetting their original motivation
  • Failing

and so on. Besides having them imagine potential obstacles and blocks, I often role play to help them understand and prepare their responses.

Managing expectations applies to all people changing their behavior, not just students in lightning sessions, but you and me all the time.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Common coaching topics

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One of the challenges and joys of coaching is that each client is unique. Even similar issues show up in unique ways with each person. The job never gets boring.

Still, you see trends, especially among students taking similar courses at similar stages in their lives, often with similar goals.

So what do MBA candidates at a top business school tend to want to work on? First, I’ll mention that there is no overwhelming majority. Even the most common areas of focus don’t add up to the majority of people and I haven’t taken notes so I’m just going from memory. That said, many students tend to work on

  • Assertiveness
  • Listening
  • Teamwork
  • Influencing others
  • Time management
  • Decision making

Many students tend to see others, especially managers they report to, by their functions first, so they benefit from seeing others as people first and positions on organization charts second.

Despite the strong focus at the school to get hired, few people bring the job search into the coaching session. They see value in long-term personal development, even when they know recruiters won’t be able to see the change. They recognize it affects all their relationships, including with themselves, in every interaction, and that shortcomings will limit their potential.

Many students come in never having held a leadership position before so they have more experience being led, often meaning they never managed others or had to make key decisions. All of the areas of focus fit with the type of transition people need to make to go from functional worker to leader. School and coaching force you to face your shortcomings and work on them, giving you protection from the outside world to experiment and learn. I can see why people who don’t take time off either to force themselves to learn or take classes would have trouble transitioning to leadership. Introspection is hard on your own, as is seeing what potential you have in order to find direction and motivation to realize it.

Few leaders are known for doing low-level functional tasks well. Maybe they can do spreadsheets well, but that doesn’t make them leaders and can, in some circumstances, hold them back. Leadership comes from social skills and behaviors, which often come from emotional challenges, which workplaces don’t give like schools and coaches do.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Two months in Tibet

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Two months in Tibet is a technique that complements accountability for the long-term part of leadership and personal development. It overcomes a major source of resistance for many people trying to change.

Some background: One of the major sources of resistance when you try to change is other people. They know they old you. If they like you they like the old you. Changing your behavioral patterns without warning may confuse them and prompt them to worry if they will lose the you they like. They may not take you seriously. They may not realize you’re changing deliberately and see the changes as weird or aberrant.

All of these potential ways of seeing you translate into them trying to stop you from changing. The crazy part is that they will try to stop you from changing out of intent to help you.

They may not understand or support your change even if you tell them about your plans and motivations. Yes, even if you tell someone you want to, say, increase your assertiveness skills and show progress, often they may not take you seriously and hold you back, even if they said they would support you.

I think people fear others changing and leaving them behind, like smokers or obese people who, when a peer decides to leave the group, try to keep them in the group. They value the group and someone leaving threatens the group. From that perspective their resistance makes sense, even if from any other perspective it wouldn’t.

Okay, that’s a problem. What do I do about it?

If telling people about your change doesn’t lead them to support it, what does?

If someone goes to Tibet for two months to live on a mountaintop, when they return you expect them to change. You’d be surprised if they didn’t. My culture views Tibet, among other things, as a spiritual place where you learn about yourself. So if you told people you were changing after spending two months in Tibet, you’d get less resistance.

Well, you don’t need two months and it doesn’t have to be Tibet, but giving people a powerful reason for your change helps them support it. For students I coach, I suggest mentioning the 360-degree report, leadership class, or coaching as something meaningful they could use as their two months in Tibet. Other things that work can be a relevant book or meeting a new person. I don’t recommend making something up, since they’ll likely ask you about details and will find you out if you start having to make things up, but you don’t have to. You probably have relevant things that will work. You just have to find them and share them.

I recommend this technique for transforming resistance into understanding. Resistance from other people — often well-meaning people who feel like they’re helping you — holds people back as much as anything else otherwise.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Assertiveness does not mean aggressive, domineering, or trying to influence

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

As an earlier post in this series mentioned, assertiveness ranks highly as a skill students at Columbia want to develop as part of their leadership training. Most recognize it as an important skill for leadership — that if they don’t assert themselves, instead of leading they’ll end up being led by others who assert themselves more. Most haven’t had or created the opportunities to assert themselves professionally, having had few leadership roles.

I find one of their biggest hurdles to asserting themselves is misunderstanding assertion. Clarifying its meaning helps them a lot. I expect it will help a lot of readers here.

Assertion does not mean aggressive, domineering, or trying to convince. It involves you, not the other person. Most people recognize the problems and challenges of trying to change other people so hold back from what they think is asserting but is really asserting+influencing or asserting+domineering. When people mistakenly attach to assertion something involving others they increase their challenge to assert.

To assert simple means to communicate your interests and perspective. While you might at first think just communicating your interests and perspective does less than, say, also influence others to agree, just stating yourself goes a long way, often farther because you risk getting mired in disagreement less. Once you assert yourself you have the option to act on what you communicated — maybe to try to convince or influence, but you don’t have to.

Wikipedia puts it well, especially the part I bolded:

Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. In the field of psychology and psychotherapy, it is a learnable skill and mode of communication. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as: “a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view“.

Freeing yourself from how others respond makes assertion easier and more effective. You’ll likely find yourself able to speak more freely, encounter less resistance, and be more open to listening to others

All of the above applies no less to business school students who tend to be more assertive than the general population.

Another useful perspective

Another helpful perspective about assertiveness is that working in a team often makes assertion your responsibility. I was taught that studies find that teams produce better results when they have more diverse input. If you are in a team but not contributing your perspective, you’ll hurt the team.

This perspective risks making people feel pressured and obligated to contribute, which can discourage them, so I combine it with the next perspective and practice.

A useful practice and perspective

Students report one of their main reasons holding them back from asserting themselves is the fear of judgment, which most of us can identify with.

A useful way to bypass this hurdle is to depersonalize the ideas they assert. You’ve probably seen people practicing it. They say things like “I don’t know if this idea is crazy or not, but maybe we should consider it,” “I just had this idea, I haven’t had time to evaluate it, but what do you think about it,” or “This idea may be dumb, but it might have a kernel of value too.” When you preface a suggestion like that before saying it, you decrease the risk of them evaluating you. Their evaluating the idea and finding it lacking doesn’t affect you when you frame the idea as something you haven’t had the time to consider either, but your responsibility to the group forces you to reveal it rather than keep it secret.

If you don’t normally say things like that before sharing ideas, try them for the freedom they create. They can overcome your risk of being judged personally while giving you the chance to share your ideas. They aren’t the only way to do it, but they work.

Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: For changes to stick, change both beliefs and behavior

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

How do you start to plan?

You’ve figured out a change you want to make in your life. How do you start to plan? You’ve always done X and now you want to stop it. Or maybe you’ve never done Y and you want to start. Or you want to do something differently.

Coaching sessions with students often hit a break after we finish interpreting their feedback reports and they’ve chosen a leadership behavioral skill they want to work on and change. We’re about to begin the planning part. I usually point out something simple enough that almost doesn’t need saying, but if I don’t, people forget it.

I point out that for behavioral changes to stick, you generally need to change both behavior and beliefs, visually reinforcing what I say by putting one hand to one side, representing behavior, and the other to the other, representing belief. I then treat each separately, following up with how they interact.

An example

For example, if we talk about assertiveness, I might ask what they do when they aren’t asserting but could — do they sit quietly, do they wait and talk later, do they get impatient, etc? I also ask what they believe they are doing — are they keeping quiet because they’re gathering information to use later, do they believe they don’t have authority to talk, are they protecting themselves from saying something others might judge, etc? This shows their current behavior and beliefs.

Then I might ask them what successfully assertive people might do. Would they talk when something came to mind, would they wait and speak to people individually after the meeting, etc? This might take some time to get models of successful behavior they can envision. I might ask them to describe someone they’ve seen successfully asserting themselves that they could model themselves on. There are millions of ways to do anything, so we’re not comprehensively covering everything, but having a concrete model gives them a target. That covers the behavior side of the direction they want to go in.

Then I ask what someone might believe about how to interact with others to motivate that behavior. This question gets them thinking and forces them to realize others must have different perspectives and beliefs about the same situation that work better than theirs. Sometimes they hit on beliefs that make sense to them that they immediately want to adopt. If they don’t hit on new beliefs on their own, I might make a few suggestions to help. Once we find a belief or two that they can believe and would motivate the desired behavior, we work with those beliefs, finding ways to help them internalize them and use them when helpful. Adopting new beliefs doesn’t mean rejecting old ones, which may still work in other situations.

If we didn’t work on changing beliefs, adopting new behaviors would lead to internal conflict since their old beliefs motivate their old behavior, not their new behavior.

If we didn’t work on changing behavior, their new beliefs would at best take longer to result in new behaviors. Mostly they’d risk wanting to do something different but continuing the same habits they’d learned over decades, leading to frustration.

Working on both leads to their beliefs and behavior reinforcing each other. Earlier posts in this series described how, once we have new beliefs and behaviors, we practice them in the coaching session so they can make mistakes with me instead of with others.

Readers familiar with my Model and Method might wonder why I’m not talking about environment, the third lever arm in my Method for transforming parts of one’s life. In general I recommend working with all three elements. In coaching sessions with business school students we’re talking about work environments they choose to be in, so we’ve covered that element and are keeping it fixed.


  • After deciding what to change.
  • Look at both behavior and belief.
  • Understand current beliefs and behaviors.
    • Ask their current behavior — what do they do now that isn’t effective?
    • Ask their current belief — what motivates them to do what they do? If they aren’t doing the desired new behavior, what do they believe they are doing?
  • Think of new beliefs and behaviors that reinforce each other. This can take some time since the student isn’t used to either.
    • What behavior do they think would work better? Can they remember or think of models of behavior they want?
    • What beliefs would someone have that would motivate that behavior?
  • Practice them.