Be Your Own Executive Coach

In today's highly uncertain environment, wouldn't it be nice to have a wise adviser available to you 24/7 to help keep you, your team, and your organization on track?

Sage guidance is more accessible than you think it is. It doesn't even require that you keep a high-priced executive coach on retainer. You could be just the adviser you've been looking for.

Executive coaches perform two essential functions. First, they provide clients with sound, objective advice. Second, they help clients execute that advice. With a few simple, yet highly effective, proven techniques, you can start tapping into your inner coach.

Recall someone you know—a colleague, an employee, or a boss—who recently made a decision they now regret. You saw it coming. Even though you're too big a person to say "I told you so" (even if you're thinking it), your advice was right on the money.

Now think of a regrettable decision you made recently. Maybe it was wasting those budget dollars on unnecessary office equipment, or letting envy of a competitor drive you to enter a saturated market. Perhaps you compounded a problem with your team by putting off a tough decision. In hindsight, the right choice was clear all along, but you botched it.

Why is it that we're so good at giving advice to other people but often blunder when giving ourselves advice?

It's all about objectivity and emotion. When we dish out advice to others, we have nothing to lose or to gain, which removes emotion from the situation. We can give clear advice on what someone should do because we don't have a vested interest. On the other hand, our emotions kick into overdrive when we're the ones taking the big risk—and potentially receiving the big reward.

Imagine you're advising a friend

With a little imagination we can overcome our less-rational selves. Psychologists have discovered that when people imagine a situation as though it were happening to a friend instead of to them, they are able to think much more logically. Katherine Milkman, a researcher at the Wharton School, explains that this simple trick can shift our entire mode of thinking. Pretending that we are the coach advising the client moves us from what psychologists call "System 1" thinking (the "want" system driven by our impulses and emotions) to "System 2" thinking (the more deliberate and logical "should" system).

So the next time you're trying to decide what to do, imagine that a friend has come to you for guidance on the situation. What would you advise?

Once you've adopted that outside perspective and decided what you need to do, the next step is to follow that course of action.

In one study, Milkman discovered that online renters of DVDs frequently order documentaries and educational films, only to let them sit around while they order, watch, and replace one cheesy romantic comedy or mind-numbing blockbuster after another. While we can become very good at identifying what we should do, we often end up popping 2012 into the DVD player to satisfy our impulses.

"If" you program yourself, "then"…

At New York University, Psychology Professor Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues have amassed more than two decades of evidence supporting the idea that wording can make all the difference between intention and action. When we frame our advice with an if-then format, we are far more likely to follow through. For example, instead of saying that you "want to spend more time on strategic planning," or that you "will try to be more strategic this month" you should phrase it as "if I'm still at the office after Wednesday' status meeting, then I will spend 30 minutes on strategic planning."

The power of the if-then format comes from its ability to create instant habits. The "if" part of the statement places an automatic reminder in your brain to be on the lookout for a specific situation. When your brain recognizes that you are indeed sitting in your office after Wednesday's status meeting, it automatically cues you to perform the "then" action (i.e., "spend 30 minutes on strategic planning.")

If-then formatting replaces the years of behavioral conditioning it would otherwise take to create a habit. Gollwitzer has found that if-then phrasing makes it as much as two to three times likelier that people will stick to an exercising regimen, eat more healthfully, avoid distraction, and do just about anything that pits us against our wills and wants. The same technique can help you bridge the gap between your intentions and your behaviors.

One day you might find that you want the expert guidance of a bona fide executive coach. Until then you can turn yourself into a quality interim by taking an outside perspective on your future courses of action and by using if-then planning to execute them.

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