Should you ask an organisation whether they are committed to continuous personal development, chances are that everyone will agree. But if you press them to ask how they do this, many will simply not know.

Einstein said that lifelong learning should be your focus because, where there is no longer learning, personal growth stops.

So it is with personal development skills. Perhaps companies have only paid them lip-service in the past, terming them “soft skills’, which as we say elsewhere, is damning with faint praise; they should really be renamed power skills.

Ron Carucci is a management consultant with more than 25 years of experience advising CEOs and senior executives of organisations ranging from Fortune 50 companies to start-ups, sharing one motivation: the determination to seek transformational change.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains the scale of the problem. He cites a survey by Srinivas Rao, founder and host of the popular podcast, “The Unmistakeable Creative”. Rao’s team polled 1,000 people who had invested in personal development seminars or courses, had set goals, and had worked on those goals for 90 days. “The data from those polls was pretty shocking,” says Rao. “Some 96% of their personal development efforts completely failed.”

Another source found that 80% of respondents who had made New Year resolutions had simply abandoned them by the second week of February.

Carucci says that the inherent flaw with self-help strategies is that they are underpinned by the assumption that development skills are the responsibility of the individual. Nothing could be further from the truth, he says: “Despite our common cultural notion of ‘self’ improvement, the most successful efforts to self-improve have other people at their core.”

Work by Stanford professors Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman explains why this is so, he explains. They suggest, in their self-affirmation theory, that our need to maintain positive self-perceptions leads to us minimising the impact of our shortcomings. “In other words,” says Carucci, “human beings are infamously bad observers of our own reality.”

So development skills need to become part of your organisation’s culture and DNA, he says. He offers five ways to build a “self-improvement team” to ensure personal change success:

  • Carry out informal, monthly 360° reviews – annual reviews don’t cut the mustard, says Carucci. Instead, assemble a team of half a dozen colleagues (even friends or family, he says), with whom you can check in on specific areas you are working on to ask “How am I doing?” As well as achieving buy-in on whether your efforts are leading to specific goals, “it also builds others’ commitment to the leader’s success and prompts them to reflect on their own impact,” he says.
  • Create accountability for change – people need to believe there will be a consequence for not changing, says Carucci. Having “peer-coaches” will help motivate and see your team stick to their commitments to bring about positive change. “Discouragement can set in for those who naturally fixate on failures of past efforts to change, capitulating to the ‘See, you knew you couldn’t do it’ voices in their head,” he says. But being able to express feelings of discouragement or self-doubt to a peer confidant curbs our natural instincts to isolate and sabotage. Having a trusted colleague to help correct faulty self-beliefs and, yes, provide a bit of scolding for self-pity or backsliding can make all the difference, he says.
  • Join others on similar journeys – “mutual reinforcement from others working to improve similar areas can be a powerful source of motivation,” Carucci points out. He suggests encouraging a buddy system where your team look for a peer, or even a group of peers, with whom they can meet regularly. And online learning communities, discussion groups, or courses also form the basis of a shared learning platform.
  • Create a laboratory to practise in – one introverted executive who was a client of Carucci’s struggled to speak in front of groups of any size, but his role required him to do it well. “We used local community groups and internal departmental meetings as safe, low-risk places for him to practice simple presentations and Q&A sessions,” says Carucci. In order to become a good musician one has to practise doing scales. It’s the same principle for development skills.
  • If you hire a coach, make sure it’s the right one – as with any professional or consultant, the crucial thing is empathy. Just because one coach has been successful with other companies, it doesn’t guarantee that you or your team will click with them. Trust your instincts…

Check out our personal development skills courses here.

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