Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The “One Thing” Approach to Leadership Development

There’s a scene in the Movie “City Slickers” where the lead character, Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is debating with his ornery trail boss Curly, about the meaning of life. It goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean s--t.
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiles] That's what you have to find out.

I think Curly may have been on to something in regards to how we approach our development as leaders.

For years now, I’ve been working with leaders helping them with their individual development plans. The general rule of thumb I’ve always used is to help the leader pick 3-4 things that they want and need to get better at. These can be strengths to leverage or weaknesses that are getting in the way of their success.

It’s usually never a problem coming up with a few things. The leader may have a keen sense of self-awareness, has recently taken a 360 degree assessment, or received feedback from their manager. Once we identify those 3-4 things, we then build a plan to develop in those areas.

Unfortunately, when I follow-up with the same leaders 6 months to a year later and ask about progress, all too often nothing or very little actually got done. These are not slackers I’m working with either – these are very successful, ambitious individuals.

There are a lot of excuses, errr, reasons, for this. A lack of interest from their managers, a lack of inspection, overly ambitious plans, too busy, and all kinds of other reasons that make it so hard for us to lose weight or stick to our New Year’s resolutions.

However, lately I’ve been following the advice of coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith. When he works with leaders, he’ll ask them “what’s the one thing that if you could show improvement would make the biggest difference in your success as a leader?”

Maybe it’s the ability to listen; or to think more strategically; or to lead change. Then, for the next 6 months, focus exclusively on improving in that one area. Hit that development need with every proven method available: a challenging assignment, a coach, mentor, or other subject matter experts, a good book or course, and continuous feedback.

The approach may serve us well when it comes to organizational effectiveness as well. For example, what’s the one thing your entire sales force needs to focus on and get better at? Nowadays, we are so inundated with so much crap everything can become important and nothing gets done very well. We can overwhelm and confuse our workforce to the point where they tune us out.

I’m certainly not saying something as complex as leadership or organizational development can be overly simplified as to say there’s only one thing you need to pay attention to in order to succeed. Others have already written books on that topic, and I don’t happen to agree with the theory.

This approach means only focusing on getting better at one thing at a time – then, once you get that nailed, pick another thing and focus on that. It’s a never-ending journey.

I’m betting that the “one thing” approach to leadership or individual development may have some potential. I’ll let you know 6-12 months from now.

How about you? Have you used this approach as a leader or as a coach? Or would you be willing to give it a try?

Note: after I drafted this post, I read about an exercise that Marshall uses that helps bring the "one thing" concept to life. Five to eight people sit around a table, and each person selects one practice to change. One person begins the exercise by saying: "When I get better at..." and completes the sentence by mentioning one benefit that will accompany this change. For example, one person may say: "When I get better at being open to differing opinions, I will hear more great ideas."

After everyone has had a chance to discuss their specific behavior and the first benefit, the cycle begins again. Now each person mentions a second benefit that may result from changing the same behavior, then a third, continuing usually for six to eight rounds. Finally, participants discuss what they have learned and their reactions to the exercise.

The exercise works becuase it gets people to realize the profound difference changing that single behavior can make in thier lives. It often doesn't hit them under the later rounds. People are often moved to tears.
Try It for Yourself. Pick a behavior pattern that you may want to change. Complete the sentence: "When I get better at..." over and over again. Listen closely as you recite potential benefits. You will be amazed at how quickly you can determine whether this change is worth it for you.


suze said...

Makes sense to me to pick one thing.
Think about any health improvement strategy.
The first thing any expert tells you is pick ONE thing to focus on. Work on it until you got it down. Then pick the next thing.
Seems like it is also important that the one thing be specific and measurable. To say, I want to exercise is not very specific. Versus, I am going to exercise 3 days a week.
While this is definitely a different strategy for talent development, it is not completely new and there is solid research in other areas that proves this approach can work.
I look forward to hearing back from you on the progress your clients make by focusing on one thing.

Aaron Windeler said...


Right on.

Like you say you're "not saying something as complex as leadership or organizational development can be overly simplified as to say there’s only one thing you need to pay attention to in order to succeed". However, human beings don't seem to be able to really focus, and work on, more than one thing at a time. I think part of the reason for this is that the things we pick tend to be so multifaceted. For example, getting better at being open to differing opinions requires better listening, quieting yourself, searching and cultivating sources of differing opinions, among other tasks.

Dan McCarthy said...

suze -
thanks, good to hear there's some solid research.

Aaron -
So in many cases, "one thing" is actually a lot of little things, right?

Business Success Guide said...

I absolutely love "One Thing" and some days have worn it out. It applies to more than leadership or business.

Kudo's for keeping it alive.


Can't wait until 11-11-11.
That will be "One Thing" Holiday don't you think? :)

Mary Jo Asmus said...

Hi Dan,

When I was a new and extremely ambitious executive coach, I would encourage my clients to write and action plan around 3 top goals. I found exactly what you did - that even though they had regular support from me, and often support of their manager, it was just not possible (for many) to work on this many things all at once.

When I would check back in with my clients 4-6 months later, they had sometime reverted. So, we've tried the "one thing" approach, and I dare say that it seems to be the key.

I've always believed that my job, when it comes to my clients, is to work my way out of a job. The "one thing" approach is one way to help do that.

Thanks for your thoughtful post, as always.

Unknown said...


Great post! This "One Thing" concept is definitely an approach that may be utilized in my company. We are constantly trying to apply how we can each improve our behaviors to contribute to the success of the company. However, with so many goals to work towards it can easily go astray due to the hectic tasks of our work life.

If we focus on one improvement goal at a time, it'll prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by trying to accomplish too much at once.

It's very much like the Engineering world I come from, if the big picture is too complex, break it down to "one thing" at a time and piece it together gradually until the big picture becomes clear.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mike -
Thanks. I'll have to re-post it on 1-11-11.

Mary Jo -
OK, so I'm a slow learner. (-:

Yung -
Makes sense. We can learn a lot about leadership from engineering.