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This Strategy Costs Absolutely Nothing and Will Help You Get Better at Almost Anything

Changing your behavior is hard to do by yourself. An accountability partner keeps you focused and holds up a mirror.

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BY Fiona Macaulay - 01 Mar 2019

get better at anything

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I was sitting in a packed workshop audience two years ago listening to Marshall Goldsmith, ranked the No. 1 leadership thinker and executive coach in the world. He was, not surprisingly, talking about how to be a successful leader. What was surprising--shocking, even--was the bomb he dropped in the middle of his talk: "I'm too cowardly and undisciplined to do this work by myself. I have a person who calls me on the phone every day. She reads me questions I wrote for myself and I answer them. Why? Because I need help and it's OK."

Wow. If Marshall Goldsmith needs this kind of help--and gets that kind of return on his time--I was pretty certain I did too. He was talking about accountability partnerships.

These partnerships are based on a simple but powerful idea: real behavioral change happens when we have daily reminders about the things we intend to do and we are accountable to other people for making good on those intentions. This is how it works in practice: You write out a list of questions, maybe three to 10, that address how you want to live your life--in the workplace or in your personal life, or both. They can be big ones.

"I ask questions like, 'How well did I let go of things I can't control?'" says Dr. Paul Corona, professor of leadership at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Or go even bigger. Goldsmith asks himself, "Did I do my best to be happy?" But having your partner hold you accountable for the smaller stuff you tick off is useful too: Corona is working on eating less chocolate and flossing regularly.

Then, you send your questions to your partner and she returns the favor. Typically, you both check in and compare notes electronically, via email or an app, as well as over the phone (or in person if that's feasible), anywhere from once a day to once a month, whatever suits you. Ask, "Did you do what you said you were going to do last week? And if not, what were the obstacles that stopped you and how do you plan to get over them next week?"

It's not therapy--it's about taking responsibility for your actions (or lack thereof) and getting results. It's also not executive coaching, even though they share the same emphasis on goal-setting and, yes, accountability. What's distinctive about these partnerships is the two-way street. By being a sounding board for someone else, you learn to hear yourself--and your own lame rationalizations--that much more clearly.

At that Goldsmith workshop, I turned to the person I was sitting next to, with whom I'd had an engaging conversation, and asked him to be my accountability partner. We clicked. For the big-picture stuff, I confess I borrowed one of his questions: "What would I choose to spend my time on if I were retired or didn't have to think about money?"

I had just sold my global economic development company and it would have been easy to spin my wheels on garden-variety consulting work. But that question--more like a mantra, repeated over and over--gave me the reinforcement and the clarity I needed to say no to the consulting projects I was being offered, which in turn gave me the time and motivation I needed to build my speaking career and my new company, the Women Innovators and Leaders Development Network (WILD), both focused on giving women leaders the skills to thrive at every stage of their careers.

Here's some tips on getting started:

1. Find a compatible partner.

You want to be comfortable with this person, but they should be at least as disciplined as you are. You should respect them enough so you'll go out of your way not to disappoint them.

Align your goals. Make sure you and your partner want to work on similar things. Maybe it's somebody in your field, in which case you can share business leads and contacts. Or maybe it's just someone with whom you share similar values or a common worldview.

Figure out a partnership structure that works for both of you...and stick to it.

2. Consider an app.

Paul Corona and his accountability partner, Louis Carter (founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute and author of In Great Company,) use apps Strides and Spapper to streamline the accountability process. They score their behaviors every day on the app, on a scale of 1-10, and send each other a screenshot at the end of the week, connecting once a week over the phone. "The apps make it easier to track how you're doing," Carter says.

3. Take to heart the words of Marshall Goldsmith.

Everybody needs help. And it's OK.

 

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