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Inside the mind of a manager: Do I really need to change?

We are all familiar with the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which advises people not to change anything as long as it still works. It is a conventional way of thinking though. Although nothing may need to be changed at this moment, we should always be aware that unexpected things can occur any time.

In a business organisation, where people must work together to deliver business results, the human interface is something that must be explored and, occasionally, changed. Sometimes managers need to be persuaded they need to change, for their own personal good and for the organisation. When it comes to performance-related behaviour, top executives must take a closer look at their people. A task-oriented approach may be considered the right way to proceed but should not be at the expense of a less people-oriented focus.

Victims of their own thinking: In this regard, reviewing a manager’s career plan is an important task not only for the direct supervisor but also the superior. The best way to start is to ask a simple question such as: “What is your career goal?” Interestingly, most of the managers participating in my leadership development programme have trouble replying to this basic question even though I forward it to them ahead of our scheduled meeting.

Why is that? We could say corporate managers have not been encouraged to think in terms of how they can change the company. Consequently, they don’t want to trouble themselves thinking about a future that may not come since they believe they cannot be part of controlling the company’s destiny.

This can lead to the second reason for failing to identify career goals — a belief that the boss and his or her superior will not really listen or follow up. That’s why a review should involve not only a manager’s direct boss but the boss of the direct boss — a senior executive who should play an inspirational role to encourage the manager to visualise his or her goals in professional life. What position do they want to be in?

The third reason may simply be a tendency to block out thinking of future success — it may be seen as daydreaming and interfering with current tasks. But a manager should be motivated by passion, and that can include dreaming of a future senior position. This kind of thinking helps them to obtain a crystal-clear picture of their destiny.

I recently encountered a manager who typified someone who has potential to grow but was reluctant to do so. Mr Kongkiat (not his real name) works in a global firm in corporate service. His psychometric and cognitive ability assessments reveal he is extremely good in number-crunching and enjoys playing around with new ideas. However, his achievement percentile score is close to rock-bottom, indicating he lacks eagerness to climb the corporate ladder. But with a moderate score for initiative and dependability and persistence in the upper-low range, he still has a chance in this highly dynamic organisation.

When asked to express his willingness to advance, Mr Kongkiat is just speechless. He humbly admits he does not know what his career goal should be since he is happy with the current status quo and also his lovely family. This is where the superior comes in and breaks the ice by saying: “You need to think ahead and decide for yourself what you want to be. I can support you in various ways, but you have to start first.”

But taking that first big step and realising that one needs to change is never easy. I’m reminded of how this played out in the romantic comedy Pretty Woman, which I first watched 25 years ago. Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a heartless financial expert who earns a living by taking over troubled companies, breaking them down, selling off the pieces and making a fortune. He hires the beautiful and intelligent call girl Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) for a week but likes her so much that he wants to see her more in the future. The call from his heart causes him to abandon a plan to break up an acquired company, and he leaves the founder to run the business as before. Humanity and a desire to do something good in his life win in the end.

It’s only a movie, but in real life we also see many cases of people changing their minds for good reasons. The question is how can we do this effectively? In the case of Mr Kongkiat, the superior makes it clear at the beginning that he can change.

My point is you cannot simply say, “Yes, you do,” when someone asks, “Do I really need to change?” Your response should be accompanied by an explanation and words of encouragement together with compassionate body language in order to support that particular manager morally. We all can do more to be better professionals, and helping others to see their potential is a good start.

Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is the principal and executive coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University’s College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at