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Marshall & Kelly Goldsmith: Avoiding Life’s Biggest Regret

Don't miss out on a simple but powerful way to boost performance.

Years ago, I (MG) was on a small plane flying from L.A. to Santa Barbara. As we approached the runway, a very bad thing happened. The landing gear didn’t work! After it failed on a second and third attempt, our pilot finally gave up.

The pilot then announced that we were going to fly around in circles until the gas tank was empty to reduce the chance of an explosion when we landed. I was not completely comforted with our pilot’s message. The thought of being “lightly toasted” did not sound that much better than being “charbroiled.”

Weighing Regrets

Figuring that I had a very high probability of dying, I began to ponder life. Questions concerning, “What was I proud of?” and “What did I regret?” crossed my mind.

Upon reflection, I came up with one major regret. I wished that I had done a better job of recognizing and thanking all of the people who had been so nice to me. As it turns out, this is a fairly common regret. For example, the most common regret children have when their parents die is, “Why didn’t I thank them more for all of the nice things they did for me?”

Fortunately for me, the landing gear worked on our fourth attempt, and I did not die. I did make one commitment—recognize nice people for what they have done for me and encourage the people who I coach to do the same.

In reviewing thousands of 360° feedback reports on leaders, the item “effectively provides positive recognition” is often listed as an area for improvement. It is often closer to the bottom in terms of direct report satisfaction than the top.

Recognition Roadmap

We are now going to share one simple process that might help you, both as a CEO and a human being, avoid the regret of not providing recognition to those who deserve it. This was taught to us by one of our CEO clients. He managed to leap from being in the bottom 6 percentile of the company to the top 6 percentile in his direct report feedback on “effectively provides positive recognition.” When asked how he did it, he gave us a simple roadmap that we have never seen fail:

1. List the names of the key groups of people that impact your life—both at work and at home (customers, co-workers, friends, family members, etc.).

2. Write down the names of the people in each group.

3. Post your list in a place you can’t miss seeing regularly.

4. Twice a week—once on Wednesday, once on Friday—review the list and ask yourself, “Did anyone on this list do something that I should recognize?”

5. If someone did, stop by to say thank you, make a quick phone call, leave a voicemail, send an email or jot down a note.

6. Don’t do anything that takes up too much of your time. As a business leader, this process needs to be time efficient or you won’t stick with it.

7. If no one on the list did anything that you believe should be recognized, don’t say anything. You don’t want to be a hypocrite or a phony. No recognition is better than recognition that you don’t really mean.

8. Stick with the process. You won’t see much impact in a week—but you will see a huge difference in a year.

Try this out. It may well help you become a more effective leader. Study after study has shown that effective positive recognition is highly correlated with increased engagement, retention and performance. Even more important, when you are pondering the meaning of your life, it may help you smile, because you just avoided one of the major regrets most human beings experience.


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