There are also many coaches and psychologists who say wholesale change for most people is virtually impossible, as most of the emotional and behavioral patterns are established early in our lives, and self-reinforced over time.
Why Executives Change:
The “Burning Platform”
Change for any individual can be difficult and, in some cases, traumatic.
There are also many coaches and psychologists who say wholesale
change for most people is virtually impossible, as most of the emotional
and behavioral patterns are established early in our lives, and
self-reinforced over time.
In fact, one of the great collegiate football coaches of all-time,
John McKay, who led the U.S.C. Trojans to national prominence in the
1960’s and 1970’s, once said in an interview with Time Magazine that
changing the attitudes and behaviors of the young adults he coached
was difficult, if not impossible.
“The wheeze about building character is a joke,” he was quoted as
saying. “Most boys we get are 18. Their character has long since been
built, usually in the home. About all we can teach a kid is how to play
While McKay was blunt about he doubts about coaching to build
character, he obviously focused on what coaching could do: “teach a kid
how to play football.”
However, while an Executive Coach can help guide an executive to play
a better “game of business,” there has long been a school of thought that
gradual and radical change is possible … if there is sufficient motivation to
make changes – namely survival.
Thus the concept of the “Burning Platform” was born, based on a story
about a man trapped on a burning oil platform in the North Sea.
The “Burning Platform” Background
The lessons of the “Burning Platform” originate in a story about a worker
on an oil platform in the North Sea, who was awakened in the middle of
the night by a sudden explosion.
As he emerged from his protected, but endangered shelter, he realized he
had a difficult decision to make.
As the fire raged behind him, and the thick black smoke threatened to
choke him, he walked to the edge of the platform and assessed his chances
of either staying on the deck or jumping into the water.
Either way, the odds weren’t good.
• From the platform to the water, it was a 150-foot drop.
• There was flaming debris and burning oil all over the surface
of the water.
• Even if he survived the initial jump, the water, barely above
freezing, would kill him within a period of 15-minutes.
Fortunately for him, the man survived the jump, and a rescue boat hauled
him aboard to safety within moments of his fall.
Asked by his rescuers why he jumped, he simply replied, “Better probable
death than certain death.”
The “moral” of the story?
A literal “burning platform” was needed to cause a radical change in
Literally, the man’s life was at stake … prompting him to make a decision
he probably would have never made and take an action he might have
otherwise never done unless prompted by extraordinary circumstances.
The Paradox of Change
While we all strive for stability, the reality is that our realities are
ever-changing and dynamic.
And, while you may not have a literal fire raging at your back, the
metaphorical “burning platforms” of your work life serve as threats to both
your career and your organization.
Your ability to adapt to the dynamic nature of our reality will likely
determine the course and ultimate success of your career.
One writer has likened the likelihood of change to occur when “survival
anxiety is greater than learning anxiety.”
“Learning anxieties are the basis for resistance to change and represent
apprehension of trying something new for fear that, it will be too difficult or
we will look stupid while attempting it,” Organizational Development
Consultant Ken Embley notes. “Survival anxieties, in contrast, are those
painful realizations that in order to succeed, we have to change.”
3 Perspectives of Change
When it comes to changing behaviors and attitudes, there are three
schools of thought:
1. People change, but they don’t change much. This is a cynical point
of view, unfortunately not uncommon among executives and in
2. People aren’t very good at correcting weaknesses, but can
build on their strengths. This point of view is presented in
Marcus Buckingham’s series of books including Now, Discover
3. People can change – if they have enough pain or opportunity to
make change worthwhile, and if they have time to process the
change mentally and emotionally. This point of view combines the
work of numerous organization development experts and
psychologists, including William Bridges’ work in Transitions.
As an executive, and from the perspective of an Executive Coach, the first
school of thought is too cynical, while the second two points of view are
much more palatable and in line with observed research.
On the one hand, people can and should build on their strengths and
talents. That is by far the easiest and most productive path to improve
For instance, if somebody has a variety of talents and their role does not
value those talents, perhaps another role would be more suitable.
On the other hand, given enough pain or opportunity, people can be
motivated to change – as evidenced by the “burning platform” illustration.
What is your “Burning Platform?”
As an executive who is looking at the option of Executive Coaching, one
way to help “quick-start” the coaching process is to create your own
“burning platform,” or talk to your perspective coach about helping
you create a “burning platform” to help with the process of making
There are many ways to jump-start this process and create the need for
One of the most powerful and common is by using data and empirical
evidence that makes an insurmountable case for change.
As an example, if you engage in a 360 degree assessment of your own
behavior and discover that 90% of your colleagues report that you need to
be more clear in stating expectations, you have a data set and benchmark
from which to work.
If you add to that the costs of this behavior (e.g., lack of accountability in
the organization, frustrated employees, potential flight risk of top
performers), then you can make the case for change.
Data, plus the realization of the actual, bottom-line and negative conse-
quences of this new knowledge can greatly leverage understanding and
help overcome resistance to change.
You can also make the case for change in more positive terms.
As Marshall Goldsmith’s book title, What Got You Here Won’t Get
You There makes clear, executives need to abandon old ways of doing
things and take on new behaviors in order to succeed in their new role
and keep moving up in their organization.
You can make your own case for change by understanding that change
can allow you to enjoy increased status, power, variety, and financial
rewards in your company – with less stress and increased optimism
for the future.
While you can base your rationale for your own change on objective data
(e.g., a 360 degree assessment), the forward focus and positive objective
of the change is aimed at future potential – and possibilities.
For some executives, positive reasons for change are enough.
However, in most cases, executives react more readily to avoiding pain.
If this is you, you may need to create your own “burning platform” to make
a positive and lasting case for change.
Making Coaching Work for You
If you are looking at adding Executive Coaching to your repertoire, make
sure you have an idea of what you want to achieve … and make sure you
work to create your own “burning platform” as a foundation for change.
Not only will you get more from our coaching experience, you and your
organization will better benefit from the overall progress of your change
and performance – leveraging the overall effectiveness coaching can have
on your organization.
To discover more about everything Executive Coaching can do to enhance
your performance and your career, contact me … and I will offer you a
free Executive Coaching assessment, at no cost or further obligation to you.
Just contact me and we can get started right away.