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Kitchen Nightmares Leadership Lesson on How People Change

06/05/2013 12:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013

Whether you're a great leader, a dear friend, a drill sergeant, or even a celebrity chef, you can't force someone to change in any lasting way.

As a leader, developing even your best people to their full potential has natural ebbs and flows over time. It demands patience, particularly when it's clear they could stand to make a change, but aren't yet ready and willing, for whatever reason.

At these times, a certain denial can kick in -- much expenditure is wasted on higher- and lower-performing members of the workforce "volun-told," with the best of intentions, to get training, mentoring, coaching, or other learning, and who are not adequately screened for being capable, ready and willing. While they may seem to be up for it, they are often faking it - going through the motions, while too polite or frightened to say "no thank you" or "I don't have time" or "I don't find this relevant."

Why can't we force them into readiness? After all, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay does it once a week on FOX's Kitchen Nightmares.

Picture this: He strides into the eatery, sits down, and orders many items on the menu. As each item is delivered he stares daggers at it, sniffs, tastes, and grimaces at it like it's made out of bat guano, sometimes even spits it out, declaring," This is sh*t. I wouldn't feed this to a dog." He sends each plate back to be composted in front of the owner. With this Ramsay begins tearing down a restaurant owner, hoping to make them battered, responsible, and thus somehow receptive enough a) to make for some good TV, selling some soap along the way, and b) to be ready to change how they do what they do.

Voila, he's MADE someone ready, right? He confronts them so heavily and causes so much angst, that they are broken down to the point they seem willing to make a change.

Yet here's a little trade secret: the magic words above are "seem willing," and not "ready and willing." If you must force someone into making a change, it won't work, or it won't last, unless they are otherwise ready and willing (in which case, forcing a breakdown isn't needed.) Even Chef Ramsay had a recent nightmare of his own along these lines, one that's devolved into a social media maelstrom.

How do you assess when someone is "ready and willing" to change?

In short, when they have the capacity and willingness to learn, and the request for support comes from them.

Typically, professionals go through growth spurts, followed by times of consolidating their learning -- those cycles can be months or years long. It's good to make coaching or learning expenditures right before or during those periods of change or growth.

In order to do that, it's important to observe your people closely. Read them. How are they doing? What changes are they making? What are their pain points or issues that are apparent to them?

Listen carefully for anything they might say about wanting to learn or develop professionally. Short of that, maybe they express frustration about how they're doing their work, stuck in a pattern, coasting, or simply dissatisfied with their own way of doing things.

At those times it's good for you to give very candid feedback about how they are doing or operating in their work, and what you see they could benefit from doing differently. Offer your support, and ask them how they'd like to work on that.

And when you are convinced they're ready, it's appropriate to give them support in the form of professional training, coaching, mentoring, etc., as appropriate. Have them focus on making small or simple changes in how they do their work that may have big impacts, rather than trying to change their stripes to spots. As an exec coach over the last 10 years, that's how I've come to look at the lasting changes I help my clients make.

The most disappointing development attempts in my career as a coach, and an executive before that, have been along the lines of the chef trying to force something to happen when the person isn't willing and ready.

The most effective ones have been rooted in readiness and willingness to change. When your capable, willing person is ready for an upgrade in how they do their work, the outcomes can be indistinguishable from magic -- and among the most satisfying experiences in a leader's career.