David Novak: Self-coaching leads to self-improvement

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We like to think of CEOs as creatures of success, but doing so misses the bigger picture. David Novak once introduced a new product, called Crystal Pepsi, when he was at PepsiCo. Time magazine ranked it among the “10 Worst Product Fails of All Time.”

“I was too in love with my own idea, and I moved too fast on it,” Novak tells Emily Bobrow of the Wall Street Journal. “People know how you’ve gotten your success, but they don’t know how you failed along the way,” he added.

Novak recovered nicely. When PepsiCo spun off its restaurants as Yum Brands, Novak became its president and, in 1999, its CEO. Before he stepped down in 2016 as chairman and CEO, both Barron’s and Harvard Business Review had named him one of the best CEOs globally.

His newest book is “Take Charge of You: How Self-Coaching Can Transform Your Life and Your Career,” co-authored with Jason Goldsmith. It’s an inside look (OK, pun intended) about what it takes to know yourself so you can perform at your best.

Self-coaching process

In an interview with me, Novak said, “I have self-coached myself throughout my career. Part of that is understanding you are who you are.”

Self-improvement is possible: “You should work on being a lot better, but you cannot be somebody else.”

Essential to success is finding purpose. “The key to finding your purpose is to unlock what it is that, that gives you passion, what it is that gives you joy, what it is that  makes you happier as you pursue what your goals might be in your life.” For this reason, Novak and Goldsmith included exercises for self-discovery in their new book.

Purpose should include a term Novak calls a “joy builder.”

“There’s a reason why people say you should love what you do. If you love what you do, [the saying goes], you’ll never have to work another day in your life. … When you love something, you want more of it; you can’t get enough of it. And that makes you a better learner.”

Joy does not preclude hard work, and when you love what you do, working hard reinforces the notion that you are fulfilling your purpose.

Assisted self-coaching

“When you coach yourself, it doesn’t mean that you exclude others,” says Novak. “What it means is you understand who you are, where you want to go, what your single biggest thing is next in your life. Then you develop an action plan to get there.”

Once that plan is developed, then you “go find the ‘assistant coaches’ who can help you get there.”

One person Novak sought feedback from was Warren Buffet. “He encouraged me to talk about the things that could go wrong in the business, as well as the things that were great. And he said that would engender more trust with investors.”

Novak followed this advice, closing his generally positive presentations with one or two things that could go wrong. Investors appreciated this straight talk and, upon occasion, would downplay the negatives themselves.

Dealing with adversity

Setbacks are part of life. Novak says it’s important to address them and shift the mindset from “not” to “not yet.” For example, if you have a goal in which you fall short, you shift from “not accomplished” to “not yet accomplished.”

Experience teaches us lessons as well as humility. “You don’t know it all because … you do make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.”

Gratitude is a good buttress for moving forward. “We make our best decisions when we’re grateful and our worst decisions when we’re angry and tired and resentful. It’s so important to move yourself up that mood elevator and get into that state of gratitude.”

Reinforcing the sense of gratitude is taking inventory of your accomplishments, something Novak calls “personal highlight reel.”

Sometimes you can reinforce those highlights with objects — photographs, awards, plaques — that you can put in a place of honor, which Novak says, referencing a term his father used, as a “love me” corner.

“You are never as good as you think you are or as bad as you think you may be,” goes an old saying. I would add that you can get better if you are willing to take a hard look at yourself, admit your shortcomings and focus on what you do well to become even better.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and the author of many books, including GRACE; A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us, MOXIE, Lead With Purpose, Lead Your Boss, and The Leader’s Pocket Guide. In 2018 Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust. In 2019 Global Gurus ranked John No. 9 on its list of global leadership experts. His leadership resource website is www.johnbaldoni.com

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