A Conversation with Mike Hawkins - Author of Activating Your Ambition
Why did you write Activating Your Ambition?
In the course of conducting leadership programs, I found that my
participant’s retention and application of the material was less dependent on
the knowledge they gained and more dependent on their mindset. As my programs
evolved, I spent increasingly more time with them in developing their attitude
toward change, overcoming their fears, and building their excitement about their
future. This significantly increased their knowledge retention and application.
I first conceived the book to be a prerequisite for my program participants to
help them prepare for change and apply what they learned.
For whom did you target Activating Your Ambition?
The initial focus on my leadership program participants broadened
to all people when my executive coaching clients commented on how they had
benefited in many areas that went well beyond leadership. The principles in the
book apply to anyone wanting to help someone else or themselves change for the
better whether learning a new skill, overcoming a bad habit, or developing in
Why is Activating Your Ambition important to you?
I believe most people live and work at a level significantly below
their potential. People get stuck in their comfort zones and stagnate. Even
those who attend seminars, read books, and seek counsel in an attempt to improve
themselves often forget what they learned and fall back into bad habits. Change
is not easy and the axiom “You can do anything you put your mind to?is an
oversimplification. My hope is that people will apply the eight principles in
the book and find that change is not only feasible and beneficial, but can be a
great experience too. I have greatly benefited from self-development and my goal
if for others to benefit too.
What makes Activating Your Ambition different from other
self-help or business books?
It is practical. It is based on experience, not theory or academic
research. I follow behavioral science and have great respect for the experts in
the field, but this book is from a practitioner’s perspective. It doesn’t get
bogged down in the differences between cognitive, interpersonal, and behavioral
therapy. It simply describes what works in terms everyone can understand.
You talk about eight basic principles that consistently lead
people to sustainable behavior change ?is change truly this simple?
Change can be hard, no question - especially when engrained habits
have to be replaced with new habits. However, people can change and the eight
principles in Activating Your Ambition make it much easier to do so. These
principles deal with the root cause issues behind most self-improvement
failures. For example, many people attempt to add self-improvement to their
already overloaded schedule. It makes exercise, reading a book, or whatever they
aspire to do all but impossible. By following the “time and energy?principle,
people free up the time and energy they need before embarking on their
aspiration. When all eight principles are followed, changing behavior is very
straightforward and for many it will be simple.
While the principles discussed in Activating Your Ambition
are certainly applicable in a work environment, what about at a personal level?
The eight principles apply whether in a personal or professional
context. The principles are “change neutral??they deal with the core enablers
to change, not the content of the change itself. The issues that prevent people
from being more organized at work are the same as those preventing people from
being more organized at home. The enablers that help people improve their
relationship with their spouse are the same enablers that help people improve
their relationship with their co-workers. These principles are just as
applicable to people wanting to improve themselves at a personal level as they
are to people seeking to improve themselves professionally.
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What is the biggest obstacle you’ve seen to people improving?
Success. People who have been successful are the hardest to
change. They adopt a mindset that they must be doing everything right because
they have been successful. Unfortunately for them, success isn’t guaranteed to
last forever. And worse, many times people incorrectly correlate their success
to their behaviors when in reality their success was more a result of other
Is it really worth trying to help someone change their behavior
who is older and toward the end of their career?
I presented the eight principles of Activating Your Ambition
to a group of mostly retired men at my church. I remember thinking as I prepared
that they would be a tough audience and probably not very interested in my
topic. After all, they were retired ?what kind of ambition would they still
have? I was very wrong. They were completely engaged and to my surprise, they
all had a list of improvements and goals they wanted to pursue. It is never too
late to pursue your ambitions.
What do you say to people who claim that people really can’t
You’re wrong. How then can you explain the fact that people do
quit smoking, spouses improve their marriages, and bad leaders become good
leaders? Look no farther than me ?I’m a poster child for change. I think what
people mean is that change is hard. And I agree, it can be hard, particularly
when you don’t know how to go about it. But most behaviors are learned and can
Your approach seems to go against the thinking that people
should focus on their strengths. Do you disagree with that philosophy?
Strengths and weaknesses are situational. You can’t say something
is a strength without context. My trait of being an achiever is my strength when
completing a project, but is my weakness when in a situation that needs
patience. I am fine with people focusing on their strengths as long as they know
when those strengths become their weaknesses. As importantly though, I believe
people need to step out of their comfort zones and work on those areas that
truly hold them back.
What has been your toughest coaching client and how did it turn
One of my clients was ordered to go through my coaching program by
his president under the threat of losing his job if he didn’t change. He was a
terrible manager. He berated his people, considered small-talk a waste of time,
and viewed achievement as the result of tasks, not the efforts of people. It
took a year of working on his mindset and ability, but as his boss then told me,
he became a new person. He is now conducting leadership seminars for his company
and is a great leader. He is even considered by most to be an exceptional people
In your book, you talk about awareness being the foundation to
all self-improvement. Don’t most people already know themselves?
Early in my executive coaching career I would naively ask my
clients how well
they knew themselves. Their answer was predictably a variation of “very well, after
all I’ve lived with myself for a long time? The reality however is that there
is little correlation between self-assessments and people’s actual behavior. We
tend to confuse our intentions with our actions. That is why people need
feedback from others and to truly understand themselves before embarking on a
course of change. Otherwise, the odds are about eight in ten that the person
will focus on the wrong development.
Many people can quit smoking or go on a diet for awhile, but the
problem is sustaining their change. How does your approach help people sustain
The final principle of the eight principles in the book is
normalcy ?reaching that point where the new desired behavior is normal. The
change has to become a habit just like brushing your teeth with your dominate
hand. Our habits are nothing more than a mesh of synaptic connections in our
brain. The challenge for people who have developed bad habits is that they have
to let their existing mesh wither away while creating a new one. People declare
victory too early before their habit is truly a part of them. The key is making
your new habit routine long enough that it becomes your dominant mesh of
As you point out in your book, you’ve overcome quite a bit of
adversity in your life in order to grow personally and professionally. What can
you tell us about your journey?
My parents divorced when I was eleven. I left home when I was
sixteen. I hung out with the wrong people and lived for fun. Then through
several experiences that dramatically increased my awareness of my
irresponsibility, I became motivated to change my behavior. In the following
span of about six years I overhauled my attitude, created new friendships, put
myself through college, found my values, started a family, and starting working
as an engineer. It was those years that taught me how to change and the power of
change. I’ve since continued to focus on my development including learning new
skills, changing my career, overcoming a fear of public speaking, and controlling my addictive
personality which includes tendencies like overeating and overspending. I’ve
learned to control anger and be more sensitive toward others. I could go on and
It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. What keeps you from
feeling like a victim and just giving up?
One, I don’t like to quit and two, I’ve learned that adversity
makes me stronger and better. I don’t like adversity when I’m in it, but without
exception I can look back on every situation from being afraid of public
speaking to overcoming bad habits and see how I’ve grown and improved from the
experiences. I’ve fundamentally made a decision to embrace change, accept
adversity, and benefit from them instead of letting them get me down.
In your book, you mention your faith. How does faith help
people improve themselves?
When I’m tempted to give up or go back to an old habit, I consider
that God gives strength to those who take refuge in Him. I have faith that God
knows best and is watching over me. In Him, I find courage and peace. Faith can
be a significant enabler in starting and sustaining your belief in yourself and
in your self-development.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in helping
individuals and organizations raise their level of performance?
It’s all about people. Whether implementing an organizational
initiative such as a new computer system, entering a new business market, or
trying to improve a relationship, success depends on being able to change
behavior and influence people. Many managers, spouses and parents jump right
into a telling mode focusing on a task, a schedule, a new procedure, or system
when they really need to first deal with the mindset of people and how they can
best help them learn or change.
What is the most important advice you give in this book?
Deal with the mindset of change before developing the ability. If
you aspire to be a better public speaker, dig into your mindset before learning
the art and science of public speaking. Uncover the root of your fears, biases,
or other self-limiting behavior. Get motivated, secure a can-do attitude, and
then learn the fine points of how to give a high-impact presentation. Or if you
are coaching someone else, avoid the temptation to jump right in to telling them
what or how to do something. Explore their self-awareness, motivations, and
beliefs first ?then get into the “how-to”s.
Is there another book in your future?
There is. There are several areas I plan to write on related to
leadership and selling where success is dependent on working with people,
understanding the drivers of behavioral change, and employing other coaching
principles. Being a good listener and imparting ownership in others are two