Interview: Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith’s credentials are staggering: author or co-editor of 18 books; executive coach of more than 70 major CEOs and their management teams; named one of the top 10 executive educators by the Wall Street Journal; named one of the top five most-respected executive coaches by Forbes magazine; praised as America’s preeminent executive coach by Fast Company; columnist for Harvard Business Online and Business Week Online; selected as a "National Volunteer of the Year" by the American Red Cross; recognized in 2004 by the American Management Association as one of the 50 great thinkers and business leaders who have influenced the field of management over the last 80 years; just named for the first time to the international Thinkers 50, "the definitive biannual guide to business thinkers."

Goldsmith is renowned for making already successful people even more successful by identifying and then eliminating interpersonal flaws that are holding them back. Author of the top-selling What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (Hyperion, 2007), Goldsmith spoke with Edge Life from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., about change, about Buddhism and about how he is able to assist business leaders to improve their ability to lead other people. Along the way, he shared tips to help all of us become as successful as we choose to be.
You have a 12-to-18 month process that you apply for CEOs or managers who would like to identify a behavior that they’d like to change. What motivates them to go through this lengthy process?

Marshall Goldsmith: Well, if the person is the CEO, he or she wants to be a great role model for demonstrating that they not only speak the values of the company, they live the values of the company.

And the best thing you can do if you want to help other people get better is let them watch you get better. If you want them to live the values, the best thing you can do is live the values yourself, and that should be true for managers at all levels. If it’s not the CEO who I’m working with, it’s usually the future CEO, typically a very fantastic person who feels like if they make one or two positive changes, it would really help them be a more effective CEO.

How widespread does the CEO advertise the fact that he or she is going through this process?
MG:
Oh, everybody in the company knows it. My typical client will get feedback from 18 people who work with them, and everybody I work with publicly talks about what they’re trying to improve. If you’re at that level, and if you tell 18 people, you might as well put it in your company newsletter.

The word passes around.
MG:
Oh, of course. A lot of my clients, though, will just give talks in front of hundreds of people about what they’re trying to improve. I had a client, a great guy named George Borst, CEO of Toyota Financial Services. I worked with him as his coach. He publicly talked to 250 people and he had slides. He said, "Here’s what I’m trying to improve, and I have a coach, and here’s what I’m working on."

When the employees of a company hear this about their CEO, that would really help the manager’s image right away.
MG:
Yes, because then the message is, "I’m trying to get better"-and the message goes down that everybody can try to get better.

In the process of being coached, does the CEO provide any kind of information that could benefit all employees?
MG:
In my process, oftentimes I do training for people in all levels of the organization, not just the executive, and the process is the same for managers at all levels. In my process you just get feedback, talk to people about what you learn, pick key areas for improvement, you and your manager agree that these are important things to improve and these are important people, and your goal is to get better at these important behaviors as judged by these important people. Then you follow up on a regular basis, you get re-measured, and you improve.

Is leadership coaching a new phenomenon in American business?
MG:
I’ve been doing it for about 30 years, but it’s just becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon.

It’s commonly said that there’s nothing you can do to stop an alcoholic from drinking unless he or she wants to make that change. To what extent is that similar to the approach of changing behavior in successful people?
MG:
It’s 100 percent similar. I only work with people who want to change. I wrote an article about this called, "If they don’t care, don’t waste your time." So, regarding people who are not personally motivated to get better, I don’t work with them. I don’t get paid if they don’t get better, so why would I waste my time? If they don’t care, they’re not going to get better, I’m not going to get paid, it’s a waste of time.

I don’t convert people or sell people on the value of changing. They have to internally want to change.

Most of us make and use to-do lists, but you take it a step further by introducing the to-stop list. Why is that important?
MG:
I learned that from Peter Drucker [a noted business thinker and guru] who said, "We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop." He said, "Half the leaders I’ve ever met only learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop." And another thing about the to-stop list is that, in many ways, it can be easier. You don’t have to learn a new skill or practice something new. You just quit doing something. Quit interrupting or quit winning all the time, or quit trying to be right constantly. Things like that are, in some ways, easier changes to make than learning new skills, and they can have a dramatic positive impact.

In your new book you write that as we advance in our careers, behavioral changes often are the only significant changes we can make. Why?
MG:
At a certain level as we advance in our careers, people are no longer in technical jobs, and it’s too late to give people technical education. If you’re a top-level executive, you can’t take two or three years off and go back to school, so behavioral changes are pretty much the most significant change that you can make in a reasonable amount of time.

You write about this assumption: "I behave this way and I achieve results, therefore I must be achieving results because I behave this way." Why do you say that this is one of the greatest mistakes of successful people?
MG:
That’s called a superstition trap. Any human or any animal will tend to replicate behavior that’s followed by positive reinforcement. The more positive reinforcement we get, the more likely we are to fall into this trap of "I behave this way. I achieve results. Therefore, I must achieve results because I behave this way." The reality is, everybody achieves results, because they do many things right, and typically in spite of doing some things that make absolutely no sense. I’ve never met anyone who was so wonderful with nothing on the "in spite of" list. We all have things on the "in spite of" list.

You refer, in your book, to natural law. How do you define that, and how does it apply to becoming more successful?
MG:
Everyone is going to behave in a way that’s consistent with their own self-interest. When I say their own self-interest, does that not necessarily mean they’re selfish. When we think of self-interest, we think of things like status, money and power. The reality is that self-interest could be leaving a legacy of helping others, being altruistic or leading a meaningful life. People have to behave in a way that’s consistent with their values.

So when I work with people, I want them to behave in a manner that’s consistent with their own values. If they don’t, they’re going to feel like a phony and it’s not going to seem real. As a coach, you have to work with people and say, "What is important to him or her?" Not just what’s important to me as a coach or what’s important to the company. Why does the person want to do this? What is their personal motivation for change? Later on in their careers, most of my clients don’t really focus so much on status, money and power, as much as they do things like meaning and contribution and happiness, because if they have that other stuff it becomes less important.

They want to give back.
MG:
Yes.

What role does the process of being more self-aware play in the identification and correction of behavioral flaws?
MG:
I think it’s very important, because nobody’s going to fix a problem if they don’t know they have one. You have to be aware that you have an issue in order to fix it, and the way you become more aware is by getting feedback. Often other people can see things in us that we can’t or don’t want to see in our self. By getting confidential feedback, you get a chance to learn how you’re viewed, not just by yourself, but by all those people around you.

It’s like a lot of mirrors being put up.
MG:
Exactly.

How difficult is this process for a lot of the people that you’re coaching? Is it pretty difficult?
MG:
First of all, they want to do it. They’re all very bright people, they’re good people and they’ve got great values. The real hard part of the process is the discipline of going through it. These people are unbelievably busy and they’re under amazing amounts of pressure. Just getting things scheduled and having the discipline to follow up with people on a rigorous basis is hard to do. Getting these people scheduled to talk to each other is a challenge.

In terms of actually stopping a behavior that they want to stop, is this a great challenge for many of them?
MG:
It’s harder than you can imagine. We confuse two terms: Simple and easy. Everything I teach people is simple, none of it is easy. The great misassumption of all leadership development is, "If they understand, they will do." That’s 100 percent wrong.

When my book was the number 1 best-selling business book in the United States, the number 1 best-selling diet book sold 10 times as many copies. Americans get fatter and fatter and fatter and buy more and more diet books. If reading diet books would make you thin, Americans would be the thinnest people in the world. You don’t get thin by buying diet books. You have to go on a diet. The problem is not understanding it. It’s doing it.

For example, let’s look at the need to win among top CEOs. The need to win at this level is so deep that we don’t even recognize how we constantly try to win everything.

And you say it’s the most common behavioral problem of successful people.
MG:
It’s very hard to turn it off. The case study I use in the book is this:

You want to go to dinner at restaurant X. Your husband or life partner or friend wants to go to dinner at restaurant Y. You have a heated argument. You go to restaurant Y. The food tastes awful. The service is terrible. Option A: Critique the food. Point out that your partner was wrong. This mistake could have been avoided if only they listened to me, me, me, me. Option B: Be quiet. Eat the stupid food. Try to enjoy it and have a nice evening.

What would I do? What should I do? About 75 percent of my clients would critique the food. What should I do? Shut up! It’s very hard for smart, successful people not to constantly go through life winning and being right.

You follow that up in the book talking about a group of generals and their wives. In front of you, many of the generals said they would do what sounds like the best answer, be quiet and eat the stupid food. And then their wives stand up and say, "Oh no, you wouldn’t do that!"
MG:
Exactly, wrong choice!

I liked your reference to the film Groundhog Day as an example of going through the process of correcting behaviors. And it reminds me that, from a Zen perspective, we have the opportunity in each moment, or the start of each new day, to do things differently.
MG:
I’m a Buddhist and most of my stuff is very Buddhist.

How long have you practiced?
MG:
Thirty years. I’ve probably read 400 or 500 books on Buddhism.

One thing I teach in my program is called Feedforward [as opposed to feedback]. You learn to ask for ideas, listen without judgment, thank people, and then do what works for you. Buddha said, "Only do what I teach if it works in the context of your own life. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it." Well, that’s exactly where the Feedforward idea came from. It’s a very Buddhist idea. You ask for ideas, you listen to the ideas, and you look at the ideas as a gift, and you say, "Thank you."

You don’t say, "Stinky idea, or bad idea, or stupid idea" or critique the idea or insult the other person. You look at it as a gift. If you can use it, great. If you don’t use it, you don’t.

I get the sense that all the ideas that you’re talking about here are timeless, that they would have applied to Napoleon or George Washington or even corporate managers 100 years from now.
MG:
Pretty much. What I do also is very industry independent. It doesn’t matter what rank you are, what industry you’re in, or any of that.

To what extent do the ideas in your book relate not only to the most successful CEOs, but to creating greater success in a small business.
MG:
One of the biggest challenges for small business people is letting go. If I look particularly at entrepreneurs, a lot of what I talk about in the book relates directly to them: winning too much and adding too much value are classic problems for entrepreneurs. What’s unique for entrepreneurs is the challenge of letting go. It’s very difficult for the founder, the successful entrepreneur who started the business, who has helped the business grow and develop to a certain point, to let go and let others take it from that point and manage the business. It’s hard for them to not be the boss and not be right. That can be very, very difficult. They need to let go so other people can start running more and more of the business operation.

Do behavioral weaknesses of successful people become more apparent the higher they go up the ladder or with the more success they have?
MG:
Definitely. One of my clients is president of a large company and I’m her coach. She was talking with the CEO when we began the coaching process, and said, "Does this coaching business mean I need to watch out for what I say and how I look in every meeting for the rest of my career?"

Her boss, the CEO said, "Welcome to my world. That’s exactly what it means."

The higher up you go, you’re under a stronger magnifying glass-especially today with the extreme amount of scrutiny in the press. Leaders have to look at what they say and watch how they act pretty much in every meeting for their career, not just from the press point of view and a PR point of view, but from a personal point of view.

Let’s face it, a lot of CEOs spend many hours of their lives watching excruciatingly boring Power Point presentations that they already know the content anyway, yet they need to look like they care and they need to look like they’re interested. They don’t do that because they’re phonies. They do that because they care about the people in the room, and the people will feel hurt if they don’t appear to be interested and they don’t appear to care.

For those who cannot afford to go through the process of hiring someone like yourself, what are some steps people can follow to begin the process of identifying personal flaws and making corrections?
MG:
Just get in the simple habit of asking people, "How can I be a better manager? How can I be a better parent? How can I be a better son or daughter? How can I be a better friend? How can I be a better partner?" Just get in the habit of asking people for ideas and listening to these ideas, not trying to change everything, but learning to change what you can. Learn to follow up with people on a regular basis and get their input on the level of improvement that you’re demonstrating. This is something you don’t have to have a coach for.

The other thing you can do is peer coaching. I’m very excited about the concept of peer coaching. This is something that anybody can do. Just work with a friend who helps you and gives you encouragement and support and follows up with you on a regular basis. I have two Ph.D. students writing dissertations about peer coaching and the results so far have been spectacularly good.

In our culture, it seems like we don’t seek such feedback.
MG:
Right, we don’t. In fact, my friend Jim just did a leadership profile analysis with 70,000 people evaluating their managers. The item that came in last place in terms of employee satisfaction was, "Asks for input about how he or she can improve." In other words, managers don’t ask, and a cultural change is to get people in the habit of asking.

Why did you write this book?
MG:
I was inspired to write this book by my co-author and my agent, Mark Reiter. He read the story of my life in the New Yorker magazine, and he said, "You know, the best thing you’ve ever written you didn’t write. It was the New Yorker magazine story of your life. You should write a personal book talking about the experiences in your own life. I think it would be much more interesting." He inspired me to do that.

And what did you learn in the process of writing the book?
MG:
I learned to just say what’s in my heart. Don’t worry so much. I mean, it’s hard for people that have a Ph.D. and an academic background to write, because basically creative writing skills are beaten out of you. So it’s a process of unlearning a lot of that more stilted, formalistic, academic way of writing. Just write from your heart. Write in a way that sounds more like a human being speaking.

What suggestions do you have for the average person who maybe has never read any book about leadership or being more successful in business-something that would help them in their everyday lives?
MG:
I have two. The first is, get in the habit of reaching out to the people around you. As I mentioned, this is something you can do at home, as well as work. Ultimately the people at home are more important than the people at work. How can I be a better father, better mother, better son or daughter, or better friend, better husband, wife, or partner? Get in the habit of reaching out to the people around you and learning how you can improve your relationships with them.

I’ll finish with my favorite coaching exercise, which anyone can use:

Just imagine you’re 95 years old. You’re just getting ready to die. You’re on your death bed. Here comes your last breath. But before you take that last breath, you’re given a beautiful gift, the ability to go back in time…the ability to go back in time and talk to the person who is listening to this tape…the ability to help this person be a better professional, and more importantly, the ability to help this person have a better life.

What advice would the wise 95-year-old you, who knows what really matters in life, have for the you who is here today? In your mind, answer two questions: Professional advice and personal advice.

My suggestion is: whatever you’re thinking, do that. Do that. A friend of mine interviewed old people, and their advice for living a better life was pretty simple.

First, be happy now. Life is short. Not next week, not next month, not next year. Be happy now. I’ve asked tens of thousands of parents this question: When my children grow up I want them to be…? There’s one word that comes from parents, no matter what country I’m in around the world. What is that word? Happy. You know what I say? "You want your children to be happy? You go first. You want the people that look up to you to be happy? You go first. They don’t listen to what we say, they watch what we are."

The second learning point from old people is: Friends, family and people. Take the time to develop relationships with friends, family and all those people around you, because the old you is going to be proud of you and happy because you did and disappointed if you don’t.

Finally, if you have a dream, go for it. If you don’t go for it when you’re 35, you may not when you’re 65 or 95. And it doesn’t have to be a big dream, maybe a small dream. Go to New Zealand, speak Spanish, buy a sports car. Other people may think you’re goofy. Who cares! It’s not their dream. It’s yours.

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