Leadership Excellence: Marshall Goldsmith, Renowned Business Coach and Bestselling Author

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Today’s guest is Marshall Goldsmith, renowned business coach and bestselling business author. He is recognized globally for his work on leadership and CEO coaching.  He has received awards and recognition for leadership excellence; has been named one of the top ten thinkers on leadership; was also named Leadership Thinker of the Decade; and his work has been recognized by nearly every professional organization in his field.  To hear the entire show, click here

leadership excellence Hailing from a small town in Kentucky, Goldsmith went to engineering school, and later achieved both a MBA and a Ph.D. For the past 37 years, he has taught executives globally, coaching leaders of some of the world’s biggest corporations, making them stronger in their leadership capabilities. He has also authored almost three dozen books, selling millions of copies along the way. His #1 title to date is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

Common Leadership Pitfalls

Throughout his career, Goldsmith has been mentored by great leaders and has himself mentored some of the leadership greats of our time. For instance, he spent 50 days with Peter Drucker, one of the foremost thinkers on leadership, before Drucker passed away, having served on his advisory board for 10 years. One of the themes that arose from that relationship is a focus on what successful leaders should stop doing instead of all the best practices they need to adopt to be successful at leadership. To that end, Goldsmith observes three distinct pitfalls among executives around the globe:

  • The need to win too much,
  • Adding too much value, and
  • Not spending time to coach and develop people. “CEOs are busy they want to be able to just say three or four words and the world is going to change,” observes Goldsmith.

Yet, perhaps the biggest problem of anyone Goldsmith coaches globally is called “fundamental attribution error.” He explains it as follows: “We look at other people and we think, ‘I understand this, why don’t they? Why aren’t they like me?’” Goldsmith points to the former VA head Eric Shinseki — a decorated leader and American veteran — who recently lost his job on this account. “Because he has integrity, he assumed those around him would,” asserts Goldsmith.

Along the way, Goldsmith has also learned great lessons from those he coaches. One of his prominent clients believed strongly that as a leader, it needs to be not about “me” but about “them.” He summarizes it another way: “At the bottom you are an achiever; at the top you are a leader.”

Yet, Goldsmith acknowledges that in some ways it’s even harder for company founders to let go because to them it is more than simply a business; it’s personal. Even founders can come to realize that “it can’t be all about them if they are going to grow the business.”

Perhaps more than any lesson, Goldsmith encourages every leader to, before they speak, stop, breath, and ask “Is it worth it?”

Excellent Executives

Likewise, Goldsmith has identified common qualities among the most successful leaders around the globe today. They are:

  • The courage to look in the mirror,
  • The humility to admit they can improve, and
  • The discipline to follow up, to work hard and stick with it, and focus on improvement.

The Answers are in the Questions

The best executives are humble enough to monitor their leadership performance. Instead of being left to the whims of memory and self-discipline, Goldsmith introduces a process-oriented approach to getting his clients to progress as leaders. The process centers around a daily question exercise based off of a simple Excel grid. While one column features a series of questions representing actions that are important to you (and that can be answered with a “yes,” “no” or a specific number), the other columns each list one day of the week. While Goldsmith is happy to email anyone his questions, he encourages each client to write their own. As you grade yourself each day against your questions, the process can be “incredibly humbling,” according to Goldsmith. At the end of the week, the spreadsheet give you a scorecard of your performance.

Asking questions can be powerful organizationally as well. To demonstrate, Goldsmith points to The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which documents improved health outcomes in instances where nurses are allowed to ask doctor’s question about the work.

Feed-forward vs. Feedback

Having a deep connection to Buddhism, Goldsmith describes his school of spirituality as “be happy now.” To clarify more, Goldsmith explains, “The essence of life is learning happiness, peace and contentment where we are.” His coaching often reflects much of his sentiment, and perhaps his “Feed-forward” exercise is the most powerful example of this. The two rules in the exercise are offering no feedback on the past and not judging or critiquing ideas. Instead, the group exercise results in leaders who can share guidance and ideas in a more comfortable setting. While he has been able to create a fun way to discuss “feedback,” Goldsmith strongly advises that the ROI is in the follow up. “Follow up, measurement, discipline; follow up, measurement, discipline” is the key to seeing change happen, he says. “Feed-forward is one of the centerpieces of my whole coaching process.”

Structure Trumps Self-Discipline

Goldsmith operates on the premise that when you have structure, you don’t have to have self-discipline. He cites client Alan Mulally, recognized as one of the top 5 leaders in the world. Mulally emphasized that leadership isn’t all about yourself and instead focused on being a servant leader. To bring this to life, Mulally created a structure of accountability to make himself successful in leadership. By putting this structure in place, he improved the most throughout Goldsmith’s coaching despite spending very little time with him compared to other clients. He believes others cannot create this structure because their egos get in the way. “To me, the greatest leaders are not people who think they are above needing help — they are happy to get help.”

Ask What You Can Do for Your Company

The theme of Goldsmith’s upcoming book, “Triggers,” talks about taking responsibility for the person you want to be and what responsibility employees have to companies when it comes to their own engagement.

Goldsmith invites listeners to participate in a research effort by contacting him via email. The research involves being asked the same six questions for 10 days around the concept of doing your best. His research to date shows people improve on one or multiple fronts within 10 days, through the simple process of asking questions while not allowing for outside excuses and focusing on our own performance.

The $1,000 Experiment

Goldsmith himself got into executive education by accident as a 28-year-old when a coaching mentor of his was double booked and asked Goldsmith to go to the client meeting on his behalf for the rate of $1,000. Since then, he has had the fortune of learning and working with some of the brightest minds in business and leadership.

To that end, Goldsmith again recalls Peter Drucker, who taught him a foundational lesson that today accounts for a substantial part of Goldsmith’s client guidance. Goldsmith recalls Drucker sharing that “every decision in the world is made by the person who has the power to make that decision: make peace with that.” Once peace is made, people can avoid the frustration and confusion of decisions that come from those unable or unequipped to make the best possible choice.

Beyond this, Drucker strongly believed that our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart we are. Thus, Goldsmith encourages the leaders he works with to “take a minute and ask if you are willing to make the effort and take the time to make a positive difference.” Otherwise, he asserts, “don’t waste your energy if you can’t make a positive difference.”

Goldsmith’s final words: “Help more. Judge less.”

What are You Reading?

Goldsmith is reading Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddhaby Thich Nhat Hanh.

How Can I Connect with You? Via marshall@marshallgoldsmith.com on LinkedIn.

Remember, do what you love….and show the world how talented you can be, today.

Date: August 5, 2014