Please Read This! For Leaders & Coaches…

A Letter from Marshall Goldsmith

Dear Friends,

I am 67 years old.

It is time for me to give back!

Last year, I was recognized as the Thinkers 50 #1 Leadership Thinker and the #1 Executive Coach in the World. My latest book, Triggers, was a #1 New York Timesand Wall Street Journal bestseller. This year, the editors at listed my books, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Triggers as two of the top 100 leadership and success books ever written (in their ‘to read in your lifetime’ series). Over my nearly 40 years in Executive Education, I have had the privilege of working with over 200 major CEOs.

My new project is called 15 Coaches. I am going to teach 15 people everything that I know – for free. This is my small way of honoring the many wonderful teachers and leaders who have so generously helped me – without ever asking for anything in return – people like Frances Hesselbein, Alan Mulally, Paul Hersey, Richard Beckhard, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker – and many more.

The only ‘fee’ for this mentoring is that the 15 Coaches who are selected have to promise to do the same thing for 15 other people when they get older. My hope is that this pay it forward project may ultimately benefit hundreds, or even thousands, of people.

Applicants for 15 Coaches could be other coaches, consultants, professors, teachers, HR professionals or leaders in any type of organization – anyone who feels that he or she can benefit from what I have learned in my four decades of coaching and teaching. I would love to end up with a diverse group that includes people from around the world and from both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

Applications are due October 15th. (Link here.)

Many of the top leaders and thinkers in the world have graciously agreed to work with me on this project. They are donating their valuable time to help our 15 coaches make a positive difference. We will have our first meeting on December 2 (for dinner) through December 4 (ending around 2 PM) in Phoenix, Arizona. We will be joined by several fantastic leaders and thinkers, including Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford. Alan has been recognized by CEO Magazine as CEO of the Year in the United States and byFortune Magazine as the #3 Greatest Leader in the World.

Given that we already have over 2,000 applicants, it is obvious that only a small percentage of the people that apply will be selected. As a small ‘thank you’ for applying, all applicants will be able to attend my series of webinars – at no charge – in 2017.

If you would like to apply, please visit and submit your application.

Thank you so much for your interest in my work and for considering this invitation!

Life is good.


Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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Can Being Disciplined Make You Happy?

Can being disciplined make you happy? This is an interesting question that most people don’t think about. At least, they don’t think about it in the way that I’m going to talk about it here.

Most people think that if they are disciplined with their exercise they will get in or stay in good physical shape. Most people trust that if they spend time studying for a test they will likely pass. Most people believe that if they are disciplined in practicing a musical instrument every day, like piano or violin, that they will improve. And, these things are true. So, why don’t we put the same effort that we put into getting better into being happy?

This is because most people don’t think about disciplining themselves to be happy. They don’t think it will take any effort. Many people believe that happiness is a product of something from the outside.

This is the Great Western Disease of “I’ll be happy when…” when I get the car, the house, the mate. It is inculcated in us by the most popular storyline in contemporary life. “There is a person. The person spends money on a product or service. The person is eternally happy…”

This is called a TV commercial. The average American spends 140,000 hours watching TV commercials. Some brainwashing is inevitable. Is it any wonder that we believe that in achieving the goal of said marketing campaign that we will be changed forever, happy at last? Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

What is true is that happiness comes from the inside and it takes discipline to be happy.

Until a few years ago, I had never coached an executive who was also a medical doctor. I’ve now had the privilege of coaching three: Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank; Dr. John Noseworthy, the president of the Mayo Clinic; and Dr. Raj Shah, the former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Along with being brilliant, they are three of the most dedicated, high-integrity people I have ever met.

Early in my coaching process with each doctor I went over the six daily questions process. The questions are very simple and my clients are to ask themselves these questions every day for two weeks. The questions are things like, “Did I do my best to set clear goals?” They loved this one. Another is “Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals?” They ate this one up too. When it came to the question, “Did I do my best to be happy?” all three doctors looked confused as they considered it.

“Do you have a problem with being happy?” I asked.

In three separate interactions, each man responded with almost the same words: “It never occurred to me to try to be happy.”

All three had the intellectual bandwidth to graduate from medical school and ascend to chief executive roles, and yet they had to be reminded to be happy. That’s how difficult it is to truly be happy. Even the sharpshooters among us can miss a really big target.

If you want to learn more about the daily questions process, send me an email ( or check out this post on LinkedIn!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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Four Simple Steps to the Life of Your Dreams!

My good friend, designer Ayse Birsel, has taught me a wonderful new and fun way to make amazing changes in my life. She calls her process Design the Life You Love. If you’re like me and you really want to change, try her process. It will help you become the person you want to be and design a life you will love!

First, a little background, according to Ayse, “Life, just like a design problem, is full of constraints — time, money, age, location, and circumstances. You can’t have everything, so you have to be creative to make what you want and what you need co-exist. This requires thinking differently, like a designer. Designers believe they can solve any problem and come up with a better solution. This optimism drives our creative energy.”

The Design the Life You Love process is a simple process and uses the same four steps that Ayse uses these steps when she is designing products for Herman Miller, or working on Design DNA for Harvard Business Review. The steps are 1) Deconstruction, 2) Point of View, 3) Reconstruction, 4) Expression.

1) Deconstruction: the first step is to “deconstruct” your life to understand exactly what it is comprised of. At this step, you want to break your life into its basic building blocks, like people, places, projects, time, including the things you love and the things you want to avoid. Keep breaking these bigger blocks down into smaller pieces. As you put all of these building blocks down on paper, you will see your life “emerge in front of your eyes, deconstructed,” says Ayse.

2) Point of View: the second step is to think of your heroes — people who’ve influenced and inspired you. Now, put their names down on paper and write the qualities that they have that are heroic. Now, cross their names out and put in your own. Those qualities that your heroes have are what you value, and your values are the foundation of your life design.

3) Reconstruction: The third step is the other side of Deconstruction. It’s at this step that you decide what you want your life to be like going forward. What do you want to keep? What do you want to eliminate? What do you want to change? Focus on what really matters to you by picking only three things. You can always change and play with your choices later.

4) Expression: At this last step, you get to design your life just the way you want it. It can be original, and should look and feel just like you. Says Ayse, Expression, “is about giving form to our original design, building on our Reconstruction.” To do this, write yourself a letter about the life that you love. Use what you learned from each of the steps, the deconstruction, your heroes, and your three choices. And, this letter to you expresses the design of the life you love.

Now that you’ve designed the life you love, you get to live it! Share your design with your friends and family. If you want to know more about how to design the life you love, check out Ayse Birsel’s bookDesign the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future, you will be glad you did!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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Design the Life You Love!

As we wander through life, there are various stages where it’s a natural point to stop, reflect, and assess where we are and where we might be headed next. For instance, when we’re starting our first job, when the kids are leaving for college, or when we’re about to retire, these are stages of life when we can look at where we’ve been, think about where we’re going, and reflect on what really matters in life.

Of course we don’t have to wait until one of these life-changing transitions. We can reflect on our lives and what we want out of them any time. You’re never too old or too young to look at designing (or redesigning) your life. And, it’s never too late or too early to create the life you want!

A point at which a lot of people do not reflect on their lives and what really matters is when they are retiring. This is why you’ll see people retire and change their minds and come back to work. Remember when Brett Favre retired (in 2008)?

After announcing his retirement, Brett Favre was asked, “What are some things that you are looking forward to doing?”

“Nothing,” he replied. “And I am going to stick to that until I do something else.”

This was an extremely bad sign of the potential for Mr. Favre having a successful retirement.

In my job as an executive coach, I have spent a lot of time with leaders who are dealing with retirement. While some make the transition pretty well, for many it is a disaster. I am a little surprised that Brett lasted as long as he did.

The fact is, after being a huge success in a career that has brought benefits like leadership, relationships, contribution, meaning and happiness, playing mediocre golf with a bunch of old men at the country club isn’t really that great. Eating the same chicken salad sandwich, at the same table, and talking with a bunch of retired folks about the person you “used to be” gets old very fast. And after the third cruise, most former leaders are ready to kill the entertainment director.

Many executives who ‘retire’ immediately proceed to drive their spouses crazy. After a month or so, Brett’s wife was probably thrilled at the idea of his going back to football.

One retired military leader reported that – after three months of retirement – he was alphabetizing the cans in the kitchen. When he asked his wife if ‘baked beans’ should be placed under ‘BA’ for ‘baked’ or ‘BE’ for beans, she screamed, “Get out!”

A CEO friend of my family’s sold his business for millions of dollars. He was about Mr. Favre’s age. When I expressed grave doubts about his ability to successfully retire, he scoffed and assured me that he was different than the other leaders I had worked with. Within a few months, his wife had gotten a job selling dresses. (Hint, hint.) His kids were away at college. (Uh oh.) He was sitting at home watching sitcoms when the delivery guy came over. They had a very interesting chat. It was so interesting that he smiled and thought, “That was great! In fact, talking with the delivery guy was the highlight of my week!”

He started looking for another job the next day.

Creating a Great Rest of Your Life

When you are preparing to create a great rest of your life, there are three questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. How will I contribute?
  2. Does this have meaning to me?
  3. Will this make me happy?

If you can answer these three questions to your own satisfaction, you are on your way to designing a life you will love!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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The #1 Most Dysfunctional Belief of Successful People!

One of the most dysfunctional beliefs of successful people is our contempt for simplicity and structure. We believe that we are above needing structure to help us on seemingly simple tasks.

For example, as Dr. Atul Gawande reported in his book, The Checklist Manifesto,central line infections in intensive care units virtually disappear when doctors follow a simple five-point checklist involving rote procedures such as washing hands, cleaning the patient’s skin, and using a sterile dressing after inserting the line.

For many years, despite the checklist’s proven success rate, doctors resisted it. After years of medical training, many doctors thought that the constant reminders, especially when delivered by subordinate nurses, were demeaning. The surgeons thought, “I shouldn’t need to use a checklist to remember simple instructions.”

This is a natural response that combines three competing impulses:

  1. Our contempt for simplicity (only complexity is worthy of our attention);
  2. Our contempt for instruction and follow-up; and
  3. Our faith, however unfounded, that we can succeed by ourselves.

In combination these three trigger an unappealing exceptionalism in us. When we presume that we are better than people who need structure and guidance, we lack one of the most crucial ingredients for change: humility.

In my book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, I talk about the 20 bad (behavioral) habits of which everyone I have ever met has at least one or two of these to some degree. Many of these habits have to do with a lack of humility. None more so than my old favorite, #20, “an excessive need to be me.”

Every one of us has a pile of behaviors that we define as “me.” These are the chronic behaviors, positive and negative, that we think of as our inalterable essence.

For instance, if we’re the type of person who’s chronically poor at returning phone calls—we mentally give ourselves a pass every time we fail to get back to callers. “Hey, that’s me. Deal with it.”

If we are incorrigible procrastinators who habitually ruin other people’s timetables, we do so because we’re being true to “me.”

If we always express our opinion, no matter how hurtful or non-contributory it may be, we are exercising our “right” to be “me.”

You can see how, over time, it would be easy to cross the line and make a virtue of our flaws—simply because our flax constitute what we think of as “me.” This misguided loyalty to our true natures is one of the toughest obstacles to making positive long-term change in our behavior.

Change is possible when we recognize that this stern allegiance to our self-definitions is pointless vanity. When we stop thinking about ourselves, when we stop being so devoted to “me,” we can start behaving in a way that actually benefits others!

The lesson is this: the less we focus on ourselves the more we benefit. It’s an interesting equation: Less me. More them. Equals success. Try it.

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It!

And, it’s not what you ask but how you ask it!

In my work as an executive coach, I teach people about the importance of self-reflection as a daily practice to changing behavior and becoming more successful. This daily practice that I teach, as you may know, comes in the form of the Daily Questions. I do this process myself every day and it has made a world of difference in my behavior!

When it comes to self-reflection, I’ve discovered that asking ourselves active questions rather than passive questions changes the focus of our answers and empowers us to make changes that we wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Let’s take me for example. If I ask myself, “Do I have good relationships at work?” or “How engaged was I today?” I am asking myself passive questions. These passive questions describe a static condition. They cause me to think of what is being done to me rather than what I am doing for myself.

Let’s analyze my first question, “Do I have good relationships at work?” If the answer is yes, I think about how I like to work with someone. If the answer is no, I think about what I don’t like about another person that makes it a bad working relationship. Either answer is an “environmental” answer. The reasons attributed to either answer are external factors. Answering such passive questions, seldom cause me to look within to take responsibility for my own relationships at work.

Now, let’s change this question to an active question, such as “Did I do my best to build positive relationships at work?” This question challenges me to describe or defend my actions with regards to whether or not I did my best to build positive relationships that day. It puts the responsibility for my relationships at work squarely on me. If positive relationships at work are important to me and I ask myself this question every day, I will start doing my best to build positive relationships! (In other words, I will get better!)

I have six active questions that I ask myself. These six questions are the first of the 32 daily questions that I ask myself every day. These 6 questions are:

  1. Did I do my best to increase my happiness?
  2. Did I do my best to find meaning?
  3. Did I do my best to be engaged?
  4. Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  5. Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  6. Did I do my best to make progress toward goal achievement?

The Daily Questions Process has made a huge difference in my life and everyone who tries the process agrees that it is immensely helpful in the journey toward changed behavior.

I hope that you will try this process for yourself! If you would like my Daily Questions, send me an email at and I would be happy to send you my questions and an article about the process. I hope to hear from you!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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Make Me Better, Please!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could command someone to make us better at those things about ourselves that we really want to change? It would be easier if someone else did the work and the result was our being happier and more engaged. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible, as you probably already know. We have to change ourselves, ourselves.

So for those of us who really want to change, the question becomes, “How do I achieve a high level of happiness and engagement, while living an often hectic and distraction-packed life?”

It’s not easy. I teach all of my clients the daily self-reflection process that I have done for years. I call it the Daily Questions. And, recently, I’ve expanded my questions to include active questions. For instance, instead of asking myself, “How meaningful was my day?” I ask myself, “Did I do my best to create meaning in my day?” This difference in wording may seem slight, but in the realm of behavioral change, it is humongous.

Changing Focus

When it comes to self-reflection, asking yourself active questions rather than passive questions changes the focus of your answers – and empowers you to make changes you wouldn’t otherwise consider!

I learned about active questions from my daughter, Kelly Goldsmith. Kelly has a Ph.D. in behavioral marketing and teaches at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Yes, I am a proud father!

Kelly and I were discussing one of the mysteries of my field – why is there such a poor return from American companies’ $10B investment in training programs to boost employee engagement.

Part of the problem, my daughter explained, is that despite massive spending on training, companies may end up doing things that stifle rather than promote engagement. It starts with how companies ask questions about employee engagement. The standard practice in almost all organizational surveys on the subject is to rely on what Kelly calls passive questions—questions that describe a static condition. “Do you have clear goals?” is an example of a passive question. It’s passive because it can cause people to think of what is being done to them rather than what they are doing for themselves.

Passive questions almost invariably lead to an “environmental” answer. Thus, if employees answer “no” when asked, “Do you have clear goals?” they attribute the reasons for this answer to external factors, such as “Our managers are indecisive” or “The company changes strategy every month.” Answering such questions, employees seldom look within to take responsibility for their own goal-setting.

Companies then invariably take the next natural step and ask for suggestions about making changes. Again, employees answer focusing on the environment (or outside). For instance, “Managers need to be trained in goal setting” or “Our executives need to be more effective in communicating our vision” are typical responses.

There is nothing inherently bad about asking passive questions. They can be a very useful tool for helping companies know what they can do to improve. On the other hand, they can produce a negative unintended consequence. When asked exclusively, passive questions can become the natural enemy of taking personal responsibility and demonstrating accountability. They can give people permission to “pass the buck” to anyone and anything but themselves!

The Alternative to Passive Questions

Active questions are the alternative to passive questions. There is a huge difference between “Do you have clear goals?” and “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?” The former is trying to determine the employee’s state of mind; the latter challenges the employee to describe or defend a course of action.

As I talked about in my last blog, I challenge myself every day by answering 32 questions that represent behavior that I know is important, but that is easy for me to neglect given the pressures of daily life. (I would be happy to send you my questions and an article about the process. Just email me at!)

Since my conversation with Kelly, I’ve changed my first six questions to active questions. This seemingly slight change has been dramatic! It has helped me alter my behavior for the better in such a dramatic way that I now teach all of my clients and students this method of self-reflection for positive behavioral change. My six active questions are:

  1. Did I do my best to increase my happiness?
  2. Did I do my best to find meaning?
  3. Did I do my best to be engaged?
  4. Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  5. Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  6. Did I do my best to make progress toward goal achievement?

My challenge to you? Try it for yourself and see! If you like, try this for 2 weeks and then send me a quick note and let me know how it is working for you. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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How to Get Better at Almost Anything!

For several years, I’ve performed what some might consider an unusual daily ritual.

At a pre-arranged time, I get a phone call from a person who I have hired solely for the purpose of listening to me report my scores on a brief self-test. The questions, which I wrote myself, function as a simple checklist of my main priorities. For instance, have I done my best to exercise, set goals, have positive interactions with others, etc. My caller listens politely, records my scores, and then we hang up.

What’s the purpose of this self-rating? This process, which I call the “daily questions,” keeps me focused on becoming a happier, healthier person. It provides the discipline I sorely need in my chaotic working life as an executive coach, teacher and speaker, which involves traveling 180 days out of the year to countries all over the globe. And, it helps me get better at almost everything!

At the seminars I teach, I encourage students to try this for themselves by writing their own questions. Most of them are eager to participate. When I encounter a skeptic, he or she usually asks why I need to pay another person to remind me of such simple things – the list even includes whether I flossed my teeth. Shouldn’t I, a fully functional adult, remember to do that on my own?

Of course I should, and so should we all, but simple, daily behaviors are among the hardest things about our lives to control or change. Taken together, they can make the difference between a life well lived and a life gone hopelessly off course.

Perhaps because our culture lionizes willpower and independence, most of us believe that we aren’t supposed to need help with these fundamentals. Instead, we tend to believe help is warranted only for difficult, complex problems. From this perspective, the daily questions seem pointless at best. Why take a test for which I wrote the questions and to which I already know the answers? Not only that, I merely ask whether I’ve done my best to do achieve my goals – that’s a pretty soft standard. The only scale of success is, “Did I try?”

It sounds too easy. But after years of dedication to this process, I now hold the counterintuitive belief that the daily questions are in fact a very tough test, one of the hardest we’ll ever take.

At the moment, I have 29 daily questions. There is no correct number. It’s a personal choice, a function of how many issues you want to work on. Some of my clients have only three or four questions.

The first 13 of my questions ask whether I did my best to address a particular behavioral change or interpersonal challenge. For example, did I do my best to avoid angry or destructive comments? Did I do my best to find meaning in my work? The remaining 16 cover professional and personal self-discipline issues like how much sleep I got, how many minutes I devoted to writing, and whether I am up-to-date on my doctor appointments.

The daily work of behavioral change, which can do so much to re-orient our lives for the better, might seem overwhelming. The people we know we can be, the people we once dreamed of becoming, can recede ever farther as we try to stay afloat in our daily routines. We feel dissatisfied, and dissatisfaction slides easily into bitterness. Once the chance to make a change has passed, our bitterness solidifies into regret.

Think of the daily questions as a pragmatic antidote to those darker emotions. Put your goals on paper, or an excel spreadsheet. Measure every day, “Did I do my best to…?” Your problems won’t disappear, but you will exist in a different relation to them and you will improve. You are now the agent of change and prepared to get better at anything!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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The Key to a Happy Life Isn’t What You Think

By Geoff Smart and Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall:  I see nearly everybody struggle with this.  Whether you are a janitor or a billionaire, you want a happy life.  But no matter how wealthy you are, you are likely looking for happiness in the wrong place.

Geoff:  The wrong place to look is the incessant pursuit of money or fame or extrinsic achievement that may or getting, getting, getting anything that may or may not happen in the future, right?

M: That’s the great Western disease—I’ll be happy when.  When I make a certain amount of money.  When I get an award.  When I complete some task.

G:  Our mutual friend Peter Drucker had a point of view on this subject, didn’t he?  I saw you quote our mentor in Triggers.  Drucker said, “Our mission in life should be to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or right we are.”

M:  Peter Drucker saw throughout his long and expansive career how important it is to make a positive difference, for real, in other people’s lives.  He knew it was a key to success in business, and in life.

G:  I have observed that the happiest people have a spirit of generosity.  Generosity to me means giving real value to others.  At a low level, it’s being kind.  At a high level, it’s love, or leadership on a large scale.  Like Sister Rosemary in Uganda.  She rescued hundreds of girls who were kidnapped and abused by warlords and gave them jobs making jewelry.  Or Malala, who took a bullet to the face standing up for girls’ education rights.  That is generosity to the nth degree—willingness to risk your life to make another person’s life better.  But in ordinary life, it’s just a way of carrying yourself—being generous by holding a door, by giving a person a smile, by empathizing with a coworker who is having a bad day.  Basic human stuff that matters.

M:  I would tack on a yin to that yang.  Gratitude is equally important for happiness.  The most wise and happy people I have met—Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, etc.—all talk about, and they practice, deep gratitude.  What you notice when you talk with them is how freely they express gratitude.  Allowing yourself to feel deeply grateful is how you can do something bold.  Be happy now.  Not later.

G:  Your phrase, “Be happy now.”  I really like that.  Do you remember when our friend Chris Cappy brought that biofeedback machine to our author’s group, to show us the value of gratitude?

M:  Yes.  He showed us how “gratitude” is a mental state that a) you can most easily decide to feel, and b) has the most immediate effect on improving your physical, not just mental, wellbeing.  The challenge is to remember to do it!  It’s important to create triggers in your work and in your life to remember to focus on gratitude.

G:  That session really had a positive effect on me.  In fact, I lobbied my colleagues to include “generosity & gratitude” in my firm’s list of five values.  We refer to it a lot internally, in measuring our culture, and we use it on the scorecard of whom we hire.  Those are the triggers we use to remember it.

M:  That’s smart.  It’s a good thing you were not named Dr. Dumb, by the way.

G:  Thank you for the laugh!  And it’s a good thing you were not named Dr. Pyritesmith, by the way.  Get it?  Pyrite, as in fool’s gold?

M:  To summarize our little philosophical chat here, the key to a happy life isn’t what people think.  It’s not wealth, fame, achievement, or even relationships.  It’s putting generosity and gratitude at the center of everything you do at work and in life.

Click this link to watch a video about the best coaching advice you’ll ever get.

Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, a leadership consulting firm that exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world.  Click for his downloadable free tools, and events.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is the #1 coach in the world, #1 leadership thinker, and million-selling author of 35 books. Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. Visit for free articles and videos.

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Employee Engagement Isn’t Working. Now What?

Every company and leader wants the answer to this “Now what?” question. Engaged employees translate into a productive and successful organization, which is the goal of most every leader and organization I know. And, engagement also translates into a great place to work, which is what employees want.

As a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources, the highest award that can be given to an HR professional in the US, I’ve been to many HR conventions. At these sessions, incredibly smart, prepared HR professionals declare that to increase employee engagement we need more rewards, recognition, training, and empowerment in organizations, that companies need more and better programs to engage their employees.

And yet, these programs are not working. In the same speeches suggesting more employee engagement programs, HR professionals state that employee engagement is at an all-time low. Something is not working!

Perhaps we can take a lesson from Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, on how to address this challenging and significant issue.

A Lesson from Alan Mulally

In 2006, when Alan assumed the role of CEO at the Ford Motor Company, Ford had just posted the largest annual loss in their 103 year history.

As his first official act at Ford, Alan brought his leadership team together and asked them to share their top five priorities for their companies, and assess the progress of each priority using a green-yellow-red scoring system for good-concerned-poor.

At that meeting, the entire team assessed each of their priorities as green (good!). This would be great, but the company was headed towards a record $17 billion loss! (This is similar to HR’s employee engagement issue. If all of the employee engagement programs are working so well, why is employee engagement at an all-time low, unless that is the goal?)

Alan told the team that if a $17 billion loss was their plan, then they were right on target. Recognizing the incongruity between their goals and reality, the team tried again and came back the following week, but still all priorities were green. It took some weeks before Mark Fields finally stood up and said “Red”.

This was a turning point for Ford. Someone had admitted there was a problem! Alan applauded Mark for standing up. He facilitated a team discussion and they worked together towards a solution. It worked! Not only did that red eventually become green, but in the coming weeks, more team members brought their challenges to the group and they all worked together in one of the greatest turnarounds in history.

Back to Employee Engagement

This to me is where we are with employee engagement. We’ve got to be able to admit that something isn’t working with all of our rewards and recognition programs, and work together towards a solution. This means everyone – not just the leaders and companies, but the employees too.

When I listen to the presentations at these HR conventions, everything that these great HR leaders talk about is focused on what the company can do to engage the employees – absolutely nothing that they discuss is focused on what the employees can do to engage themselves. These presentations are incredibly effective at describing half of the equation.

They are very persuasive at explaining how the company can increase the employee’s engagement and they completely ignore how the employees could increase their own engagement.

On American Airlines alone, I have over 11 million frequent flyer miles. Most flight attendants do a great job. On the occasional flight, there are two flight attendants, one is positive motivated upbeat and enthusiastic – while the other is negative, bitter, angry and cynical. I’m sure you have been on this flight before.

What is the difference? The difference is not what the company is providing. Both flight attendants may be making the same pay, with the same uniform, with the same customers, on the same plane, with the same employee engagement program.

What is the difference? The difference is not what is on the outside. The difference is what is on the inside.

While I respect and appreciate everything I hear from the HR leaders at these conferences, I believe we are missing the most important factor in employee engagement – the person who is doing the work.

I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can engage ourselves at work. If we work together, I know we can come up with solutions to this significant challenge of low employee engagement that address the other half of the equation – you and me!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.

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