Great Leaders Stand Out When Times Are Hard!

For years now I’ve done three things: I give talks, I coach executives, and I write books and articles. I travel constantly. On one airline alone, I have 12 million frequent flyer miles. You could say that I keep myself pretty busy!

One of the most common questions I’m asked is “how do you have so much energy?” I laugh because I can see the person is often thinking, ‘you’re an old man, you’ve been flying on a plane for 18 hours, how can you possibly you step onto the stage with so much enthusiasm?’

What’s my secret?

I can sum it up in just a sentence: “There’s no business like show business like show business!” Before I step on stage, I do this chant. It gives me energy! Every day before I work I tell myself, “It’s show time.”

And, I share this secret.

When I work with my coaching clients, I share this secret. Sometimes they fret and worry about how hard life is for them. And sometimes it is. Sometimes though, they are whining and complaining instead of focusing on leading. When this seems the case, I’ll say, “Have you ever seen a Broadway play?” They usually say, “Yes!” I’ll say, have you ever seen an actor stop the show and say, “my foot hurts” or “I have a headache”? “No, no” they say, they’ve never seen that. “You make about a 100 times more than what that kid is making every night. If they can get out their night after night with passion like that, you can too! It’s show time.”

That is the secret to where I get all of my energy. It isn’t too complicated.

You go first!

One of the most important actions things a leader can do is to lead by example. If you want everyone else to be passionate, committed, dedicated, and motivated, you go first!

Two of the best leaders I have ever known are Frances Hesselbein and Alan Mulally. Alan is the former CEO of the Ford Motor Company and was ranked by Fortune magazine as the third greatest leader in the world in 2014. Frances Hesselbein was the head of the Girl Scouts and Peter Drucker said she is the greatest leader he ever met.

I have never seen either Alan or Frances be down. They have always demonstrated passion to lead.

I was with Alan just after 9/11 when he was running Boeing Commercial Aircraft. It was a devastating and difficult time to lead the company. Alan said something I’ll never forget. He said, this is what I get paid for. Anyone can have passion and be an example when times are good. It’s when times are hard that great leaders stand out.

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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What Is the Secret to Winning Big?

The higher up you go in your organization, the more you need to make other people winners and not make your job about winning yourself. This is a hard concept for people who like to win to grasp. The more successful you become, the more helping others win is how you win! This is the secret to winning big.

For those in leadership positions, this means closely monitoring how you hand out encouragement and how you “help” others improve. If you find yourself saying, “That is great…” and then dropping the other shoe with a tempering, “BUT” stop yourself before you speak. Take a breath and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is worth it. In most cases it isn’t. If you really want to succeed and encourage others to do the same, try stopping at “great!”

This is a challenge even for those who have acknowledged they do this and think they are past it. Let me share a little story with you. A few years ago, I taught a class at a telecom headquarters. One of the men in my class mocked me when I mentioned this problem that so many of us have with “That is great, BUT…” He thought it was easy not to use the words. He was so sure of himself that he offered $100 for each time he used these words. I made a point of sitting with him during our lunch break. I asked him where he was from, and he replied Singapore.

“Singapore? I said. “That’s a great city!”

“Yea,” he replied, “it’s great, but…”

He caught himself immediately, and reached into his pocket for cash, saying, “I just lost $100, didn’t I?”

That’s how pervasive this urge to win can be. It creeps into our conversations even when the discussion is trivial, even when we should be hyperaware of our word choices, and even when it might cost us $100.

That was a description of the lighter version of those possessing this bad habit. Those who have the more serious version are even more harmful and discouraging. We all know negative people. My wife calls them “negatrons”. These are people who are incapable of saying something positive or complimentary to any of your suggestions. Negativity is their default response. You could walk into their office with the cure for cancer and the first words out of their mouth would be, “Let me explain why that won’t work.”

This is the telltale phrase of negativity. It’s emblematic of a need to share negative thoughts, even when they haven’t been solicited. “Let me explain why that won’t work,” is different from adding value—because no value is added. It’s the big, bad brother of “That is great, BUT…” because rather than hiding our negativity under the mask of agreement, it is pure unadulterated negativity under the guise of being helpful.

As with “That is great, BUT…” we employ “Let me explain why that won’t work” to establish that our expertise or authority is superior to someone else’s. It doesn’t mean that what we say is correct or useful. It’s simply a way of inserting ourselves into a situation as chief arbiter or senior critic.

If you think one or both of these phrases might be your mode of negative operandi, I’d advise you to monitor your statements the moment someone offers you a helpful suggestion. Paying attention to what you say in response to their ideas is a great indicator of how you come across to people. If you find yourself frequently saying, “That is great, BUT…” you know you need to take a breath, pay attention, and stop yourself at “great”!

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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Does Your Boss Squash Your Enthusiasm?

If you feel like your boss is squashing your enthusiasm for your ideas and projects, it may be that he or she has the classic bad habit of Adding Too Much Value.

This bad habit can be defined as your boss’s overwhelming desire to add his or her two cents to every discussion, and it is common among leaders who are used to running the show. It is extremely difficult for successful people to listen to other people tell them something that they think already know without communicating somehow that (a) they already knew it and (b) they know a better way.

What is the problem with adding too much value?

It would seem like it would be better for all concerned if our ideas were always improved upon. It’s not. Imagine as an energetic, enthusiastic employee you go to your boss’s office and excitedly share your idea with your boss. Your boss thinks it’s a great idea and instead of saying, “Great idea,” she says, “That’s a nice idea. Why don’t you add this to it?” What does this do? It deflates your enthusiasm; it dampers your commitment. While the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent, your commitment to execute it may go down 50 percent. That’s because it’s no longer your idea, it’s now her idea.

An exceptional leader will take heart of the following equation:

Effectiveness of Execution = a) Quality of the idea X b) My commitment to make it work.

Effectiveness of execution is a function of a) What is the quality of the idea? times b) What is my employee’s commitment to make it work? Oftentimes, our leaders get so wrapped up in trying to improve the quality of an idea a little that they damage our commitment to execute it a lot. And as you rise in levels of leadership in the organization, it’s important to recognize that the higher you go, the more you need to make other people winners and not make it about winning yourself.

A lesson in Adding Value from a great CEO

I asked my coaching client J.P. Garnier, former CEO of the large pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmith Kline, “What did you learn from me when I was your executive coach that helped you the most as a leader?” He said, “You taught me one lesson that helped me to become a better leader and live a happier life. You taught me that before I speak I should stop, breathe, and ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ He said that when he got into the habit of taking a breath before he talked, he realized that at least half of what he was going to say wasn’t worth saying. Even though he believed he could add value, he realized he had more to gain by not saying anything.

The flipside to this concept is that we often take leaders’ suggestions as orders. I asked J.P, “What did you learn about leadership as the CEO?” He said, “I learned a very hard lesson. My suggestions become orders. If they’re smart, they’re orders. If they’re stupid, they’re orders. If I want them to be orders, they are orders. And, if I don’t want them to be orders, they are orders anyway.”

What does this mean for leaders and people who want to be leaders?

It means learning how to closely monitor how you hand out encouragement and suggestions. If you find yourself saying, “Great idea,” and following it with “But,” or “However,” try cutting your response off at “idea.” Even better, before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is worth it. You may realize that you have more to gain by not winning (adding value)!

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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What Drives the Greatest Leaders?

When assessing the potential of future leaders, we often forget to ask one key question: How much do you love leading people?

Over years, I have had the privilege of working with many wonderful leaders. Upon reflection, the best of the best have one quality in common. They love leading people and they are passionate about it!

What do great leaders look like?

One of my best friends is Frances Hesselbein. Frances is the former CEO of the Girl Scouts and now chairman of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. Whenever Frances discusses her work as a leader, her eyes sparkle and her face glows. No matter what personal or professional challenges she is facing, she is always upbeat, positive, and inspirational. Frances defines leadership as “circular,” with the leader reaching across the organization to colleagues, not down to subordinates. Her motivation has never come from the outside, meaning from money or status. Instead, it has always come from the inside, from her love of service and what she does.

Another wonderful friend of mine is Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing Commercial Aircraft and Ford Motor Company. Alan was named by Fortune Magazine #3 top leader in the world in 2014. Needless to say he is a fantastic leader and I am not the only one who thinks so! At Ford and Boeing, Alan faced many challenges that would make most people want to give up. He didn’t give up and led Ford through one of the most successful turnarounds in history.

I have never seen Alan get down on himself, his people, or his company. He has an infectious enthusiasm that radiates to the people around him and an almost childlike joy in what he does. He once told me: “Every day I remind myself that leadership is not about me. It is about the great people who are working with me.” Alan’s love of what he does enables him to work incredible hours, face daunting adversity, and serve as a leader with a smile on his face. His personal example says more about leadership than his words can ever convey.

How much do you love leading people?

To assess your leadership potential, ask yourself: “On a scale of one to 10, how much do I love leading people?” If you have never been in a leadership role, ask yourself, “How much do I think that I will love leading people?” If your score is low, you may want to rethink that prospect of becoming a leader.

Although high levels of leadership may bring status, power, or money, these benefits come at a cost. Almost all great leaders work extremely hard, take their jobs very personally, are subject to ongoing (and often unfair) criticism, and pay a price for their success.

Find reward on the inside!

If you love leading people like Frances Hesselbein and Alan Mulally, leadership will be a joy and service will be a blessing.

If you do not love leading people, leadership will be an ongoing pain.

Don’t become a leader because you are looking for reward from the outside. Become a leader only if you will find your reward on the inside.

When you stand up to lead, the people that you are serving will not just be listening to your words, they will be looking into your eyes. Ultimately, you will not be able to fool them or fool yourself.

You can only inspire the people you are leading if you are inspired to lead.


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 Three Box Solution: A Strategy For Leading Innovation

My colleague and friend Vijay Govindarajan (VG), who is on Dartmouth and Harvard faculties, has just published his book The Three Box Solution: A Strategy For Leading Innovation today. The book is rated #1 New Release on Amazon.

The book explains how companies can meet the performance requirements of the current business—one that is still thriving—while dramatically reinventing it (two fundamentally different management challenges that are hard to do simultaneously). You can get more details on the book from the book web site or watch the book trailer.

I suggest you order the book. You will receive bonus gifts if you can confirm in an email to VG ( that you have ordered the book.

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The Power of Pay for Performance

How would your work change if your pay was based on your performance rather than howmuch your clients like you or how much time you spend with them?

I believe that neither of these (how much I’m liked or the length time I spend with my clients) is a good metric for them to achieve positive, long-term changes in their behavior.

In fact, I have never seen a study that showed that clients’ love of a coach was highly correlated with their change in behavior. In fact, if coaches become too concerned with being loved by their clients – they may not provide honest feedback when it is needed. My personal coaching clients are executives whose decisions impact billions of dollars. Their time is more valuable than mine. I try to spend as little of their time as necessary to achieve the desired results. The last thing they need is for me to waste their time!

The story you’re about to read is the story of how, and why, I came to use a “pay-only-for-results” model in my coaching practice. Those who know me well know that I have an unusual arrangement with my coaching clients. They only pay me if they get better—meaning if they achieve positive, measurable change.

And there is a catch. It’s not the client who determines if he or she is “better.” It’s their key stakeholders (bosses, colleagues, direct reports, spouses, and others who work with them closely) who make this determination.

This “pay-for-results” idea wasn’t mine. It came from Dennis Mudd, my boss 48 years ago. My family was poor growing up in Valley Station, KY. My dad operated a two-pump gas station. My mom was a school teacher. When the roof on our home started to leak badly, we had no choice but to replace it. My dad hired Dennis and to save some money I worked as his assistant.

It was a blazing hot summer in Kentucky, and this was HARD work! I watched Mr. Mudd as he took great care in laying each shingle. He was patient with me, despite my mistakes. He helped me learn to do the job right. I looked forward to working with Mr. Mudd every day, and my initial begrudging willingness to do the job turned into a deep sense of pride in what we were doing.

When we finished, I thought the roof looked great. Mr. Mudd presented my dad with his invoice and said quietly, “Bill, please take your time and inspect our work. If you feel that this roof meets your standards, pay us. If not, there is no charge for our work.” And he meant it.

Dad looked carefully at the roof, thanked both of us for a job well done, and paid Mr. Mudd, who then paid me. I will never forget watching Dennis Mudd when he asked Dad to pay only if he was pleased with the results. I knew he was dead serious and my respect for Mr. Mudd skyrocketed. I was only 14 years old, but the incident made a huge impression on me. I knew the Mudd family. They didn’t have any more money than we did. I thought: Mr. Mudd may be poor, but he is not cheap. This guy has class. When I grow up, I want to be like Dennis Mudd.

How much would not getting paid have hurt Dennis Mudd? A lot. If my dad hadn’t paid him, it would have meant the Mudds wouldn’t have eaten very well for the next couple of months. Mr. Mudd’s integrity was more important to him than money, and he had enough faith in the quality of his work to make the offer he did. Dennis Mudd didn’t use buzzwords like “empowerment” or “customer delight.” He didn’t give pep talks about quality or values. These were unnecessary. His actions communicated his values better than any buzzwords could.

The next time you are working on a project, ask yourself, “What would happen to my level of commitment if I knew I was going to be paid only if I achieved results?” Think about it. How would your behavior change?

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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What I Learned from a Near-Death Experience

A number of years ago, I was flying to Santa Barbara, California. Suddenly, the plane took an enormous dip. The pilot immediately came on the speaker system and announced, “We have a minor problem. The landing gear isn’t working. We are going to circle the airport until we run out of fuel so we can land more safely with the wheels up.”

Needless to say I was afraid for my life! In this seemingly eternal moment, when I thought I might die, I pondered my life. I asked myself, “What do I regret?”

The only answer I could come up with was that I had never adequately thanked the many people who had been good to me in my life.

I told myself, “If I ever get back down on the ground safely, I will thank these people.” This is not an uncommon thought. Research shows that the number one regret children have when their parents die is that they never told them how much they appreciated all that their parents had done for them.

The plane landed safely (believe me, I thanked the pilot and crew) and when I got to my hotel room, the first thing I did was write gushy, mushy thank you notes to at least 50 people who had helped me in my life.

That was the moment I became a connoisseur of gratitude, a virtuoso at thanking. I’m always thanking people now in my e-mails, letters, seminars, and life. The last thing I say on most phone calls is not “goodbye” but “thank you.” When it comes to gratitude, I’m a radical fundamentalist. I’ve even gone so far as to make a list of the top 25 people in both my personal and professional lives to whom I owed thanks. I had special certificates printed up with their names embossed in gold lettering saying, “Thank you. You’re one of the top 25 people who have helped me have a great life.”

I realize this is a bit extreme, but I make no apology for it. I have a lot of deficiencies, but gratitude is not one of them. I regard gratitude as an asset and its absence a major interpersonal flaw. I’m proud to say that I give myself an A+ in gratitude.

The Gratitude Exercise

No matter how far along you are in life, think about your career, think about your personal life. Who are the people most responsible for the person you are today, for your success? Write down the first 25 names that come to mind. Ask yourself, “Have I ever told them how grateful I am for their help?” If you’re like the rest of us, you may fall short in this area.

Write each of these people a thank you note.

This isn’t just an exercise in making yourself and other people feel good (although that’s a worthwhile therapeutic venture). Writing a thank you note forces you to confront the humbling fact that you have not achieved your success alone. You had a lot of help along the way.

More importantly, it forces you to identify your strengths and weaknesses. After all, when you thank people for helping you, you’re admitting that you needed help in the first place – which is one way to pinpoint your deficiencies. If you didn’t need to improve in a specific area, you wouldn’t have needed another person’s help. Think of it as a thank-you note’s side benefit; it helps you identify your weak spots.

As I type this, it occurs to me that telling people to write thank you notes is obvious, almost trite. Yet, I’m always amazed at how neglected a practice thanking is. None of us can ever do it enough.

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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#1 Sign Someone Isn’t a Great Leader

A few years ago, former General Mills CEO Steve Sanger told nearly 100 of his colleagues: “As you all know, last year my team told me that I needed to do a better job of coaching my direct reports. I just reviewed my 360-degree feedback. I have been working on becoming a better coach for the past year or so. I’m still not doing quite as well as I want, but I’m getting a lot better. My coworkers have been helping me improve. Another thing that I feel good about is the fact that my scores on ‘effectively responds to feedback’ are so high this year.”

Listening to Steve speak so openly to coworkers about his efforts to develop himself as a leader, I realized how much the world of work has changed in recent years.

When I became an executive coach, few CEOs received feedback from their colleagues. Even fewer candidly discussed that feedback and their personal developmental plans with anyone. Today, many of the world’s most respected chief executives are setting a positive example by opening up, striving continually to develop themselves as leaders. In fact, organizations that do the best job of cranking out leaders today tend to have CEOs like Steve Sanger who are directly and actively involved in leadership development.

It’s true that organizations that more actively manage their talent, put lots of focus on identifying high-potential people, better differentiate compensation, serve up the right kinds of development opportunities, and closely watch turnover rank high as great organizations. Crucial to all these efforts are CEO support and involvement.

No question, one of the best ways top executives can get their leaders to improve is to work on improving themselves. Leading by example can mean a lot more than leading by public-relations hype.

Michael Dell, one of the most successful leaders in business history, for instance, has done an amazing job of sincerely discussing his personal challenges with leaders across the company. He is a living case study from whom everyone at Dell is learning. His leadership example makes it hard for any leader to act arrogant or to communicate that he or she has nothing to improve upon.

So, what’s the number one sign that someone isn’t a great leader?

Unfortunately, in the same way that CEO support and involvement can help companies nurture leaders, CEO arrogance can have the opposite effect. When your boss acts like he or she is perfect and tells everyone else they need to improve this is a sure sign that the leader isn’t great. Worse yet, this behavior can be copied at every level of management. Every level then points out how the level below it needs to change. The end result: No one gets much better.

The principle of leadership development by personal example doesn’t apply just to CEOs. It applies to all levels of management. All good leaders want their people to grow and develop on the job. Who knows? If we work hard to improve ourselves, we might even encourage the people around us to do the same thing!

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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Hey HR, Can You Really Be Effective Internal Coaches?

Can internal HR professionals do an effective job of coaching leaders? Definitely.

Will most internal HR coaches be effective in coaching leaders? Maybe.

My friend, Linda Sharkey, did some outstanding research on internal HR coaching when she was at GE Capital a few years ago. The findings were very clear: Not only could internal coaches do as good a job as external coaches, internal coaches often did a better job than external coaches!

There are four unique challenges facing internal HR coaches:

  1. Confidentiality: If leaders believe that the internal HR coach will use disclosure against them in future personnel decisions, the coaching process will probably not work.
  2. Credibility: In some cases, internal HR coaches are not given the credibility of external coaches. If this is true, the internal coach can deliver the same message as the external coach, but the message will be discounted and possibly ignored.
  3. Training: Many external coaches are specialists. (For example, in my work as an external coach, I only help already successful leaders achieve positive change in behavior. That is all I do.) HR professionals often have to know about many topic areas and may lack training or experience for coaching in some specific client needs.
  4. Time: From my experience, this is the biggest challenge. Many of the great HR professionals I know can manage confidentiality, have great credibility, and are well-trained as coaches. The challenge is that they are so over-committed that they don’t have the time to take on this type of assignment.

Four reasons why the GE case study was a success:

  1. In the GE case study, HR professionals were coaches to high-potential leaders. This was a critical success factor. If internal coaches are working to “document for dismissal,” they won’t be welcomed by their clients. If HR coaches are working to help successful leaders get even better, they will be very welcomed by their clients.
  2. GE gave leaders a choice in HR coaches. This helped ensure that the coaches were seen as credible, gave the clients more ownership in the process, and helped ensure a good fit between coach and client.
  3. Coaches were trained to reinforce the specific goals of GE and deal with the specific issues faced by their clients.
  4. Coaches were given the time they needed to devote to their coaching clients. This was seen as part of their job not an add-on.

As this research showed, when the coaching process is designed to ensure success, internal HR coaches can do a fantastic job. For more information about this research, see Linda Sharkey’s article “Leveraging HR: How to Develop Leaders in ‘Real Time’” in the book Human Resources in the 21st Century.

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 Biggest Mistake Made in Employee Engagement!

In this short blog series with HRD Business Summit, I was asked questions that are highly pertinent to leaders, especially leaders of HR. The first question I was asked is: “why engage employees?” The simple answer: Employee engagement is critical for business success. We all agree. We want engaged employees.

Employee engagement is defined by marginal effort. In other words, what are employees doing that they don’t have to do? How hard are they trying? Compare two employees – one is working very hard, putting in extra marginal effort; the other is not. It would be a mistake to think that the second will perform as well as the first. Even so, this is not the biggest mistake made in employee engagement.

Are we missing half of the equation?

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 asked to speak at many HR conventions around the world. At one recent convention, I had the opportunity to listen to incredibly smart, prepared HR professionals who had done their homework about the topic of engagement and important related factors like: quality of leadership, fair compensation, recognition programs, needed training, and effectively communicated corporate values.

I had no disagreement with anything that they said.  It all seemed very logical to me.  I believe that companies should do whatever they can to create an environment that builds employee engagement.

As I listened to the presentation, I began to have a realization -everything that these great HR leaders talked about focused on what the company could do to engage the employees – absolutely nothing that they discussed focused on what the employees could do to engage themselves. As I listened, I thought, “This is incredibly effective presentation describing half of an equation.” They were persuasively explaining how the company could increase the employee’s engagement and completely ignoring how the employees could increase their own engagement. This is the biggest mistake we make in employee engagement!

“Ask not what your country can do for you.”

I thought back to the famous quote from the John Kennedy inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

I realized that one hundred percent of what was being said was the reverse of the John Kennedy speech. The entire presentation revolved around what can the company can do for you, while zero percent focused on what can you do for the company.

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 respected and appreciated everything I heard from the HR leaders at the conference, I believe they were missing the most important factor in employee engagement – the person who is doing the work.

It’s true that creating a great environment is a key factor building engagement, and we all have the opportunity to take responsibility for our own lives and to do our best to build our own engagement – regardless of what the company is doing.

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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