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 (vg@dartmouth.edu) 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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5 Ways to Get Ahead as a Coach!

In a recent blog, I shared the “#1 greatest lesson for executive coaches” – to get over our own egos. To make the coaching about our clients, not about ourselves. If you took this advice to heart and are applying it, you are on your way to being a great coach!

There’s another piece of advice I have for you that is critical to being a successful executive coach. Get ready, this is going to sound a little harsh. Most of the executive coaches I meet are great coaches and horrible business people! They have no understanding of the business side of coaching. Additionally, they believe that because they are a good coach, clients will just come to them. This just isn’t so!

In order to have a successful and satisfying career in executive coaching, you’ve got to understand the business side of coaching (or you’ve got to partner with someone who does) and you’ve got to market yourself.

Below are five suggestions for you as you build your coaching business. Please post your comments, tips, and suggestions to this blog on my LinkedIn page. I would love to hear how you promote and manage your coaching business!

  1. Gain a thorough understanding of how the business runs. Take classes in business to help you further your knowledge. As I said, most of the coaches I meet are great coaches, but they lack general business knowledge. For instance, do you have a basic understanding of business terms like, revenue, cash flow, and profitability?
  2. Find the right reporting tools for your executive coaching business. These tools generate hard numbers, such as how many leads were brought in and how many of those leads were converted into clients.
  3. Find your own market niche. Work to develop a special competency that differentiates you from everyone else. Look for market needs that everyone else may not have considered. Ask yourself: What should be done that isn’t being done?
  4. Become a world expert. As intimidating as this sounds, achieving serious “world-class” expertise may not be as daunting as you might believe. If you pick a reasonably narrow area of specialization, focus on it, and learn as much as you can, you will start to accumulate immense knowledge within a few years. While you can never become the world authority on everything, you can definitely become a world authority on one thing.
  5. Build your own brand. Peter Drucker once told me that companies should be able to “put their mission statement on a T-shirt.” The same can be true for individual coaches. For example, my own mission is to be the world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. Your customers (or employers) will respect you more if you do not pretend to know everything about everything but instead have a unique brand.

Keep in mind that as the pool of talented executive coaches grows, it’s only going to get tougher out there. Make peace with this reality, learn the business side of coaching, market yourself, and your career as a coach is going to be a lot more successful!

In this 4-part series of interviews with Alex Pascal, CEO of CoachLogix, Marshall shares his executive coaching knowledge and expertise.

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 to Do When It’s Hard to Get Things Done

When we make plans for the future or even just today, why do we so seldom, if ever, plan on distractions? Why do we make our plans as if we are going to live in a perfect world and be left alone to focus on our work or family or whatever it is that we’re hoping to accomplish that day?

This state of being able to completely focus without distraction on whatever task we assign ourselves for the day has never happened in the past, yet we still plan as if this nirvana-like world will exist in the future. We plan as if we will be able to get down to work without accommodating the fact that life always intrudes to alter our priorities and test our focus.

The answer is simple yet we are so very often blind to it. What is it? Well, earning an undergraduate degree in mathematical economics taught me that simply put, this conundrum is the high probability of low-probability events. We don’t plan for low-probability events because, by definition, any one of them is unlikely to occur. Who plans on a flat tire, or accident, or stalled traffic because of an over-turned semi on their way to work? However, the likelihood that one of the hundreds of low-probability events that could occur will occur sometime during our day is very high. We are all victimized, more frequently than we like, by traffic jams and flat tires and accidents.

(Ironically, as I am typing this on a Sunday afternoon, I have just received an email from a client saying, “I have an emergency at work and need to get your considered opinion. Is there any way that we can talk now?” While the probability of her contacting me for an emergency talk on this particular Sunday afternoon was close to zero [she had never done this before], the probability of some distraction happening on Sunday afternoon is pretty high and this Sunday it just happened to be this client.)

How do you manage this high probability of some low probability event distracting you from what you want to do? Well, in my coaching, I usually work with executive clients for eighteen months. I warn each client that the process will take longer than they expect because there will be a crisis. I can’t name the crisis, but it will be legitimate and real—for example, an acquisition, a defection, a major product recall—and it may dramatically extend the time they need to achieve positive change. They cannot predict it, but they should expect it—and it will distract them and slow them down.

Rather than trying to change the inevitable, it’s far more constructive to accept it and even plan on a distraction or two coming your way during the day. You will be glad you did!

In this 4-part series of interviews with Alex Pascal, CEO of CoachLogix, Marshall shares his executive coaching knowledge and expertise.

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 Greatest Lesson for Coaches!

The greatest lesson for any coach, outstanding or otherwise, is to overcome our own ego!

The recipe for this disastrously massive ego is simple: We have a sincere desire to help our clients and we care deeply about their development. We know a lot, have great qualifications, and believe in ourselves.

Unfortunately, these positive qualities can get in our way when it comes to helping!

The important thing to keep in mind in all of your coaching relationships (and one could might even argue in all of your relationships) is that your client’s (or friend or partner, husband or wife) dedication to change means a whole lot more than your wisdom.

Let me give you an example. Of all of my coaching clients, the client who improved the most was the client with whom I had spent the least amount of time! He was the CEO of a huge organization and managed about 50,000 people. After our coaching engagement, I said to him, “I have spent less time with you than any client that I have ever coached, yet you and your team have shown the greatest improvement. What should I learn from my experience with you and your team?”

He thoughtfully replied, “Marshall, you should realize that success with your clients isn’t all about you. It is about your clients, the people who choose to work with you.” He continued, “In an important way, my situation is the same. I manage about 50,000 people. Every day, as a leader, I tell myself, ‘The success of our organization is not about me. It is about them-the great people who are working with me!’”

This remarkable leader is Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, who was recently named #3 on Fortune’s list of the 50 greatest leaders in the world. Alan taught me a powerful lesson. That the difference in my clients’ improvements wasn’t about me, it was about them. The difference was about their dedication to achieving positive, lasting change, it was not due to my great insights or wisdom.

In spite of understanding the theory of ‘make it all about them, not you,’ I can still let my own ego get in the way of my work.

For example, I am sometimes honored by wonderful organizations and this makes me feel good! I love what I do, and when I am appreciated for it I feel great! Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky I am.

Although it is good to be thankful and grateful about our own lives, it is not always good to assume that our blessings are the major topic of interest for the rest of the world!

Some time back, after I received an award, I was interviewing the team members of a client executive that I was going to coach. I really loved the company and was looking forward to working with the executive. As I introduced myself to each team member during our one-on-one sessions, I was so enthusiastic about myself, the great honor I’d received, and my wonderful life that I forgot why I was there! The person who had hired me called to send her regrets, noting that the team thought I seemed to be more interested in myself than I was in them. To put it bluntly, I was fired!

I should have been fired. I was breaking rule #1 of coaching. I was making it about me, not about them. And, that’s the lesson for today: The next time you start feeling ‘smart,’ ‘qualified,’ or ‘wise,’ remember this warning: Coaching is about them, it’s not about you!

In this 4-part series of interviews with Alex Pascal, CEO of CoachLogix, Marshall shares his executive coaching knowledge and expertise.

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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