The Best Advice I Ever Received

Like many young Ph.D. students, while I studied at UCLA, I was deeply impressed with my own intelligence, wisdom and profound insights into the human condition. I consistently amazed myself with my ability to judge others and see what they were doing wrong.

Dr. Fred Case was both my dissertation adviser and boss. My dissertation was connected with a consulting project with that involved the city government of Los Angeles. At the time, Case was not only a professor at UCLA, but also head of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. At this point in my career, he was clearly the most important person in my professional life. He had done amazing work to help the city become a better place, and also was doing a lot to help me.

Although he was generally upbeat, one day Case seemed annoyed. “Marshall, what is the problem with you?” he growled. “I’m getting feedback from some people at City Hall that you are coming across as negative, angry and judgmental. What’s going on?”

“You can’t believe how inefficient the city government is,” I ranted. I then gave several examples of how taxpayers’ money was not being used in the way I thought it should. I was convinced that the city could be a much better place if the leaders would just listen to me.

“What a stunning breakthrough,” Case sarcastically remarked. “You, Marshall Goldsmith, have discovered that our city government is inefficient. I hate to tell you this, Marshall, but my barber down on the corner figured this out several years ago. What else is bothering you?”

Undeterred by this temporary setback, I angrily proceeded to point out several minor examples of behavior that could be classified as favoritism toward rich political benefactors.

Case was now laughing. “Stunning breakthrough number two,” he said. “Your profound investigative skills have led to the discovery that politicians may give more attention to their major campaign contributors than to people who support their opponents. I’m sorry to report that my barber has also known this for years. I’m afraid that we can’t give you a Ph.D. for this level of insight.”

As he looked at me, his face showed the wisdom that can only come from years of experience. “I know that you think that I may be old and behind the times,” he said, “but I’ve been working down there at City Hall for years. Did it ever dawn on you that even though I may be slow, perhaps even I have figured some of this stuff out?”

Then he delivered the advice I will never forget: “Marshall, you are becoming a pain in the butt. You are not helping the people who are supposed to be your clients. You are not helping me, and you are not helping yourself. I am going to give you two options: Option A: Continue to be angry, negative and judgmental. If you chose this option, you will be fired, you probably will never graduate, and you may have wasted the last four years of your life. Option B: Start having some fun. Keep trying to make a constructive difference, but do it in a way that is positive for you and the people around you.

“My advice is this: You are young. Life is short. Start having fun. What option are you going to choose, son?”

I finally laughed and replied, “Dr. Case, I think it is time for me to start having some fun!”

He smiled knowingly and said, “You are a wise young man.”

Most of my life is spent working with leaders in huge organizations. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things are not always as efficient as they could be. Almost every employee has made this discovery. It also doesn’t take a genius to learn that people are occasionally more interested in their own advancement than the welfare of the company. Most employees have already figured this out as well.

I learned a great lesson from Case. Real leaders are not people who can point out what is wrong. Almost anyone can do that. Real leaders are people who can make things better.

Case’s coaching didn’t just help me get a Ph.D. and become a better consultant. He helped me have a better life, and his advice can help you too. First, think about your own behavior at work. Are you communicating a sense of joy and enthusiasm to the people around you, or are you spending too much time in the role of angry, judgmental critic? Second, do you have any co-workers who are acting like I did? Are you just getting annoyed with them, or are you trying to help them in same way that Case helped me? If you haven’t been trying to help them, why not give it a shot? Perhaps they’ll write a story about you someday.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Their Commitment Might Mean More Than Our Insight

My friend, Dr. David Ulrich, is a highly respected thought leader, wonderful person and perhaps the world’s top HR consultant. Dave once taught me that effective performance can be seen as a function of the quality of an idea times the employee’s commitment to make it happen (EP = QI x C). One hundred percent commitment to a good idea will often result in higher performance than 50 percent commitment to a great idea.

Leaders, especially technically trained leaders, often get so enamored with sharing insights aimed at improving the quality of an idea that they forget about the impact these insights might have on their employees’ commitment to execute the idea.

When I asked one new Fortune 100 CEO what he had learned about leadership in the past year, he sighed and sadly noted, “My suggestions become orders. If I want my suggestions to become orders, they are orders. If I don’t want them to become orders, they are orders anyway.” While this learning is especially true at the CEO level, it is an important caution for leaders at all levels.

I then asked him to name the lesson that he learned from me that he felt was the most useful. He smiled and replied, “You helped me understand one lesson that not only caused me to become a better CEO, it also helped me to have a happier life. The lesson was simple. Before I speak, I need to stop, take a breath and then ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’” He went on to note that half the time he asked this question, he decided, “Am I right? Maybe! Is it worth it? No!”

As leaders, our first reaction upon hearing an idea from direct reports might be to say, “That’s a great idea, but…” and then add our brilliant insights. What we fail to realize is that our attempt to improve the idea might do more harm than good. If we aren’t careful, the idea will no longer be their idea. It will become our idea.

As an executive coach, it has taken me years of experience – and several failures – to understand the power of commitment. When I was much younger and very naïve, I foolishly believed that my own wisdom was the key to helping my clients achieve positive, lasting changes in behavior. As I became more experienced, I began to realize that their commitment to improve was far more important than my insight. The learning “hit me over the head” when I realized that the client who had taken the least amount of my time was the client who was seen as improving the most in a 360-degree assessment from co-workers.

Since achieving this learning, I have given up in my attempts to make executives change their behavior. I now only work with successful leaders who want to change their behavior. I have realized that the most important commitment to change has to come from inside my clients, not from inside me.

The next time you are working with a direct report or team member and you start to “improve” upon their ideas with your insights, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”

When communicating with direct reports, don’t just ask for understanding – search for commitment. Listen to the tone of their voices and look at their faces. When describing a project, ask the employee to rank their level of enthusiasm for executing the plan. Ask a simple question, “How can we work together on this project in a way that will lead to your highest level of commitment?” Listen to their ideas. Be willing to trade off some of your insights on content to gain their commitment and enthusiasm.

This lesson doesn’t just apply at work; it applies at home as well. Have you ever seen a Little League parent barking directions at a child playing baseball? What emotions did you see on the face of the child: enthusiasm and commitment, or embarrassment and resignation? Although the parent might be helping the child understand the mechanics of hitting, they also could be ruining the child’s commitment and love of the game.

As Peter Drucker sagely noted, “Most leaders I meet manage knowledge workers. These are people who know more about what they are doing than their boss does.”

As Lao Tzu said, “When a true leader’s work is done, the people will say they did it themselves.”

When managing knowledge workers, keep this thought in mind: If they don’t believe that they did it themselves, it probably wasn’t done well.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Helping People Achieve Their Goals

In this article, we focus primarily on behavioral goals, such as becoming a better listener or more effective at involving team members in decisions. Much of the published research in the field of goal setting involves health-related goals …

by Marshall Goldsmith and Kelly Goldsmith

In today’s competitive world, top executives increasingly understand that sustaining peak performance requires a commitment to developing leaders throughout the organization. Leaders need to develop other leaders. An important part of this development process includes helping people set–and achieve–meaningful goals for personal change. All too often, however, goals are not set in a way that helps ensure the follow-through needed to turn great plans into successful outcomes.

Our research on goal setting and our experience in coaching have helped us better understand the dynamics of what is required to actually produce positive, long-term change in behavior. We believe that the lessons executive coaches have learned in helping their clients set goals apply to leadership development in a wide variety of settings. Whether you are a professional coach, a leader coaching your direct reports, a mentor advising a younger colleague–or just working on your own development–a better understanding of the dynamics of goal setting and the challenges of goal achievement may help you understand why people often set great goals, yet lose the motivation to achieve them. This understanding can help ensure that the people you are coaching stick with the plan and ultimately reach their desired targets.

In this article, we focus primarily on behavioral goals, such as becoming a better listener or more effective at involving team members in decisions. Much of the published research in the field of goal setting involves health-related goals, such as losing weight. We show how many of the challenges that occur when changing behavior that is related to great health (such as more exercise) are similar to challenges that occur in changing behavior that is related to great leadership (such as more listening)!

Why do goal-setters frequently give up in their quest for personal improvement? Most of us understand that New Year’s resolutions seldom last through January–much less for the entire year! What goes wrong?

Six primary reasons explain why people give up on goals. Understanding these roadblocks to goal achievement can help you apply a little preventive medicine as you help others set goals–so ultimately they will be more likely to achieve their objectives for change.


I wasn’t sure this idea for changing behavior would work in the first place. I tried it out–it didn’t seem to do that much good. As I guessed, this was kind of a waste of time.

One of the most common mistakes in all leadership development is the roll-out of programs and initiatives that promise, “This will make you better.” A classic example is the performance appraisal process. Many companies change their performance appraisal forms on a regular basis with the promise that the “new and improved” form will lead to more effective feedback. How much good effect do these changes usually have? None! The new appraisal forms usually just confuse leaders and are seen as annual exercises in futility. What companies don’t want to face is the real problem with the appraisal process–it is almost never the form. The real problem is the managers who lack either the courage or the discipline required to deliver effective feedback.

The problem with “this will make you better” is that the emphasis is usually on the “this” and not the “you.” Leaders who want to help their people develop as leaders need to communicate a clear message–ultimately, only you can make you better.

Successful people tend to have a high need for self-determination. In other words, the more leaders commit to coaching and behavioral change because they believe in the value of the process, the more likely the process is to work. The more they feel that the change is being imposed upon them–or that they are just trying it out–the less likely the coaching process is to work.

In goal setting, you need to ensure that the change objectives come from inside the person you are coaching–and are not just externally imposed with no clear internal commitment. As executive coaches, we have learned that our clients need to understand that they are ultimately responsible for their own behavior. Leaders, who are also coaches, need to communicate the same clear message.


I had no idea this process would take so long. I am not sure it is worth it.

We all have a natural tendency to underestimate the time needed to reach targets. Everything seems to take longer than we think it should! When the time elapsed in achieving our goals starts exceeding our expectations, we are tempted just to give up on the goal. Busy, impatient professionals can be even more time-sensitive than the general population.

While the “optimism bias” about time is true of goal-setters in general, it can be even more of a factor for leaders who are trying to change while the perceptions of coworkers seem to ignore their new behavior. We all tend to see people in a manner that is consistent with our previous stereotype–and we look for behavior that proves our stereotype is correct. Coworkers are no different from anyone else. Research reported in the Fall 2004 issue of Strategy+Business shows that the long-term follow-up and involvement of coworkers tends to be highly correlated with positive change in the perceived effectiveness of leaders. This positive change in perception does not occur overnight. Harried executives want to “check the box” and assume that once they understand what to do–and communicate this understanding to others–their problems are solved. If only the real world were that simple!

In helping others set goals, it is important for them to be realistic about the time required to produce a positive, long-term change in behavior. Habits that have taken 40 years to develop will not go away in a week. Help them understand that others’ perceptions may seem unfair and that–as they change their behavior–others may not recognize this change for months. If you help them establish realistic expectations in the goal-setting process, people will not feel there is something wrong with them or their coworkers when they face a time challenge. They will realize that this is a normal part of the change process. Ultimately, as the research shows, changed leadership behavior will lead to changed perceptions and more effective relationships with coworkers.


This is a lot harder than I thought it would be. It sounded so simple when we were starting out.

The optimism bias of goal-setters applies to difficulty as well as time. Not only do most achievements take longer than expected–they also require more hard work! Managers often confuse two terms that appear to be synonymous but are actually quite different: simple and easy. We want to believe that once we understand a simple concept, it will be easy to execute a plan and achieve results. If this were true, everyone who understood that they should eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly would be in shape. Diet and exercise books are almost always at the top of the best-seller lists. Our challenge for getting in shape–as well as changing leadership behavior–is not understanding, it is doing!

Long-term change in leadership effectiveness requires real effort. For example, it can be challenging for busy, opinionated leaders to have the discipline to stop, breathe, and listen patiently while others say things they do not want to hear. While leaders may understand the need to change–and even have a great desire to change–it is still hard to have the discipline to change.

It is critical to help goal-setters understand that real change requires real work. Trying to get buy-in with statements like “this will be easy” or “this will be no problem for you” can make goal-setters feel good in the short term, but can backfire in the long term–when they finally realize that change is not that easy and begin to face trade-offs and challenges in their journey toward improvement. Helping goal-setters understand the price for success in the beginning of the change process will help prevent the demoralization that can occur when challenges arise later in the change process.


I would really like to work toward my goal, but my company is facing a unique challenge right now. It might be better if I just stopped and worked on this goal at a time when things aren’t so crazy!

Goal-setters have a tendency to underestimate the distractions and competing goals that will invariably appear throughout the year. One good counsel you can give to the person you are coaching is, “I am not sure what crisis will emerge in the next year–but I am almost positive that some crisis will emerge!”

In some cases the distraction or crisis may come from a problem; in other cases it may result from an opportunity. For example, mad cow disease was a crisis for leaders in the meat-packing industry. It is hard to focus on long-term leadership development when the company is facing a short-term financial crisis! On the positive side, when “Cabbage Patch Kids” became a craze, the company started selling more dolls than anyone could ever imagine. It is hard to focus on long-term leadership development when your company has a “once in a lifetime” short-term profit opportunity.

In planning for the future, coaches need to help goal-setters assume that unexpected distractions and competing goals will occur. Leaders should expect the unexpected and build in time to deal with it. By planning for distractions and competing goals in advance, leaders will be far less likely to give up on the change process when either special problems or special opportunities appear.


Why am I working so hard at becoming a more effective leader? After all my effort–we still aren’t making any more money!

People tend to become disappointed when the achievement of one goal doesn’t immediately translate into the achievement of other goals. For example, dieters who lose weight may give up on their weight loss efforts when prospective dates don’t immediately become more attracted to them.

Hewitt Associates has done some fascinating research (summarized in Leading the Way by Robert Gandossy and Marc Effron) that documents the positive, long-term relationship between a company’s investment in leadership development and its long-term financial success. By contrast, no research shows that investment in developing leaders produces greater short-term profits.

Increasing leadership effectiveness is only one factor in determining an organization’s overall success. For example, a company may have the wrong strategy or be selling the wrong product. If a company is going down the wrong road, increasing people management skills will only help it get there faster.

Managers need to personally buy in to the value of a long-term investment in their own development. If they mistakenly believe that improving leadership skills will quickly lead to short-term profits, promotions, or recognition, they may become disappointed and give up when these benefits don’t immediately occur. If they see personal change as a long-term investment in their own development–a process that will help them become more effective over the course of their careers–they will be much more likely to pay the short-term price needed for long-term gain.


I think I did actually get better when I was being coached, but I have let it slide since then. What am I supposed to do, work on this stuff for the rest of my life?

Once a goal-setter has put in all the effort needed to achieve a goal, the reality of the work required to maintain changed behavior can be tough to face. One of the first reactions of many dieters upon reaching their weight reduction goal is to think, “This is great! Now I can start eating again. Let’s celebrate with some pizza and beer!” Of course this mind-set leads to future weight gain and the yo-yo effect that is unfortunately so common in dieters.

Leaders need to understand that leadership is a process–not a state. Leaders can never “get there.” Leaders are always “getting there.” The only way exercise helps people stay in shape is when they face reality: “I do have to work on this stuff for the rest of my life!” Leaders need to accept that their leadership development is an ongoing process that will never stop. Leadership involves relationships–when people change, relationships change–and maintaining any positive relationship requires ongoing effort over a long period of time. Relationships don’t remain great because someone “got better” and stayed in this state of “betterness” forever–with no additional work.

Real Change Requires Real Effort

Leaders can help people set goals that increase their probability of lasting change–or they can help them set goals that may feel good in the short term but lead to disillusionment and giving up in the long term.

The typical advertisement or “infomercial” designed to help people get in shape provides a great example of what not to do in goal setting. The message is almost always the same: “For an incredibly small amount of money, you can buy a revolutionary product that is amazingly easy and fun to use. This product will produce fantastic results in almost no time and you will have the body that you always wanted.” Most infomercials imply that you will not have to continue exercising and dieting for years–that you will continue to look young–and that you will be a magnet for members of the opposite sex for the rest of your life!

In reality there is no easy answer. Real change requires real effort. The quick fix is seldom the meaningful fix. Distractions and competing responses are going to happen. The higher the level of the leader, the more likely it is that they will happen. Improving leadership skills–like getting in shape–won’t solve all of life’s problems. And finally, great leadership is not a game that can be won in a year–it is a process that requires the commitment of a lifetime!

One of our great teachers, Paul Hersey, always said, “Leadership is not a popularity contest.” An important component of leadership is coaching. Coaching should never become a popularity contest either. Coaches, whether inside the company or external, need to have the courage to tell the truth up front. By challenging people in the goal-setting process and helping goal-setters face the difficult realities of lasting change, good coaches can go a long way toward ensuring that behavioral change becomes a reality–and that goals don’t become more “New Year’s resolutions” that feel good for a few days–but then disappear over time. This message may sound tough but at least it is real. Successful people are not afraid of challenging goals–they just need to understand the true commitment that will be required to reach these goals. In fact, clear and specific goals that produce a lot of challenge–when coupled with a realistic assessment of the roadblocks to overcome in achieving these goals–can produce consistently strong long-term results.

The benefits of well-thought-out goal setting are clear. Honest, challenging coaches can help people make a real difference–both in their organizations and in the lives of the people they help.

Copyright 2005 by Marshall Goldsmith and Kelly Goldsmith. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader, a publication of the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.

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Goldsmith, Marshall, and Goldsmith, Kelly “Helping People Achieve Their Goals” Leader to Leader. 39 (Winter 2006): 24-29.

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Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.

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The Upside of Anger

Getting angry with other people often means you’re just upset with yourself.

by Marshall Goldsmith

On a flight from Zurich to New York, I sat next to a very successful investor who had paid too much for a small high-tech firm. As we talked, he told me how livid he was with the owner of the company. Despite making a powerful initial impression, the entrepreneur lacked motivation and consistently missed important business commitments.

My seatmate complained over and over during the course of the flight about how the owner had led him on with promises of breakthrough technologies that never materialized. I asked my fellow traveler how long this guy had been upsetting him. “Far too many months!” he grunted angrily.

And yet the man sitting next to me was a multimillionaire. He lived in a beautiful home in Switzerland and had a lovely wife and child. He’d been a successful venture capitalist and invested in several incredibly profitable companies in the past. But even with all of these accomplishments, this one person was irritating him immensely.

Almost all of us know someone who drives us absolutely crazy — one person who consistently frustrates us or makes us feel guilty or sad. We’ve all spent countless hours reliving times when this person was inconsiderate or ungrateful. Just thinking of him or her makes our blood pressure rise, our pulse race with anger, and our minds fill with grief.

People like my flying companion’s business owner can make you feel absolutely miserable. But dwelling on these nettlesome individuals is never a good idea. If you believe, as I do, that it’s our own behavior that holds us back from achieving as much as we can, then one of the larger culprits is the time and energy we waste being angry.

An old Buddhist parable may help illuminate the issue. A young farmer was paddling his boat up the river to deliver his produce to the village. He was in a hurry. It was a hot day, and the farmer, covered with sweat, wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. Looking ahead, he spied another vessel, moving rapidly downstream toward his boat. The vessel seemed to be trying desperately to hit him.

“Change direction, you idiot!” he yelled at the other boat. “You are going to hit me!” But his cries were to no avail. Although the farmer rowed furiously to get out of the way, the other boat hit him with a sudden thud. Enraged, he stood up and shouted, “You moron! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? What is wrong with you?”

As he strained to see the pilot of the other vessel, he was surprised to realize there was no one in it. Rather, he was screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was just floating downstream with the current.

The next time you start angrily blaming someone else for problems you encounter, just remember, there is never anyone in the other boat. When we are screaming, we are always screaming at an empty vessel. The other person who is irritating you will not change direction in the current just for you.

Of course, you don’t have to like this other person. You don’t have to agree with him, and you don’t even have to respect him. But you do have to remember that he is who he is, or his craziness will become yours. After all, he probably isn’t losing sleep over you. You’re the one being punished, but you’re doing the punishing, too.

It’s also important to remember that when we direct our anger at someone else, we are often really mad at ourselves. I suggested to my seatmate that the real cause of his anger might be that he was beating himself up for being a poor judge of character and not conducting adequate due diligence into the purchase. After careful consideration, he agreed that I was right. Then he began berating himself for making a bad decision. “I usually have a great sense for these deals, but I screwed this one up!” he said. “The person that I am the most upset with is me.”

But getting angry with himself for making this mistake was just as fruitless as brooding over the slack business owner. I reminded him that he was extremely successful in spite of this mistake, and that he would only learn from his failings in this deal. By the end of the flight, he’d decided to cut his losses, sell the company, and apply what he’d learned to another new business.

It’s hard not to become consumed by anger, whether it’s directed at someone else or at ourselves. But trying to change the course of others and criticizing ourselves for past mistakes isn’t just unproductive, it’s exhausting. When you’re angry at someone else, redirect your energy to change yourself, not the other person, and commit to learn from your failures. It’s a much better way to navigate the waters.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Turning Those Flabby Abs Into That Sexy Six-Pack

I don’t watch much TV. But on a recent Saturday morning, I found myself channel-surfing for about 15 minutes. I was amazed at how many of the ads were about getting in shape. Here are some of the exact phrases I heard:

“Six-second abs.”

“Easy shaper.”

“Incredible — a miracle!”

“It feels terrific! Let us show you how easy it is!”

“Quickly turn your flabby abs into that sexy six-pack!”

My favorite was one that claimed that “visible results” could be achieved in two three-minute sessions!

I am from Kentucky. Excuse the language, but a phrase from my childhood captures my feeling for these claims: “What a pile of bulls — t!”

If you want to know why so many goal setters don’t become goal achievers, you can pore over a bunch of enlightening academic studies about goals or you can watch infomercials for 15 minutes. Where did we ever get the crazy idea that getting in shape is supposed to be quick and easy? Why do we think that there will be almost no cost? Why are we surprised when working out turns out to be arduous and healthy foods don’t really taste that good?

I see the impact of this kind of thinking all the time. I recently got a call from Mary, an EVP for human resources, who was dealing with the integration of people and systems after her company had made a large acquisition. “Don, our CEO, has been hearing some serious grumbling about Bill, our chief information officer,” she groaned. “Bill is 56 years old and has great experience. No one else in the company can match it.

Unfortunately, he wants everything to be done his way. There are some brilliant people in the company we acquired who have their own ideas. Several of their top people, including our new COO, are expressing concerns about Bill. Don wants this issue resolved now! He has suggested that we get an executive coach to work with Bill. Given Bill’s busy schedule and our immediate needs, Don would like to see a dramatic change in Bill within a couple of months. Because Bill is also very impatient, he won’t work with a coach who will waste his valuable time. Do you think that you can help us? When could you start?”

Like all of the folks who buy these miracle products to help them get in shape, Mary wanted a miracle coach to immediately change Bill.

I pointed out that Bill was a 56-year-old executive. Just as with diet and exercise, Bill’s behavioral habits took years to develop and won’t go away overnight. We all set goals to get some aspect of our lives in shape. All too often, we fail to meet them. Why? There are four major challenges that we mistakenly assess:

1. Time: “This is taking a lot longer than I thought it would,” or “I don’t have time for this.”

2. Effort: “This is a lot harder than I thought it would be,” or “I’m tired. It’s just not worth it.”

3. Competing goals: “I had no idea I would be so busy this year. I’ll just have to worry about this later.”

4. Maintenance: “After I got in shape, I celebrated by indulging in some of the actions that forced me to set my goals in the first place. Now, for some unexplained reason, I’m back where I started. What am I supposed to do? Go on some kind of diet for the rest of my life?”

We often confuse the words “simple” and “easy.” The changes I help people make are generally very simple. However, they are never easy. Just as with diet and exercise, changing behavior involves hard work. It takes time.

During the next year, Bill will be barraged with competing goals that will distract him from his efforts to change. He needs to realize that lasting leadership development is a lifelong process. A temporary change in behavior to “look good” in the short term will only create cynicism if Bill doesn’t stick with it. I can help Bill if he is willing to put in the time and effort. If not, hiring me would probably be a waste of everyone’s time.

Look in the mirror. Not just at how you look but who you are. If you want to be a better leader, a better professional, or just a better person — don’t kid yourself. To achieve meaningful goals, you’ll have to pay the price. There’s no product, no diet, no exercise program, and (I hate to admit it) no executive coach who can make you better. Only you can do it. If your source of motivation doesn’t come from inside, you won’t stick with it. This may not be material for a Saturday morning TV ad, but it’s great advice for any real achievement.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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The Skill That Separates

Two highly accomplished lawyers are sitting at the bar at Sparks Steakhouse in New York. One is my friend’s lawyer, Tom, the other is Tom’s law partner, Kevin. They’re having a leisurely drink, waiting for their table to open up. Sparks is a landmark steakhouse where a handful of New York’s rich, powerful, and glamorous are in attendance most nights. On this night, the A-list name is superstar attorney David Boies, who argued the U.S. government’s case against Microsoft. He makes a beeline to the bar to say hello to Kevin, whom he knows from previous cases.

Boies joins Tom and Kevin for a drink. A few minutes later, Kevin gets up to make a phone call outside. Boies remains at the bar, talking to Tom for 30 minutes. “I’d never met Boies before,” Tom said. “He didn’t have to hang around the bar talking to me. And I have to tell you, I wasn’t bowled over by his intelligence, or his piercing questions, or his anecdotes. What impressed me was that when he asked a question, he waited for the answer. He not only listened, he made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”

I submit that Tom’s last 13 words perfectly describe the single skill that separates the great from the near great. When Kevin inexplicably disappeared, Boies stuck around and made a lasting positive impression on Tom. The two attorneys have different practices; the chance that Tom could somehow help Boies one day is virtually nil. Boies clearly wasn’t looking to score points. In showing interest, asking questions, and listening for the answers without distraction, Boies was simply practicing the one skill that has made him inarguably great at relating to people.

I’m not sure why all of us don’t execute this precious interpersonal maneuver all the time. We’re certainly capable of doing so when it really matters to us. If we’re on a sales call with a prospect who could make or break our year, we prepare by knowing something personal about the prospect. We ask questions designed to reveal his inclinations, and we scan his face for clues.

The only difference between us and the supersuccessful among us-the near great and the great-is that the greats do this all the time. It’s automatic. There’s no on-off switch for caring, empathy, and showing respect. It’s always on.

So why don’t we do it? We forget. We get distracted. We don’t have the mental discipline to make it automatic.

Ninety percent of this skill is listening, of course. And listening requires the discipline to concentrate. So I’ve developed a simple exercise to test my clients’ listening skills. Close your eyes. Count slowly to 50 with one simple goal: You can’t let another thought intrude into your mind. You must concentrate on maintaining the count.

Sounds simple, but incredibly, more than half of my clients can’t do it. Somewhere around 20 or 30, nagging thoughts invade their brain. They think about a problem at work, or their kids, or how much they ate for dinner the night before. This may sound like a concentration test, but it’s really a listening exercise. After all, if you can’t listen to yourself (someone you presumably like) as you count to 50, how will you ever be able to listen to another person?

Like any exercise, this drill both exposes a weakness and helps us get stronger. If I ask you to touch your toes and you can’t, we’ve revealed that your muscles are tight. But if you practice each day, eventually you’ll become more limber.

Once you can complete the exercise without interruption, you’re ready for a test drive. Make your next interpersonal encounter-whether it’s with your spouse or a colleague or a stranger-an exercise in treating the other person like a million bucks. Employ these tiny tactics: Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish the other person’s sentences. Don’t say, “I knew that.” Don’t even agree with the other person. If he praises you, just say thank you. Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.” Don’t let your eyes wander elsewhere while the other person is talking. Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that show you’re paying attention, move the conversation forward, and require the person to talk (while you listen).

Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is important. If you can do that, you’ll uncover a glaring paradox: The more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eyes. You may feel like a dullard as you listen quietly, but invariably the other person will say, “What a great guy!” You’d say the same thing about anyone who made you feel like the most important person in the room.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Who Are You Arguing With?

Everyone has heard motivational speeches that exclaim “You can do it!” and “Follow your dreams!” Abandoning one job or career for another is much easier to say than do. Especially when you are, by any measure, a “winner” in life and the place you’re in is pretty good. In spite of speeches that make it sound easy, changing our lives is tough. We may fail. People may laugh at us. In the words of one of my clients, “Even my mother will think that I am crazy if I give up this job!”

Many of us grapple with these issues. My friend Maria is a gifted engineer who has invested years in making a significant contribution to her firm. But her burning passion for her work is starting to cool down. When I asked her to describe her concerns, she grimaced and said, “I just don’t feel like I’m learning that much. I know I’m doing a great job, but I feel like, ‘Been there, done that.’ It’s not the company’s fault. I love my company and feel like they deserve my best. It’s just hard for me to generate the enthusiasm that I know I should.”

“What job sounds fun and exciting to you?” I asked.

Her face lit up as she replied, “I think that I could do a great job managing a project team and eventually leading a larger part of our business. I have seen other managers. I know that I can do what they do. In fact, some of the ones I respect the most have encouraged me to go for it.”

“Why don’t you try for a career in management?”

“I’m afraid of giving up what I have,” she added. “If I go into management, I’m definitely going to lose my technical edge after a few years. Nobody is going to want to hire me as an engineer anymore. I have friends who’ve been in middle management and been laid off. It can be tough for them to get another job. Besides, I’m great at what I do. I make a nice salary, and I don’t have as many headaches. Why should I take the risk?” She became animated as she defended her present position.

I laughed and replied, “Maria, it’s not my life. We’re talking about your life. Being an engineer is fine; being in management is fine. I’m just a friend who wants you to be happy. Who are you arguing with?”

“I guess that I’m arguing with myself,” she said, smiling. “I just don’t know what to do.”

A client, Bill, is also very good at what he does. In some ways he seems to have it all. He’s 50, in great shape, has an MBA from Wharton, and is an investment banker with a net worth of millions of dollars. He has a great wife and nice kids. But his burning passion for his work is also beginning to wane. He wants to teach. I asked him why he loved teaching, and he said, “It’s really fun. Every night when I come home from teaching an MBA course at the local university, my wife notices how great I feel and how positive I am. I really believe I’m making a difference in some of my students’ lives!”

But when I asked, “Why don’t you become a teacher?” Bill talked himself out of his newfound passion.

“Compared to being an investment banker, college professors don’t make any money. To make it worse, none of the real professors seem to respect me that much. I don’t have a PhD; in some ways, they kind of think that they are better than I am. Why should I put up with their crap? Many of them don’t know anything about the real world like I do. Why should I give up a great job with lots of money, status, and respect to be a second-class citizen?”

“To begin with, why do you care about money?” I laughed. “You already have more than you can spend. By the way, who are you arguing with?”

It’s very easy to talk with our friends about “going to the next level.” How many times have you heard people talk about the job that they “would love to have someday”? How many of these people actually end up doing the work they dream about?

The next time you hear yourself talking about “that job I would really like to have,” look in the mirror. How willing are you to lose what you have? All opportunity involves risk. How willing are you to face the possibility of failure or diminished success?

If you have been having the same long-standing debate — either with friends or just in your head — it’s time to make a decision. If you want to go for it, don’t kid yourself about the risk. You have to be willing to accept the possibility of failure and get started. If you decide you don’t want to give up what you have, make peace with it. Quit wasting time debating with yourself about a future that will never happen. Who are you arguing with?

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Leaders Make Values Visible

The corporate credo. Companies have wasted millions of dollars and countless hours of employees’ time agonizing over the wording of statements that are inscribed on plaques and hung on walls. There is a clear assumption that people’s behavior will change because the pronouncements on plaques are “inspirational” or certain words “integrate our strategy and values.” There is an implicit hope that when people – especially managers – hear great words, they will start to exhibit great behavior.

Sometimes these words morph as people try to keep up with the latest trends in corporate-speak. A company may begin by striving for “customer satisfaction,” then advance to “total customer satisfaction,” and then finally reach the pinnacle of “customer delight.”

But this obsession with words belies one very large problem: There is almost no correlation between the words on the wall and the behavior of leaders. Every company wants “integrity,” “respect for people,” “quality,” “customer satisfaction,” “innovation,” and “return for shareholders.” Sometimes companies get creative and toss in something about “community” or “suppliers.” But since the big messages are all basically the same, the words quickly lose their real meaning to employees – if they had any in the first place.

Enron is a great example. Before the energy conglomerate’s collapse in 2001, I had the opportunity to review Enron’s values. I was shown a wonderful video on Enron’s ethics and integrity. I was greatly impressed by the company’s espoused high-minded beliefs and the care that was put into the video. Examples of Enron’s good deeds in the community and the professed character of Enron’s executives were particularly noteworthy.

It was one of the most smoothly professional presentations on ethics and values that I have ever seen. Clearly, Enron spent a fortune “packaging” these wonderful messages. It didn’t really matter. Despite the lofty words, many of Enron’s top executives either have been indicted or are in jail.

The situation couldn’t be more different at Johnson & Johnson. The pharmaceutical company is famous for its Credo, which was written many years ago and reflected the sincere values of the leaders of the company at that time. The J&J Credo could be considered rather quaint by today’s standards. It contains several old-fashioned phrases, such as “must be good citizens – support good works and charities – and bear our fair share of taxes” and “maintain in good order the property that we are privileged to use.” It lacks the slick PR packaging that I observed at Enron.

Yet, even with its less-powerful language and seemingly dated presentation, the J&J Credo works – primarily because over many years, the company’s management has taken the values that it offers seriously. J&J executives have consistently challenged themselves and employees not just to understand the values, but to live them in day-to-day behavior. When I conducted leadership training for J&J, one of its very top executives spent many hours with every class. The executive’s task was not to talk about compensation or other perks of J&J management; it was to discuss living the company’s values.

My partner, Howard Morgan, and I recently completed a study of more than 11,000 managers in eight major corporations. (See “Leadership Is a Contact Sport,” by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan, s+b, Fall 2004.) We looked at the impact of leadership development programs in changing executive behavior. As it turns out, each of the eight companies had different values and different words to describe ideal leadership behavior. But these differences in words made absolutely no difference in determining the way leaders behaved. One company spent thousands of hours composing just the right words to express its view of how leaders should act – in vain. I am sure that the first draft would have been just as useful.

At many companies, performance appraisal forms seem to undergo the same careful scrutiny as credos. In fact, more effort seems to be given to producing the perfect words on an appraisal form than to managing employee performance itself. I worked with one company that had used at least 15 different performance appraisal forms and was contemplating yet another change because the present sheet “wasn’t working”! If changing the words on the page could improve the performance management process, every company’s appraisal system would be perfect by now.

Companies that do the best job of living up to their values and developing ethical employees, including managers, recognize that the real cause of success – or failure – is always the people, not the words.

Rather than wasting time on reinventing words about desired leadership behavior, companies should ensure that leaders get (and act upon) feedback from employees – the people who actually observe this behavior. Rather than wasting time on changing performance appraisal forms, leaders need to learn from employees to ensure that they are providing the right coaching.

Ultimately, our actions will say much more to employees about our values and our leadership skills than our words ever can. If our actions are wise, no one will care if the words on the wall are not perfect. If our actions are foolish, the wonderful words posted on the wall will only make us look more ridiculous.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Is It Worth It

Reflections for Leaders during a War

by Marshall Goldsmith

In many ways war can be seen as a metaphor for much of what happens in daily business life. In fact, ten different versions of The Art of War by Sun Tzu are currently listed in the top 1% of all books on
Corporate leaders, not military people, are the major buyers of these books.As organizational leaders reflect upon the ongoing war in Iraq, it might be a good time to look for learnings from combat that we can all apply in our daily business interactions.

I have had the privilege of coaching many successful leaders. One of my former clients (who I will call “Joe”) is now the CEO of one of the world’s most valuable corporations. When I worked as his coach, he was the chief operating executive at a smaller company. He had many of the strengths that most of the top executives that I meet possess. He was brilliant, dedicated, high in integrity, committed to the company, dedicated to serving customers, innovative and consistent in achieving results. He was also viewed as somewhat stubborn and opinionated.

Joe’s “area for improvement” was not particularly unusual. When the Harvard Business Review interviewed me in October, I was asked to describe the most common problem of the executives that I coach. I replied, “winning too much”.

Joe was a wonderful client and is still a friend. After 18 months, he achieved very positive long-term change in behavior as judged by his key stakeholders. He was seen as much more open and less opinionated and judgmental. He was viewed by almost everyone as a more effective leader. At the end of our time together, I asked Joe, “What did you learn from this coaching process in the past year?”

Joe replied, “Most of what I learned from you, I learned in the first day. I learned to stop, take a breath and ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ before I spoke.”

He smiled and said, “Unfortunately, in many cases, when an executive like me makes a suggestion, it is taken as an order. When I was able to stop and think before speaking, in about half the cases, I concluded, “Do I believe that I am right? Maybe. Is it worth it? No.”

When listening to news about the war, it might be good for all of us to review the behavior of the key players in this drama. For each decision ask, “Does this leader believe that he is right?” then ask, “Is it worth it?”

In some cases the answer may be “yes”. Sometimes it is worth it to go to war to defend what we believe to be right. In other cases the answer might be “no”. Sometimes “winning the battle” is not worth the cost. As you listen to the leaders speak (on all sides), think not only about the war. Think of the interactions that preceded the war. For example, think about the way that the Americans, Brits, French and Germans have treated each other in the past few months.

These lessons from war may not just apply at work. They might also apply at home.

Nathaniel Branden taught me a wonderful exercise to help determine if something was really worth it. He asks his clients to complete the following sentence (over and over again) with a list of benefits: “If I get better at (the behavior the client may want to change), then ___”.

I have done this exercise with hundreds of leaders. When leaders participate in this exercise, one of two things happens. Either can be very useful. In some cases the leaders begin to realize how important this change is. They finish the exercise with a commitment to do better. In other cases the benefits don’t seem that important. The advantages of changing don’t merit the effort. In these cases I suggest that they work on something else.

The first time I did this exercise, I observed an executive who was highly judgmental. He completed the sentence, “If I become less judgmental ___”. The first few completions were mainly sarcastic or cynical comments. By the sixth completion he had tears running down his face. He said, “If I become less judgmental, maybe my children will speak to me again.”

This leader learned a great lesson. Sometimes “winning” and “being right” just wasn’t worth it. He also learned that becoming less judgmental was definitely worth it.

War provides an opportunity to observe leaders making critically important decisions in the ultimate high-stakes environment. As you watch each leader on television ask yourself, “Does he believe that he is right?” then ask, “Is it worth it?”

Try to differentiate between the need to “win” and to “be right” from the need to fight a noble battle for a just cause.

More importantly, the next time you are ready to go to war – at work or at home – don’t forget to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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Making a Resolution that Matters

To make resolutions that matter, don’t look forward. Look back.

by Marshall Goldsmith

It is February – half of all New Year’s resolutions have already been broken. It is probably a good time to revisit your goals and think about what you really want to change.

Take a deep breath. Take a deeper breath.

I want you to imagine that you’re 95 years old – and on your death bed. Before taking your last breath – you’re given a great gift: the ability to travel back in time – the ability to talk to the person who is reading this column – the ability to help this person be a better professional and, more importantly, lead a better life.

The 95-year-old you understands what was really important and what wasn’t, what mattered and what didn’t, what counted and what didn’t really count. What advice would this wise “old you” have for the “you” who is reading this page?

Take a few seconds to answer this question – personally and professionally. Jot down words that capture what the old you would be saying to the younger you that is here now. My next suggestion is simple – just do whatever you wrote down! Make that your resolution for this year and next.

A friend of mine actually had the chance to interview people who were dying and ask them what advice they would have had for themselves. The answers he got provide wonderful advice for all of us.

One recurring theme was to “find happiness and meaning – now,” not next month or next year. The great Western disease lies in the phrase, “I will be happy when . . .” The wise old you has finally realized that the next promotion, the next achievement, or the corner office really won’t change your world that much. Many older people said they were so wrapped up in looking for what they didn’t have that they seldom appreciated what they did have. They often wished they would just enjoyed life as they were living it.

Another common response revolved around friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company, and you may think that your contribution to that organization is very important. When you are 95 years old and you look at the people around your deathbed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving good-bye. Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care. Appreciate them now and share a large part of your life with them.

Older people offer other valuable advice: “Follow your dreams.” Figure out your true purpose in life, and go for it! This doesn’t apply just to big dreams; it is also true for little dreams. Buy the sports car you always wanted, go to that exotic locale you always imagined yourself visiting, learn to play the guitar or the piano. If some think your vision of a well-lived life is a bit offbeat or even goofy, who cares? It isn’t their life. It’s yours. Old people who pursued their dreams are always happier with their lives. Few of us will achieve all of our dreams. Some will always be elusive. So the key question is not, “Did I make all of my dreams come true?” The key question is, “Did I try?”

I just finished a major research project involving more than 200 high-potential leaders from 120 companies around the world. Each company could nominate only two future leaders, the very brightest of its young stars. These are the kinds of people who could jump at a moment’s notice to better-paying positions elsewhere. We asked each of them a simple question: “If you stay in this company, why are you going to stay?”

The following are the top three answers.

“I am finding meaning and happiness now. The work is exciting and I love what I am doing.”

“I like the people. They are my friends. This feels like a team. It feels like a family. I could make more money working with other people, but I don’t want to leave the people here.”

“I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me a chance to do what I really want to do in life.”

The answers were never about the money. They were always about the satisfaction. When my friend asked people on their deathbeds what was important – and I asked young, global leaders what was important – we got exactly the same answers!

So do the reverse New Year’s resolution. Don’t look ahead. Look behind. Be happy now – enjoy your friends and family – and follow your dreams. This is great advice for everyone who wants a fulfilling career. It’s also great advice for everyone who wants to live a meaningful life.

Life is good

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as the #2 bestselling business book for 2012 by INC magazine / 800 CEO Read. This is the sixth year in a row that What Got You Here Won’t Get You There has been listed as a top ten CEO Read business best seller for the year.


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