Interview by Juliet Harrison, Marshall Goldsmith.
Purpose – The purpose of this article is to provide an interview with the million-selling author, Marshall Goldsmith.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper provides an interview with Marshall Goldsmith, who is author and editor of 31 books, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, MOJO, and the WSJ number one business book and winner of the Harold Longman Award for Business Book of the Year, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. His books have been translated into 28 languages, and have become bestsellers in eight countries.
Findings – In the interview, Marshall discusses his innovative approach to executive coaching; the impact of social media for leaders and chief executive officers; and his current research on employee engagement.
Originality/value – The paper highlights that the key figure in executive coaching, upon whom the success of the coaching hinges, is the client themselves.
Executive coaching; Leadership; Chief executives; Creativity; Behavioural change.
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Marshall Goldsmith was recently recognized as the number one leadership thinker, and the number seven business thinker in the world at the bi-annual Thinkers 50 ceremony, sponsored by the Harvard Business Review.
He is the million-selling author and editor of 31 books, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, MOJO, and the WSJ number one business book and winner of the Harold Longman Award for Business Book of the Year, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. His books have been translated into 28 languages, and have become bestsellers in eight countries. He has regular blogs at www.businessweek.com and www.huffingtonpost.com
For more information about Marshall Goldsmith, go to: www.marshallgoldsmith.com
Could you tell us a bit about your professional background, and what led you to write so extensively on leadership and coaching?
I received my PhD in organizational behaviour from UCLA's Anderson School of Management, and went on to become assistant professor and associate dean of Loyola Marymount College, Los Angeles. After that I met a famous man called Dr Paul Hersey, who, alongside Ken Blanchard, was the founder of Situational Leadership. He was an early mentor of mine, and led me to meet many other great people in our field, such as Richard Beckhard, and Peter Drucker (I sat on the board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for ten years). That is how I became involved in the field of leadership development. Coaching, I got in to by accident. I met the CEO of this big company who said, “We have this young man working for us – very dedicated and hardworking, but a bit of a know-it-all – who would be worth a fortune to me if I could change his behaviour.” I offered to help, but the CEO had doubts as to whether I could, so I came up with an idea: “I'll work with him for 12 months,” I said, “and if he improves you can pay me. If he doesn't, it's free.” The CEO said, “Sold!” That was about 30 years ago, and is how I got in to executive coaching.
You've recently been recognized as the most influential leadership thinker in the world at the bi-annual Thinkers 50 ceremony. Why do you think your particular approach has become so successful?
I'm one of the few people in my field who measures results. I actually measure if leaders achieve positive, long-term change in behaviour, not just in themselves, but in everyone around them. Also, with my coaching process, I don't get paid if my clients don't get better. Basically, I measure what helps people change over time, and how leaders can actually improve behaviour, as opposed to more abstract, theoretical stuff that sounds good, but perhaps doesn't have the research to support it.
So it is more about “research into practice”?
Exactly. I have done a lot of research, but then it is all very practically applied. I look at what I do not as Graduate school, but as “Trade School”, and I think one of the reasons I am considered an influential thinker is that the stuff I teach, people can actually do. Both my teaching and coaching is very practical, applied, and transferable. Thousands of people have been trained in our coaching process, and many of them have had results that are just as good as mine.
Have you had to change your approach in the last 5-10 years, with the introduction of social media, etc?
My biggest lesson over the last 5-10 years was shared with me by one of my clients, one of the greatest leaders I have ever met, a man named Alan Mulally. I learnt that the leaders I was spending the least amount of time with were improving the most, and those I was spending most of my time with weren't improving at all. It was a humbling lesson. I made a chart with two dimensions: one was “Time Spent with Marshall Goldsmith”, and the other was “Improvement”. There seemed to be a negative correlation between spending time with me and getting better! So I spoke to Alan, who had improved more than anyone I had coached, and he taught me a couple of lessons about leadership. First was that the key variable for your success is your client. You have to have great people to work with. Secondly, he said, “Don't make the coaching process about yourself, about your ego, how smart you are. Make it about the great people you work with. As a leader, every day I tell myself that leadership isn't about me, it's about them”. These lessons sound pretty simple, but very few executive coaches understand them. Most executive coaching, if you read the literature, is based on the assumption that if a coach does a certain thing the client will get better, leaving success or failure resting solely on the coach. What I tell my clients is, “The key variable of my success is not me; it's you. If you work you'll get better, if you don't you won't”. So I really don't think I'm a great coach, but I do think I have great clients.
Have you noticed in your experience that successful leaders tend to exhibit similar characteristics, or does it really vary from person to person?
I think it varies in some ways, but really I can talk more about leaders that improve. Leaders who achieve positive, long-term change do certainly display some similar characteristics. First, they have courage – courage to look in the mirror and see themselves. This is a trait that many of us don't have. Secondly, they have the humility to admit they can improve. And third, they have the discipline to follow up and do the work required to get better. If they have these three qualities the process pretty much always works. If they don't posses these qualities it probably won't work at all.
Do you think it has become more difficult for managers to successfully lead now that teams are more geographically dispersed, with people working all over the world?
First, I'd like to go back to the social media question. Managers today need to watch basically everything they do, everything they say, and even how they look, because they are constantly being recorded. One of the advantages I give to my clients is that they can talk to each other, which is great because they have nobody to talk to, not because they are snobs, but because there is such high visibility to what they do. One of my coaching clients asked her boss, “Does this coaching mean I have to watch what I say and how I act in every meeting for the rest of my career?”, and her boss, the company CEO replied, “Welcome to my world”. I'm not making a point about whether this is positive or negative, the reality is it is, and it is not going to go away. If leaders are going to be effective in the future they need to know how to deal with social media, and media in general
This relates to the earlier question about internationality, as social media can be a benefit in this respect
Absolutely. New technology really helps. One of the greatest leaders I've ever met does this weekly check-in process with all the managers in his team, no matter where they are. They schedule a time that is most geographically convenient, and have a [video conference] in which they can all see each other, and even though they are all around the world, in a sense they are in the same room at the same time. The great thing about new media is that you can communicate much more effectively than you used to. There are just a lot of basic sensitivities that need to be learnt, such as time, and culture. I think it could be imminently possible to manage a global workforce in this way, and in fact some leaders are already doing this spectacularly.
Is there any work you are currently undertaking with businesses, any executive coaching you are involved with at the moment?
In my coaching I am working with nine clients; I work with two non-profits as a volunteer, one from a college, the other from a nature conservancy, and I also have a number of corporate clients. All my clients are CEOs or leaders of their organizations. It is my job is to take these successful people who are already doing great jobs and try to help them get better. After I finish working with my clients I still keep in touch with them, and we have a regular network. For example, I am having a meeting with 20 of my clients in New York, and we're bringing in Vijay Govindarajan to talk about strategy, and Subir Chowdhury to talk about quality. What I try to do for my clients is: 1) let them talk to my other clients, because there is a huge positive resource there; and, 2) bring in other people. Both Govindarajan and Chowdhury have also been recognised by Thinkers 50, so during our day together my clients will be able to speak to 3 of the top 50 business thinkers, which is a very positive opportunity for them.
I suppose it is also an advocacy tour for the work that you do as well
It is. Typically, it is for my existing or former clients, and it is a great way for them to find people they can talk to who can help them, who don't have a bias. They're not competing, they don't have a game to play, they don't have to pretend to be perfect, and they can share issues and concerns in a way that is very useful. I'm not a CEO, nor have I ever been a CEO, so they also have questions for me that are well outside my field of knowledge. What I try to do for my clients is provide other people who can answer such business questions that are well beyond my level of expertise.
Are you currently working on any new projects? Do you have a new book in the pipeline?
I do! The book is tentatively entitled Leading Your Normal Life. I'm working with my friends Mark Thompson and Bonita Buell-Thompson. Part of the book is about employee engagement, which is very exciting. Almost everything that has been written in the history of employee engagement has focussed on what the company can do to engage you. My daughter, Dr Kelly Goldsmith, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Kellogg school of Management, and I have collaborated on some research on employee engagement. We have put together a system that focuses on teaching people to engage themselves, using something called “active questions”. They get people to focus on what they can change, as opposed to what they cannot. The results so far have been amazingly positive with regards to getting people engaged and involved, so it is very exciting. That's my new project, which will be out towards the end of 2012.