Marshall Goldsmith: Lessons from a top executive coach

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Marshall Goldsmith has built a career counseling the leaders of Fortune 500 companies. He earned the designation of “highest rated executive coach” at the biennial Thinkers50 Conferences in 2011 and 2013 and was recognized as the Most Influential Leadership Thinker in the World by that group in 2011. He’s been profiled in noted publications like the Economist (UK) and Economic Times (India). Goldsmith’s books, including What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Mojo, have sold over two million copies worldwide and been translated into more than a dozen languages. His latest book,Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts, examines the role our environment plays in stimulating or hindering personal and organizational change.

What led you to write about “triggers”?

I’ve coached successful leaders for many decades. Over that time, it has become increasingly apparent that the quality of our organizational culture plays an outsize role in our ability to sustain positive behavioral change. It’s not enough to have personal drive and commitment. Our environment must align with the person we wish to become. To take an extreme case, a recovering drug addict will often revert to past behaviors when thrust back into their original environment, no matter how dedicated and successful they were with treatment. That is a negative trigger. Sustained behavioral change requires both the will to change and an environment that supports and reinforces those new desired behaviors. There are positive triggers.

Does that mark a change or has the work environment always wielded such influence?

Its significance has grown markedly. Back in the 1970s, for instance, IBM was my biggest customer. And in those old days, I could roll a cannon ball down the hall at five o’clock in the afternoon and not hit a soul. Everyone had gone home for the night. People worked 35 or 40 hours a week and when their four or five weeks of vacation came around they took it, and it was a real vacation, with no work distractions, no computer, no conference calls or email. It’s hard to imagine four to five weeks of real vacation in today’s terms.

Today, of course, IBMers are working 60-70 hours a week. And the same is true for most successful organizations. That dynamic has enormous implications on the significance of the workplace environment in shaping personal and professional growth. If you’re working 40 hours a week and take five weeks off, environment has one level of significance. If work is your life, the environment has a totally different level of significance. It’s important for the leaders I coach to know that, both for their own development and for the organizations they are helping to shape and grow.

What are some examples of how managers can influence a more productive culture?

My friend Alan Mulally is the former CEO of Ford Motor Company. I was his coach when he was at Boeing and we work together now. Alan totally changed the culture at Ford by focusing on leader behaviors. Each week, for example, he led a senior staff meeting with 16 top executives. Should any executive take out their smart phone during that meeting, he’d stop the offender and ask, “Is there something more important than this meeting that you need to attend to now?” That shut that behavior down very quickly. Nobody sent emails. There were no side conversations, no cynical comments. Nobody tried to look smart at other people’s expense. To inculcate that behavior, he had senior executives bring two guests to each weekly meeting solely to have those guests watch, learn and hopefully then emulate the type of teaming he felt was instrumental to Ford’s success. Mulally’s efforts totally turned the company culture around. The stock skyrocketed during his tenure and and he earned a 97% approval rating from all employees.

Good meeting discipline is one thing, but embedding and enforcing desired behaviors is another. What else did Mulally do to shape Ford’s culture and make it more productive?

Alan is a nice man, but he’s got a backbone of steel. One executive who didn’t like Alan’s gentler, more collaborative approach to teaming took his complaints to Bill Ford, the company’s chairman and said, “Bill, this is nonsense. It’s like being in the Boy Scouts. I’m not going to do these childish things.” Bill said, “Talk to Alan.” And Alan met with the executive and said, “This is the way we’re going to work together as a team. I’ve made a decision. I had a choice. You had a choice. Goodbye.” When a second guy went over Mulally’s head, the same discussion happened and ended with “goodbye.” After that, people got the message. In the end, 14 of the 16 people that led Ford into bankruptcy were the same people that led it to huge success. Change must be enforced, but people can and will buy in given the proper backing.

People are naturally resistant to change. What elements must be in place for them to embrace it?

In my new book I write that there are two immutable truths of behavior change. The first is that change is hard to do. The second is that change needs to come from inside. It’s hard to initiate behavioral change, hard to stay the course and hardest of all to make the changes stick. That is why the second truth is most important. No one can make us change unless we truly want to change. It can’t be dictated, demanded or otherwise forced upon people. One who does not wholeheartedly commit to change will never change. A person has to be invested in it. I’ve found that to be true over the course of my career and I won’t work with anyone who is not interested in making change happen. The same is true for leaders looking to foster organizational change. They need to prime the business and inspire employees to embrace the needed changes. Otherwise, it won’t work.

How do you help leaders balance the need for bold change while still keeping the lights on and managing the day-to-day realities of the business?

That’s an important question. Change doesn’t come by giving a great motivational speech. It takes week after week of work. Having the right structure in place is far more important than easy answers in making change happen. Sometimes that structure is as simple as having somebody hold you accountable, but not forcing you to do anything, and merely reflecting back what you are doing and letting you decide for yourself whether you like what you see. Let me give myself as an example. In my book, I mention that I have come up with a daily process for asking questions that lead to true transformation, like, “How many angry or destructive comments did I make about people yesterday?” I pay a woman named Kate to call me on the phone every day. Every day she listens to me read 32 of these questions and everyday she hears me provide 32 answers. When people ask me why I pay some woman to call me on the phone every day just to listen to me read, I simply say that achieving positive long term change is very hard and we often need someone to help keep us honest.

What other kinds of questions are you asking?

The daily question process that I teach is really very simple. Get out an Excel spreadsheet. On one column right down a series of questions that represent what’s most important in your life. It might be simple questions like how many times did you try to prove you were right when it was not worth it? I almost always do badly on that one. It’s hard for an old professor not to be right all the time. Or, I might ask myself how many minutes did I walk? How many minutes did I write? The spreadsheet should have seven boxes across, one for every day of the week. Every day, every question is answered. And at the end of the week you’re going to get a scorecard that tells you how you did. And I tell people the scorecard they’re going to see is not as pretty as the corporate values plaques hanging on their wall. But, if they do this every day, it’s extremely powerful.

Many executives are overextended and running on fumes. Is change possible when the tank is empty?

One of the most depleting things in life is decision making. The more decisions we have to make in a day the more depleted we tend to become. This is one reason structure is so important. Structure helps us reduce the number of decisions we need to make and focuses our attention on the most important ones.

It is incredibly difficult in today’s world to keep focused. Managers really need to give people a clear sense of mission, structure, direction and prioritization so we don’t get lost in the mire of to dos and distractions that keep pounding us around the head as we go through life.

How does a C-Suite executive know when they need coaching?

I suggest everyone get confidential feedback. That’s because there is often a big gap between the person we think we are and the person the rest of the world sees. The higher up we go the harder this gets. Every time we get promoted people laugh at our jokes more. Our comments seem more profound, and we’re told we’ve even lost a pound or two. The more successful we become in life, the more we get positive recognition and feedback for who we are. And the better we feel about ourselves, the harder it is to hear negative feedback from others. As part of the research for Triggers, my colleagues and I surveyed many executives around the world. In my book, I write that that 70% of senior leaders believe they’re in the top 10 percent of their professional peer group; 82% of believe they’re in the top 20 and 98.5% of believe they’re in the top half. So, that’s how C-levels and other executives become disconnected from reality. By contrast, our research shows that if people get confidential feedback, they pick important behaviors to improve and they follow-up on a regular basis. Then they’re much more likely to achieve positive lasting change.

Some of us have the good fortune to land in a healthy environment with great resources. Others have to make do with less. What’s your advice to those who have to struggle a little bit more?

You can’t change the hand of cards you’ve been dealt in life. Our choice as individuals and leaders is how to play the hand we have been dealt well. My model starts with creating a vision. I ask those I coach, who do you want to become? What do you want your organization to become? Together we identify what they like about themselves or their situation and what they’d like to eliminate. Finally, we talk about what they need to simply accept in order to grow. Otherwise, leaders and others can spend energy fighting against factors they cannot control or change instead of focusing on those elements that will get them where they want to go faster and more productively.

Does there come a time when an executive should simply fold their hand and move on?

Peter Drucker taught me that our mission in life is not to prove we’re smart or right. Our mission in life is to make a positive difference. Following that advice, the simple test I recommend is for executives to ask themselves if they are willing to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic. If the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no, then they should put their energy into where they can make a positive difference.
If an executive believes she or he cannot become the person they want to become in their current work environment, then they need to change their environment. Aside from health, at least a middle class level of income, and positive relationships with people you love, only two things matter: happiness and meaning. And both need to occur simultaneously: you need to do what makes you happy. And at the same time you need to do what’s meaningful for you.

You advise leaders to stop trying to win everything. But isn’t trying to win at everything the American way? And increasingly the global way?

That’s true. Our trigger is the desire to win. The key, however, is to focus on winning the right battles and not contesting every fight, particularly when those fights lead to unnecessary collateral damage. I ask people if they’ve ever had the experience when after a hard day at work they go home and their partner starts talking about how hard their day was. And our inclination often is to respond by saying, you had a hard day? Do you have any idea of what I had to put up with today? We’re so competitive we even try to prove we’re more miserable than the people we live with.

The next time we get into that thing where we want to compete, take a deep a breath and ask yourself: what am I winning? Our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to win stupid and meaningless points and “prove” how smart we are.

Senior Writer

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