The Raffles Conversation with Marshall Goldsmith

Managing mojo

Marshall Goldsmith, acclaimed leadership coach to corporate stars, remains passionate about his mission, 40 years on.

Raffles Conversation with Marshall Goldsmith

‘WANT to know my retirement date? It’s been set,” author and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith tells me, with a twinkle in his eye. I lean in expectantly.

“When I’m dead!” he exclaims, breaking out in gales of laughter. His response comes as no surprise and I smile from the sheer contagious energy of the sprightly 67-year-old. Dressed in a casual polo T-shirt and armed with a wide grin and a full, white beard, Dr Goldsmith’s affable demeanour epitomises his motto: Life is good. But make no mistake, this mantra does not come from a retiree winding down in his golden years. As he tells BT: “I’m really not interested to play bad golf with old men in the country club all day.”

Even after having been in the business of leadership development for almost 40 years, Dr Goldsmith is not anywhere close to slowing down despite having reached the pinnacle of his field.

His list of accolades will run off the page – not only is he a New York Times bestselling author of multiple books, he was also recognised as the world’s number one leadership thinker last year in the bi-annual Thinkers50 Awards, often referred to as the “Oscars of management thinking”.

Dr Goldsmith may be the leadership coach to the stars with more than 120 major CEOs among his juggernaut clients, but luck played a role when he first entered this business. Early on in his career, he met a renowned professor and consultant Paul Hersey, who was kind enough to let him “tag along” and learn from him.

One day, Prof Hersey found himself double-booked and desperate for help. So he asked a young Dr Goldsmith if he was able to teach a leadership programme for a large insurance company in his place.

“At first I was not sure. Then he told me he would pay me US$1,000 a day. Back then, I was getting US$15,000 a year. I immediately said ‘yes sir!’,” he says with a laugh.

He was 28 at the time, and the company was initially upset when he showed up instead of Prof Hersey. But the response to the session was so overwhelmingly positive that he was called in again and the rest, as they say, is history.

Overcoming life’s triggers

In Singapore for a day to speak at HR Summit 2016 in May, there is nary a sign of jetlag as he speaks animatedly to a rapt audience of suited-up executives and business leaders. He is here to share some leadership lessons from his latest book Triggers, which is the 35th book he has authored or edited.

Dr Goldsmith tells BT that it is a “nice completion” to his previous two big sellers – What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Mojo. “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is about interpersonal relationships, while Mojo is more intra-personal – looking on the inside. Triggers, on the other hand, is extra-personal, which means examining the outside (circumstances). It’s really looking into the environment and the factors as to why we change and why we don’t.”

He says that a trigger is any stimulus that might impact our behaviour, and that people are “constantly bombarded” by these triggers as they journey through life.

They might occasionally push us in the right direction, but usually, they pull us away from our plans.

“If we become aware of what’s happening before we act, behaviour becomes a function of choice, rather than a result of an impulse or trigger. You begin to control your world more as opposed to the outside world controlling you.”

To overcome such triggers in our lives, Dr Goldsmith proposes an unusual remedy in what he calls the “daily question process”.

To put it simply, it is a self-monitoring system that entails answering a checklist of questions based on your own life priorities to find out if you have done your best at the end of each day.

Sounds tedious? You bet, and that is why Dr Goldsmith says he pays someone to call him each day to listen to him read out the 32 questions he wrote, and his answers for that day.

His questions range from personal self-discipline issues such as whether he did his best to work out, to addressing behavioural change, such as whether he did his best to avoid angry comments at people.

“For example, one question of mine is how many times did you try to prove you are right and was it worth it. It’s hard for the old professor not to be right all the time,” he says wryly.

Dr Goldsmith says very few people will go to the same lengths as he to track their progress because they are embarrassed. But he is candid about his shortcomings. “I do it because I am too cowardly and undisciplined to do it on my own – that’s why I get pay someone to call me every day. I need help, and that’s okay.”

He adds that once the ego obstacle is removed, life is “much better” for everyone concerned.

What got you here won’t get you there

Over the years, one thing he has learnt is the difficulty of asking for positive, long-term change and how hard it is in practice.

From working with the leaders throughout his career, he notes that there are three qualities that differentiate those who have improved the most.

These traits are: courage to get honest feedback, humility to admit they can improve, and discipline to do the hard work needed to get better. But sometimes, many top leaders are not even aware of mistakes they are making that hinder them from reaching the very top.

The biggest problem, he says, is the overwhelming desire to win.

“The people I coach are very successful people, so it’s very hard for winners to not constantly win. Even if it’s trivial and not worth it, we still want to win – because we love winning. It’s a very deep habit,” he says matter-of-factly.

This obsession to win affects not just our professional lives, but our personal lives as well. He uses this example to make his point: “Say you want to go to dinner at restaurant X. But your wife wants to go to restaurant Y. You argue, but agree to go to Y, but it’s not your choice. In the end, the food is awful, and the service is terrible.

“Right now, you have two options here: The first would be to critique the food, point out that your wife is wrong and say it would have been avoided if she had listened to me. Second is to shut up, eat the food, and try to enjoy the evening.”

Dr Goldsmith points out that every time he asks this question in seminars, all his clients said that they would have critiqued the food, but they know they should have done the opposite.

He says that wanting to win at all costs and in all situations can affect interpersonal relations and alienate people, amounting to a Pyrrhic victory. So before you react, ask yourself if it’s something worth winning, he says.

Another common mistake that Dr Goldsmith observes in leaders is the penchant for “adding too much value”. Or, put another way, the bad habit of wanting to add one’s two cents worth in every discussion.

“For example, a young, smart and enthusiastic worker comes up to you with an idea. You think it’s great. Instead of saying it’s a great idea and leaving it at that, your natural tendency is to say – why not add this or change this instead?” he says.

While it may seem to be better for all parties if ideas are improved upon, Dr Goldsmith says it is not always the case.

He explains that the problem with this is that the quality of the idea may go up by 5 per cent, but the commitment of the young worker to execute it will go down by 50 per cent. That’s because it is no longer the young man’s idea, but the leader’s.

“We get so wrapped up trying to improve the quality this much, but we damage the commitment even more,” says Dr Goldsmith.

Leaders who cannot resist adding their opinions to matters they are unsure about may also find that, very often, those viewpoints become orders that get followed without question, no matter how ridiculous they are.

He mentions a previous coaching client, JP Garnier, former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, who said that it was a hard lesson he learnt through the years.

“He (JP Garnier) told me that his suggestions become orders. If they are smart, they are orders. If they are stupid, they are orders. And if it wasn’t meant to be orders, they become orders anyway,” he says.

His advice: Before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself if what you are about to say is worth it. Leaders may find that there is more to gain by not trying to “add value”.

Changing industry

With his years of experience in leadership development and coaching, one change that Dr Goldsmith has noticed over the years is the growing acceptance of the field.

“Thirty years ago, no CEO would even admit to having a coach. They would be ashamed and feel weak,” he says.

He also believes that leadership development will also increasingly focus on impact and people change rather than the programme itself.

This is a practice that Dr Goldsmith espouses, in line with his coaching style of being efficient and direct.

He gets paid only if the coaching client has achieved positive change in key leadership behaviours, as evaluated and determined by their key stakeholders.

He adds that the cost to his clients of hiring him is their time. “What’s their time worth? I’m not here to waste your time. I don’t get paid for time, I get paid for results.”

Dr Goldsmith says this is the opposite of what many executive coaches do, whose income is largely a function of whether their clients like them or how much time they spent coaching.

He declares that neither is a good metric for achieving positive, long-term change in behaviour compared to paying for results.

“I don’t get paid if my clients don’t get better by a certain time period. And sure, I have not been paid before. We all fail sometimes, it’s okay,” he shrugs.

Dr Goldsmith splits his time three ways – writing, speaking and coaching.

He enjoys speaking and teaching the most, but it is through coaching that he learns the most. “It sounds strange, but as a coach, I learn much more than I teach. I learn so much about people, their struggles and their lives.”.

Most of the inspiration from his writing comes from people he coaches, which involves real people and real problems.

Dr Goldsmith says that he has been very fortunate in his line of work.

“I like what I do, it makes me happy, and I find it’s meaningful. My life is lucky,” he says with his trademark grin.

Despite being one of the most successful and sought-after speakers and executive coaches in the world, he dismisses the idea that money is a motivating factor in life. “Wealth only matters to a certain level – I am beyond that. What matters in life is health and good relationships with people you love.”.

His parting advice for people out there is this: “You need to enjoy the process of what you are doing and feel like what you are doing is important. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. No one can help you find happiness and meaning in life except you.”


Leadership coach, author and speaker. Teaches executive education at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

1949 Born in Valley Station, Kentucky

1970 Graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana in mathematical economics

1974 MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

1977 PhD from UCLA Anderson School of Management; met Paul Hersey and started career in leadership training

1996 Co-edited his first book “The Leader of the Future”

2007 Published “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, which became a #1 New York Times bestseller, Wall Street Journal’s #1 business book, and winner of the Harold Longman Award for Business Book of the Year

2009 Awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Institute for Management Studies

2011 Winner of the 2011 Thinkers50 Leadership Award, which he won again in 2015

2015 Published his 35th book Triggers, which also became a #1 NYT and WSJ bestseller

We get so wrapped up trying to improve the quality this much, but we damage the commitment even more.”

By Vivien Shiao,
Published by Business Times on 16 July 2016
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