BC145. Marshall Goldsmith – What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Brian sits down with Marshall Goldsmith, one of the top leadership experts and authors in the world. Marshall shares his experience of over 40 years coaching CEOs from 150 different companies.


You will learn…

  • Marshall’s experience from over 40 years coaching CEOs from 150 companies.
  • Why what got you here won’t get you there.
  • How to maximize your impact and influence as a leader and as a coach.


Follow Marshall on Twitter @coachgoldsmith




Coach Wooden was not obsessed with winning.  He wanted people to do their best and that was it.  He felt that if we did our best to win there’s nothing to be ashamed of.  If we didn’t do our best to win, there’s nothing that much to be proud of.  He enjoyed practice more than the game.  Well, he wasn’t obsessed with winning but he won.  I think one of the reasons that he won so much is that he focused on what was more important and to doing things right as opposed to just focusing on the end result.

Cain:  Hey, this is Brian Cain, your Peak Performance and mental conditioning coach.  Today we are privileged to have Marshall Goldsmith, the New York Times best-selling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There:  How Successful People Become Even More Successful.  He is one of the leading authorities on leadership in the world.  Just very privileged to have you here today, Marshall.  I appreciate you making time.

Goldsmith:  Thank you very much.  I’m very happy to be here.

Cain:  Just for the listeners, could you kind of talk us through how you got to where you are today?  The New York Times best-selling author and one of the foremost leading authorities on leadership.

Goldsmith:  Well, I’m from Kentucky.  I went to school in Indiana, got a PhD in Organizational Behavior at UCLA.  I was a college professor and dean when I was very young and met a very famous man named Dr. Carl Percy in the executive education field.  I’ve been doing executive education now for 36 years.  I do three things.  One is I give talks or teach classes, which is what I enjoy doing most.  Half of that is outside the United States, so I travel around the world constantly.  On American Airlines alone I have over 11 million frequent flyer miles, so I’m kind of a mega flyer.

And I coach executives.  My coaching clients are CEOs and could be CEOs of huge companies.  So I’ve been the coach of people like the CEO for Ford, CEO Glaxo, CEO Pfizer, the president of the World Bank, the head of the New York Public Library, the head of Mayo Clinic.  Just a whole plethora of very smart, wonderful people.

What I love about coaching is, coaching is where I learn everything.  I learn so much from coaching because I’m dealing with real-world situations with very important leaders, some of the most important in the world, and I’m trying to help them get better.  

Then the third thing I do is write and edit books and articles.  I think I’ve done 36 books now.  I’ve got a couple of New York Times bestsellers – Mojo and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There – and then I’ve done a few others that have been bestsellers in their own niche.  So life is good.

Cain:  Fantastic.  And I think for the level of people that you’re coaching, for the NCAA coaches that will be listening to this at a very high level, I think that sometimes, as you outlined so well in your book, that as a leader at a high level sometimes it’s hard to really see how other people see you and get that direct feedback.  So there is such a disconnect between where people at that highest level of leadership really are, and where they maybe see themselves is where they actually see themselves, is where they are.  Could you talk about that a little bit?

Goldsmith:  Yeah, there is something I talk about in the book called the superstition trap.  In many ways the more successful we become in life, the more difficult everything I teach is to implement.  The success delusion, or the superstition trap, is called “I behave this way, I am successful; therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.”  Well, all your top coaches are very successful people and they’re successful because they do many things right.  But pretty much all are successful in spite of doing some things that are dumb.  I never met anybody who is so wonderful they had nothing on the “in spite of” list.

Well, the higher up we go in life and the more powerful and important we become, two things happen.  One, we get more and more positive feedback about ourselves, which is not a bad thing.  The challenge is this:  The better we feel about ourselves, the harder it is to hear something negative.  We only accept feedback from others if it’s consistent with the way we see ourselves.  We all reject and deny feedback from others that is inconsistent with the way we see ourselves.  The more glowing our self-assessment is, the harder it is to hear negative feedback.  Then, two, the more important, successful and powerful we become, the harder it is for other people to give us negative feedback.  They’re intimidated by us and they have trouble telling us the truth.

Cain:  Excellent.  I think that becomes one of the traps that people fall into.  One of your advices you give them in your book is about feed forward and feed backward.  I’m sure a lot of people have heard of feedback, but could you talk about both the 360 feedback process and the importance of that but then also feed forward.

Goldsmith:  Well, in my coaching I use both feed forward and feedback.  Feedback is a great tool to help you figure out where you are, and every one of the CEOs I work with gets confidential feedback from everyone around him or her.  They all pick important behaviors to improve and then they all follow up.  When they follow up, they use something called feed forward.  That is not asking for feedback about the past but asking for ideas for the future.  It’s something you can do with your teams.  It’s something coaches can do.

The feed forward exercise works like this.  For example, I’ll stand in front of a group of people of any size from 6-6000 and I can say, “Alright, in the next five minutes I want you to talk to as many people as you can.”  You’re going to either be learning as much as you can from the smart people around you or helping as much as you can for the nice people around you.  The rules are – #1, no feedback about the past.  You can’t repeat or judge what they have done in the past, only ideas for the future.  Then, #2, you can’t judge or critique people’s ideas.  When they give you ideas, you can’t say, “Good idea, Bad idea, I already knew that, That will never work.”  Just shut up and say Thank you.  You take the ideas like a gift.

Well, then I have people do this.  They say, “My name is _____.  I want to get better at _____.”  They get ideas and they say Thank you.  The other person:  “My name is _____.  I want to get better at _____,” ideas, Thank you.  They talk to as many people as they can.  At the end of the exercise they ask people to describe the exercise and invariably they will say it’s positive, useful, helpful, and fun.  95% of the people say that, no matter what country I’m in.  I’ve done this with hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.  I say why?  Well, it’s focused on a future you can change, not a past you can’t change anyway.  It talks about what we can do, what we can’t do, and it’s not judging.  It’s not critiquing.  Everybody picks what they want to improve at.  Then they go through the reasons.  If any of your readers like, I’d be happy to send you the “Feed Forward” article that just describes how the whole process works.

Cain:  That would be tremendous.  I’d love to see that article.  That would be fantastic.  Actually, is there a place where we could find that online or?

Goldsmith:  Yeah, I have a website:  www.MarshallGoldsmith.com.  And I give away everything.  I’m a Buddhist.  All my materials you can copy, share, download, duplicate, use any way you want.  Somebody from 195 countries listened to or downloaded a copy or something from the site over 19 million times.  So it’s very popular.

Cain:  Making a strong impact on the world.  We appreciate you and your gift that you’re giving.  Could you talk about maybe the 20 habits?  I think a lot of times people focus on in-trainings and I think you gave a quote from Peter Drucker about they spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do but we don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop or what not to do.  A lot of the coaches that I’ve worked with maybe don’t need to learn so much about what to do.  They do a lot of things very well.  But maybe it’s just 1-2 things that they need to stop that’s really causing the divide between how they want to be seen and how they’re seen or just their communication with their program.  Could you talk a little bit about the importance of being aware of not only what you do well but also what you need to change and then maybe the 20 habits.

Goldsmith:  Well, I think again back to the superstition trap.  We all need to change something.  The important thing is not trying to play/be a little god but to realize we can all improve.  By the way, everything I teach doesn’t just apply at work.  It all applies at home.  So I imagine – let’s take the men coaches that you have.  I would imagine the ones that are married, if they go ask their wife, “Is there anything I can improve?”  I doubt not too many of the wives would say, “Oh, not you, dear – you’re just perfect.”  I would imagine most of them would have room for improvement.  So we all have got a little something we could do better.

I was interviewed for Harvard Business Review asked:  What’s the #1 problem with the success of people that you coach?  I thought about your group.  I’m sure this is perfect for your group.  My answer was, “Winning too much.”  What does that mean?  If it’s important, we want to win.  If it’s meaningful, we want to win.  If it’s true here, we want to win.  If it’s not worth it, we want to win anyway.  The people that you’re dealing with, they’re hyper-competitive people who love winning.  In the game of life they’re winners.  It’s hard for winners not to constantly win.

A case study I use is you want to go to dinner at Restaurant X.  Your wife/husband/partner/significant other wants to go to dinner at Restaurant Y.  You have a huge argument.  You go to Restaurant Y.  It’s not your choice so it tastes awful, the service is terrible.  Option A:  Critique the food, point out your partner was wrong, this state could have been avoided if only you’d listened to me, me, me.  Option B:  Shut up, eat the stupid food, try to enjoy it and have a nice evening.  What would I do?  What should I do?  Almost all my clients say, “What do I do?  Critique the food.  What should I do?  Shut up.”  It’s very hard for smart, successful people not to constantly go through life winning and proving you’re right over and over and over again.

By the way, this doesn’t mean not on the big stuff.  You’ve got to win the big stuff.  I’m talking about the small stuff, the stuff where winning doesn’t matter.  I’m sure most of your coaches bring that same coach-like behavior home and when you’re with the wife and kids, they probably still play the role of coach half the time, which probably just annoys the crap out of everybody.

Next classic problem with smart, successful people is adding too much value.  What does that mean?  A young, smart, enthusiastic with an idea.  I mean, it’s a great idea.  You think it’s a great idea.  Rather than just saying “great idea” our natural tendency is to say, “Well, that’s a nice idea.  Why don’t you add this to it?”  Well, the problem is the quality of the idea may go up 5%; my improvement to execute the idea may go down 50%.

This is one the head coaches have to really watch with the assistant coaches because when the assistant coach comes up with the idea, are they really listening?  Are they trying to get the assistant coach to have ownership and pride, or are they more focused on proving that they’re better than the assistant coach or smarter than the assistant coach and having to add value to whatever the assistant coach says?  So this is a very good one to work on.

One of my good coaching clients retired several years ago.  His name is JP Garnier.  He’s the CEO of a very large company, GlaxoSmithKline.  I asked him, “What did you learn about leadership as the CEO of this huge company?”  He said, “I learned a hard lesson.  My suggestions become orders.”  He said, “If they’re smart, they’re orders and if they’re stupid, they’re orders.  If I want them to be orders, they’re orders; and if I don’t want to give the orders, they’re still orders anyway.  My suggestions are orders.”  I asked him, “What did you learn from me when I was your executive coach that helps you the most?”  He said, “You taught me one lesson to help me be a better leader and have a happier life.”  I asked him, “What was that lesson?”  He said, “Before I speak, stop and breathe and ask myself one question – is it worth it?”  He said, “As the CEO of this big company, 50% of the time I just stop and breathe and ask myself:  Is it worth it?  What did I find?  Am I right?  Maybe.  Is it worth it?  Nope.”

Cain:  I think that’s fantastic.  I think often you’re absolutely right, in that these coaches that are in college athletics or high school athletics that need to win the big things always feel like they need to win everything, even the small things.  For the athletes that will be listening to this too, I think I see a lot of sarcasm that goes on amongst teammates, and coaches feed into this sarcasm.  Could you talk a little bit about Habit #4, about the sarcastic and destructive comments and the importance of really.

Goldsmith:  A very important point.  One of the things I teach is on the things not to do, as to bad habits, is avoid making destructive comments.  This is really antithetical to team play.  Team members putting each other down, making sarcastic comments, trying to be better than the other team members – very bad for team play.  I mean, everybody preaches the sermon and you want to create an environment where people reach out across the organization and build teamwork.  But what happens with the quality of teamwork when I stab my team member in the back?  That doesn’t make it better.  It makes it worse.  This is something that is a bad habit.  Some teams really don’t have it at all and some teams have it way too much.  It’s something we probably can control.

One thing I do is I fine my clients money for every sin – $20.  If you think about who my clients are, they’re basically old rich men.  Not all of them, but 80% of them are old rich men.  You might think what do they care for $20?  They’re so rich, if they dropped it on the ground, it wouldn’t be worth bending over to pick it up.  They’d rather die than lose $20!  It’s shocking how this works.  So I fine people every time they make destructive comments – money and it is amazing how this – and we give the money to charity too so it all goes to good causes.  It’s amazing how well this works to get people to change behaviors.  I’ve raised over $800,000 for those charities over the years.  So I’ve done a lot of good deeds and helped people stop a bad habit, making destructive comments.

Cain:  Over $800,000 for helping people to help people.  I think that’s outstanding.  The #16, the not listening – I think so many times you get around coaches in a staff meeting and you sit in on a staff meeting – I’m sure it’s the same thing in the corporate world where the head coach or the CEO dominates the conversation and the assistants are there just kind of waiting for the meeting to be over because whatever they have to say doesn’t really matter anyway, because they’re going to do what the head coach and CEO wants to do anyway and he doesn’t hear what they say.  Can you talk a little bit about that not listening?  But also the dominating of the conversation.

Goldsmith:  Well, there are a few suggestions I would have on this one.  One of my clients is the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies.  Although his feedback was excellent, one area he got really bad feedback on was people would speak he’d roll his eyes and make sarcastic comments.  He had to learn you can’t do that when you’re in a leadership role.  You just devastate people and for no good cause.  It’s just a bad habit that he had.  He’s not a bad person; it was just a bad habit.  Now he’s much better.  He doesn’t do it anymore.

Some things you can do to be a better listener.  One is I teach people:  As the coach or the boss, you always need to look like you care.  You can’t always care because sometimes people say nonsense or you get bored.  Everybody thinks being the CEO is glamorous.  A lot of the CEO’s job is boring.  You’re sitting in meetings, watching PowerPoint slides, stuff that you’ve already seen, and everybody in the room is staring at their face.  They’ve always got to look like they care.  Why?  If they don’t look like they care, they just devastate the people around them.  By the way, that is not being phony.  That is being a professional.  So one thing I teach people is always look like you care.

One of my coaching clients was Lou Smith.  She was the president of A-Line.  She reported to Andrea Young, who was the CEO.  Lou says to Andrea, “Does coaching mean I have to watch what I say and how I act in every meeting for the rest of my career?”  Andrea says, “Welcome to my world.  That’s exactly what it means.”  Well, if you want to be the big boss, you want to get the big bucks, you pay the price.  Have some discipline.  Be a professional.  Always show up.  The great leaders I work with – I worked with Frances Hesselbein (National Executive Director of the Girl Scouts United States), Peter said the greatest leader he ever met in his life, who has more words on leadership than you can count, the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner.  Always I am up playing positive and she always cares.  Alan motor company spectacular downturn it around. Fantastic attitude.  Turning it on Best Buy right now and this coach.  Wonderful job.

My friend Lou Smith who left Avon.  She is at restaurant where the stocks are up 18% since she got there.  These people are professionals.  They’re dedicated.  They’re hard-working.  They always communicate that sense of I’m professional and I’m caring.

So I think to be a good listener:  (1) You’ve got to look like you care.  (2) Don’t always butt in.  Before you speak, breathe and ask yourself, “Is my comment going to improve this other person’s commitment?”  If the answer is no, then breathe again and say, “Is it worth making?”  Well, sometimes it is.  My friend JP said half the time it still added value.  But half the time it didn’t.  And at home, breathe.  Does my comment improve this relationship with another human being?  If the answer is no, breathe again.  Is this comment worth making?  If you have to ask it at work, about half the time it’s not worth making.  If you have to ask it at home, it’s almost never worth making.

So I think it’s very important for the coach, the leader, to be a role model in terms of behavior and to realize everyone in that room is looking into your face and listening to every word that you say.  What you say matters.  It’s very important to show that you care about them, you hear them, you’re listening to them.  You don’t have to agree with them.  Leadership is not a popularity contest.  But you can listen to them.

Cain:  On the 21st goal you write about the goal obsession, and I think I see that in athletics all over the place where coaches – let’s take college baseball.  You’re in California where college baseball is huge and many coaches have the goal of winning the National Championship and going to Omaha and raising the trophy.  Many coaches will sacrifice relationships and burn bridges and do anything that they think is possible to win at all costs to get there.  Then I’ve heard some coaches say that when they get there they look back three days after winning the National Championship and say, Wow, is that all there is?  Then they’re disappointed about all the relationships that they’ve burned to get to that point, because they thought that the National Championship was going to change their life and they find out that it really doesn’t.  Could you talk about goal obsession?  What it means.

Goldsmith:  Your example is an excellent example of goal obsession.  Goal obsession is when our goal becomes more important than our mission, when things that are less important become more important than the things that are more important.  Really goal obsession – you see it in athletics all the time.  People take drugs.  How many people in athletics have taken drugs before because they’re obsessed with winning?  So winning starts becoming more important than playing fair.  They take drugs.  They cheat.  They get caught.  Their reputation is ruined.  On what?  Because they’re so obsessed with winning they forget that the price they’re paying to – so goal obsession is one that you see a lot of times in sports.  The other thing is winning, falsifying grades – you can go on and on.

I had the privilege of going to UCLA when their basketball coach was John Wooden.  I also had the privilege of being in a program he was at and I got the chance to talk to him a few times.  Coach Wooden was not obsessed with winning.  He wanted people to do their best and that was it.  He felt that if we did our best to win there’s nothing to be ashamed of.  If we didn’t do our best to win, there’s nothing that much to be proud of.  He enjoyed practice more than the game.  Well, he wasn’t obsessed with winning but he won.  I think one of the reasons that he won so much is that he focused on what was more important and to doing things right as opposed to just focusing on the end result.

So that is a real potential danger in sports, and there are countless unfortunate examples of people who have become so obsessed with winning that they’ve ruined their family lives.  They’ve hit players.  People have taken drugs.  They’ve cheated.  They’ve had recruiting violations.  I mean, how long is the list?  Why?  They felt the need to win and they forgot that winning is a value, but winning is not the only value.  Winning is integrity.

Cain:  There’s no question there.  I love what you said about how when the goal becomes bigger than your mission you become goal obsessed.  I think any coach that you talk to, at some point if you ask them about their mission, is not going to say, “to have a tombstone that has all the championships engraved on it.”  They’re going to talk about relationships and making a difference and being a builder of young men and young women.  I think sometimes they lose sight of that.

Marshall, for the coaches listening to this that want to get better, that want to change, you offer some strategies for improvement.  What strategies do you think would fit best in that arena of collegiate athletics?

Goldsmith:  One is you can get some input.  Confidential feedback is very interesting.  Not usually something that – corporate people do all the time but in athletics it hasn’t been done as much.  I don’t just mean from the players, from the assistant coaches, from the people they work with and the staff – from the president of the university, people like that.  They get some feedback on how they’re perceived by the people around them.  Then they pick an important behavior to improve and then they learn to talk to people about what they learned and then they follow up and ask for input.

I wrote another article.  If you’d like, I can send an e-mail, send you a copy.  It’s calledLeadership Is a Contact Sport.”  It was a study with 86,000 participants about improving leadership effectiveness.  It shows that leaders who ask for input listen, follow up on a regular basis, and then measure improvement, almost invariably get better.  Leaders who just go to classes or read books – well, their improvement is not much better than random chance.

Cain:  Fantastic.  You talk about having the feedback, feed forward.  One of the things you mention in the world is advertising kind of what it is you’re working on and making that public.  Could you address that too?  Because I think so many times coaches are hesitant to let other people know what it is they’re working on for their personal development to become a better coach and leader, because I think sometimes they see that as showing weakness.

Goldsmith:  Yeah.  So if you look at all the leaders I coach – and I mean as much money as your coaches make even at the top end, they don’t make anything like the people I work with because these are CEOs of huge multibillion-dollar corporations. Of all the people I coach, they all get feedback.  They all publicly talk about what they’re trying to improve.  They all follow up on a regular basis and they all measure improvement.  The advantage of that – I wrote an article called “To Help Others Develop Start with Yourself.”  If you want everybody else to get better, why don’t you try to get better yourself?  Why don’t you show them the value of improvement as opposed to just preaching at them?  So this is an area that I think is going to change in the world of athletics, because there has been this sort of macho “I’m right, I’m God” syndrome as opposed to “Look, I’m not really God here; I’m just a human too and let’s all just get better.”  So I think this here is something that is going to change over time.

Cain:  Excellent.  And you also mentioned that there are some special challenges for people who are in charge.  They must stop a few critical things to help get to the next level, like stop letting your staff overwhelm you.  Stop acting as if you’re managing you.  Stop checking the box.  What are some of those key things that you see?

Goldsmith:  Let me talk about – probably the one that is the most trouble is stop acting like you’re managing you.  This is something my daughter has taught me about a lot.  It’s called fundamental attribution error.  We tend to look at other people and kind of expect them to be us.  Then we’re always surprised when they don’t demonstrate the same characteristics that we do.  The important thing is for a coach, for a parent or leader, to realize is that the people we’re leading are not us.  They have different backgrounds, different histories, and sometimes you see as generations change, it’s hard for some cultures to change because they’re used to “the good old days” and people in a certain generation, and they’re assuming that’s the way people should be and they have trouble relating to the way people are.  Well, people are what they are.  The idea is you’re not managing you.  You’re managing and leading other people.  Your idea should be to deal with what’s fair and make the best of it as opposed to sitting here saying, ”Why aren’t they all me?”

Cain:  Marshall, last question for you.  You’ve given so much great content and practical things that our coaches can take away and use.  If there is one thing that you know now with all of your experience, all of your wisdom, if there is one thing that you know now that you wish you knew when you were, say, just getting started around 30-35 years old, what would that one thing be?

Goldsmith:  Don’t make it so much about yourself.  One of the great leaders I ever managed, he was CEO for Ford and of all the people I’ve coached he probably improved the most, needed to improve the least, was fantastic to start with.  He was the CEO of the Year in the United States last year.  I asked Kevin, “What should I learn about coaching from you?”  And he taught me two great lessons.  He said, “Lesson #1, your biggest challenge as a coach is called customer selection.  You pick the right people, you coach, your process works; wrong people, it doesn’t work.  You’ve got to have great people.”  So when I coach people now, I’m really sensitive about who I work with.

By the way, to your coaches, no matter how good they are, a good lesson is you’ve got to have great people.  If you don’t have the talent, you could be the best coach in the world but you’re still wasting your time.  They’re going to go no place.

Then #2, he said, “Don’t make coaching about yourself, your own ego, and how smart you are.  Make it about the great people you work with and how hard they try.  Really focus on them and getting the best out of them, not you improving what you are.”  These are great bits of advice.

He said, “My job as a leader is no different.”  He said, “First I’ve got to have great people.”  He said, “I don’t design the cars and build the cars and tell the cars.”  He said, “Two, every day after work I tell myself leadership is not about me – leadership is about them.”  Well, for a great tennis player maybe it’s all about me.  For the great coach it’s all about them.  For the great coach of a team sport particularly it’s all about them.  You’re not there for you.  You’re there for them.  Your goal is not just to help them be a great athlete or win a game.  Your goal is to help them have a great life.  I think Tim would agree your coaches can just keep that in your head.  It’s not about me.  I want to help this person not only be a great athlete; I want to help this person have a great life.  That goes a long way.

Cain:  Marshall, I’m sorry – I came up with another question as I was listening to your answer there.  Are there any tips that maybe you use yourself?  Strategies that you use yourself to find that work/life balance?  I see that as a tremendous challenge.  I’m sure you see it in the corporate world where bringing work home with the CEO – I see our coaches do that a lot.  Are there any practical strategies or tips that you could offer to help achieve better work/life balance and really leave work at work?

Goldsmith:  Measure it.  Measure how many days you devote, how many hours, how many minutes you devote to family time every day.  Measure it the same way you measure any other goal.  If you measure it, you set goals, you treat it like any other important assignment, you’ll do well.  If you don’t measure it, you don’t set goals, you just sort of say “I guess I should do that” – I have somebody every day call me up and go through the things I measure, 32 questions a day.  The reason is not because I don’t know how to change.  The reason is because I do know how to change.  I know how hard it is.  I work with the smartest people in the world who want to get better and they’ll all tell you it’s hard.  You need to measure it, you need to follow up, and you need to make it a discipline that is part of life.

Cain:  Fantastic!  Marshall, again I want to thank you for taking time out of your extremely busy schedule to sit down and share your wisdom with our coaches.  For the coaches that are listening, is there anywhere that they can follow you?  I know you mentioned your work site.  Do you have a newsletter or a blog or anything?

Goldsmith:  Just send me an e-mail.  If anyone wants to, I can sign them up on my newsletters and blog and stuff. So just send me an e-mail at [email protected] and I’d be happy to sign them up.

Cain:  Fantastic.  I’m sure you’ll get a huge following.  And again, thank you very much for your time.  I really appreciate you and best to you in the rest of 13 and beyond.

Goldsmith:  Well, thank you for the good work that you’re doing and thank you for asking me to do this.

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