Editor’s note: This interview was originally recorded in 2012.
There’s a good reason Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world’s leading executive educators, coaches and authors, ranked No. 1 Leadership Thinker in the World and the top 5 Management Thinker by Thinkers50 in 2015.
Those who have watched the original Wall Street film starring Michael Douglas will know the sheer ruthlessness of his character Gordon Gecko – a man who couldn’t care less about relationships and connecting with others, focusing instead on power, status, wealth and greed.
The real life role model for Gecko was just as arrogant and conceited as his fictional counterpart, providing inspiration to Douglas who was afforded the opportunity to follow him around. But it was Goldsmith who was handed the unenviable task of transforming the uncompromising businessman.
To give a flavour of how challenging it must have been for Goldsmith – a bestselling author or editor of over 35 books – the inspiration behind Gecko scored a staggeringly low 0.1% when measured on how respectfully he treated others. One year later, after being coached by Goldsmith, he scored 53.7% – a score that sat above the high company norm.
Change for your own sake, not others
Speaking of the experience on The Leaderonomics Show with host Roshan Thiran, the much-admired leadership coach revealed, “I said (to him): ‘A pattern is beginning to emerge. I can’t help you make money because you’re already making more than God, but I’ve got a question: Do you want to have a funeral that nobody attends other than for business reasons? Because that’s where this is headed.’”
Despite his expertise and global renown, Goldsmith has embraced a refreshingly humble approach to his coaching. When helping to transform others, he insists that they should not make the process about him – they have to work towards making changes for themselves.
“From my experience, if people don’t care, they’re not going to get better,” he says. “I tell them, ‘If you’re going to get better at anything, it’s got to come from inside you, not inside me.’ I also tell everyone I coach, ‘I don’t get paid if you don’t get better. I don’t get paid because I’m a good coach; I get paid because you’re a good client – don’t make it about me.’”
He adds, “If I’m the worst coach in the world and you get better, who cares? If I’m the best coach in the world and you don’t get better, who cares? The whole thing is not about me – it’s all about you.”
On coaching CEOs (chief executive officers), Goldsmith reveals that the biggest challenge in mentoring executive leaders is ego, and offers his insight into what makes a great leader.
He says, “It’s very hard, because you’re brought up when you’re young and you’ve got to win, win, win. Then one day you’re the big boss and you have to help other people win – it’s not all about you anymore. A characteristic of a great leader is that it’s all about them, not about you.”
The pitfalls of ‘adding value’ to people’s ideas
Goldsmith talks about how he has helped coached a number of leading CEOs, including Alan Mulally, the management guru who rescued Ford Motor Company and helped Boeing to soar.
The distinguished professor also discusses what appears to be at first a counterintuitive approach to leadership, advising that leaders should avoid “adding value” to employees’ ideas.
He says, “Instead of saying, ‘That’s a great idea’, you say, ‘That’s a nice idea – why don’t you add this to it?’
“The problem is that, the quality might go up by 5%, but the commitment to execute might go down 50%. We get so wrapped up trying to improve the quality a little bit that it may damage the commitment a lot. Before you speak, stop and breathe, and ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’”
Advice to young graduates
As well as providing support and advice to some of the world’s best known leaders, Goldsmith has words of wisdom for young graduates who find themselves starting out in the world.
“Global competition is tough,” he says. “My daughter got her PhD from Yale. There were 22 students in her department – she was the only one born in the United States. They weren’t there to get drunk and go to parties.
“I would tell young people today that you’re going to have to work very, very hard. Two things: find what you love doing, and find what’s meaningful for you. If you enjoy what you’re doing and you think it’s meaningful, you don’t mind working hard.
“If you don’t like what you’re doing and you don’t think it’s meaningful, you’re going to have to work hard anyway. You’re going to be living in new age professional hell: too many young people live there.”
Power of active questioning
Goldsmith insists that seasoned leaders can learn just as much from young professionals as young professionals learn from them. As an example, he cites his daughter – a professor of marketing – who taught him about the “active question process”.
The idea of active questioning, says Goldsmith, is to turn the idea of employee engagement on its head and ask how employees are working to engage themselves, rather than how they expect to be engaged by others.
“It’s amazing how well this process works,” he says. “Everything on employee engagement is focused on what the company can do to engage you, not what you can do to engage yourself.
“A passive question would be, ‘How engaged are you?’ An active question would be, ‘Did you do your best to increase your own engagement?’”
Goldsmith reveals that the research he carried out showed that, by using the active question process, employee engagement can improve by twice as much as those who are coached using the traditional passive approach.
Food for thought
The leadership guru sums up his interview by offering his best coaching advice: Be happy now – not next week, not next month, not next year; remember family and friends are the most important thing you have; and finally, if you have a dream, go for it.