How to Tell a Phony from a Professional

By Marshall Goldsmith

Randy was a wonderful coaching client, the CEO of a large service firm and an incredibly cheerful guy. Having dinner with him was usually great fun, but it wasn’t on this particular night.

Randy approached the table and greeted me with a weary smile. He looked exhausted.

I asked, “How was your day?”

He replied, “Which part? I was six different people today.”

He went on to explain:

“The morning got off to a good start. I am the mentor of one of the brightest, most enthusiastic young leaders in our firm. With her I was in the role of a positive and supportive coach – helping a great young person on the way up. It felt great.

My next meeting was with one of the top analysts in our industry. I need to be positive in projecting the future of our firm, but very careful to be realistic and not over-promise. With him, I was in the role of a serious communicator to our present and future stockholders.

My next interaction was fun. One of our divisions made record numbers. I had the pleasure of getting to thank them for all of their contributions. With them, I was in the role of a motivational speaker.

Then things got serious. I met with the Board and one of the members disagrees with me on a key element of our strategy for the future. I think that he is wrong on this one, but I respect him, both as a person and as a representative of the ownership of our firm. At this meeting I was largely in the role of good listener.

The next one was really tough. Harry has been with us for twenty-five years. He has made a great contribution to the company. His performance has taken a huge dip in the last couple of years. To be honest, I have been avoiding having the tough discussion that I had with him today. With him, I was in the role of a manager who had to point out the painful potential consequences on non-performance.

My final half hour was even harder. Janet, who was one of everyone’s favorite marketing leaders, died unexpectedly at age 48. I just finished writing a letter to her family, communicating what a great person she was and telling them how much we will miss her. I was in the role of a mourner who was communicating his and his team’s deep sadness and loss with respect.”

Randy is a very thoughtful and caring leader. He said, “To deal with all of these scenarios every day, I have to learn to block out ‘where I have been’ and to be fully engaged in ‘where I am’. This is a lot easier in theory than in practice. In my world this takes incredible effort and can be exhausting.”

Randy is a great professional. This short narrative reveals how difficult it is for us to be positive and upbeat in one moment and then sad and reflective a few minutes later. As a leader, this is your job. You have to be a pro and you have to be authentic. Being the person that you need to be, when you need to be that person, does not mean that you are a phony. It does mean that you are a professional.