Executive Coaching

Leadership Excellence

by Marshall Goldsmith

I began my executive coaching career by accident. I was working with a CEO who said, “We have this young guy working with us who is smart, dedicated, hardworking, driven to achieve, entrepreneurial, and gets results. He is also an arrogant, stubborn, opinionated know-it-all. We don’t think he is living our values. It would be worth a fortune to me if we could turn him around. I heard the word fortune and said, “Maybe I can help!” He said, “I doubt it.” That’s when I came up with my idea: “I will work with him for a year. If he gets better, pay me. If he doesn’t get better, it’s all free!” The CEO said, “Sold!” Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced was getting over my own ego. It finally dawned on me that my clients don’t get better because of me. They get better because of themselves and the people around them. If their drive to improve doesn’t come from their heart, it won’t happen.

Follow Up or Fail

My partner, Howard Morgan, and I measured the impact of leadership development programs on increased leadership effectiveness, as judged not by participants, but by their coworkers six months later. We found that participants who do not follow up make no progress, while those who return from the programs, practice what is taught, discuss what they learn with co-workers, and do regular progress checks are seen as becoming more effective leaders.

The people who improve the most have a support group or network that holds them accountable. Many executive coaches are paid for activities — not results. They get paid based on the time they spend and because their clients like them. I don’t get paid because my clients like me nor do I get paid for spending time. I get paid if my clients get significantly better on pre-selected behaviors, as judged by the people who work with them and their managers.

My mission is helping successful leaders achieve a positive long-term change in behavior. I don’t work on reformation projects. If companies are thinking about firing an executive, I don’t want to work with this person. I no longer try to convince anyone to do anything. I just say, “Look inside your heart. Is this the right thing to do? If it is, do it. If it’s not, don’t do it.” There are two elements of what I do in coaching: one is required; the second is optional. If my clients don’t want to do the required; then I don’t work with them. I just say, “Why waste my time and yours?” The required part is that my clients must agree that I will interview all of their pre-selected co-workers. The CEO either picks the co-workers or agrees that they’re the right co-workers.

After interviewing my clients’ co-workers, I develop a profile of their leadership behavior. My report contains confidential, anonymous feedback. And then I spend time with the co-workers to help them help my client. I tell the co-workers, “I’m going to be working with my client, Joe, for the next year. I won’t get paid if Joe doesn’t get better. Better is not determined by Joe (or by me) — better is determined by you.” I then continue, “I have four requests for you: 1) Let go of the past (simple but not easy); 2) Swear to tell the truth (it increases the odds they will); 3) Be a positive and supportive coach for my client — not a cynic, critic, or judge; and 4) Pick something that you want to do better. My client will reach out to you and say, “I want to get better at X.” You can then say, “Please help me get better at Y.” This way hundreds of people end up getting better — all because we decide to help more and judge less. After reviewing their feedback, my clients talk with each of their co-workers.

My client says, “Here are the positive things that I have learned about myself. Here is what I want to change.

I can’t change the past, so please give me ideas on how I can do a better job in this behavior in the future.” I tell my clients: Never promise to do everything that your co-workers suggest. Leadership is not a popularity contest.

Just listen. Be quiet, think about what you are learning and then say “thank you” Tell them, I can’t promise to do everything you suggest, but I can promise to listen and do what I can!” After my clients talk with their coworkers, they talk with me. I review what they have learned and give them my ideas. Not all of my ideas are brilliant.

I reserve the right to be wrong. I ask my clients to only use the ideas that work for them. They have a disciplined follow up process with their co-workers.

They then get measured on their improvement in identified behaviors, leadership effectiveness, and their follow- up with each co-worker. Leaders who stick with the process get better.

People Who Care Rather than force people to participate in leadership development, set strict guidelines on who is allowed to participate. If participants won’t commit to follow up and apply what they learn, don’t waste time, money, and energy on training them. Put all your energy into those people who care.

Successful people want to win, and it’s hard for them not to win. I asked one of my CEO clients, “What have you learned since becoming CEO?” He sighed, “My suggestions become orders.” If you’re the CEO, you always win. You need to learn to let others win.

My typical client is a multi-millionaire, brilliant, dedicated, hardworking person who sincerely wants to get better. Each one will admit that none of this stuff is easy. It’s hard to change! I find it ironic that companies say, “We’re going to transform our leaders by having them sit through a two-day program.” Yeah, right! This compulsive need to win at everything you do can easily become a habit.

To help leaders break the habit, I tell them, “Your co-workers and I will give you ideas. Even if you think our ideas are stupid, don’t argue with us or critique our ideas. Just say, “thank you”. If you don’t like our suggestions, don’t do them.

People listen much better when they don’t have to prove how smart they are. So I teach my clients how to listen without composing their next comment to prove how smart they are.

Another leadership challenge is the tendency to add too much value. For example, if I come to you, my boss, with an idea, and you think it’s a great idea, you’ll likely say, That’s a great idea, but let’s add this to it.” Well, the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent; however, my commitment to execution may go down 50 percent. It’s not my idea anymore. It’s now become your idea. It’s hard for smart, successful people not to constantly add value. You need to ask, “Is it worth it?” before you speak.

Everyone around the people I coach knows exactly what my clients are trying to improve. If you want others to develop, start with yourself and let other people watch you try to get better.

Almost all executive education is based on the myth: If they understand, they will do. Somehow we pretend that if you post the right word, say the right phrase, or talk about the right technique, people will do the right things. If that were true, then why are so many people fat? Go on a diet and work out every day! It’s not hard to understand. It’s hard to do! The challenge in leadership development is not making sure that leaders understand the practice of leadership — it is making sure that leaders practice their understanding.

Why Measure It?

Part of being an effective leader is setting up systems to measure everything that matters, including important soft-side values: how often we’re rude to people, how often we’re polite, how often we ask for input, how often we bite our tongue rather than say an inflammatory remark.

If you track a number, you remind other people that you are trying. It’s one thing to tell your employees or customers that you’ll spend more time with them. It’s another if you attach a real number to that goal, measure it, and make people are aware of it.

Everything is measurable, from days spent communicating with employees to hours invested in mentoring a colleague. All you have to do is look at your calendar or watch — and count.

Setting numerical targets makes you more likely to achieve them. Creating an income statement for the soft stuff will make you a better leader. LE

ACTION: Do some soft-side accounting.