Marshall Goldsmith on executive coaching


Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world's best known – and best paid – executive coaches. TheWall Street Journal ranked him among the top ten executive educators, and he has been profiled in the New Yorker and the Harvard Business Review, confirming his place at the top of his chosen profession.

In support of business leaders, Goldsmith, CEO of Marshall Goldsmith Partners, has racked up an impressive seven million air miles from his California base, and coached over 70 major CEOs. His books include Coaching for Leadership and The Leader of the Future and the most recent, What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

Goldsmith talked to Des Dearlove about his highly effective coaching methods.

Which area of coaching do you specialise in?

I have a very narrow focus. I don't do life planning, career planning, strategy or personal productivity. I am the best in the world in my narrow area -- or maybe second best. My specialism is interpersonal skills – behavioural issues. The focus is strictly on helping successful leaders get better.

How does your work break down in terms of types of activity?

I do three things: teaching, coaching and writing. Teaching, I enjoy the most. With coaching, I learn the most. And then there is writing, which has the biggest impact in terms of reaching people.

What happens when you go into an organisation?

I only work with people if they agree to do certain things. If people don't want to do the things I ask, I won't work with them.

The person who is receiving the coaching has to get confidential feedback on how everyone sees him. He is going to find out what he's doing well, what he needs to improve, to venture suggestions. Then we sit down, with his boss, possibly, and talk. We have to reach an agreement. He's going to have to get the feedback, talk to people, follow up on a regular, disciplined basis, apologise for previous sins.

Do the executives usually appreciate the value of coaching at the outset?

I'm often asked the question: how do I convince my clients that this is worthwhile? Answer: I don't. If I've got to convince someone that it is worthwhile, they don't have their heart in it anyway. I don't convince anybody. If they don't think it's worth it, fine.

If they believe it is worth it, then we help develop a leadership inventory. We choose the key areas to change and agree those with the executive we're coaching. The executive will then talk to the people he or she works with to explain what they would like to change and that the past has passed. They say what would you like me to do? Obviously, they don't do everything that people suggest – leadership is not a popularity contest.

Talking to people who work with the executive, we then come up with measures. The important thing is that it is the people who work with the executive who come up with the measures.

The onus is on co-workers, and even family and friends, to be involved?

Very much so. If you want a better relationship with your co-workers then the co-workers need to be coaches. We ask co-workers whether they can let go of the past. Next we ask whether they can commit to tell the truth. Then we ask whether they can be helpful to the person being coached rather than being cynical or sarcastic.

Finally the co-worker has to think of something they can do better. Ninety eight per cent of people agree to do all of this.

How does that feedback process work?

It's called feedforward, not feedback. You have a conversation with your co-workers. Whatever they say, you sit there, shut up, listen, take notes and say thank you.

Describe your positives, express gratitude. Here is what I would like to change. You don't ask for more feedback from the past from them, you ask for ideas for the future.

Once you have collected those ideas, then what?

You send me the list with all your ideas. You are not going to promise to do everything. We are going to think about it, and do what we can. I give you my ideas. You don't judge or critique my ideas. If I give you a dumb idea, just don't do it. Besides this coaching process is not about me getting better, but about you getting better.

Are your interactions with the person you are coaching face-to-face?

The first interactions are face-to-face, but after that, a lot of interaction is over the phone. I interact with people as little as needed. Not as little as possible, but as little as needed. My mission is to spend the least amount of time needed to help these people get better.

Then I follow up rigorously. Based on my behaviour last month, give me ideas for next month. Follow up, follow up, follow up, and as you're following, measure.

Is coaching appropriate for everyone. What is your success rate?

Probably 85 to 90 per cent. Occasionally, however, for a variety of different reasons I fail. I tell my clients, to look in the mirror. Is it really them? The only reason they should try to change is if, in their heart, they think it is the right thing to do. In some cases it isn't right for a particular person. So I didn't get paid.

What prevents people following through with what you teach in your books and presentations?

It has to do with a dream. I'm sure you have probably had the dream the same idiotic dream for years. The dream sounds like this.

I'm incredibly busy right now. Given the pressures of work and home and all these commitments, I feel kind of overcommitted. I don't tell others this, but every now and again, my life feels a little out of control.

But you know, I'm working on some very unique and special challenges right now, and I think the worst of this is going to be over in five or six months. And after that, I'm going to take a couple, three weeks to get organised, and spend some time with the family, and begin my new, healthy life programme, and after that, everything will be different. And it won't be crazy anymore.

Have you ever had a dream that vaguely resembles this dream?

It sounds familiar

We all have this fantasy -- that somehow tomorrow is going to be different from today, and it's not going to be crazy any more, and that rationality is going to start prevailing. No it's not. Tomorrow's going to be equally crazy. You want to do something different? What are you going to do now? Just do that.

Nobody gets better because of slogans or buzzwords or happy little terms. You have to do something. With what I do, you get feedback, you pick something to improve, you talk to people, you follow up on a disciplined basis and you get better.

So to me, the real key to what I do is execution. It's not theory. It's easy to understand; but it's hard to do.

How can you be sure that your coaching actually makes a difference?

Simple. I don't get paid if people don't change. It is a very novel pricing model but it is very easy to measure behavioural change – and executives like it because pay is linked to results. We get people to say that they will do X and Y and then we see if they have actually done it.


About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.