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‘Be Human’: Marshall Goldsmith’s Best Leadership Advice Right Now

Marshall Goldsmith is among the world’s most revered CEO coaches. His best advice for you right now? It has nothing to do with strategy.
Marshall Goldsmith

In any time but the current one, this is the last place Marshall Goldsmith, one of the most in-demand CEO coaches in the world and bestselling author of leadership classics like What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Triggers, would be. Back in B.C.—Before Covid—Goldsmith was a legendary road warrior with 11 million frequent flier miles, tracking how many nights a year he was at home with his family, rather than vice versa, in the hopes of improving that KPI.

Yet, here he is, with a green screen behind him, chunky Sony earphones locked on snuggly, ready to talk from his home in Covid-subdued La Jolla, California. And, as you’d expect from someone who is obsessed with prepping leaders for change, he’s okay with it. “I’m a Buddhist,” he shrugs. “What is is, so you just make peace with what is and do the best you can and move on.”

This kind of equanimity takes work, of course. Lots of it. In the midst of crisis, Goldsmith is practicing what he preaches, meeting with a group of 50 or so high-performing people each weekend (virtually, of course), talking about issues, feelings—and fears. He’s working with his own coach, trying to improve his behaviors, checking in nightly on how he’s doing relative to expectations. And, more than anything else, he’s listening and trying to help his clients—many of whom are household names in global business—tackle a very, very tough time.

In a conversation with Chief Executive, Goldsmith, who will be the keynote speaker at our upcoming annual CEO Leadership Conference on November 5, talked about how Covid is disrupting his clients, what he’s counseling them and why this period of unparalleled change and challenge is an essential time to work on your own behavior and improve your emotional intelligence. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

How are you finding this time impacting the emotional and behavioral life of the CEOs that you deal with?

There’s an old saying, “It’s lonely at the top.” Today, it is lonelier at the top. The advent of social media, the fact that anything you say can be taken out of context, and thousands of people can see it within a few minutes—it’s created a very lonely world.

In your work, you talk a lot about the importance of having structure, the importance of routines. This has disrupted a lot of that for all of us, but especially for CEOs. What advice do you give them about rethinking the way they go about their business?

In our meetings, we all begin with six basic questions. Then everybody writes their own questions, and we discuss these every week. The six questions are: Did I do my best to set clear goals today? Now, you might think they’re all gonna get a 10 out of 10. They don’t. People just get lost. You do an email, another email, phone rings, next thing you know, the day’s over.

The next questions are: Did I do my best to achieve the goals I set? Did I do my best to find meaning? Did I do my best to be happy? Did I do my best to build positive relationships? And finally, Did I do my best to be fully engaged? Because you want everybody else to be fully engaged. If you’re the CEO, you need to be fully engaged. And the scores on this are probably not what you would expect.

People are busy, preoccupied, things happen in life. It’s very hard to maintain focus. In many ways, [CEOs] have to create their own structures more than they have in the past. The people who are being led need more structure, too. There is more of a sense of ambiguity, of uncertainty, confusion. So, one thing I talk about with the people I coach is to not only provide structure for your own life but realize that people that you work with need structure, too. They need more communication, just because things are changing so rapidly.

I suggest that every leader have a dialogue with every one of their direct reports and cover six basic topics (see below).

As a coach, I’ve worked with seven CEOs using this process, and I only get paid if they get better. I got paid seven times. So, you know, you can change the words around a little bit, change the questions any way you want to, yet, the results on this are pretty much uniformly positive if you do it. It’s even more important, though, during periods of rapid change.

Too often, in companies, people say, “I’m not clear where we’re going. There’s too much ambiguity.” Well, why? To me, that’s inexcusable. I’m the CEO, right? Talk to me. I may not have a great answer, but we’re going to come up with an answer. By the way, “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer.

What are clients asking you these days? What are they coming to you with?

They’re just buried with stuff to do. Some are doing great, and others, it’s reinvention time. Some things are going to go back to the old days and some aren’t, and you’ve just got to make peace.

The other thing is, and this is very hard, sometimes you lose. One of my clients, he’s one of the most famous restaurant guys in the world. Three of his restaurants just went bankrupt. Maybe more will. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you just have to say, “We cannot succeed in this environment, and you have to pull the plug,” and it’s not easy. There’s no amount of happy talk that’s going to make this go away.

What do you counsel people about how to take that on as a leader?

Tell the truth. I think the key and most important thing I could recommend is authenticity. You just have to tell people the truth.

There’s a term I like to use called pragmatic optimism. It’s very good to be optimistic. On the other hand, today, people are very sensitive to show, to fake. It’s very important to be honest, realistic and pragmatic as well. You just have to tell people, “Here’s the situation that exists. Here’s what we need to get to.” You do your best, pragmatic optimism, to help them get there.

The real world is hard. In some cases, not all, but some, you’ve got to face hard reality and say, “Okay, here we are. This is it. The numbers are the numbers. The reality is the reality. Now, how can we make the very best of this that we possibly can?” That’s what you do.

One of the guys that I work with was asked a very hard question: How do you live with yourself when you have to make these hard decisions? You’ve had to lay people off. You’ve had to fire people. How do you live with yourself?

He said, two questions: One, did I do what I thought was right? And two, did I do my best? I love that advice. If the answer is yes and yes, take a deep breath and make peace.

I’d love to know how you talk to CEOs about dealing with fear and uncertainty. Because it really is the opposite of what so many CEOs I know like to deal with. It’s outside of their control.

The thing about fear, it doesn’t last. It’s impossible to stay afraid. Even people who live in environments where bombs are dropping every five minutes, you can’t stay afraid. After a while, you adjust. So, what you have to do with fear is face it. I am afraid. Here’s why I am afraid. Make peace with the fear that you have. Don’t hide it from yourself, at least. Just realize it’s just part of being human because when you deny it and block it, it’s worse.

Can you talk a little bit more about what you see for CEOs right now when it comes to their behavior? What should they be concentrating on? What’s most overlooked?

It’s very hard to keep focused on now. You could just watch the news all day and watch how many people died and this trauma and that trauma. Also, you have to not only keep focused on now, but you have to realize it keeps changing.

The most famous poem in history is probably the Bhagavad Gita. And the Gita has very good advice for this. Basically, you have a person who’s got two decisions to make. One is bad, and the other is worse. The message is: First, you accept what is. You don’t hide from what it is. Then, you don’t get fixated on the outcome. You can’t control the outcome. You have a goal, but if your ego gets attached to the goal, you’re in trouble. Then, you focus on what are you doing? What’s my strategy? What am I doing now? Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing my best?

One of the things that I have people ask is: Am I engaged? It’s so hard to stay focused and present. They’re on one of these Zoom calls. They’re on their email. They’re distracted. They’re not really paying attention. It’s very hard to stay fully present.

Another good suggestion one of my clients had: She always asks herself, am I being the person I want to be right now? Am I being the leader I want to be right now? Who am I being now? Anything you can do to remind yourself of this stuff is good.

What are some opportunities for CEOs to become better CEOs right now?

Be a role model. That’s the key. How do you want them to act, right? And then, you act that way. What values do you want them to exhibit? You exhibit those values. If you don’t believe it, don’t put it as a plaque on the wall. You’ve got to start with yourself.

What I always recommend is that leaders get confidential feedback. They find out how they’re perceived by all the people around them. They publicly acknowledge what they need to improve. They apologize for their mistakes. They involve all those people. And then they follow up and measure, did they get better? My research on it is pretty clear. If you do this stuff, you become more effective.

It’s very hard to do this. Why is it hard? One, it takes courage. Two, it takes humility. I’ve never helped anyone improve who was already perfect. Three, it takes discipline. Everything I teach takes discipline. It’s hard to do. If you read any of my books, it’s not hard to understand. It’s hard to do. Anybody that says the stuff I teach is easy to do has never done it.

What is the biggest risk CEOs are overlooking right now when it comes to leading other people?

The challenges in the family. So many people have family challenges right now. You’ve got kids at home. You’ve got your parents. You’re worried that they might die. In our calls, I’d say half the issues people talk about are family issues. They’re not business issues at all. They’re: I didn’t get to see my mother before she died. My kid’s sick. I’m afraid to go to the hospital. I’m afraid not to go to the hospital. Should my kids go to school or not? I’m a mother and how can I do this? Realize that it is very hard for a lot of people right now on the personal side. Very hard.

What do you counsel them?

If possible, meeting with other [CEOs] like themselves every week is very helpful. It’s not like that they necessarily give each other answers, but at least knowing I’m not the only person that has the problem. The thing that they find most common is the issues of humanity, that we’re all humans and we all are dealing with stuff.

Also, be human. It’s perfectly appropriate to say things like, “Here’s what I’m trying to improve, personally, not just business-wise. I want to listen better, or I want to be more present. I want to be more patient,” or whatever it is for you. Just being a role model. Stand up and publicly say, “Here’s what I’m trying to improve.”

It’s hard to do. It’s a whole lot more fun to blame everybody else and make excuses. That’s really much, much more pleasant than looking in the mirror at ourselves and saying, “Wait a minute.” The reality is if I look at my own problems, about 99 percent of the time, I don’t really have to look far to find the source of the problems. Look in the mirror.


Goldsmith’s Six Questions for Your Team

Goldsmith suggests every leader have a dialogue with every one of their direct reports and cover six basic topics:

  1. Where are we going? “So,” says Goldsmith, “as the CEO, you’d say, ‘Here’s where I see us going as a larger organization.’ Then you ask, ‘Where do you think we should be going?’”
  2. Where are you going? “Here’s where I see you and your part of the business going. Where do you think you should be going?” Because you want a connection two ways, one between the CEO and them, the person; and two, the bigger picture and smaller picture.
  3. What are you proud of? “A very good question because what happens is we often forget to give recognition because things are so crazy. It’s very important to ask them, what are they proud of? What do they think they’re doing well? And, sometimes, you may learn things you didn’t know.”
  4. What are your suggestions for the future? “I’m a believer in something called feedforward rather than feedback. Feedforward is you are where you are. Let’s talk about how to get forward more than just let’s rehash what you did wrong. I have the person say, ‘Look, moving forward, here are some ideas or suggestions I’d have for you.’ And then, ask the person a question: ‘If you were the coach for you, what ideas and suggestions would you have for yourself?’ A very good question. And they own it. It’s their idea, they own it.”
  5. How can I help? “Ask: ‘How can I help? What can I do to help you in the team?’”
  6. What suggestions for the future do you have for me?

Making It Work

The key to making this process work is mutual responsibility, says Goldsmith. “How does that work? Let’s say I’m the CEO. I would say, ‘You know, Mr. Direct Report, on a regular basis, I’m going to cover these basic topics with you.’”

“Then, I would say, ‘If you ever feel confusion, lack of clarity, you’re over-committed, I want you to immediately take responsibility to talk to me because at any second in time, you should have complete clarity in terms of where are we going, how’s it going, how are you doing, where are you headed, what are your ideas, what should change, at any second in time.”

“Then, I would say, ‘Given this period of rapid change, I’m not going to say that where we’re going now is going to stay the same for next five years. It may not stay the same for the next five weeks. I want you to know that. Yet, at any second in time, I want you to have clarity, and I want you to take the responsibility to talk to me now.”


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