A Conversation with Dr. Marshall Goldsmith; America’s #1 Executive Coach, Author & Thinker.

A Conversation with Dr. Marshall Goldsmith; America’s #1 Executive Coach, Author & Thinker.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a New York Times #1 bestselling author, has written or edited 51 books which have sold over 3 million copies, been translated into 32 languages, and become bestsellers in 12 countries.  Amazon recently recognized the ‘100 Best Leadership & Success Books Ever Written’ – and included Marshall’s Triggers and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  He is the only living author with two books on the list.  His other bestsellers include: MOJO, Succession: Are You Ready?, The Leader of the Future and How Women Rise (with lead author, Sally Helgesen).   His new NYT bestseller, The Earned Life, is an Amazon Editor’s Choice for Book of the Year So Far in 2022.

Marshall’s acknowledgements include: Global Gurus – Corps D ’Elite Award for Lifetime Contribution in both Leadership and Coaching, Harvard Business Review – World’s #1 Leadership Thinker, Institute for Management StudiesLifetime Achievement Award for Teaching, American Management Association – 50 great thinkers who have influenced the field of management and BusinessWeek50 great leaders in America.   His life is featured in the documentary movie, “The Earned Life” and the New Yorker profile, “The Better Boss”. He is one of a select few executive coaches who has worked with over 200 major CEOs and their management teams. He served on the Advisory Board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for ten years.

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Marshall Goldsmith about finding our path in life, the pursuit of happiness, the scorecards for success, the power of mentorship, discipline and what it takes to live the life you deserve.

Q:  What does it mean for us to choose our lives?

[Marshall Goldsmith]: There are two concepts to think about, choice and fate. Some people believe that our lives are basically controlled by our environment – that we are basically subject to triggers in our environment, and our lives are subject to fate. For others, our lives are the opposite, they are a matter of choice. We’re not gods, we don’t have total control, but I do believe that the reality of our lives is somewhere between choice and fate. We do have quite a bit of agency over our lives, and to the degree that we can plot our own course and choose our lives as opposed to being subject to environmental factors, that means we’re leading the lives we want rather than the lives we have-to live. Choosing our lives means, in essence, plotting your own course rather than having a course plotted for you by the environment.

Q: What stops people from plotting their own course, from choosing their lives?

[Marshall Goldsmith]: We all have inertia in life, the more comfortable we are, the harder it is to change. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from Dr. Paul Hersey, I was working for him, and he said, ‘…you’re making too much money, your clients are happy, that’s your problem… you’re not going to be who you could be…’ I was comfortable – inertia had set-in, I was re-living the same day repeatedly. It was a nice day, but I wasn’t going anyplace.

We also have programming in life. We’ve all been programmed to believe that we’re a certain person – for example… you might be the smart one, the clever one, the funny one, whatever. We then go through life living out these programs as if we have to repeat forever. When I coach people they often say things like, ‘I can’t listen, I’ve never been able to listen…’ – I say, ‘well, why not? Do you have something stuck in your ears? Do you have a medical issue which means you can’t?’ – we can change. When we talk about ourselves as if we’re subject to these stereotypes, we can internalize them, and that makes us assume that those stereotypes are who we really are.

Vicarious living is a disaster too – the average kid that’s flunking out of school in the United States spends 55 hours a week on non-academic media – literally billions of hours are spent on topics like the Kardashians! Lives are being wasted on living vicariously.

Having purpose in life means you are much less likely to waste your time living vicariously (say), but the challenge is that the addictive nonsense around us takes time away from finding our purpose.

Q: Is it toxic that so much of society right now defines the meaning of life as chasing happiness? 

[Marshall Goldsmith]: Semantics matter, you may be defining happiness very differently to me. There are different ways to define words, the definitions aren’t right or wrong. For me, happiness means I love the process of what I’m doing as much as the results. Only you can define what happiness means for you. The problem is not pursuing happiness, but rather pursuing something you think will make you happy.  

In life, you have your actions, ambitions, and aspirations. Our actions are our day-to-day activities, just living our lives. In some cases, you could say this is a form of pursuing happiness – it’s pursuing instant gratification. That’s the history of our species; our ancestors were poor, they didn’t have money or lofty aspirations, they just lived.

Some people are focused on ambitions and the achievement of time-set goals. Very often you find people who aren’t chasing day to day happiness but rather- are addicted to achievement, and who think, ‘…everything will be fine when.’  One of the greatest myths in the lives of the people I coach is, ‘I will be happy when…’ as if there is some place to go to. There’s only one book that ends with the phrase happily ever after, that’s a fairy-tale.

There was a famous experiment in 1972, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Researchers said to a child, ‘I’m going to give you a marshmallow, if you eat it now you only have one, but if you wait, you’ll get 2’ – the research showed that the kids waited, and delayed their gratification. In life however, how long will you wait? And what for? Will you eat the marshmallows you have or are you going to die as an old man in a room surrounded by uneaten marshmallows.

Q: What is the scorecard for our lives? 

[Marshall Goldsmith]: You should never place your value as a human being on results. You don’t control the results of the game – people get lucky or go bankrupt. Also, what happens when you achieve your result? What long-term satisfaction does that bring you?

One of my clients is Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer. I called him a few months a year and asked him how his year was going, ‘…oh great, we came up with this vaccine, saved billions of people, you know…. Pretty good… profits are at an all-time high and our teams are engaged and proud!’ – ‘what’s your biggest problem?’ I asked, ‘……next year.’ You think anyone who bought stock gives a shit what he did last year? No, they want results next year. Michael Phelps won 25 medals, what did he think about doing after that? Killing himself.

In Buddhism, they speak of the hungry ghost. You can never feed it.

Happiness and achievement are independent variables – you achieve to achieve – be happy to be happy – achievements will not make you happy. Ultimately, it’s a great Western art form.  You may have seen this.  There’s a person, the person is sad.  They spend money.  They buy a product and they become happy.  Which is call a commercial.  Have you ever seen one of those commercials?  How many?  How many thousand? 

When people talk about getting there… there’s no there to get to. The problem is the eternal search for there. There is no there, you are searching for something that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter how much you have, how much you’ve achieved or how much you own, every day you wake up and it’s a new life.

Only one second in time you can find peace – now.  There’s only one second you can be happy – now.  There’s only one place you can find peace and happiness.  Where you are.  This is it, it’s not out there somewhere, it’s in you.

Q: How do we bring discipline into our lives?

[Marshall Goldsmith]: 30% of people who have life-threatening illnesses don’t take their medicine as prescribed, that’s mind-blowing. These are not people who have a cold – these are people who are going to die if they don’t take their medicine, and even in that situation, compliance is difficult. Nothing changes unless you do something, life and leadership are contact sports, right? You need accountability – I’ve had someone call me on the phone every day for 25 years to hold me accountable for moving forward.

Q: Why is mentorship so important?

[Marshall Goldsmith]: We have this macho-willpower-crap, as if somehow willpower is the answer to everything in life and if someone needs help, it means they don’t have the willpower. It’s a nonsense.

Years ago, IBM was the most admired company in the world, they were the God company. They hired me as this 28 year-old kid to try and figure out what was happening with staff performance. I asked employees if managers were doing a good job of coaching – guess what, they weren’t. I asked managers if their employees had ever asked for coaching, guess what, never. I then went to the performance appraisal system – the definition of a top performer was- I kid you not, ‘….performs effectively, with no need for coaching.’  This is the most admired company in the world, they are doing stuff this stupid, I couldn’t believe it.

Asking for help matters. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote a book called The Checklist Manifesto, in this book it shows how nurses ask doctors a series of questions from checklists. Accidents and infections plummet – Dr. Gawande notes that more people have died from the ego’s of surgeons in the United States than have died in the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraqi wars put together- They are ashamed to need help, they are ashamed to need structure and they’re ashamed to need direction.

Q: How does credibility play into this?

[Marshall Goldsmith]: Credibility means you are trusted, credible, respected and people believe you’re going to deliver. We all want to be credible, but it must be earned. You have to firstly do great work, and secondly, be recognised for doing great work.

Let me give you an example, there are 33 million books on Amazon. To be in the top 50% of all books sold on Amazon, you need to sell……. 2! Half of the books on Amazon have sold 0 or 1 copy. If you sell 2, you are in the top 16 million books. I’m sure some books in the bottom half are better than anything I’ve ever read, but guess what, nobody will read them because nobody’s recognised them and seen them.

You need to know when to promote yourself and when not to promote yourself. People tend to fall on two sides of this, you have those who oversell, they add too much value, they want to be right, and win arguments. You never get that far in life if you’re a shrinking violet, right? The undersellers are different. They are people who know their influence could make the world a better place, but who are not comfortable seeking the attention. What’s more important? Making the world a better place or being comfortable. There’s nothing to be proud of in underselling.  If you’re underselling it’s keeping you from making the world a better place, nothing to be bragging about.

[Vikas: Why are we, in Britain, so poor at promoting ourselves]

[Marshall Goldsmith]: Let me tell you where that comes from.  You know where that comes from?  A bunch of rich people who didn’t want poor people to move up. They came up with this term ‘nouveau rich’ to crap on the poor who tried to make it.  In fact, that turned their own people against them.  That’s exactly where that comes from.  Did you know the original Olympics, everyone was professional.  You know who came up with the idea of amateur athletics?  The Brits.  Why?  Keep out the poor.  That’s what amateur athletics was all about.  One guy won the shot put and they tried to have it removed, do you know why?  He was a brick layer.  They said he shouldn’t be allowed to compete, he got paid for lifting bricks.  All that nonsense saying you shouldn’t have to promote yourself.  You know where that came from?  It came from a bunch of people who didn’t have to promote themselves.  And you know why they didn’t have to?  Because they were rich.  Their mommies were rich, their daddies were rich, everybody they met was rich, they went to Oxford, they went to Cambridge, they controlled the damn world.  And you know what, they didn’t have to promote themselves.  No kidding, I wonder why.  And they dumped that crap on everybody else to keep out the poor.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Marshall Goldsmith]: Legacy has a now and later dimension – my level of aspiration as I’ve got older has gone way down, but my level of impact has gone way up. I quit worrying about what I’m not going to change. My mission is to make other people’s lives better, that’s good use of my time. That’s it. When I coach people, I say, ‘being honest, I hope you make more money…’ (most of my clients have more money than God anyway), ‘….but I hope you have a better life from our work together, is that ok?’ 100% of the people I’ve coached go with it – my goal is to help people have a better life.

If one person sends me an email saying, ‘Marshall, my life is a little better because I met you..’ that’s a good day. That’s enough.

My ultimate legacy is that I want to, impact in a positive way, help as many people as I can while I’m alive and then after I’m alive.  That’s why writing, thinking, teaching.  I have this programme called 100 coaches I went to a program called ‘Design the life you love’.  The woman said, ‘who are your heroes?’.  My heroes are very kind and generous people who are nice teachers.  She said ‘you should be more like these heroes’.  I decided to adopt 15 people and teach them all I know for free.  The only price was when they get older, they have to do the same thing.  So I make a little video, put it on LinkedIn.  I’m thinking 100 people would apply and I’d adopt 15.  I was wrong – so far over 18,000 have applied and I’ve adopted about 370, it’s called the 100 coaches’ program.  And the idea is to just give things to people.  There’s no charge, no expectation they’ll give you something back.  The only expectation is to help someone else.  So that’s kind of, for me, a legacy programme so I’m very proud of that.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.