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Marshall Goldsmith Interview

2011 Ranking: #7
Winner: 2011 Thinkers50 Leadership Award

Executive coaching is a huge growth market. With senior managers under increasing pressure from investors, analysts and a host of others, and CEO tenure plummeting, executives appear desperate for help. Enter the coach.

Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world’s best known – and best paid – executive coaches. Ranked among the top 10 executive educators by the Wall Street Journal, recent profiles in the New Yorker and the Harvard Business Review confirm his place at the top of his chosen profession. Goldsmith’s reputation is based on results.

In support of business leaders he has racked up an impressive 7 million air miles and coached over 50 major CEOs. His books include Coaching for Leadership and The Leader of the Future. Hyperactive and relentlessly positive, Goldsmith is based in California. Goldsmith’s coaching methodology is now being used by Hewitt Associates, the largest executive coaching firm in the world.

When did the executive coaching take off, and how has it evolved in recent years?

It started about 10 years ago, but it really took off in the last five. If you look back through history I’m sure great leaders had someone who acted as a coach – so it’s not a new idea. But it is still a relatively unsophisticated field.

One problem is that executive coaching is growing while therapy and other fields are shrinking. This has encouraged some people to move out of those areas into coaching. Coaching is huge at the moment. There is a bandwagon effect. Coaching will remain but I wouldn’t expect the bandwagon to continue indefinitely. It will fall back.

Can you mass produce coaching? Isn’t it a very personal, one-to-one experience?

We teach our clients to learn from their people. We’ve trained people at GE Capital in my coaching methods and the results are just as good as using external coaches. The key is that the coach is not an expert but a facilitator.

The coach is usually seen as a physician who can cure all known ills. Our method is not about that. What people learn is a process.

How does someone go about finding and hiring the right coach? What are the pitfalls?

You should ask a coach what they specialize at. Too many coaches will ask ‘what is your problem?’ and then say they can help. If a coach says he is an expert at seven things then you have to wonder how good he really is at number seven.

What do you specialize at?

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. It’s about finding the right coach for the issue.

How much depends on the coach and how much on the willingness of the executive to change?

A lot of people put all the attention on the coach. That’s the wrong way round. It is the executive that is responsible for whether he changes or not. The same applies to training. A lot of training and executive education is a waste of time because the focus is on the people providing the program rather than the participants. The problem with a lot of it is that the participants evaluate the trainers and consultants. The only people who learn from that are the trainers and consultants. It is the managers participating on the programs that need to be evaluated to see if they have changed the way they do things.

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

Simple. I don’t get paid if people don’t change. Many other executive coaches have a conflict of interest when it comes to payments. They rely on the client liking them. They charge according to how much time they spend with the client.

Mine is a very novel pricing model but it is very easy to measure behavioural change – and executives like it because our 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. Key to this is executive ownership. That is 10 on a scale of importance while pleasing psychologists is zero.

What happens when you go into an organisation?

The first thing is that we only work with people if they agree to do certain things. We do a lot of customer qualification. If people don’t want to do the things we ask, we won’t work with them. The typical person we coach is stubborn. They think that they’re right. In many ways, the worse they are the better.

We help develop a leadership inventory. Then 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 is 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 colleagues and co-workers 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. 98% of people agree to do all of this.

How much time would you typically spend with a client?

I don’t talk about the number of hours I spend with an executive. That’s not important. I spend as little time as possible to get results. These people are expensive and their time is a valuable resource.

What happens after the initial agreement?

We have a dedicated follow-up process. After six months we will have a mini-survey of the person’s behaviour over the previous six months. We expect people’s behaviour to be better rather than perfect.

You make changing people’s behaviour sound quite straightforward.

It is much harder to change perception rather than behaviour. The closer you are to a person the less likely you are to believe that they will change. The most cynical people are the people you live with. At home they laugh in your face; at work they laugh behind your back.

Do cultural differences have an impact on the effectiveness of your method and of coaching in general?

No. The higher you go in organisations the less cultural differences are encountered. How different are 35-year old MBAs from each other? They have travelled and worked throughout the world and have good educational backgrounds.

A traditional coach sets himself up as an expert. We don’t do that so that makes a difference. This is not life planning or career coaching. Most requests for coaching are about changing behaviour and that’s what we’re interested in.

Aren’t coaches simply glorified psychologists, listening to the problems and deficiencies of executives?

In therapy it might take 20 years but we’re not interested in peoples’ psychological issues. We’re simply concerned about how they behave at work.

Is the coach simply a sounding board?

I’ve heard people say that a great coach has no agenda. That’s ridiculous.
In the literature it says that a coach is a good listener. There is no research to support this. My empathy gene was removed at birth one article about me observed. It is not designed for my client to love me. I spend as little time as is necessary with my clients.

Isn’t coaching simply a management fad which will disappear after a year or two?

Having a coach now has positive rather than negative status, but the popularity of coaching creates confusion about what coaching actually is. With our coaching there is a simple clear response: did people get better?

There will be a market shake out leaving a small group of companies who deliver results. Like any fad, there is a lack of definition in the coaching field. There are a lot of well intentioned people, a lot of charlatans and some who are good at what they do.

A lot of coaches say they can do anything. But the reality is that there are lots of different types of coaching. If you want coaching about strategy you don’t come to me, you go to CK Prahalad. If you want life coaching you might go to Richard Leiter and so on. There is no generic model of the coach.

You need to figure out what you need and then find the right coach. If you don’t know what kind of coach you need you might as well say that you need a teacher. To teach you what?

Learn more about Marshall Goldsmith

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