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Executive Coach Tackles Habits, Hangups That Hold Back Leaders

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith advises CEOs of companies including Ford, Pfizer and Wal-Mart and writes books that have a knack for pinpointing lessons that high performers need to hear. His new book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts: Becoming the Person You Want to Be, explores ways to move past the idea of willpower and self-discipline and control our environment in ways that lead to success. Marshall shared lessons from his decades of coaching executives on issues that impact both their professional and personal lives with the Chicago Tribune:

Q. What are the hard truths that people don’t want to hear about leading?

A. The leaders who become more effective have the courage to get honest feedback, they have the humility to admit they can improve, and they have the discipline to follow up and stick with it. It’s not just a one-time religious experience. They actually work to get better.

Q. Is there a certain type of executive most open to this type of advice?

A. I only work with people who want to do what I do. I only get paid if they get better. So if anybody has the slightest problem with doing what I do, I don’t deal with them.

Q. What do you suggest for someone who is willing to work to change in an organization, but faces working with others who aren’t?

A. I’ll answer it two ways, looking down and looking up.

In terms of looking down, Peter Senge from MIT made a very good point about this. Anybody can lead individual or organizational change from their level of the organization down, assuming they’re not actually sabotaged by the people above them. You can still be very effective leading down if you don’t have great boss.

The other is influencing up. Peter Drucker taught me a wonderful lesson: Every decision in life is made by the person who is empowered to make the decision. Make peace with that. Our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart we are.

Assuming you stay with the company and take the check, you need to learn how to influence people. You realize that sometimes these people are not logical or rational or fair, but they’re still the decision-makers, and you have to do your best to learn how treat them like customers. Most people never understand this point.

Q. Who are your leadership gurus and advisers?

A. Buddha would be No. 1. I’ve read 400 books on Buddhism. Then Peter Drucker and Paul Hersey and then today, I would put in that category my friend Alan Mulally. He was the CEO of Ford. He teaches me stuff all the time.

Although in theory I was his coach, in practice, he coached me. He creates an environment where people can tell the truth without being ashamed. He creates an environment where as a leader he doesn’t have to know all the answers.

Q. What was the idea behind “Triggers”?

A. “Triggers” is our about relationship with our environment. It’s the role the world around us plays in us becoming the person we want to be, why we don’t become the person we want to be and then how we can be a little bit more likely to become that person.

Q. Change is obviously difficult. How do you sustain a change long-term?

A. Get help. Say, “I have this problem. I’ve had it for years. I’ve not fixed this by myself in the past. It’s highly probable I won’t fix this by myself in the future. I need help, and it’s OK.” That’s it.

Get over this macho, self-discipline, willpower crap.

Q. You pay someone to call you every day to review a checklist you created to make yourself accountable for certain goals and behaviors. How does that work?

A. This is called a daily question process. You get out an Excel spreadsheet. In one column you write down a series of questions, then seven boxes across for every day of the week.

Every question is answered with a yes, no or a number. Every day you fill out the questionnaire. And at the end of the week the Excel spreadsheet gives you a report card.

Now why do I pay someone to call me every day to listen to me read questions that I wrote and provide answers? Because I don’t have the courage, nor the self-discipline, to do it on my own. It’s a very humbling exercise. Most people would be embarrassed to say they have to pay somebody to call them every day.

Q. How much of a difference has it made for you?

A. I’d say a huge difference. I’ll give you an example. Many years ago, my daughter Kelly was 11 and my son Bryan was 9. I asked Kelly, “How could I be a better father?” She said, “You don’t spend enough time with me. You need to do better.” So I decided to improve.

That’s when I started using the daily question process. I measured how many days that I spent four hours with my family. In 1991, it was 92 days; 1992, 110; 1993, 131; 1994, 135. If I hadn’t measured it, I wouldn’t have done it.

Q. Have you coached Kelly, now an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern Universitys Kellogg School of Management, in the way you’ve coached all these CEOs?

A. As a parent I always try to give my daughter good advice. That doesn’t mean she follows my advice. One of the best pieces of advice I received had do to with my son. I was trying to help with his homework and I was terrible at it. Somebody gave me very good advice: “Be his father, don’t be his mentor.”

Kate MacArthur/Chicago Tribune/October, 2015