This is Part 7 in a series of interviews with the gurus of leadership and management theory.
Marshall Goldsmith is a researcher and executive coach. He was honoured in 2009 as one of the 15 most influential business thinkers in the world in a study by Forbes and The Times of London, and also named by The American Management Association as one of 50 great thinkers and leaders who have influenced the field of management. In this interview, he talks about the need for employees to monitor their own engagement with work, and for successful leaders to stop trying to win everything.
I gather you have some new ideas on employee engagement. What have you found?
I have been conducting research with my daughter Kelly, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. We have some fascinating research on the importance of asking active questions and teaching employees to engage themselves through those questions.
The idea came after I attended a conference of the National Academy of Human Resources, where I listened to a presentation by the heads of human resources at some major companies on employee engagement. They talked about what they were doing to engage employees and it all was good stuff – recognition, empowerment and training. But nobody was talking about what the employees could do to engage themselves. To me, the key variable of employee engagement is not the company but the employee.
To help with that, my daughter taught me a process called active questions. Historically, research on employee engagement by companies has involved asking employees passive questions, such as, “How engaged are you?” If you ask passive questions, you tend to get environmentally based answers, such as, “I am not engaged because my company is bad,” or “my boss is mean,” or, “I don’t get enough pay or recognition.”
We started asking active questions, such as, “Did you do your best to increase your own engagement, happiness or meaning?” We found consistently that the group we asked active questions self-reports being 50 per cent to 100 per cent more engaged than the group we ask passive questions.
So how should I employ this idea as a manager in a department, not controlling the company’s overall engagement program, but wanting to take advantage of your finding?
This is something you can do yourself. It’s not complicated. Part of our approach is based on The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande of Harvard Medical School. That gave me the idea of asking daily questions on engagement to keep focused.
So, as a manager, I keep this checklist of questions I want to ask employees and when I see someone I ask the questions?
There are two sides to this: You and the employee. For you, perhaps on a daily basis, introduce the discipline of evaluating how happy you were that day and how meaningful things were. Did you increase your own meaning, happiness or engagement today?
For employees, only try it with employees who want to take part. For those who don’t care, don’t waste your time. But for those interested, it’s a wonderful process they can undertake themselves – asking those questions.
The daily checklist on engagement forces you to pay attention. In many hospitals, for example, a checklist of questions reminds doctors to wash their hands. Dr. Gawande confesses he can’t remember if he washed his hands five minutes ago in some cases. Similarly, on engagement, he asks: How many days do we forget to be happy? How many days do we forget people we love? How many days do we forget to be engaged because we are lost in a sea of e-mails? The answer is: too many days.
We have completed research with seven companies. The results have been amazing.
In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you mention some of our bad habits that keep us from rising at work. Can you single out some of the major ones that cause problems?
The first one is winning too much. If it’s important, we want to win. If it’s meaningful, we want to win. If it’s critical, we want to win. But if it’s trivial, we also want to win. And if it’s not worth it, we want to win anyway. Winners – and successful people are winners – have an insatiable need to win.
The case study I use to illustrate my point is when you want to go to dinner at restaurant X but your spouse or partner wants to go to restaurant Y. You agree to go to restaurant Y and the food tastes awful. Option A is to critique the food, point out your partner was wrong and this mistake would have been avoided if he or she listened to you. Option B is to shut up, eat the stupid food, try to enjoy it, and have a nice evening.
What would you do? What should you do?
Seventy-five per cent of my clients say they would critique the food. What should they do? Shut up, of course.
It’s very hard for successful people not to go through life constantly winning and being right. A variation to that is a second bad habit: adding too much value.
Here’s an example: I am young, smart, enthusiastic and I come to you – my manager – with a great idea. Rather than saying, “It’s a great idea,” the natural tendency as a manager is to say, “That’s a nice idea; why don’t you add this to it.” The problem is the quality of the idea may go up 5 per cent with the manager’s suggested addition but my commitment to it may go down 50 per cent as it’s no longer my idea. It’s very hard for smart, successful people not to go through life constantly adding value – especially engineers, scientists and individuals with technical backgrounds
One of my coaching clients, who was CEO of a pharmaceutical company, retired three years ago. I asked what he learned as CEO. He said: “My suggestions become orders. If they are smart they become orders, and if they are stupid they become orders. If I want them to be orders or I don’t want them to be orders, they become orders anyway.”
I asked him what he learned from me as his executive coach. He said, “To be honest, you only told me one thing in a year and a half I remembered: Before I speak, stop and breathe, and ask myself one question: ‘Is it worth commenting?’ ” He said 50 per cent of the time, he had the discipline to stop and breathe: “I’d ask, ‘Am I right?’ Maybe. ‘Is it worth it?’ No.”
It’s hard for us to hold back – not just at work, I should add, but at home.
You have a new book aimed at salespeople, based on the theme of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. At the core, what is your message for them?
The major theme for salespeople is: Don’t make it about yourself. Don’t make it about your own ego. Don’t make it about how smart you are. Make it about your clients.
We all have a tendency to believe it’s all about us – to focus on our own needs. But the key to effective leadership and sales is we’re better off if we can make it about others. This is even more important at home, by the way.
What led you to write about mojo – and what is the book about?
I’m a Buddhist. Mojo is essentially a Buddhist philosophy book. It’s about happiness and meaning. It’s about positive spirit towards what we’re doing, starting from the inside and radiating to the outside.
I see this when travelling. One flight attendant is motivated, upbeat, enthusiastic and positive, while another is negative, bitter, angry and cynical. What’s the difference? Well it’s not what is coming from the outside; it’s what is coming from the inside.
In our mojo research, my daughter and I learned there is an incredibly high correlation between happiness and meaning at work and happiness and meaning at home. People who are miserable at work tend to be the same people who are miserable at home. People who find meaning at work are the same people who find meaning at home.
The key variable, we found, is inside us, not outside us. Whereas What Got You Here Won’t Get You There talks about classic challenges that successful leaders face, I think Mojo is better for young people. Its message is you need to find out (1) what do you love doing, and (2) what do you find particularly meaningful in life, because if you are devoting your whole life to activities that you find as meaningful and you are devoting your life to activities you enjoy doing and make you happy, you won’t mind working. If you’re not doing that, you won’t have a very great life and it will be very hard for you.
I want to close with the question I have been asking each of our thought leaders –
Before that, can I offer my best coaching advice for people?
Imagine you’re 95, on your death bed. But before you take your last breath you are given a great gift, the ability to go back in time and talk to the person reading this article. What advice would the wise, 95-year-old you – who knows what really matters in life and what doesn’t – have for the person, you, reading this article right now? What personal advice for that person? What professional advice?
A friend of mine happened to interview old people who were dying. Three themes emerged in their personal advice. The first was summed up in three words: Be happy now. Not next week. Not next month. Not next year. Be happy now. It’s a great Western disease that we’ll be happy in the future – when we get higher status, or that BMW, or that promotion, or this project finished. Instead, be happy now.
The second theme was about friends and family. When you’re 95 and on your death bed, no employees are waving goodbye. It’s only family and friends.
Third, if you have a dream, go for it, because if you don’t when you are 35, you may not when you’re 85.
The advice old people gave professionally isn’t much different. Have fun. Life is short. Do whatever you can to help people – not for status, but because the 95-year-old you will be proud if you did help people and disappointed if you didn’t. Finally, old people almost never regret the risk they took and failed; they regret the risk they didn’t take.
Now, your final question.
Who do you turn to for reading, learning and wisdom on leadership and self-improvement?
I am very blessed to have had many wonderful teachers. A mentor who changed my life happens to be quite ill right now. His name is Paul Hersey. Without Paul Hersey, there is no way I would be who I am. He gave me the opportunity to get started in this business. He has been a mentor, coach and adviser to me, and also tremendous help to Ken Blanchard.
Ken and I had been planning for years to have a little dinner for Paul, and we didn’t organize it. Fortunately, six months ago, we did. That was before he learned he had cancer. We are so happy we held it. It was a reminder to take time to say thank you to people who have helped you.
Another person who has helped me is Richard Beckhard, a great teacher and coach. Also Peter Drucker and Frances Hesselbein, who Peter Drucker said was the greatest leader he met in his life. I also learn from my clients.
In terms of reading, I would recommend my friend Jim Kouzes, who wrote The Leadership Challenge 25 years ago. I think it’s the basic manual for being a good leader.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer who writes Monday Morning Manager for The Globe and Mail's T.G.I.M. page, management book reviews on Wednesdays and an online work-life balance column on Fridays.