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What Got You Here Won't Get You There

By Marshall Goldsmith

with Mark Reiter

Hyperion, 236 pages, $29.95

Companies pay big bucks for executive coach Marshall Goldsmith to straighten out their high performers. In each case, he is working with people who have been hugely successful but who have some flaws: They may not have mattered in climbing the corporate ladder -- and even may have helped fuel that rise -- but now those flaws are a barrier to future success.

When this happens to us, we lose touch with where we truly are, he says. We don't understand how our behaviour has suddenly stalled our rise and isolated us from colleagues. The cause is rarely deep-seated neuroses that require years of therapy or medication to erase.

"More often than not, they are simple behavioural tics -- bad habits that we repeat dozens of times a day in the workplace, which can be cured by (a) pointing them out, (b) showing the havoc they cause among the people surrounding us, and (c) demonstrating that with a slight behavioural tweak we can achieve a much more appealing effect," Mr. Goldsmith writes in What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

He has catalogued 20 destructive habits, many stemming from the failing that heads his list: wanting to win too much. The need to win in every situation squelches colleagues and, while that determination can help us outpace others early in our career, eventually it backfires. Other bad habits include an overwhelming desire to add our 2 cents to every discussion, speaking when angry, clinging to the past, and playing favourites.

To help such leaders understand reality -- what the problem is, and how it imperils their career -- he begins by seeking confidential feedback from colleagues. More than that, he asks his client's co-workers to help him out, assisting rather than sabotaging the change process. He tells them: "I'm going to be working with my client for the next year or so. I don't get paid if he doesn't get better. 'Better' is not defined by me. It's not defined by my client. 'Better' is defined by you and the other co-workers who will be involved in the process."

He asks co-workers to make four commitments: Let go of the past, tell the truth, be helpful and supportive rather than cynical, and pick something to improve themselves so everyone is focused more on improving than judging. If you are trying to change your own habits, without his hands-on assistance, he recommends seeking the same commitment from colleagues.

The final commitment in his list -- that they also change -- creates parity and a bond. His suggested wording: "Now, what would you like to change in yourself? I would like to return the favour and help you." (Also on wording, in seeking feedback on what habits need to be overcome, he says the one question that works -- the only one -- must be phrased: "How can I do better?")

The process of change for his clients -- and for you, if you want to apply his techniques -- begins by apologizing to others. "I regard apologizing as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make. It is the centrepiece of my work with executives who want to get better -- because without the apology there is no recognition that mistakes have been made, there is no announcement to the world of the intention to change, and most important there is no emotional contract between you and the people you care about. Saying you are sorry to someone writes the contract in blood."

His directions for apologizing are: Say you are sorry, add that you will try to do better in future -- and then say nothing. Don't explain it any further or complicate it in any way, since that will only dilute your apology.

After apologizing, you must advertise to the world what you plan to change. This will open people up to perceiving your behaviour differently. When they see you acting in a better way, they won't view it as accidental but purposeful. The process of change is like a political campaign, in which you must demonstrate your desire to change. "Behave as if every day is an opportunity to hit home your message -- to remind people that you're trying really hard. Every day that you fail to do so is a day that you lose a step or two. You're backsliding on your promise to fix yourself," he says.

The change process will involve improving your listening and learning to express gratitude to others, thanking them for assistance in this endeavour and, more generally, your work. You must also follow up, checking with others on whether you are getting better and reminding them that you are still trying hard to improve.

This is a superb book, practical with a rich understanding of human behaviour and how to change. Mr. Goldsmith has endless examples from his work and his own personal failings, and the result is a chance for readers whose companies don't hire him to get the benefit of his expertise.

In Addition: George Washington was a model leader on the battlefield and in the political arena. James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, the historic home of the first U.S. president, and author Stephen Spignesi unfortunately falter in George Washington's Leadership Lessons (John Wiley, 214 pages, $25.99). They fall back on traits we have all heard endlessly (vision, honesty, ambition, courage, self-control, etc.) and hammer home lessons for readers after most of the anecdotes, rather than leaving it for the stories to serve as their own message. The book is an interesting historical lesson, but there are many biographies that would present that information better and, although some of the examples from Washington's life are memorable, there are many other books that provide leadership lessons better.


Bad workplace habits

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith identifies 20 bad habits that occur as we deal with others.

Winning too much: the need to win at all costs, and in every situation.

Adding too much value: the overwhelming desire to add our 2 cents to every discussion.

Passing judgment: the need to rate others and impose our standards on them.

Making destructive comments: the needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.

Starting with "No," "But," or "However": the overuse of these negative qualifiers when others raise ideas, effectively telling them, "I'm right. You're wrong."

Telling the world how smart we are: the need to show people we're smarter than they think we are.

Speaking when angry: using emotional volatility as a management tool.

Negativity, or "Let me explain why that won't work": the need to share our negative thoughts, even when we weren't asked.

Withholding information: the refusal to share information in order to hold an advantage over others.

Failing to give proper recognition: the inability to praise and give rewards.

Claiming credit that we don't deserve: the most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.

Making excuses: the need to reposition our annoying behaviour as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.

Clinging to the past: the need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past.

Playing favourites: failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.

Refusing to express regret: the inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we're wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.

Not listening: the most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.

Failing to express gratitude: the most basic form of bad manners.

Punishing the messenger: the misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.

Passing the buck: the need to blame everyone but ourselves.

An excessive need to be "me.": exalting our faults as virtues simply because they are who we are.

Harvey Schachter

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