This week’s conversation is with Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a world-renowned executive coach and New York Times bestselling author of Triggers and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Throughout Marshall’s career, he has worked with CEOs from over 200 companies, has been named one of the Top Ten Business Thinkers in the World, and in 2018 was inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame in recognition of his contributions to the field of business education and leadership coaching.

Marshall also has a new book out – The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment – where he explores what it means to earn your path and live a fulfilled, purpose-driven life, which is one of the reasons I was so excited to have him on.

Although we agree that no one does the extraordinary alone, you’ll hear, toward the end of the conversation, there’s a ton of fire – two people passionately talking about their philosophies, which are very, very different. That’s what it’s all about.

We are all uniquely different, working from different approaches. I love that part of the human experience. You’ll hear and feel how he works.

I’d love to hear your take on this conversation – related to the concept that sparked the fire–  “that everything you need, is already inside you” – versus – “you’ll be better off with strong advice from a coach.”

“Don’t become addicted to achievement, and don’t make your value as a human being based on what you achieve. Because if you do… well… you’re never going to win.”

In This Episode:

Leading with gratitude

That’s something that I’ve learned. I had a couple of experiences that helped me with that. One is, when I was 27, I broke my neck surfing, and I didn’t know I’d ever be able to walk again. I talk about that in my new book. And after that, I just said, “If you can ever walk, don’t complain. Don’t complain.” And then, another second experience is I went to Africa in the great famine of 1984, and I watched a lot of people starve to death. I have a picture at home of myself. I was there for nine days with the Red Cross. I have a picture of myself kneeling down next to some woman, and she’s measuring the arms of kids. And if their arms are too big, they don’t get any food. They’re not hungry enough. Their arms are too small, they’re going to die anyway. And they go over there. And if their arms are in the middle, they get food. So, I have a picture of me staring into the camera, and I’m trying to send that version of myself a message to this version. And the message is, “Be grateful. Just be thankful for all you have, because that could be you.” I mean, those people are as good as you and me. Just quit ranting. That could have been us.

What got you here, won’t get you there

My book is about helping successful leaders get even better. So, I’m a pioneer in helping successful leaders get better. Historically, coaching was not for successful people. Coaching was, fix the loser, not help the winner. I’m in the help-the-winner business. If you do a Google search, helping successful leaders, in quotes, the first 500 hits, 450 are me. The entire rest of the world is 50. My brand, my brand. Got that brand. Well, I started working on the issues of successful people. And Peter Drucker said, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching them what to stop.”

The lessons he learned from working with Peter Drucker

I have repeated this advice thousands of times. This sounds so simple. I’ve talked to CEOs with MBAs from Harvard and had to repeat this 30 times so that they get it. Here it is. Point number one, we’re here on earth to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart we are and not to prove how right we are. We get so lost in proving how smart we are and how right we are, we forget we’re not here to prove we’re smart. We’re here to make some positive difference. Number two, every decision in the world is made by the person who has the power to make the decision. Make peace with that. Not the smartest person, a fair person, a good person, the right person, or even a sane person. Decision makers make decisions. If I need to influence you and you have the power to make the decision, there’s one word to describe you, customer. There’s one word to describe me, salesperson. Customers never have to buy. Sales people have to sell. Sell what you can sell, change what you can change. And if you can’t sell it and you can’t change it, take a deep breath and let it go.

How did he get into “executive coaching?”

Largely accidental and not nearly so inspirational as you might think…  I didn’t start at the bottom. I mean, my first clients were McKinsey and IBM. Then I’m working with a CEO, and he said, “I got this kid working for me. Young, smart, dedicated, hardworking, driven to achieve, arrogant, stubborn jerk.” He said it would be worth a fortune to me if I could turn that kid around. I said, “I like fortunes. Maybe I can help him.” He said, “I doubt it.” “Well, I’ll try.” I came up with an idea. This was my good idea, “I’ll work with the guy for a year. If he gets better, pay me. If he don’t get better, it’s all free.” You know what he said, “Sold.” That’s how I got into coaching. There was nothing called coaching. There was no such thing as executive coaching. I just made that up. Well, guess what? I got paid. He got better, I got paid. Welcome to executive coaching.

Coaching Alan Mulally (CEO of Boeing Commercial Planes)

Alan taught me a lesson that changed my life and changed the field of coaching. You know what he said? Number one, he said, “You got one job, Marshall, client selection. You pick the right customer, your coaching process will always work with the right customer. You pick the wrong customer, it’s never going to work. Two, never make the coaching process about yourself and your own ego, and how smart you think you are. Make it about the great people you work with, how proud you are of them.”

Choosing clientele

Well, the first criteria is how much I charge. So, that eliminates about 99% of everybody. So, that cuts out. Now I’m dealing with CEOs. They could be CEOs, because nobody else is going to write that check. Now I’ve cut that criteria down, a few issues. One, they have to have courage. What I do requires… They got to look in the mirror. It’s painful. It is painful. Number two, they have to have humility. You know what I’ve learned? I cannot help a perfect person improve. If they’re perfect, they don’t need me. Well, they have to have enough humility to admit they can get better, and they have to have discipline.

What does he “coach?”

I only coach behavior. Never coach an integrity problem. Fire an integrity problem. Don’t coach an integrity problem. That’s a mistake. So, I never deal with integrity problems. I don’t deal with strategy. I don’t know anything about strategy. If somebody’s going in the wrong direction, I just help them get there faster. I don’t turn the wrong direction into the right direction. So, all I focused on for years was helping successful leaders achieve positive, long-term change in behavior, for years. Now, in my old age, I actually do something else along with that. I still do that, and I do something else along with it. I just try to help people have a better life. Be happier, find peace. Because as I’ve grown older, half the people I coach now are billionaires. One guy I’m coaching, “What am I supposed to do? Help you get from 4 billion to 4.1? What’s it matter anyway? Who cares?” He said, “You’re right. Who cares? I just want to be happy.” So, now a lot of my coaching is trying to help people have a good life.

Stakeholder-centered coaching

The way I coach people, it’s called stakeholder-centered coaching. Thousands of people have been formally trained in this, and tens of thousands have used it informally. It’s very simple. I would start out… Let’s imagine you’re the CEO of a company, but it works with a first-line supervisor just as well. You’re the CEO. I’d say, “Okay, who are your key stakeholders?” These will be your direct reports, your peers, management, family, friends, whoever you say. And then the board would have to agree, “Yeah, yeah, we agree. These are important people.” Then I ask them all for confidential individual feedback. Simple questions I do. “What’s this guy do well? What’s he need to do better? What situations bring out the best, the worst?” Overall, just any advice at all. And then I write a report. Now, these reports are very painful to read, because they’re not used to seeing the truth, and they’re long. It’s hard. And then I go over this report with you, and you say, “I feel good about this. I will get better at that.”

Using others as reference points

Here’s the key. Now, you have to then go back and talk to people. You have to say, “Thank you so much for participating. Thank you so much for this feedback. I have nothing to lose, much to gain.” And you talk about the positives. “Here’s what I feel great about.” And you express gratitude. I don’t know who said what. I know many people said nice things. I would say how grateful I am. Then you don’t say “But…” you say, “And here’s where I want to improve.” For example, “I want to be a better listener. Now, if I’ve not listened to you or the others, I’m sorry. Please accept my apologies. There is absolutely no excuse, no excuses. I can’t change the past. I’m not going to ask you for more feedback about the past. I can’t change it anyway. I’m going to ask you for ideas for the future. If you had to have ideas moving forward to help me be a better listener, what would they be?”

Asking for help

Oh, 80% or 90% of what my clients learn, they don’t learn from me. They learn from other people. Then I have these meetings with my clients. I did that over COVID with 50 people. So Pau Gasol and Curtis were part of this group. Every week they evaluate their lives. Every week they’d come in and give a report card on their lives. And every week they ask for help. And then people just try to help them, and then they try to help other people, over and over and over again.

Did you do your best?

When you ask a person, “Did I do my best?” they can’t blame anybody. Why? Didn’t even say you succeeded. Did you even try? Number one, did I do my best to set clear goals every day? So, every day you set goals. Number two, did I do best to make progress toward achieving my goals every day? Number three, did I do my best every day to find meaning, find meaning in life. Did I make this count? Number four, did I do my best every day to be happy? Number five, did I do my best every day to build positive relationships? And number six, did I do my best every day to be fully engaged?

How does he measure happiness?

When I talk about happiness, it’s very simple. I’m not like Martin Selgman, who says happiness is a function of seven things. To me, happiness is joy in the process of what you’re doing. You just love what you’re doing. That’s it. I’m not talking about meaning. That’s separate. I’m not talking about achievement. That’s something else. I’m just talking about you love the process of what you’re doing.

Better listeners are better leaders

If you look at our research, it shows that leaders that get the feedback, talk to people, follow up on a regular basis, get better. And people that don’t, don’t. I was teaching a class for the Northrop Company… And this is also in my new book, The Earned Life. I’m teaching class for the Northrop Company, and the CEO is Kent Kresa, a great guy by the way. Turned around the company, which was down the drain when he got there. And Kent says to me, “Do people really change?” I said, “Well, I think they do. But to be honest, I have a degree in math, I have no research to prove it.” So, I started measuring, do people talk to people? Do they follow up, and do they get better? What did I learn? Shockingly, the people that actually did all that stuff I taught got better. Not as judged by themselves, but by everybody. They were better leaders, better listeners, whatever. They got better.


The people I coach are achieve-aholics. They are focused on achievement. And I talk about the dangers of identifying yourself with the results of what you do. It’s a fool’s game. It is a fool’s game. And we have become, in the West, excessively focused on the results of what we do, and it doesn’t bring joy. And if you’re too focused on results, there’s two problems. One, you don’t control the results. And two, what if you achieve the results? What happens next year, or next year, or next year? You mentioned the National Football League, a disaster story. What happens to ex-NFL players? Ugly, ugly, ugly. Divorced, bankrupt, depressed. Why? They are not going to hear that glory again. Curtis has done so much to try to help ex-athletes. Pau Gasol is trying to help ex-athletes. They’re both very successful guys. Why? They’re living now. They’re not living in a dream in the past.

Aligning purpose, meaning, and loving the process

The Buddhist term is the hungry ghost. You are the hungry ghost. You’re always eating, but you’re never full. So, a lot of the book is just how you align three things. One, you need to have a higher purpose. What am I here for? Why am I doing this crap at all? What’s the point? Two, you need to have meaningful achievement that is connected to that purpose. And then three, you need to enjoy the process of life. So, those are the three key things I talk about. And if you enjoy the process of life, you’ll be having a good time, one. Two, I’ve got a higher purpose. And three, I’m achieving stuff that’s meaningful to me. Now, I’ll give you some good feedback. Are you ready for some good feedback?


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Executive Coach |

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is a world-renowned executive coach and New York Times bestselling author of "Triggers" and "What Got You Here Won't Get You There."