In Conversation with Marshall Goldsmi


In his interaction with Rita McGrath, Marshall Goldsmith answers questions on how leaders can in these unprecedented times give faith to the people whose lives they touch.

Rita McGrath: It is an unprecedented crisis. How can people help cope with what is going on around them?

Marshall Goldsmith: One of our colleagues, Bill Carrier came up with a term called pragmatic optimism. You have to be positive but you also have to face the reality that exists. These are tough times, and one thing that is good about this situation is that it makes people more human. People expect leaders to be more human and not put on some kind of a show, so at the individual level, we can draw some learnings from the Gita, the most widely read parable, perhaps in the world. In the Gita, the protagonist has two choices, bad and worse. When he is bemoaning how life is tough, Krishna says to him that it is what it is. Reality has to be faced and a choice has to be made without fixating on the outcomes. This is a very non-Western concept because we tend to be fixated on the outcomes and the message of the Gita is that you cannot get attached to the outcomes because you do not control the outcomes. This has never been truer than it is today. All we can do is focus on the process and do our best. 

On an individual level, we have to let go of the past, otherwise, we will mess up the work we are doing towards our future. The next thing is to have a strategy. We have to pick a strategy and make peace with the strategy we pick. Once we have established the strategy, we have to let go of the past, take our shot, and not worry about the outcome. In today’s world, it is hard to do that because of so many distractions and worries, but we have to let go of the past to make our move for the future.

We need to do something in our capacity as leaders as well. As leaders, we can practice a six-question process. It requires leaders to have a one-on-one dialogue covering six basic questions with everybody who reports to them. The first question is, “Where are we going?”. Leaders should tell what they think and then ask the person what they think about where the organization is going and where it should be going. The second question is, “Where are you going?”. Again, leaders should answer where they see the person going and then ask the person to answer the same question. It is because the aim is to have a two-way connection. The third question is, “What do you think you’re doing well?”. This is a very good question for leaders to ask, especially during times of crisis. It is very easy to focus on problems and forget that people are slogging their guts out. They are doing a lot of good things that they feel proud of, and leaders should not ignore those good things. sometimes, leaders may not even know what those good things are, so it is important to ask that question.

The fourth question is about suggestions for the future. We cannot change the past so it is better to focus on the future. Leaders should share the ideas about the future that they might have for the people they are leading, and then ask them the question, “If you were the coach for you, what suggestions or ideas would you have for yourself?”. Most of the time when people have their ideas for themselves, leaders end up preferring that idea to their own. The fifth question is, “How can I help? How can I, as a person who is your manager, can help?”.  The sixth question is, “What ideas or suggestions do you have for me?”.

As leaders, we can practice a six-question process. It requires leaders to have a one-on-one dialogue covering six basic questions with everybody who reports to them.

Rita McGrath: The notion of making your cycles shorter comes up a lot in your answer, so instead of having an 18-month plan, you have got what is in front of you, you see where it lands and then you re-plan. It is a different mindset than a lot of people are used to.

Marshall Goldsmith: During periods of rapid change, the cycle is much quicker. People get lost very quickly and they get confused and flustered very quickly, so they need more structure, not less structure. At this time, leaders need to go through these six questions. 

The priorities may well change and our goals and priorities today may not be the ones next week. At any second in time though, there should be absolute clarity on priorities. The next thing that makes this concept work is something called mutual responsibility. If an individual ever feels confused, not sure about priorities, not sure how things are going, if they have any ambiguity, they need to take responsibility immediately and talk to their leaders. If there is work being done along with clear communication, there is no reason for any doubt, ambiguity, or confusion to crop up over what is going on; there should be no reason for the organization or the team to not be aligned.

Leaders have to make hard decisions in their life, such as laying people off and doing things that hurt people’s lives. Harry Kraemer, the CEO of Baxter was asked how does he sleep at night knowing his decisions could have ruined people’s lives? He said that he asks himself two questions. One, “Did I do what I thought was the right thing to do at that time?” and two, “Did I do my best?”. He said that if he did what he thought was right, and he did his best, he gets to go to sleep and have peace. To put all these stories together, all you can do is do what you think is right, all you can do is do your best, and you make peace. This lesson has been even more important than it is right now.

Rita McGrath: Can you lay out how your idea of feed forward works?

Marshall Goldsmith: It is an experiential activity done with groups. In feed forward, two roles are needed. Role one, learn as much as you can. There are smart people, from whom you can learn as much as you can. Role two is called help as much as you can. There are very nice people who are going to help. Then there are two rules. Rule one, no feedback about the past. We spend too much time talking about the past anyway. Only ideas for the future. Two, you cannot judge or critique ideas. Ideas are to be treated as a gift. If you receive one, say “Thank you” and use it if you want or do not use it. Then, the group is made to talk with each other about what they want to be better at and share ideas to help each other. 

At the end of the exercise, I ask the participants to give me one word to describe this exercise. People invariably say “positive”, “useful”, “helpful”, but a common word is “fun”.  People find this as positive, useful, helpful, or even fun because it is focused on what you can change, what you can do, not what you cannot do. It is not humiliating and you don’t dredge up all your previous sins. You are focusing on what you can do better in the future.

We get so lost in proving how smart, clever, and right we are that we forget we are here on earth to help make a positive difference.

Rita McGrath: How can we encourage leaders and organizations to get out of that frozen state and become active?

Marshall Goldsmith: I would encourage people to set interaction goals because if we don’t, it is very easy not to do this, especially during tough times. It is much easier not to talk to each other when times are hard, so you need to articulate the amount of time you will spend in interaction and then make sure you do that.

Rita McGrath: How do you keep people motivated amidst the negativity out there?

Marshall Goldsmith: I get people focused on what they can do, not what they cannot do. Some of the most crucial learnings I can pass on is from Peter Drucker. Learning point number one from Peter Drucker is, every decision in life is made by the person who has the power to make the decision. We have to make peace with that. Decisions are not made based on logic or sanity or fairness or rationality. It is simply made by whoever has the power to make the decision. Learning point number two, our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart we are, how clever we are, or how right we are. We get so lost in proving how smart, clever, and right we are that we forget we are here on earth to help make a positive difference. If I don’t make a positive difference, how smart I am is completely irrelevant. If you need to influence the decision-maker to make a positive difference, then the decision-maker is the customer and you are the salesperson. The customer has no obligation to buy, so you sell what you can sell. You change what you can change and let go of the rest.

Before you or your team deal with any topic, ask one question, “Am I willing at this time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?”. If the answer is yes, whether it be big or small, go for it. If the answer is no, let it go. Most of the negativity comes from the things we have zero control over, so it is better to let go of the things we cannot change. 

Rita McGrath: What can we do if we have lost faith in our leadership, but we still believe in the organization and its mission and are passionate about our organization?

Marshall Goldsmith: Reiterating Peter Drucker’s advice, decisions aren’t made by fair or logical people. Decisions are made by decision-makers, the ones who have the power to make decisions. If that person is your boss, they are the customer and you are a salesperson. You sell what you can and if you think it is hopeless, then let it go. Advice for a lot of people is, take care of yourself and your family this year. This is not the year to make points. It is tough out there and it cannot be said that things will get better, so some of the battles we want to fight should be saved for next year. 

Rita McGrath: Can you share ideas on how we can connect strategy with execution?

Marshall Goldsmith: I can give a small exercise to do every day for three minutes, which can be used both in business and personal life for connecting strategy and execution. It is called the daily question process. Every day, start with yourself just as a human, get out a spreadsheet and on one column, write down a series of questions that represent what is most important in your life- friends, family, colleagues, whatever it is. Every question must be answered with a yes or no or number. There should be seven boxes across, one for every day of the week, to fill every day. At the end of the week, that spreadsheet will give you a report card. The biggest learning from this exercise is that life is easy to talk, and difficult to live. Doing this exercise every day can help us execute our strategies in mere two weeks. If it is difficult to maintain a spreadsheet, it is okay to take help from someone who can call you every day and listen to you as you go through the questions and try to answer them.

Rita McGrath: If one has a limited budget and had to invest in developing some skill, how would you recommend they order the priorities?

Marshall Goldsmith: The number one priority right now for many people is staying alive. Most organizations right now need to do whatever they can to stay alive. One thing that we are experiencing now that we have not experienced in my lifetime, at least in the United States, is economic fear. When we experience economic fear, we stop discretionary spending, but the entire global economy depends on those spending. When we experience economic fear, it also takes a while for it to go away.

It is tough out there and it cannot be said that things will get better, so some of the battles we want to fight should be saved for next year. 

Rita McGrath: You’re writing a new book on earned life. As you are locked up at home and have a lot of time to reflect, how are thinking about the idea of earned life?

Marshall Goldsmith: In my book, there are two sections. The first stage is called creating the rest of your life. The idea is, we need to constantly recreate our life as we journey through life, and we need to earn it on a regular basis. You cannot buy love and respect, but have to earn it. The second part is earning the life you create, so that you get the feeling that you are earning it. Dr Jim Yong Kim, ex-head of the World Bank, is currently doing his best to save America. He has literally saved tens of millions of lives and he says, “Every day I re-earn my legacy”. That is a great way to look at life.  He could sit back and boast about it but he continues to save lives. These are not normal times, and we are going to remember what happened, so a good question to ask ourselves is, “What do I want to be remembered for during this challenging period?”

Rita McGrath: Would you like to share any final thoughts or advice?

Marshall Goldsmith: The best coaching advice right now is to take a deep breath, imagine that you are 95 years old and getting ready to die, and right before you take that last breath, imagine you are given a beautiful gift- the ability to go back in time and talk to the person that is listening to you right now. To help that person be a better leader and have a happier, better life, what advice would you give? What advice would an old person have, who knows what mattered in life or what did not, what counted, and what did not count? 

Three themes emerged from the answers of actual old persons who were asked this question. The first is, be happy now. Our happiness is always contingent on something, and we get so busy chasing what we do not have that we do not see what we do have. Second, friends and family are very important during this time of crisis. When we are 95 years old, the people who will be by our side are our friends and family, not our co-workers. The third is, do not let go of your dream. If you have a dream, go for it.

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