Leadership Hall Of Fame: Marshall Goldsmith, Author Of “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There”

We continue our examination of the business book What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There with an interview of author Marshall Goldsmith. What is the number one obstacle to change? And what is he writing now?

Marshall Goldsmith

Kevin Ohannessian: What was the impetus for writing What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There?


Marshall Goldsmith: This book was inspired by Peter Drucker. I was on the board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for 10 years and had the privilege of spending a lot of time with him. Peter Drucker said, “We spend a lot of time helping Leaders learn what to do. We don’t spend enough time helping them learn what to stop.” That one comment gave me the idea of making a list of things not to do for leaders. The rest of the book was what I was doing anyway, helping people change behavior. I was at the publisher’s and he said, “What’s the book about?” And I said, “It’s kind of like, ‘what got you here, won’t get you here.'”–pointing in a different direction. Somebody in the room said, “That seems stupid. You should say what got you here, won’t get you there.”

Why do you think the book resonated with people in the business world?

The book is about real business people. The one advantage I have over more academic people, is that I deal with real business people all the time–I am talking with the CEO of a Fortune 10 company in one hour. You can’t really learn that stuff in school. Everything I learned, I learned from coaching. I do three things, speaking or teaching, which I enjoy the most, coaching is where I learn everything, and writing is where I reach people. All the stuff in the book is stuff I learned over the years of experience.


The book is largely about change. With all your years of coaching, what have you found is the number one obstacle to change?

Ego. I am not dealing with all humans, I am dealing with a small subset of humans who are people running large corporations. These people are great achievers and they are used to winning. And they try to win and be right and present themselves in a positive way, because that is what you need to do to become a success. The problem is when you get to the top, you have to quit doing that. One of the great leaders I have ever met is Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford. He said, “Leadership is not about me. It’s about them.” And that is hard. For a great achiever, everything is about me; for a great leader, everything is about them. It’s a very hard transition–making a transition from a great individual achiever, a smart person, who is successful in their own right, usually technically competent at something, and then gets promoted higher up.

One of my coaching clients I referred to in the book, I asked, “What did you learn about being a CEO of a big company.” He said, “I’ve learned a very hard lesson. My suggestions become orders.” As CEO, you win. You don’t have to prove you’re right, prove you’re smart, you win anyway. It’s hard to make that transition from achiever and doer to leader. From being right to helping them be right, from getting credit to giving credit. All of these are very difficult transitions. And they are all incredibly easy in theory, but they are difficult in practice.


If you read the book, it’s filled with funny stories. It’s temping to read and say, “What a bunch of idiots.” But the idiots in the book have IQs of 150, CEOs of multibillion dollar companies, and they are the ones that are trying to get better. They are not idiots at all. But they will all tell you all that stuff is easy to understand, but hard to do.

I’ll give you another analogy. When that book was the #1 ranked best-selling business book in the United States, the #1 bestselling diet book in the United States sold ten times as many copies. Americans get fatter and fatter and buy more and more diet books, but you don’t lose weight by buying diet books–you go on a diet. It’s easy to read a diet book, but it’s hard to go on a diet.


What Got You Here, Won

The book features 21 habits that hold you back. How concrete are these? Have you decided to add or subtract any?

It’s very interesting because if I had to write the book over, I would probably make some changes–probably not going to. It’s hard to argue with success. The one trait about too much negativity, I don’t see that as much. I think that something you see at the bottom, not so much at the top–I probably would’ve left that one out. The other thing I would change is that daily question idea. My daughter gave me a great idea on this, called Active instead of Passive questions. I’m using it as part of my new book.

Anything else you can share about your new book?


My new book is tentatively called Leading Your Own Life–the authors are my daughter Kelly, Mark Thompson, and his wife Bonita. And the book focuses on what we found to be a key to success, for people to lead their own lives. In our world we have this huge focus on vicarious living–politicians, movie stars, athletes, coaches, all these people. What our research has shown very clearly is that people who are really happier and have more meaningful lives are people that focus on living their own lives. That doesn’t mean selfish or greedy. They are focused on loving the people they are here to love, serving the people they are here to serve. They are not living the lives of some character, Angelina Jolie, or Charlie Sheen.

About four or five months ago, if you did a Google search with Charlie Sheen in quotes, he had more hits than Barack Obama and Jesus Christ combined. So many are just living someone else’s life. The average American today, before they die, spend more hours watching TV than working. Cut down on that a little bit. And you don’t have to stop totally–we’re not saying you have to stop amusing yourself. There was a book that was written a few years ago called, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The problem is we have some much access to amusement.

My daughter has come up with this idea for Active questions, not Passive questions. So we are doing Active questions in employee engagement studies now. Passive question: How engaged are you? An active question: Did you do your best to increase your engagement? Passive question: How happy are you? Active question: Did you do your best to increase your own happiness? We are doing this research, not published yet, and the results are amazing. Three groups: one a control group, no training, two, a group that goes to a training program that is followed up every day for three weeks with passive questions, three, same training with active questions. Well, we find that the group that follows up with passive questions gets better, but the group with the same training and active questions improves twice as much.


Everything in employee engagement has focused on what can the company do to engage you, not what you can do to engage yourself. There are two flight attendants: one is positive, motivated, and enthusiastic. One is negative, bitter, and angry. Same plane, same employee engagement program, same pay, same uniform–what’s the difference? Not the outside. It’s in here (points to head). Imagine you are going to a boring meeting with stupid PowerPoint slides. You don’t want to go, but they make you go. If you knew at the end of it you were going to get evaluated on if you did your best to be engaged, did your best to find meaning, you would get more out of the meeting. Rather than being a victim and sitting there saying, “This sucks,” you’d say, “It’s my life.” If you are going to be there anyway, it behooves you to make the best of it.

The real loser because of the bitter flight attendant isn’t the airline, they have thousands of flights and the impact of one flight attendant is not measurable; it’s not even the customer, they are not sitting there with huge expectations–it’s the flight attendant. Three hours of this person’s life is gone to anger, bitterness, and misery. When we are teaching this, we say it’s good for the company, it’s good for the employees, and it’s better for you. You can try to sell this to employees at American Airlines, that it will make money for the airline–then you got a tough sell because they don’t care. But if you say this is going to help you have a better life, it works a little bit better. That’s what we are working on right now, and the book should be out next year.

How has your writing process changed for the new book?


As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten simpler–my level of aspiration has actually gone down and down. But my level of impact has gone up and up. I used to teach classes and tell people to pick 1 to 3 areas of improvement. That’s when I was young and ambitious. Then I asked for 1 or 2. Now, one. I just realized how hard it is for anybody to change anything. It’s not because people are bad or stupid, it’s because we are so busy now. Given new technology that bombards you everywhere, email and voicemail, this stuff (gestures to his MacBook and iPhone), it’s hard to keep anything in our heads.

I was just up at Detroit two weeks ago and Alan Mulally went over all the work they had done to turn Ford around. They weekly refocused on the goals–repetition, over and over and over. It’s easy to see the glamorous stuff, getting awards and getting applause. But he didn’t get that award from giving an inspirational speech; he got that award by doing work day after day after day. What I’ve learned is that we over-glamorize inspirational speech, the rah rah, and we de-glamorize that hard day-to-day, gut wrenching activity that is required to get anything done.

So three changes. One is more focus. Two, go even simpler. This book is not complicated. Today I’ve become even simpler. Three, repetition. Write down the goal, publicly state the goal, and then over and over follow up on the goal. When you do that, you dramatically increase the odds of success.


What make a good business book stand out?

A good business book focuses on the reader, not the author. And the reader has something when they finish the book, something they can use in their own lives. As opposed to good literature–its main focus is art just in it of itself, the capturing of an experience. It doesn’t necessarily have to translate into something practical.

What I like about What Got You Here is that just when people read the 21 Habits, almost everyone sees themselves. They go, “Oh, my god.” They are finally relieved when they get to a bad habit they don’t have! “I do everything wrong. Wait a moment, I don’t have that problem!”


And What Got You Here is well written, and I can say that without boasting; Michael Reiter is responsible for writing that book. He can write better than I can. I’m not ashamed of that. Let me give you the story of the book.

I was in New Yorker magazine. Larissa MacFarquhar follows me around for two months and it turns out the article was very positive. Mark Reiter reads the New Yorker profile and calls me. He says, “It’s the best thing you’ve ever wrote, that you didn’t write. That was so much better than anything you ever wrote.” I’m not offended by this. I said, “No kidding. She can write better than I can. I have a day job–she’s not an executive coach.” He says, “Why don’t we start writing stuff that sounds like that?” And I said, “If you can do that, let’s do it.” And that’s what led to What Got You Here.

I’ve always been a good speaker. So you think, “Why don’t you speak like you write?” Try it. Not easy. People always said that What Got You Here sounds more like me than any of the books I wrote myself. That’s because it is me speaking–I am talking into a mic, he writes, I edit, I talk into a mic, he writes, I edit, etc. Writing is not easy. And it was Mark’s help that made it. I’m not ashamed of that. Nothing wrong having people around you that can do better than you can do. He can certainly write better than me, but it’s my content.


What are your three favorite business books?

One is Hesselbein on Leadership, from my good friend Francis Hesselbein. Drucker said she is the greatest leader he every met, and is an inspiration to me. There’s a lot to learn from her. Two is The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and it is very positive and practical. It’s different from my book, in the sense that my book is based on experiences with very high-level people. This book is based on experience at not so very high levels. But I find it very practical, very useful–25 years of research and experience behind it. And the third one I’ll give you is Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s not really a business book, but it’s a really good book about life. If you read this book you get a great idea of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist philosophy is great for business. In Buddhism you learn to make peace with what is, change what you can change, and if you can’t change it, make peace with it.

Read more from Marshall Goldsmith and our Leadership Hall of Fame.


Marshall Goldsmith is the author of What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There and Mojo.


About the author

His work has also been published by Kill Screen, Tom's Guide, Tech Times, MTV Geek, GameSpot, Gamasutra, Laptop Mag, Co.Create, and Co.Labs. Focusing on the creativity and business of gaming, he is always up for a good interview or an intriguing feature.


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