By Suman Saha
November 23, 2017
Featured Guest: Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach. For more, visit his blog on hbr.org.
PAUL MICHELMAN: What are the conditions that are ripe for an executive coaching engagement to succeed, and when is it doomed to failure? That’s the question we put today to executive coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith, who also writes the Ask The Coach column for harvardbusiness.org. Marshall, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today.
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: Paul, happy to be here.
PAUL MICHELMAN: Great. So Marshall, in a post this week, you spell out a series of questions that will help us get at a very important question about executive coaching. That is, when will it work? The questions are pretty simple on the surface, but I suspect they’re a little bit more complicated when you get into them. So let’s walk through them.
The first question, are the client’s issues behavioral? What do you mean by that?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: Well, almost all people who call themselves executive coaches are really coaches in the area of leadership behavior. There are a few– and I would like to underline, very few– strategic coaches. People like [? C.K. ?] [? Provolat ?] or Vijay Govindarajan, who do an excellent job of helping at the corporate strategy domain. Michael Porter. That’s a very few. Most– when I say most, I mean 90% of people who say they’re executive coaches have backgrounds in psychology or organizational behavior. That’s what I have my PHD in. And they’re really helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.
Now, behavioral coaching only helps if a person has behavioral issues. For example, I get ridiculous requests for coaching. Coaching is very in vogue now. A pharmaceutical company called me up, and they said we want you to coach Dr. X. I said, what’s his problem? They said he’s not updated on recent medical technology. I said, neither am I. Well, I can’t make a bad doctor a good doctor, or a bad scientist a good scientist, or a bad engineer a good engineer. Behavioral coaching only solves behavioral issues.
The second thing I always teach is never coach integrity violations. I read an article in Forbes once I found very disturbing, about people that had integrity violations who got coaches. People that have integrity violations should be fired, not coached. How many integrity violations does it take to ruin the reputation of your company? Just one. You don’t coach integrity violations. You fire them.
And finally, behavioral coaching doesn’t help if the person or the company’s going in the wrong direction. If somebody is going in the wrong direction, behavioral coaching just helps them get there faster. It doesn’t turn the wrong direction into the right direction.
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: This is very important. People may say they’re willing to try, but deep down inside, do they want to try? In my coaching process, you have to get confidential feedback. You have to apologize for sins. Involve your coworkers on a regular basis. And do hard work by following up over time for about a year and a half. Well, our research– Howard Morgan and I conducted a very large research study with 86,000 people, called Leadership As a Contact Sport. Our research clearly shows that leaders who don’t do the work and don’t follow up don’t get better.
An analogy. When my book was the number one ranked business book in the United States, the number one ranked diet book sold ten times as many copies. Americans get fatter and fatter and fatter, and buy more and more diet books. If buying diet books could make you thin, Americans would be the thinnest people in the history of the world. Well, you don’t lose weight by reading diet books. You have to go on diets. And clients don’t get better because they listen to a coach or read a book. They have to work. If they want to do the work, they’ll get better. If they don’t want to do the work, coaching is a waste time.
PAUL MICHELMAN: OK. So the diet analogy is interesting. But can’t part of a coaching assignment be helping to persuade the client that they should change?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: I personally don’t do that. I’m not saying that no one could do it. The research on coaching is compelling. Coaching works best with high potential people who are willing to make a concerted effort to change, not as a religious conversion activity. I often ask my clients a question, have you ever attempted to change the behavior of a successful adult that had absolutely no interest or commitment in changing? People raise their hands. I say, how much luck have you had on that process? Have you ever attempted to change the behavior of a husband, wife, or partner who had no interest in changing? How’d that work out for you?
Well, the reality is I don’t try to create religious conversion experiences. My goal is to help people that want to get better and are willing to try to get better. Not to beat people over the head and make them get better. Also, my clients are CEOs, or could be CEOs of multibillion dollar companies. They don’t want to do it, they’re not going to do it, anyway.
PAUL MICHELMAN: OK. Question three. Are the clients going to be given a fair chance? And I think what you’re really asking here, is there organizational buy in, as well as individual buy in?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: This is very important and not one you can take for granted. I’ll give you an example. I was working with one client, and the CEO wants me to coach the CFO, who is a future CEO. And I’m talking to the CEO, and I said, you don’t like this guy. He said, I like him fine. I said, you don’t have to lie to me. He says, you’re right, I can’t stand him. I said, why are we having this conversation? He said, I really don’t like him, but he’s done so much for the company. If he gets better at these behavioral issues, he should be the CEO. I worked with the guy who’s a CFO for a year and a half. 15 out of 16 people see massive, positive change. 1 out of 16 sees no change. Guess who that was? The CEO. He didn’t want the guy to get better. He didn’t think he would improve. I was a pawn in somebody’s political game. If the CEO is not going to give you a fair chance, you’re probably not going to win.
And sometimes it isn’t the CEO. Sometimes it could be the board that’s not going to give you a fair chance, or your peers who are not going to give you a fair chance. You really need to ask the question, are this person’s stakeholders going to give this person a fair chance? If they are, the behavioral coaching process can be very, very effective. If they are not, it’s probably just a seek and destroy process to prove that the person was wrong in the first place.
PAUL MICHELMAN: So how do you get at that, Marshall? Is it the coach’s responsibility to conduct interviews with key stakeholders before they take on an assignment?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: I do. I conduct interviews with key stakeholders, and I ask them– I have four requests. Number one, let go of the past. I say, whatever the person has done wrong in the past, I can’t fix and they can’t fix. And if you dredge up the past, you’ll demoralize them.
Number two, tell the truth. If they’re doing better, let them know. If they need to improve, let them know. And I’m not naive. I know if I ask people tell the truth, they might not, but it improves the odds they will.
And then I’d say, number three, be positive and supportive, not cynical and sarcastic. Because if coworkers are cynical and sarcastic, people give up. But positive and supportive, they continue.
And then I say, number four, you pick something to do better. So when the person says I want to get better at X, you say that’s great. I can get better. Let me help you. Please help me. I can get better at Y. Let’s all help each other. In doing this, I recruit everyone to help the person I’m coaching.
Now Paul, I want to be realistic about one thing. It’s not that I’m never wrong. I have been wrong before, where I have misread the tea leaves, and I thought the person would be given a fair chance. And after a month or two, it became obvious this person is written off. It doesn’t matter what they do. They’re not going to get a fair chance by their coworkers or their management. If that’s the case, better to council the person to leave.
PAUL MICHELMAN: And is that what you do?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: Yes.
PAUL MICHELMAN: So that’s interesting. It brings up a potential risk, I would think, from the organizational perspective of bringing on an executive coach. What are some of the other risks to the organization of bringing somebody on when the conditions aren’t right?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: I’ll give an example of when I did not get paid. Because in my coaching process, I only get paid if people get better. Yet it was good for the organization. The CEO read a book– and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Management by [? Best ?] [? Sellers, ?] and they wanted to hire people innovative, creative, rocking the boat, and making waves. So they hired this woman to lead a division. Well, turned out she’s innovative and creative, and they liked that. But that boat rocking? No, they didn’t care for it. And the waves. Did not like those waves. So they hired me to be her coach to help her quote fit in the corporate culture. I worked with the poor woman for a year. After a year, I finally said, look, you’re so miserable. I’m a Buddhist. My number one goal is to make me happy. You’re so miserable, you’re bumming me out. I said, get out of here.
Well, you know, she left the company. It was actually good for the company. She wasn’t happy there. It was not her. Sometimes it’s just the wrong place, and the wrong person, at the wrong time. I don’t see that as a negative for the company. As it as a positive, In this case I didn’t get paid. On the other hand, I did the right thing. And I think she’s better off, and the company’s better off.
PAUL MICHELMAN: So Marshall, who do you work for as an executive coach? The company or the individual?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: Well, actually, my pay is not determined by the company or the individuals. It’s determined by the coworkers of individual. So in my coaching process, I only get paid if the individual achieves significant positive change as judged by their key stakeholders. So the success or failure of my coaching process are the key stakeholders. By the way, who have been chosen by the CEO of the company.
PAUL MICHELMAN: I guess what I’m asking is who is your loyalty to? Do you have to have a loyalty first to the individual you’re coaching? Or to the greater organization?
MARSHALL GOLDSMITH: I think you have to have loyalty to both. On one hand, you want to do what’s right for the company, because company’s paying you. On the other hand, you want to do what’s right for the individual. I’ve never really found as much of a conflict there are you might imagine. In most cases, if it’s not working out for the individual, it’s not working out for the company. In theory, I could see how you might imagine that I have a lot of conflicts. In practice, this has never been very bothersome.
PAUL MICHELMAN: OK. Marshall Goldsmith, thank you very much.
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