Marshall Goldsmith: what are the three things successful leaders do?

Drawing on his experience as an executive coach to accomplished senior leaders, Marshall Goldsmith says three practices underpin success and a fulfilling life

When was the last time you asked someone near and dear to you: “What can I do to be a better partner in our relationship?” While you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear this question asked by an executive coach in front of thousands of senior executives at a business forum, it is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions any person can ask another whenever they’re engaged in any kind of relationship, be it professional or personal. 

According to Dr Marshall Goldsmith, a globally renowned executive coach sought after by top-tier CEOs worldwide, who spoke at the World Business Forum in Sydney (which UNSW Business School was an academic partner for), mastering the art of asking such introspective questions not only enhances personal growth but also acts as a catalyst for transformative culture change within organisations. 

In his talk, Dr Goldsmith addressed three key ways successful leaders can become better people, nurture more rewarding relationships, and live more fulfilling lives. The best leaders ask: what can I do to be a better leader? “And while this is all easy to understand – it’s very hard to execute in reality,” he said. 

1. Feedforward vs regular feedback

In his talk, Dr Goldsmith introduced the concept of feedforward – the reverse exercise of feedback. Essentially, it’s the process of replacing positive or negative feedback with future-oriented solutions. Or, in simpler terms, focusing on the future instead of the past.

So, how does one implement feedforward feedback? “The first ‘rule’ of feedforward is no feedback about the past. “We spend too much time in our lives talking about the past… we can’t change the past,” explained Dr Goldsmith.

The next step is to get in the habit of asking for input. “All of my coaching clients get something called 360-degree feedback. They'll ask for input,” he said. Here, it is also important to adopt active and reflective listening. “Listen to what people tell you, don't judge, just listen,” he said. “You don't have to agree with it. Just listen to it. Think about it and fight that urge to talk when angry or out of control. And then thank people… don't punish people who tell you the truth. Easy in theory, tough in practice.”

Finally, it’s important to respond to feedback. “A lot of my feedback is positive… don't say ‘but’ – say ‘and’ there's something I want to improve. My advice: pick one thing. Don't pick some laundry list of things. Just pick one. That's enough. For example, I want to be a better listener and say, 'Look, I want to be a better listener. I'm sorry if I've not listened to you or others in the past. Please accept my apology, there is no excuse. I can't change the past. I won't ask you for more feedback about the past – feedforward.'”

Seeking ideas for improvement, particularly in becoming a better listener, involves active listening, taking notes, expressing gratitude, and avoiding over-commitment. Emphasising that leadership is not about popularity, Dr Goldsmith said it’s important to listen, think, thank, and respond by involving others. The intention is to collaborate for continuous improvement, with a promise to follow up in the future. “And if you cannot think of even one thing you need to improve, pick humility,” he said.

2. Incorporate daily questions for self-reflection 

For self-reflection, it’s important to challenge yourself with active questions – probing questions that aim to get to the heart of your values and goals. For example, he suggested asking a few simple but introspective ones like: Did I do my best to set goals for today? Did I do my best to progress toward achieving my goals? Did I do my best to be happy?

For increased accountability, he suggested writing the questions and answers down every day to tally up the ‘lived’ values as opposed to just ‘talk values’. “I've been doing this for 25 years… in everyday life, it is incredibly easy to ‘talk’, and incredibly difficult to ‘live’. You do this every day, you're not looking at those talk values, those are beautiful. But once you start looking at those ‘live’ values: not so pretty.”

And it's okay to need help and structure with this. It might surprise you, but even a successful executive coach like Dr Goldsmith has a coach. “Why have I had someone call me on the phone almost every day to help me for 25 years? Very simple. My name is Marshall. I am too cowardly and undisciplined to do this by myself. I need help. And it's okay. We all need help. 

“Just get over that stupid macho willpower nonsense. I'm going to do it on my own. No, you're not. You're not going to do it on your own. Just get some help. It's okay. Get over your ego,” he said.

3. Prioritise the things that truly matter

Finally, Dr Goldsmith shared three pearls of wisdom. The first? Be happy now. “Not next week, not next month, not next year. Be happy now. The great Western disease is ‘I will be happy when I get the money, the status of the BMW, the condominium’,” he said.

Envision yourself at 95, on your deathbed, about to take your last breath. Right before you do, you receive a precious gift – the chance to travel back in time and give your younger self some advice. “What mattered in life and what didn't? What was important and what wasn't? What advice would that wise old person have for you sitting here right now?” said Dr Goldsmith.

He also said never to be busy to spend time with those you love or chase after your wildest goals and ambitions. “Never get so busy climbing up that corporate ladder of success that you forget the people who love you. When you're 95 years old and look around your deathbed, they're the only ones there,” he said. And if you have a dream, you should always go for it, even if you fail. It’s the risks and opportunities that we don’t take. 

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“If you don't go for it when you're 35, you may not when you're 85, and it doesn't have to be a big dream. Go to New Zealand, speak Spanish, play a guitar… We seldom regret the risk we take and fail. We usually regret the risk we fail to take.”

Finally, he advised leaders to do whatever they can to help people. Even the most successful CEOs often reflect on the fact that money or status or getting ahead wasn’t the thing they are most proud of. “I've interviewed many successful CEOs and asked the question: what are you proud of? None told me how big their office was. All they've ever talked about was the people they’ve helped,” he said.


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