Books: The art of breaking a middle exec down to build them up

Marshall Goldsmith proffers the kind of advice that could take you all the way to the C-suite - if you change 20 bad workplace habits. Octavius Black searches for insights.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How successful people become even
more successful
Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter
Profile Books £9.99

A top executive educator' - The Wall Street Journal. 'A great communicator' - O, The Oprah Magazine. 'One of the five most respected executive coaches' - Forbes. 'One of the most influential practitioners in the history of leadership development' - Business Week. 'One of the most credible thought leaders in the new era of business' - The Economist.

Marshall Goldsmith is a big man. And not just in the business press. Here are just a few of the luminaries lined up in the first five pages of his new book telling us quite how transformational Goldsmith is: the former CEO of GSK, an MD from Goldman Sachs, the CEO of Getty Images, the former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom ...

As you discover that this new book is also an bestseller, a New York Times best-seller and a Wall Street Journal bestseller, you are probably already clicking away to order your copy, and maybe one for each of your team, too.

And yet ...

The premise of What Got You Here Won't Get You There is that our previous success often gets in the way of our future success. This is because the behavioural traits and characteristics that qualified us to become team leader or divisional director aren't those that are needed to rise to the C-suite.

This thesis is generously illustrated with personal examples from Goldsmith's coaching repertoire. These stories usually take the form of a very senior person telling Goldsmith that a slightly less senior person is brilliant at hitting their numbers but has some flaw that is fatal to their promotion. And that it would take a minor miracle to cure this high-achieving, arrogant jerk (a word the author uses often). Cue for Goldsmith to jump on a plane, humble the over-confident superstar and give him (or, occasionally, her) startling advice that transforms their behaviour.

The people themselves are all familiar: there's the director who wouldn't listen, the one who couldn't stop something he'd started, the one who always had an opinion on everything. And, as the reader, we think: 'How on earth will Marshall conquer this one?' A bit like the A-team: the odds seem impossibly slim and yet he always pulls it out of the bag.

At the heart of Goldsmith's method is his 'brutal regimen' for getting people to behave effectively. This consists of 360-degree feedback from colleagues at all levels and can extend to spouses/partners and children.

He then 'confronts' the individual with what people really think of them. He helps them to apologise (Goldsmith's 'magic move', as we discover in a later chapter devoted to the topic); to advertise their efforts to get better; to follow up religiously, and then to listen without prejudice and to say thank you.

At the core of the book, and heavily signalled on the cover, are '20 workplace habits that you need to break'.

With such a build-up, you might expect these 20 habits to be things you hadn't thought of. Or equally, things you had thought of but in such a way that you now think of them differently. Or an exhaustive list. Or a top-priority list. Or a list based on research across hundreds of successful people.

What you get is a list of 20 undesirable habits that we would all be wise to avoid.

Some of them are very insightful: winning too much - the need to win at all costs even when it doesn't matter; adding too much value - contributing our two cents to every idea, thought or subject brought up for discussion; clinging to the past.

Some of them are familiar yet eminently sensible: not listening, refusing to express regret. Some of the others seem to be solid but run the danger of duplication: failure to give proper recognition, claiming credit that we don't deserve, and failing to express gratitude all seem to be from the same family.

Similarly, do making destructive comments, negativity, starting with 'no', 'but' or 'however' really merit three separate points in the top 20?

In effect, the top 20 habits tell us to be modest, considerate and open. Sound advice, but might we expect more from one of the world's leading executive coaches?

There is plenty of good counsel elsewhere in the book. Goldsmith gives full weight to the maxim that people change their behaviour only when they believe it is in their own best interests to do so - all too often overlooked by members of the leadership development profession.

He brings in psychology, in the form of cognitive dissonance: the tendency, when we believe something, to carry on believing it regardless of what conflicting evidence we may see. And there are welcome references to popular culture, including Tom Wolfe's theory of information compulsion and an exchange between Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give.

This book contains helpful reminders about the things we know we should do but all too often forget. However, if you are looking for stunning insights or crystal-clear advice from the world's top business coach, you will need to hire the man himself.

- Octavius Black is co-author of The Mind Gym: Wake your mind up.

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