Coaching Great Leaders


January 9, 2014

by Marshall Goldsmith

Over the past 30 years, I have had the opportunity to teach hundreds of thousands of leaders, human resources professionals and external coaches about the process of coaching for behavioral change. I am frequently asked the question, “What is the greatest challenge faced by a coach?” Over time, my answer has changed. Today it is very clear and simple.

As coaches, our greatest challenge is overcoming our own egos. 

As a reader of this column, and potentially a WABC coach, you are probably a well-educated, experienced professional. You have a sincere desire to help people and care deeply about their developing into better leaders. You have learned a lot, and you believe that you have a lot to give to your clients. If you are successful, you are also probably good at selling yourself-pointing out your qualifications and noting how you can help leaders improve.

Having great qualifications and believing in ourselves are positive qualities, and proficiency at personal marketing and sales is a basic requirement for success in our field. However, these same positive qualities that have helped us to become successful ourselves can get in our way when it comes to helping others.

Our Client’s Dedication Means More Than Our Wisdom

Of all of my clients, the client that was viewed as improving the most was the client with whom I had spent the least amount of time! He was the CEO of a huge organization and managed about 50,000 people. After our coaching engagement, I said to him, “I have spent less time with you than any client that I have ever coached, yet you and your team have shown the greatest improvement. What should I learn from my experience with you and your team?”

He thoughtfully replied, “Marshall, you should realize that success with your clients isn’t all about you. It is about your clients, the people who choose to work with you.” He continued, “In an important way, my situation is the same. I manage about 50,000 people. Every day, as a leader, I tell myself, ‘The success of our organization is not about me. It is about them-the great people who are working with me!'”

This remarkable leader taught me a powerful lesson. I have coached clients who, like him, have achieved dramatic improvements. I have also coached clients who didn’t change at all. I, the coach, was the same. The difference was not that I was appreciably better or worse. The difference was their dedication to achieving positive, lasting change-not my great insights or wisdom.

One of My Embarrassing Screw-ups

In spite of understanding the theory of ‘make it all about them, not you,’ I can still let my own ego get in the way of my work.

I was recently honored by Alliant International University (formed by the merger of the California School of Professional Psychology and United States International University). They decided to name their schools of business and organizational studies the ‘Marshall Goldsmith School of Management.’ Our school’s mission is to be a world leader in practical training related to the human side of organizations.

I love what I do, love my family, love where I live and love our new school. Everyone who knows me sees that all of my emails end with ‘life is good.’ I was brought up in a very poor neighborhood. Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky I am. Although it is good to be thankful and grateful about our own lives, it is not always good to assume that our blessings are the major topic of interest for the rest of the world!

Shortly after this school naming I was interviewing the team members of a client executive that I was going to coach. I really loved the company and was looking forward to working with the executive. As I introduced myself to each team member during our one-on-one sessions, I was so enthusiastic about myself, our new school and my great life, that I forgot why I was there! The person who had hired me called to send her regrets, noting that the team thought I seemed to be more interested in myself than I was in them. To put it bluntly, I was fired!

I should have been fired.

Learning for WABC Coaches

Wise people learn from their mistakes. Wiser people learn from others’ mistakes. Learn from my stupid mistake! Don’t get so wrapped up in your own ego that you forget why you are there. Never forget that client success is more a function of their dedication than your wisdom. Don’t make the coaching process about you-keep it all about them.

One of the greatest coaches that I have ever met has the fewest credentials-on paper. In fact, I am not sure that he could even ‘make it’ as a WABC coach. On the other hand, he keeps getting great results with his clients. Why? He makes coaching about helping them learn from their direct reports, co-workers and family members. He plays the role of a caring facilitator rather than a ‘know it all’ expert.

The next time your start feeling ‘smart,’ ‘qualified,’ or ‘wise,’ remember this warning.

Get over yourself!!!