Is It Worth It to Add Value? Not Always.

Chris Cuomo, journalist and news anchor on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, recently interviewed me about one of the trickiest bad habits in my book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, adding too much value. We explore the concept in the short excerpt from our interview below.

Chris: Chris Cuomo here with the one and only Marshall Goldsmith. Again, it’s great to be with you. You have a concept about not adding too much value, which is a little bit of a slight of hand. Right? It’s about making sure that you’re not overwhelming a situation.

For instance, I may add too value when I’m with you. I’ve noticed that when we’re talking, I’m thinking, ‘Here I with Goldsmith. I’m trying to get ideas, this guy’s the best.’ And then I notice, I’m doing all the talking! How do you deal with leaders in terms of not adding too much value, but getting so much more out of them?

Marshall: This is one of the biggest challenges of every leader I’ve ever coached. You’re one of the world’s great interviewers, and one of the things I love about what you do is, you don’t make it all about you. You try to make it more about them. Well, this same concept applies in leadership. Let’s say you’re my boss. I’m young, enthusiastic, motivated. I come to you with a great idea. You think it’s a great idea. Rather than just saying “great idea,” our natural tendency is to say, “that’s a nice idea, why don’t you add this to it?” Well the problem is, the quality of the idea may go up 5% and their motivation may go down 50%. It’s no longer my idea, boss, now it’s your idea. It’s incredibly difficult for leaders to realize that effectiveness of execution is a function of A (what’s the quality of the idea?), times B, (what’s my commitment to make it work?). We get so wrapped up trying to improve the quality of a little bit, we damage the commitment a lot.

One of my great coaching clients is a man named JP Garnier. JP was CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. When he retired a few years ago. I asked him, “What did you learn about leadership as the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline?” He said, “I learned a very hard lesson. Every time people get promoted in life, this lesson becomes more real. My suggestions become orders. If they’re smart, they’re orders. If they’re stupid, they’re orders. I I want them to be orders, they’re orders. If I don’t want them to be orders, they’re orders anyway. My suggestions become orders.”

For nine years I trained the admirals of the United States Navy. The first thing I taught new admirals is that when you get that star, your suggestions become orders. Admirals don’t make suggestions. If an Admiral makes a suggestion, what’s the response?

Chris: Aye aye, sir!

Marshall: That suggestion is an order. I asked JP, “What’d you learn from me when I was your coach that helped you the most?” He said, “You taught me one lesson that helped me be a better leader and have a happier life.” I said, “What was it?” He said, “Before I speak, I stop and breathe, and ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ As the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, 50% of the time, if I had the discipline to stop and to breathe, and to ask myself is it worth it? What did I decide? Am I right? Maybe. Is it worth it? No.” So I think a great point on that adding value is breathe. And ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” before you speak.

Chris: How do you convince somebody that less is more?

Marshall: Well, let me use a case study. Have you ever attempted to prove that you were right and someone you love is wrong on a minor or insignificant topic?

Chris: On a daily basis, Marshall.

Marshall: Does that work out for you?

Chris: Here I am asking for advice…

Marshall: You have kids?

Chris: I do, three.

Marshall: How old?

Chris: 15, 12, 8.

Marshall: How about that teenager? How about correcting them and proving they’re wrong on a minor insignificant point?

Chris: I just hide.

Marshall: That’s right. Let it go. I think a real important point is, win the big ones. I’m not giving anyone an answer, I’m giving them a question. I can’t answer the question for you, is it worth it? At work, before you speak, breathe. Is my comment going to improve this other person’s commitment? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, breathe again. Is it worth it? Well, as JP said about half the time the answer is no. At home, breathe. Is my little added value going to improve this relationship with the person I love? If the answer is yes, fine. If the answer is no, is it worth it? If you have to ask at work about half the time, it’s not worth it. If you have to ask at home, it is almost never worth it.

Chris: Those are great cues. Hard to put in practice, but it’s the right way to go. Thank you, Marshall!


On June 20th, I was honored to be inducted into the Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame – whose members include the top management thinkers of our time.