Learn the Truth About Yourself

Leadership Excellence

October 1, 2003

by Marshall Goldsmith

Remember the character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street? Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his portrayal of this rude, larcenous wheeler-dealer.

Well, I worked with a real-life investment banker who in some ways could have inspired the Gekko character.

As an executive coach, I work with successful people who may need to change some behaviors to achieve the next level of success. The man I coached – let’s call him Mike – wasn’t amoral and unethical like Gekko, but his competitive fires made him treat people like gravel in a driveway. He ran right over them. Mike’s score for treating direct reports and colleagues with respect was 0.1 percent. Out of 1,000 managers rated, he was dead last! But Mike put up equally astounding numbers with his trades. His profit contribution was so vast that the CEO promoted him to management. This should have been the apex of Mike’s career. Instead, it exposed his bad side.

The firm’s leaders, who had been insulated from Mike’s behavior, then got a firsthand dose of his “lead, follow, or get out of my way” style. In meetings, they saw that there was often no checkpoint between Mike’s brain and mouth.

He was surly and offensive to everyone, even mouthing off to the CEO (his biggest supporter), who called me in to “help him change now”. When I met Mike, the most obvious thing about him was his delight in his success. He was making more than $4 million a year, so professional validation was coursing through his veins like jet fuel. I suspected that breaking through to Mike would be tough. He was delivering results, and he knew it.

So I sat down with him and said, “Let’s talk about your ego. How do you treat people at home?” Mike insisted that he was different outside the office, that he was a great husband and father. “I don’t bring my work home,” he said. “I’m a warrior on Wall Street but a pussycat at home.” “That’s interesting,” I said. “Is your wife home right now?” “Yes”, he said.

“Why don’ you call her and see how different she thinks you are at home?” He called his wife. When she finally stopped laughing, she concurred that Mike was a jerk at home, too. Then he got his two kids on the line, and they agreed with their mother.

“I’m beginning to see a pattern here,” I said. “Do you really want to have a funeral that no one attends, other than for business reasons?” For once, Mike looked stricken.

“They’ll fire me if I don’t make my numbers, won’t they?” he asked.

“Not only will they fire you,” I said, “but several people will be dancing in the halls when you go.” Mike thought for a minute and said, “I’m going to change, but my reason has nothing to do with money or with this firm. I’m going to change because I have two sons, and if I were receiving this same feedback from you in 20 years, I’d be ashamed to be their father.” Within a year, Mike’s scores on his treatment of people shot up past the 50th percentile, and he doubled his income.

Our flaws at work don’t vanish at home. And, our personal flaws and problems tend to show up a work.

Anybody can change, but they have to want to change. Sometimes you can deliver that message by reaching people where they live, not where they work.

If you want to know how your behavior comes across, stop looking in the mirror and admiring yourself. Let your colleagues hold the mirror and tell you what they see. If you don’t believe them, ask your loved ones and friends, the people who want you to succeed. We all claim to want the truth. This is a guaranteed delivery system. PE

ACTION: Seek truthful feedforward.