Name Interview: Marshall Goldsmith NAMELYMARLY.COM, MARLY MCMILLEN


By Marshall Goldsmith

Albert Einstein once said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” I think I may have worked with some of the same kinds of people as Einstein. There are definitely days when I can empathize with this statement.

Working with people can be a pain! Going to the dentist can be agonizing too but at least there they give you Novocain. There’s no pain relief strong enough for an annoying workmate.

That said, there have been times when I’ve worked on teams that just gelled. We all worked together so well that it made it a pleasure to go to work every day. As a result, we all put more energy and time in the project because we enjoyed it so much.

I wish all teams could be like that. But what’s the difference between that intolerable workmate and the synergistic team? There had to be someone I could ask about this. Enter, Marshall Goldsmith.

If there’s anyone that knows the answer to that question and the importance of interpersonal relationships, it’s Marshall Goldsmith. He has a PhD in organizational behavior and has studied the effects of interpersonal behavior in organizations for over 30 years. He’s also written a number of best-selling books on the topic and has been described by Forbes as one of the top 5 executive coaches in the country. In fact, he was a pioneer of the concept of individualized 360-degree feedback as a tool for leadership development. He’s got more accolades than I have room to mention here. Let’s just say this, he’s basically a “Who’s Who” in the business world.

And this was exactly who I was looking for, a business guru. Someone who could give some objective and reasoned discussion on names. Besides, he’s got an interesting name himself. There’s only a small percentage of U.S. males named Marshall.

What would a guy with an undergraduate in mathematical economics and an interesting name like Marshall think about names in general? I called Marshall on a Saturday morning not too long ago to find out. Marshall regularly speaks to crowds of thousands of people. He’s even done interviews with the likes of Diane Sawyer. I imagined he was quite comfortable doing yet another interview, even though the topic was a bit, well, off topic for him.

But my state of mind was not so calm. I’ve read about Marshall Goldsmith for years and have found his books and podcasts to be more than a little enlightening. His books have been read by millions of people and in nearly every country of the world. But for all his well-known success, Marshall was personable and seemed to enjoy talking about something near and dear to me, names. Read on to learn for yourself what Marshall thinks of this intriguing topic.

Marshall Goldsmith talks about his life, his career, and his name

I know this may sound like a strange question to ask because the answer seems obvious, but I have found what we see as someone’s name and what their given name doesn’t always match. So, can you tell me what your parents named you when you were born?

Well, I think it’s a good question because I actually go by middle name rather than my given first name. My parents named me Herbert Marshall Goldsmith.

Did your parents tell you why they picked the name?

Both names Herbert and Marshall were given to me from names in my family; uncles and grandparents from both sides.

Did you ever go by your first name, Herbert?

No. My parents called me Marshall from the very beginning and so I’ve been Marshall my whole life.

Did you have to spend a lot of time correcting people who called you Herbert instead? I can imagine teachers calling roll might get that wrong.

No, not really. There’s really not been any issues going by middle name. At least not until recently. I travel a lot. I have over 10 million miles on American Airlines alone! And with the recent changes in security with traveling I’ve had to change my credit cards to include my first name so that they match the name on my ticket. So lately I’ve had to do much more explaining about my name than I used to.

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Marshall is a unique name. In fact, there are only 60,000 of you in the United States. Did you like the fact that you had such an unusual name?

I have always liked my name even though I was aware of how unique it was. In fact, growing up I never once had another Marshall in my school all through my education, from elementary through high school.

And Marshall is one of those names that also is a word with another meaning to it as well. It seems like the marshal in old Westerns was always the good guy!

Yes, that is true. And when I was growing up there was a show on TV called Gunsmoke which had a character in it named Marshal Dillon. He was the good guy of that show so it was a good name to be associated with.

So I take it as a child you liked the name?

Yes, I guess you could say I did.

Have you ever gone by a nickname?

No. I’ve always gone by Marshall. Of course, Marshall is not the kind of name that lends itself easily to a nickname so maybe that’s part of the reason.

Yes, but I could imagine some kids donning you with a nickname not of your choosing. You know, something like Marsh?

That’s true, but I’ve never really had a problem with that.

My previous career was in the business world where I was a COO and executive director. I’ve always found your books to be so informative and helpful for business leaders. I’ve listened to you speak on Harvard Business Review podcasts. You’re also listed by the Thinkers 50 as one of the top 15 business thinkers globally. You obviously have experienced a great deal of success in business. What caused you to decide to study business?

I started out with a bachelor’s degree in mathematical economics. I enjoyed that degree but I became sort of burned out on the mathematics side. I decided to do something different and I got an MBA from Indiana University. And then UCLA’s Anderson School of Management offered me an opportunity to get a PhD in organizational behavior. It was a full-ride scholarship that included a $500 a month stipend. That sounded like a lot of money to me at the time so I decided to do that.

You seem particularly drawn to the issues related to business leaders.

Yes, some of that is because my research has been on the organizational behavior side. I study behaviors in organizations and as a result I work with CEOs of some of the top companies on how to be the best they can be. You can pick up my books and see the kinds of people I work with. My work includes some of the top leaders in business. The interesting thing is I’m an executive coach and I’m working with these leaders on their behaviors, but I’m not a business strategist. I was named one of the top business thinkers by Forbes Magazine, but honestly that’s not my area of expertise. I let the people I work with figure out that part. What I’m there to work with them on is addressing behavior and how that impacts the business.

It seems like that is a big part of business. How we interact with one another.

That’s right.

Your latest book, MOJO: How to Get it, How to Keep it, How to get it back if you lose it” deals a lot with our behavior.

MOJO is about aligning your inner and outer selves and finding ways to be inspired in both areas. I co-wrote that book with Mark Reiter who is an amazing writer.

Well, he’s got the perfect name then!

Yes, he does! I have a PhD and one thing that doctorate school does well is pound out good writing. If you have it in you to begin with, you won’t by the time you’re done. There is only one acceptable way of writing in a PhD program and it’s not animated and fun to read.

That explains a lot about the PhDs I know! I had noticed a lot of good analogies and even references to popular culture in your books, so I guess I can assume that’s Mark’s input.

I credit a lot of that to Mark. I even got a phone call from Samuel Newhouse, you know, of the Newhouse family famous for their publishing expertise? He called to tell me what a great book we’d written. That was an amazing phone call. It’s an example of the power of teaming with someone with complementary skills.

In the MOJO book you mention there can be a misalignment between our inner and outer selves. Do you find that is often the case? For example, we spend time on things that don’t make a difference in furthering our development?

Absolutely. I’m a Buddhist and this book, the concept of MOJO, is really about Buddhism.

Ah, I see. It’s a book on Buddhism cleverly written for business people.

Well, the book applies to more than just business people. I think it would be an excellent book for kids to read, particularly teenagers. In fact, at one of our recent workshops for a large hospital system, we conducted a seminar with patients. These patients were asked not to bring children younger than 13, but one couple couldn’t find a babysitter so they brought their 9-year old son. He did a great job participating in the program. At one point we had participants practice giving feedback to others about their communication style and this 9-year old boy pointed out that the other person in the group could learn to smile more when talking. It was great feedback. Clearly the workshop was as much value to him as it was to some of the adults.

Your book on MOJO talks about 4 vital ingredients: Identity, Achievement, Reputation, and Acceptance. In the area of identity you describe how important it is to really know oneself. Can you talk a little more about that?

Sure. It’s easy to be in one’s skin but not really know who you are. I illustrate in the book the example of Bono. He has had many life transformations from musician to rock star to now a humanitarian. I’ve talked with him about these life changes and how they’ve impacted him.

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It’s interesting that you bring him up as an example because I’ve studied him as well. He began life with the name Paul David Hewson and took on the name Bono when his pals called him that. Bono meant “good voice” and it seemed to be a name that fit him well. He used that name and it seems to me that it was a part of helping him transition to his new musical career.

Well, that is interesting. I had never thought of it from that perspective before but it does seem that the transition of his career and his name worked well. We all can benefit from spending time understanding who we are and what we have to bring to this world.

I notice that two of these areas seem to be in a sort of conflict: Identity and Reputation. Identity deals with knowing who we are and reputation deals with how others think of us. It seems like we can spend a lot of time trying to figure out what others think of us. Sometimes that can show itself in odd ways: spending too much time on emails or Twitter or Facebook.

It’s amazing how much time is wasted on these kinds of pursuits. The top 3 “Twitterers” with the most followers are Brittney Spears, Ashton Kuchner and Taylor Swift. The thing is, people spend time following them and reading their tweets but these people don’t really care about what their followers are saying. It’s all one-way communication. It’s not very fulfilling in the end.

Yes. It’s sort of sycophantic in a way. Following what these people are saying when there’s no way that person is ever going to engage in true conversation. And the biggest concern is that it’s not providing meaningful fulfillment.

It speaks to the importance of deciding how we are going to spend our time.

I noticed in your MOJO book that it references a survey you conducted about MOJO. Some of the same items, say for example a commute to work, were listed as a chore by some people but as an area of success by others who said they used the time to listen to audio books. How can the same item – a commute to work – be listed negatively by some people and positively by others?

It is true that we found this result. Gardening is a good example. Some dislike gardening and do it because it has a benefit. Some dislike gardening and do it because they love the veggies they get as a result. On the other side of the spectrum, some people like gardening and do it without feeling it has a real benefit and then there are others who like gardening and do it because they feel it has a beneficial outcome. It’s all in how you look at it.

It’s all about attitude then? I mean, you said in the book, “Our experience of happiness and meaning in life is influence by who we are – as much as by what we are doing.” It means do you look at that commute to work as a hassle or an opportunity for fulfillment to listen to an audio book?

Yes, attitude is a very important part of MOJO.

Do you find there is often a disconnect between what we want and what we spend our time on?

Absolutely. It’s important that we ask the question, “What will this task bring to me.” It’s crucial to our personal success. What I find instead is a lot of people who want to lay blame on things around them. It’s the company’s fault. It’s the team’s fault. That’s a victim mentality and doesn’t help lead to improved self value.

I really respect what you do as an executive coach because you’re basically in a role of telling people things they may not want to hear, but it’s necessary in order to improve. I think this is a skill that many of us lack – this ability to say things we know others won’t want to hear. But it’s at the crux of every important relationship. Do you have tips to help others to improve in this area?

I think it’s important to focus on the future in these kinds of discussions. For example, when I’m working with a business executive and I observed them leading a meeting that turned out to be a complete failure. When I meet with that person afterwards I realize it doesn’t do much good to talk about all the mistakes made in that meeting. What I’ll say is, “What did we learn today that we can use toward making tomorrow’s meeting better?”

I see. So taking the emphasis off of today’s blunders and directing positive action toward making tomorrow better can help all parties involved sort of rally around a solution.

Yes, exactly.

Back on the topic of names, tell me about how you picked the name Kelly for your daughter?

That’s a great question with a good story behind the answer. My daughter actually went two days without a name because I wanted to name her Melanie, but my wife wanted to name her Mary. We just couldn’t agree. Then finally, the little girl next door said, “I think Kelly is a nice name.” And you know what? We agreed so we named our daughter Kelly.

I love it when parents have a fun story like that to share about how they named their child! Tell me, Marshall, what inspires you?

I am inspired by the fact that I get to do what I love. I’m not motivated terribly by money but I’m really lucky that what I do provides me with a healthy living. I basically do three things: I’m a teacher, a coach, and a writer. As a teacher I speak to both small groups and audiences of thousands of people and I enjoy that immensely.

Do you ever get nervous?

No, I never get nervous before a presentation.

Is that because you do it so much?

Well, that might be part of it but I know plenty of people who speak frequently who get nervous before every presentation. I think for me it’s just part of who I am. I just don’t get nervous.

What is it that you like about the other two areas – coaching and writing?

As an executive coach I work directly with CEOs. I meet with them and get to know them and understand what makes them tick. In some ways this is like one-on-one research because I learn so much from the people I work with about what makes organizations tick. Of the three, writing is not my most favorite area. But I’ve been lucky to team with some amazing writers and as a result my writing has impacted so many people. You can go to and see that I’ve shared my writing there and it has been read by over 5 million people from 195 countries.

That’s almost every country, right? I mean how many are there total?

There’s about 5 countries that have not read been to my site. Of course, that depends on which list of total countries you’re looking at. Some people have different ideas on how many total countries there are. But basically, there are anywhere from 3 – 5 countries that have not read my work on my online library.

That’s, amazing and certainly a testament to the power of what you’ve written. Marshall, thanks so much for your time today. I’ve been a big fan for years and it certainly has been a pleasure talking with you today.

Thank you, Marly, I’ve enjoyed it too.


Marshall Goldsmith is a teacher and his research, coaching and writing all support sharing stories and results to help each of us grow into a new and improved version of ourselves.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning.” We can all – young and old – take the words from Marshall Goldsmith’s books to support continued growth in our lives and know what it means to experience true success. A life well-lived.

Marshall Goldsmith has certainly left a big impact on my life and I encourage you to learn more about him, his books, and other exciting adventures on his site.

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