The Better Boss


Marshall Goldsmith is a happy man. He started out happy, he worked on his happiness, and now, at the age of fifty-three, he is very happy. He is, in fact, a happiness professional.

His official job description is “executive coach”: he trains executives to behave decently in the office, by subjecting them to a brutal regimen. First, he solicits “360 degree feedback” — he asks their colleagues and sometimes their families, too, for comprehensive assessments of their strengths and defects — and he confronts them with what everybody really thinks. Then he makes them apologize and ask for help in getting better. It’s a simple method — “I don’t think anybody’s going to say I’m guilty of excessive subtlety,” he says — but it works. It had better work. If it doesn’t, the client gets his money back.

Goldsmith is so extraordinarily buoyant and extroverted (he scored a perfect E on his Myers-Briggs personality test) that he seems to enter a room in a tinkle of magic dust. If he were shorter (he is nearly six feet), he would look like a leprechaun. His head is round and pink and bald, his eyes are blue, and his chin juts out and upward to meet his nose, like the chin of a wooden puppet. He skips more than walks, and when he is in a bouncy mood (which he usually is) he dances along with his arms straight out and swinging. When he laughs (which he does often), he sounds like a goose. He wears the same outfit every day: green polo shirt, khakis, and moccasins. His favorite movie is “The Wizard of Oz,” and his favorite song is “Over the Rainbow.” He ends his e-mails and his conversations with what has become his signature phrase: “Life is good!”

The leprechaun quality is one of the reasons Goldsmith is successful. It is a rare executive, after all, who welcomes a man sent by his boss to reform his personality. But people who have worked with Goldsmith call him “disarming,” and say that he seems so happy with his life that when he says he is not judging them personally they believe him.

Goldsmith won’t take on a client who doesn’t want to change — someone who, as he puts it, has not a skill problem but a don’t-give-a-shit problem — but, short of that, the more obnoxious the better. “My favorite case study was in the 0.1 percentile for treating people with respect,” he says. “That means that there were over a thousand people in that company and this person came in dead last. This person would be in an elevator and someone would come up and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?,’ and he wouldn’t even respond. He was hardworking and brilliant; he didn’t lie, cheat, or steal. He was just a complete jerk. The case was considered hopeless, but in one year he got up to 53.7 per cent.

“You know how I helped the guy to change? I asked him, ‘How do you treat people at home?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m totally different at home.’ I said, ‘Let’s call your wife and kids.’ What did his wife say? ‘You’re a jerk.’ Called the kids. ‘Jerk.’ ‘Jerk.’ So I said, ‘Look, I can’t help you make money, you’re already making more than God, but do you want to have a funeral that no one attends? Because that’s where this train is headed.”

When Goldsmith started executive coaching, in the early eighties, he was a pioneer. Coaching really came into its own as an industry about five or six years ago, when employee retention became a serious problem. Prosperous baby boomers were retiring early, and members of Generation X were looking for variety and fulfillment rather than security. Human-resources departments, meanwhile, were calculating the cost of losing an important employee (between one and two times the employee’s annual salary and benefits, according to one estimate), and had discovered that one of the two main reasons that people left jobs was that they hated their boss (the other being the general failure of the company). Clearly, it was foolish to lose talent for no better reason than that a vice-president appeared to his subordinates to be insufficiently interested in what they had to say. Moreover, a bad attitude on the part of senior management was held to be detrimental not only to retaining employees but also to the formation of strategy. The old-fashioned leader, with his bulldozer personality and his single-minded certainties, was thought to be too arrogant to lower his ear to the ground and listen for changes coming. Thus, the executive coach.

Coaching being still in its chaotic, juvenile phase, there are, as yet, no licensing requirements of any kind. Anyone can call himself an executive coach, and thousands do. Schools are springing up everywhere: Coach Universe and Coach U conduct classes by phone; trains coaches for a seventy-nine-dollar lifetime-membership fee. For this reason, first-to-market coaches like Goldsmith, who already have solid reputations and have received notices in the business press (he was listed as one of five top coaches by Forbes, and in the top ten by the Wall Street Journal), are flourishing. Goldsmith’s current clients include ChevronTexaco, Motorola, Thomson, and Pitney Bowes. Some executives remain suspicious of coaching, thinking of it as a reproach or as enforced psychotherapy, but more often these days the offer of a coach is taken as a compliment — a sign, since the service is expensive, that a person is being groomed for significant promotion.

One of Goldsmith’s clients is an executive in a large corporation. He is high-ranking — only a step or two from the top. None of Goldsmith’s clients are far from the top — his services are too expensive to waste on mid-level managers. (He won’t say how much he charges, but it is reported to be in the high five figures per client per year, which makes him one of the best-paid coaches in the field.) On a recent visit to the executive’s office, Goldsmith ran into his client in the hallway, where the two of them were spotted by a little white-haired man wearing a red bow tie.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

“Who’s getting their head shrunk today?” asked the white-haired man in a jovial tone. The executive gave him a pained smile.

The executive was in his early forties and wore an open-necked white shirt. He had the genial, Saturday air of a man with a beer, making a seamless transition from fraternity to barbecue — an air that, by all accounts, had served him well in his work. But, at the same time, there was a tense wariness about him. The people in marketing who worked under him thought he was terrific, but his peers were tired of what they felt were his incessant competitive put-downs, and people in sales felt that he had failed, as Goldsmith primly put it, to treat them like customers. The executive had to stop being so territorial, the C.E.O. decided. Goldsmith was called in and signed up for a year.

Among the first things Goldsmith had taught the executive was to look only to the future, because, whatever he had done to make people angry, he couldn’t fix it now. “Don’t ask for feedback about the past,” he says. Goldsmith has turned against the notion of feedback lately. He has written an article on a more positive methodology, which he calls “feedforward.” “How many of us have wasted much of our lives impressing our spouse, partner, or significant other with our near-photographic memory of their previous sins, which we document and share to help them improve?” he says. “Dysfunctional! Say, ‘I can’t change the past — all I can say is I’m sorry for what I did wrong.’ Ask for suggestions for the future. Don’t promise to do everything they suggest — leadership is not a popularity contest. But follow up on a regular basis, and you know what’s going to happen? You will get better.”

“Let’s start with the salespeople,” Goldsmith said, when he and the executive had settled in. The executive wasn’t quite senior enough to have his own conference area, so he and Goldsmith sat in an empty room near his office at a large, round table. “Let’s do a little role-play. I’m them, you’re you. Hey there! Whaddaya wanna talk about?”

“Well, as you know, I’m working with Marshall Goldsmith on how to get better,” the executive began. “First of all, let me thank you for your time.”

Goldsmith instructs his coaching clients to recite this speech, and, because they tend to be the type of people who like to get things exactly right, most of them recite it more or less verbatim. It incorporates several core Goldsmith principles: the apology; the rejection of excuses; and the declaration of dependence on other people’s help.

“I received a lot of great feedback from you and others,” the executive continued. “I’m seen as someone who is personable, gets things done, bright, with a good business sense, and those are things I want to continue leveraging. I also seem too focused on what my division needs to do and not enough on the big picture, I need to listen more, and I need to come to you guys in sales when I have problems. I’ve heard about a couple of instances where I didn’t do that; frankly, I know better, and there are no excuses. What I’d like to do now is ask for your help in the future, because I’m really anxious to improve my relationship with the sales force.”

The brilliance of this speech is that it makes the colleagues realize that all the power — over the client, and thus also over Goldsmith’s payment — is in their hands. This is the classic Goldsmith move. It has its origins in an experience he had when he was twenty-eight and in New York for the evening and took himself to Le Perigord. He confessed to the waiter that he had never eaten in a place this fancy before, that he had a hundred dollars, tip included, to spend on the meal, and would the waiter please bring him the best hundred-dollar meal he could come up with. The waiter, he believes, brought him a meal worth at least a hundred and fifty dollars, and treated him like a king. This inspired in Goldsmith two articles of faith: one, a nearly religious belief in the value of expertise; and, two, a conviction that, if you put all your cards in someone else’s hands, he will treat you better than if you kept the cards for yourself.

“Perfect!” Goldsmith said. “Now, what did you learn?”

“I learned that they gave me a lot of credit for coming to see them, more than you could ever imagine. They loved it, actually. It was so simple.”

Goldsmith had instructed the executive that, when talking to the salespeople, he was to sit down, shut up, and listen. He was not to comment on anything they said, even with a compliment. “Do not critique other people’s ideas, even in a positive way,” he tells his clients. “Suppose I ask you for three ideas. The first one, I say, ‘Gee, that’s a great idea.’ Second one, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’ Third one, I say nothing. What message did I just send you? A, C, F. Am I listening to your ideas or am I grading them?”

Goldsmith had also taught the executive one of his rules for the receiving of ideas in general: never start a sentence with the word “no,” “but,” or “however.” This is a rule that, in recalcitrant cases, he has taken to reinforcing by imposing cash fines (the money goes to charity). “One guy I was coaching, his problem was, he was stubborn,” he says. “We were going over his feedback, and he said, ‘But Marshall.’ I said, ‘O.K., that’s free, but if you ever again begin a sentence with ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however’ I’m going to fine you twenty bucks.’ He said, ‘But Marshall.’ I said, ‘Twenty.’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Forty.’ He said, ‘No no no.’ I said, ‘Sixty, eighty, a hundred.’ He lost four hundred and twenty dollars in an hour and a half. Well, he got real pissed off at me after about twenty minutes and said, ‘Marshall, you’re an asshole.’ I said, ‘Yes, no doubt I am an asshole, but you’re not paying me to fix me.’ You know what he said at the end of the hour and a half? Thank you.”

“Well, that’s a winner!” Goldsmith said to the executive, when he had finished recounting his reaching-out experience. “What else?”

“Don’t become soft,” the executive said. “A guy who’s been around here forever said, ‘I’ve seen guys like you get feedback that you’re a little rough and you become pussycats.’ ”

“There you go!” said Goldsmith, somewhat taken aback by this unusual caveat but delighted by any new information. He noticed the executive glancing at his watch. “You gotta go?” he asked.

“I gotta go.”

“Get outta here.”

Beginning with this executive, Goldsmith had decided to make one key change in his usual method. He was going to spend far more time than he usually did talking to the executive’s colleagues. Coaching, he had recently realized, was not, ultimately, about changing his client’s behavior so much as changing perceptions of the client’s behavior. He had observed that his clients had to change a hundred per cent to get ten per cent credit, partly because people could be ungenerous, but mostly because they simply didn’t notice. And in leadership, as he liked to say, it doesn’t matter what you say — only what they hear. He had determined therefore that the solution to this problem was to make doubly sure that he got those colleagues’ attention. In Goldsmith’s opinion, the development of a better reputation was akin to the development of better muscle tone — not conceptually complicated, just a matter of applying oneself and getting on with it.

If you ask Goldsmith to describe the principles of his happiness, he will say that they are best summed up by Buddhism. Goldsmith has been a Buddhist since his mid-twenties, and now he likes to think of himself as a kind of Buddhist monk, spreading the good news. He describes his version of Buddhism as a branch of Zen, most closely approximated by his favorite author, a Vietnamese monk who lives in France. It can be summed up, he says, in three words: Be happy now.

“The great Western disease is ‘I’ll be happy when,’ ” he says. “This is a much deeper concept than most people grasp: it’s not just ‘I’ll be happy when I make a million dollars’; it’s ‘I’ll be happy when I scratch my head.’ Western Buddhists often substitute ‘I’ll be happy when I get less’ for ‘I’ll be happy when I get more,’ which I think is even stupider. You want less? Give it away! That’s not hard. But you can’t be happy by having less, and you can’t be happy by having more. You can only be happy with what you have.” (This is, incidentally, the philosophy that guides Goldsmith’s investments: he has put all his money in bonds, reasoning that the possibility of increasing his wealth in the stock market isn’t worth the trouble of worrying about it.)

When it comes to being happy now, Goldsmith has proved that he can walk the walk in the most extreme conditions. He has twice thought he was going to die in a plane wreck. The first time, he was in a small plane flying to Santa Barbara when the landing gear jammed; the pilot had to circle the airport until he ran low on fuel so that the plane wouldn’t burst into flames when it crashed. “You know what my reflection about life was?” Goldsmith says. “I didn’t thank enough people. Guess what I did when we landed? Thanked everybody. The second time it happened, I was flying from Rochester to Chicago, and we had to take our shoes off and get down in the crash position and the flight attendants were all bawling, which was not real encouraging, and that’s how I found out I’d made peace with dying. I thought, Hey, I’ve had a good life. I die? I die. Shit happens. And I already thanked everybody.”

Buddhism is also the underpinning for Goldsmith’s third-favorite saying, after “Life is good” and “Be happy now”: “Let it go.” “Most Western religions glorify guilt,” he says. “I’ve done all kinds of bad things I could dredge up. We all have. So what? What’s the value-added for me to feel miserable? It’s done now, I can’t change it.” It’s not that it doesn’t matter what you do — it’s just that it only matters what you do now. Gone is the practice of adding up good deeds and bad to arrive at an assessment of moral character, because character, in the sense of a coherent, continuously accumulating self, is an illusion. Take a deep breath in, let it out, and you’re a new you. There are no selves, only behaviors.

In this, Goldsmith’s Buddhism meshes perfectly with his behaviorist-style coaching. He always tells his clients that he doesn’t care about their past, doesn’t care how they feel, doesn’t care about their inner psyche — all he cares about is their future behavior. He provides them with a tightly structured program of things to do and a money-back guarantee that, if they do exactly what he tells them, they will get better. And they do. (He has given back only three hundred thousand dollars in the course of his career, owing to one failed coaching client and several failed classes.) What’s more, though Goldsmith claims not to be teaching his clients about strategy, his Buddhism is also a fine recipe for business in general. In business, after all, as in Buddhism, the self is an obstacle. The thing that inhibits innovation, both corporate and spiritual, is attachment to the self, in the form of habits and doctrines and smugness and memories of the past. The rational businessman, like the good Buddhist, considers each moment afresh, unencumbered by old frameworks, and asks himself what he should do based on the evidence before him rather than on a sense of how a person such as him (or a company such as his) usually behaves. As Goldsmith would put it, he lets it go.

Goldsmith’s anti-self approach is quite unusual in his field. Many executive coaches were trained as psychologists. Many started out in transactional analysis (the method popularized by the book “I’m O.K. — You’re O.K.”), when that was big in corporate training, back in the seventies, then took up empowerment theory in the eighties, and moved over to executive coaching in the nineties. Goldsmith, however, has no patience for the psychological approach. “My attitude is, it’s easier to get un-fucked up than it is to understand why you are fucked up, so why don’t you just get un-fucked up?” he says.

“Psychotherapy is not about change. It’s about understanding. Nothing wrong with that. I think there was a study done of therapists back in the old days, called the battle of the therapists. Carl Rogers was the most popular — he was about empathetic listening and unconditional acceptance, which is great if your issue in life is acceptance. But if your issue in life is change he’s dysfunctional. Albert Ellis was the least popular, because he was very confrontational, threw the shit right in your face, but most of his patients changed. There was one guy I coached who spent hours on ‘Marshall, you don’t understand, let me explain why I have these issues, let me explain my mother, my father.’ Whine, whine, whine. I tell clients, ‘Here’s a quarter — call someone who cares.’ They don’t need empathy. They need someone to look ’em in the eye and say, ‘If you want to change, do this.’ ”

Even if he didn’t believe it was unproductive, Goldsmith would reject the therapeutic approach on the ground that it just takes too long. “One of my clients made eleven million bucks a year,” he says, “and his boss says to me, ‘How much of your time does he get?’ I said, ‘As little as necessary.’ He said, ‘It’s a lot of money for as little as necessary.’ I said, ‘Well, how much of his eleven-million-dollar-a-year time do you want me to spend? Hell, he’s making more than I am, I’m happy to come in and shoot the shit with the guy, hold his hand, it’s up to you — it’s your eleven million bucks.’ You know what he said? As little as necessary. I said, ‘I just want to make sure we have the same kind of vision here. I’m not in the time-spending business, I’m in the getting-better business.’ ”

One of Goldsmith’s favorite facts about himself is that he has more than seven million frequent-flier miles on American Airlines alone. It is impossible, he tells people, unless you have at least a million or two miles yourself, to comprehend what that means. Once, when he was at the symphony with his wife, Lyda, she noticed him digging into the side of his chair and asked what he was doing; he realized that he was looking for a seat belt. Another time, he woke up and expressed amazement at how closely the painting on the wall resembled the one they had in their bedroom at home; Lyda told him that that was because they were at home.

He realizes that his life style is absurd, but he doesn’t want to slow down. These days, in addition to his coaching (he works with about ten clients at a time, in different parts of the country), he teaches executive-education classes, gives speeches all over the world, and co-edits books on leadership (he gives the profits from the books to charity). He has co-founded a service called Financial Times Knowledge Dialogue, which enables people to talk with business “thought leaders” via video hookup. (He has also acquired, through the mail, a license to perform marriages from the Universal Life Church, and has so far performed seven or eight.)

Recently, he was away from home for a month. He flew to New Orleans on February 27th, taught a workshop for a group called the Conference Board, flew to New York and drove to Connecticut to teach an executive-education class the following morning, shot a video for an Internet course in Manhattan, taught a workshop in Westchester for the Thomson Corporation, flew to Philadelphia, met with a coaching client, flew to Vancouver that evening, flew to Oakland, drove to San Francisco, flew to Toulouse, France, and spent two days working there with a group from Motorola, flew to London to do more work with Motorola, flew back to New York to teach another workshop for the Thomson Corporation, flew to Atlanta to speak at a meeting of human-resources people, and finally, on March 21st, flew home.

In the early nineties, when his daughter, Kelly, was eleven, and his son, Bryan, was nine, Goldsmith started to worry that he might be spending too much time away from home, and decided he wanted to improve his performance as a parent. True to his method, he started asking his children for feedback. “I asked Kelly, ‘How can I be a better dad?’ ” Goldsmith says. “She said, ‘Daddy, you travel a lot, but what bothers me is the way you act when you come home. You talk on the phone, you work, you watch sports, you don’t pay attention to me.’ So I said, ‘I’m sorry. Daddy’s going to do better.’ ”

He decided it would help him to improve if he measured his progress, so for four years he tracked the number of days per year he spent at least four waking, non-television hours with his family. Sure enough, he improved. In 1991, he managed ninety-two days; in 1992, a hundred and ten; in 1993, a hundred and thirty-one; in 1994, a hundred and thirty-five days. “That’s more than ninety-five per cent of fathers,” he notes proudly. “The average American father spends seven to fifteen minutes a week in meaningful dialogue with the average American child. And I made more money when I spent a hundred and thirty-five days with the family than when I spent twenty, because I didn’t play golf, didn’t watch stupid football games, and didn’t read the newspaper about dumb things that had nothing to do with my life. Then on January 1, 1995, I said, ‘Kids, look! A hundred and thirty-five days! My goal this year is a hundred and fifty days!’ Both kids said no. Teen-agers.”

At the end of February, Goldsmith had a weekend window in his schedule, so he flew home to California. He lives in a gated community near San Diego named Fairbanks Ranch, because years ago the land was owned by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford. His house is an unpretentious two-story Tudor, which he and Lyda have decorated in an old-English style (except for the Buddhas everywhere): wood paneling, red curtains, a large collection of oil paintings, and even a knee-high suit of armor that Bryan gave him as a present. In the garage, Goldsmith keeps a nippy little green BMW convertible for everyday and, until March, a giant pink ’57 Chevy Bel Air with furry dice for special occasions (he sold it, wanting to exchange it for a light-blue one) — “nothing but midlife-crisis cars,” he says. In the back, there is a garden with a pool and a hot tub and a grill.

It is very peaceful in Fairbanks Ranch. Even during the day, there is almost no traffic, and at night little brown rabbits leap over the lawns. The weather is perfect. Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei are said to own homes in the neighborhood. When Goldsmith feels like going for a walk, he takes his two dogs (poodle, Welsh terrier) and drives to a small lake nearby, where there are ducks and swans and a little stone folly and a little stone bridge and an island in the middle with trees leaning over the water. “I live here, but it still seems to me absurdly nice,” Goldsmith says. “It almost doesn’t seem real. It’s like living in Heaven.”

One reason Fairbanks Ranch seems like Heaven to Goldsmith is that he grew up in a bad neighborhood — the rough part of Valley Station, Kentucky, just outside Fort Knox. His father owned a gas station, and the family lived between the gas station and a bar. There were a lot of other bars and strip joints nearby, and soldiers were always driving into town and getting drunk and getting into car wrecks or bar fights. The street in front of his house was nicknamed the Dixie Dieway, because so many people met with grisly and undermotivated ends on it. Goldsmith remembers nine deaths outside his door while he was growing up.

“In many ways, my kids have it harder,” he says, “because they’re brought up with more expectations. I mean, when I graduated from college, it was a victory. My life always has a certain dreamlike quality to me. The odds on getting where I am from where I came from? Real close to zero. I never saw a house like the house I live in now. I live in a seven-thousand-five-hundred-square-foot house in what was ranked the year before last as the most desirable affluent community in the United States. I have an acre lot, a swimming pool, a lovely art collection, and five original Tiffany lamps. When my parents came to visit me here, they thought it was a dream world.”

The weekend Goldsmith spent at home, Kelly was there for a couple of days, and he found her in the kitchen unpacking takeout containers for a dinner party the family was giving that evening. Kelly is small and quick; she wears her blond hair in a ponytail and is, at the age of twenty-two, as Goldsmith informs very nearly everyone he meets, already famous for having appeared on the TV reality show “Survivor.” Kelly and her father are, they both agree, exactly alike. They have the personality tests to prove it. (Goldsmith loves personality tests.) The main differences between father and daughter are the fact that Marshall has bungee-jumped and Kelly hasn’t, and the number of hits they generate on Google (Marshall, four thousand; Kelly, five thousand). That evening, Kelly had a scab on her chin because, several days previously, she had tripped while running back into a bar to retrieve her credit card.

“You won the saint award that night,” Kelly said to her father. “Though you weren’t very sympathetic after the first half hour of me screaming, ‘My acting career is over!’ ”

“Yeah, I guess I lapsed into my normal mode,” Goldsmith conceded. “Of all the coaches in the world, I don’t lead the pack on empathy. On the other hand, you would not exactly be referred to as the queen of empathy yourself.”

Kelly, as father and daughter had delightedly discovered on the Web site, was now internationally notorious for having unleashed a bitchy tirade at the final “Survivor” Tribal Council. “You think I give feedback?” Goldsmith says. “Pah., that’s feedback. If half my clients had gotten the same feedback Kelly got, they’d be in a mental hospital.”

“That was the previous Kelly,” Kelly said pertly. “We forgive the previous Kelly. We learn from the past and move forward.”

Goldsmith long ago realized that Buddhism had certain limitations as a child-rearing technique. But by nature, anyhow, he is more inclined to the carrot than to the stick. He recently announced to Kelly and Bryan that for each grandchild they gave him (up to five) he would pay its parent five per cent of his net worth. Adopting was fine, and he didn’t care if they were married, he just wanted grandkids.

“Our family would rank very low on the guilt scale,” Goldsmith reflected, watching Kelly throw away the takeout containers. “You, for instance, would not be one of the world’s most guilt-ridden people.”

Goldsmith still enjoyed reminding his daughter that she had telephoned him from her freshman dorm room to complain that her closet was too small to accommodate her formal dresses. Then again, when sending her off to college he had advised, “Take easy classes, get good grades, and party a lot — you’re not going to remember half of what you learn anyway.”

“Why should I be guilty?” Kelly asked. “I mean, does anyone look back on life and say, ‘I wish I’d been more guilty?’ ”

“Hell no!” Goldsmith cried, with an affectionate, that’s-my-girl expression. “Who needs it?”

Goldsmith was raised as a Southern Baptist, but he was asked to leave his church when he was fourteen because of an attitude problem. “I was always very mathematically oriented,” he says, “so I made a list of all the religions in the world and the percentage of the world population for each, and I asked the Sunday-school teacher, ‘Are Muslims going to Heaven or Hell?’ Hell. Shintos and Buddhists? Hell. Catholics? Definitely Hell. How about the Baptists — are they all going to Heaven? No. Well, I gave everybody the benefit of the doubt, and ninety-five per cent of the world was going to Hell. They didn’t just get to die; they got to suffer for eternity — and the others got to kiss God’s ass for eternity. Talk about sick! I said, ‘He’s worse than Hitler — and he was one of the worst guys in history!’ Needless to say, my negative comparison of God and Hitler was not well received, and they told me to come back when I changed my attitude. So you can see why I ended up a Buddhist.”

In fact, Goldsmith had an attitude problem all through high school — to the extent that, when a former teacher turned up at a conference and saw him setting up equipment before his speech, she happily told one of her colleagues that she had never thought young Marshall would amount to anything, so wasn’t it wonderful that he had found a job as a video technician.

After high school, Goldsmith went to an engineering school in Terre Haute, grew his hair and a long beard, became a hippie, and protested the Vietnam War. He got an M.B.A. from Indiana University, where he met Lyda, and then moved to California to get a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from U.C.L.A., because it sounded fun.

While he was living in Los Angeles, he joined up with some people who called themselves the “no-name group,” and whose purpose was to discuss the nature of life. He also started going to encounter groups. For five months, he sat in a group for eight hours a day, two days a week. He would lead a group, sitting on the floor, for two hours, then watch a group for two hours, then be in a group for two hours, and then critique the groups for two hours. The sessions involved insults, tears, and tense, miserable silences. Goldsmith loved every minute. Even now, memories of the days in which he would torment the people in his charge make him giggle happily. “They’d say, ‘What the hell am I here for?’ ” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘What do you want to be here for?’ I’d say, ‘How do you feel right now?’ They’d say, ‘I’m pissed off because you won’t tell me something.’ So I’d say, ‘Why do you want me to tell you what to do?’ ”

From his experience with encounter groups he learned two lessons that would prove useful in his subsequent career: people are made extremely anxious by unstructured environments, and unexpurgated, face-to-face honesty is not usually helpful in business. “If you’re with a bunch of strangers, you really learn how you come across to people,” he says. “It’s like, My God, these people think I’m an ass! And everybody thought you were an ass before but nobody told you. On the other hand, they tried encounter groups in hospitals with doctors and nurses — total disaster. One person would say, ‘How do you feel about me?’ and someone would tell him, ‘I hate your guts, you’re an arrogant jerk.’ It can be very dysfunctional.”

In a sense, though, 360 degree feedback is the direct descendant of encounter groups. The basic idea is the same: the sudden, shocking revelation of what everyone really thinks of you jolts you into becoming a humbler, wiser person who doesn’t act like an ass. The difference is that the 360s are not enlisted for recreational self-improvement. Now humility, self-knowledge, and sensitivity are business assets.

The chief financial officer sat at a small, round table in the conference room next to his office. It was the end of the day, it had grown dark outside, and the C.F.O.’s skin was pale and flat under the fluorescent light. He was nearly fifty, thin and grave, and his hair was beginning to gray. He had an air about him so distant and introverted that it seemed as though the muscles of his face were being operated by remote control. He was dressed, like everyone in his company, in business casual — in his case, a light-green oxford shirt and a pair of khakis.

Two years ago, at the start of his training, the C.F.O. had stood accused of acting superior, not listening, not treating people with respect, and in general failing to adjust gracefully to the corporate culture. He had spent most of his career on the East Coast at companies in which the expression of flamboyantly hostile opinions was as normal as saying hello. Then, just over three years ago, he was appointed to his current job, in a large Midwestern corporation where everyone was nice to his face but gossiped endlessly behind his back, and before long he found himself so thoroughly entangled in resentment and ill will that his C.E.O. decided that only Marshall Goldsmith could extract him.

The C.F.O. had had a coach before, but that coach had been a touchy-feely kind of coach who wanted to probe the C.F.O.’s psyche and figure out why he was doing the things he did. Goldsmith, the C.F.O. had found to his relief when they started working together, was utterly uninterested in why. This session was the C.F.O.’s last. After a dozen meetings with Goldsmith, his training was complete and his 360s indicated that he was a changed man.

“Let’s get rolling,” Goldsmith said. “Here’s your feedback report. Treats people with respect? Excellent, only two people gave you a zero.” Zero meant no change. “Acting arrogant and superior? Only two negatives out of twenty-six.”

Goldsmith leafed through bar graphs he had drawn up to represent these figures, and found a page of longer comments.

“Want to start with the positives or the negatives?” he asked.


“O.K. ‘Continue to tone down arrogance,’ ‘Be more approachable,’ ‘Work hard at showing respect’ in stressful situations.”

The C.F.O. took notes on these comments with his right hand and, with the long fingers of his left hand, carefully massaged his forehead.

The C.F.O. had been, Goldsmith said often, the ideal client. One, he had been widely considered incurable, so his remarkable improvement made Goldsmith look good. Two, he had approached his reformation with the detached discipline of an accountant. And, three, although half the things of which he had been accused were not really his fault, he had wasted no time making excuses for himself.

This last virtue was the one that impressed Goldsmith most. “I have heard every damn excuse in the history of the world,” he says. “I’ve heard people blame their mother, their father, their aunt, their uncle, God, the C.E.O., the company, where they were brought up, blah blah blah blah blah. I tell people, ‘When you’re fifty years old, blaming Mom and Dad is weak.’ Who gives a shit? Quit whining. Let it go! One guy from Greece said, ‘Marshall, you don’t understand my culture, you don’t understand Greek males.’ I said, ‘I’ve met a lot of Greek males, and most of them aren’t assholes. Maybe it’s you!’ ”

The thing that really gets Goldsmith going, though, is when his clients tell him that their colleagues’ evaluations aren’t fair. “Don’t give me some whiny bullshit about ‘It’s not fair,’ ” Goldsmith cries, working himself up into a lather at the mere thought of it. “Don’t even begin to get into ‘It’s not fair’! You’re a multi-millionaire executive in a huge corporation, living in the United States in a big house with a nice family. Any time we look in the mirror and say life isn’t fair, you know what else we should say? Thank God.”

“Ready for good news?” Goldsmith said after a minute, when the C.F.O. had finished writing.


” ‘I recognize a great desire he has to achieve his goals and I am proud and pleased to be a part of his team.’ ‘A model for senior leadership.’ This is great! ‘Listens very well.’ ‘Better listener.’ You didn’t see that two years ago! Good job!”

Goldsmith looked up from the report and took off his reading glasses.

“So,” he asked, turning to the C.F.O. with a big smile, “what are your reflections?”

“Well, obviously I’m delighted with the positive results,” the C.F.O. said slowly. “And you and I know that one of the goals of this, in addition to making me perceived to be a better person, is to have the official stamp of approval that I am a better person.”

“It’s statistically documented!”

“So I know this isn’t about my inner soul or whether I’m going to Heaven. But, in all candor, I’m surprised there are still some negatives.”

“At all?” Goldsmith said, amazed.

“Yes. I’m disappointed about the two people who said I was no better at acting arrogant and in two cases worse. And I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten a better score here, and the one guy there.”

The C.F.O. began turning over the pages of the report, scrutinizing the left sides of the graphs.

“Let me give you a little help here,” Goldsmith said, putting his hand down on the report to get the C.F.O.’s attention. “There’s a huge difference between changing behavior and changing perceptions. I was surprised there weren’t more negatives.”

“Oh, really.”

“Nothing to do with you. I’ve just seen thousands of these things. You’re good. You’re not that good. You ain’t gonna win ’em all.”

“I’ll let it go,” the C.F.O. said.

“Just drop it!” Goldsmith agreed gaily. “One person out of twenty-six didn’t find Jesus on this one. You know what? It happens!” He laughed a big hooting laugh. “Twenty-five out of twenty-six? Not only did you do well — you were lucky. Let’s get real. Imagine you were working at McKinsey. Shit, God wouldn’t get twenty-five out of twenty-six at McKinsey. So you know what I say?”

The C.F.O., having worked with Goldsmith for two years, knew exactly what.

“Declare victory and move on,” he recited obediently.

“Declare victory and move on!” Goldsmith echoed, pleased that the C.F.O. had learned his lesson so well.

“Thank you,” the C.F.O. said.

Goldsmith grinned. “Life is good!”

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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Marshall Goldsmith Meme