by Marshall Goldsmith
I’m in a position in my career where I can do a lot to shape my reputation. I write books, articles and blogs (for Harvard Business, BusinessWeek and The Huffington Post) and give speeches and interviews, all of which allow me to deliver a thoughtful message about the reputation I want for myself. I’m also clear about what I want my reputation to be. I want people to think of me as someone who’s extremely effective in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. I don’t want to be just good in my field. I want to be one of the best. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s no different than an athlete training for an Olympic gold medal. It’s ambitious but not unrealistic.
Of course, I can’t claim that reputation for myself. That would be meaningless, because anyone can score high on a self-assessment. I can suggest it as my goal but at the end of the day, I have to earn it through the results I deliver. To be considered one of the best, I don’t have a high margin for error.
Partly because of this goal, many decisions in my career boil down to this question: Will it make me look smarter, or will it make me more effective? I always choose what makes me more effective. I’m not looking to be known as the smartest person with the most sophisticated theory about helping people change. I want to be known as the guy who is actually effective at helping people change.
For example, many years ago, I was asked to work one on one with a senior executive at one of the largest, most admired companies in the world. I had worked at fairly big companies before, but this was far and away the biggest, most prestigious assignment of my life. The people I’d be working with could position me on a whole new level. The fact that this benchmark company called me instead of another executive coach was not only flattering but proof that I was nearing my target reputation. The executive in question was a smart, motivated, high-performing, deliver-the-numbers, arrogant know-it-all who got near the top of the corporate pyramid despite some pretty serious interpersonal flaws. He also was in charge of the company’s most profitable division, which should have made him a corporate MVP and first in line to succeed the CEO. My job was to see if I could smooth out some of his rough behavioral edges, which in turn might provide him with a smoother glide in the CEO succession derby.
I conducted my usual 360-degree feedback interviews with the executive’s colleagues. Then I discussed the results with him, which were met with a brusque brush-off. No matter what I said, this man would never accept that he needed to change. He just didn’t care.
That’s when I had a choice to make: Accept the assignment or walk away? A part of me — the part that wanted the top people at the company to think I was smart enough to run with their crowd — was tempted to take it on. Success would be a long shot. But hey, I told myself, no risk, no reward.
Another part of me — the part with an eye to my reputational objectives — knew I would be jumping into an empty grave if I worked with this impossible executive. If I couldn’t actually help him change, I would fail the assignment, which could brand me as ineffective and might harm my reputation. I realized that this client did not really want change, and there was nothing that I was going to do about it.
In the end, I walked away, but not before telling the CEO my reasons. I don’t think my reputation was harmed by any of this. And irony wasn’t lost on me: On its surface, walking away might have been admission that I wasn’t up to the task, but in fact, in terms of advancing my career and maintaining my mojo, it was the smartest thing I could have done. As it turned out, this executive was later dismissed by the company, and the CEO commended me for having the courage to walk away from that potentially lucrative coaching assignment.
Smart or effective? When you have to choose and your reputation is on the line, opting for the latter may actually cement the former.