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The Buddhist in the board room

By CHRIS ERIKSON, NYPost, February 12, 2007

New York, USA -- I’M talking to executive uber-coach Marshall Goldsmith, and money is on my mind, for several reasons. First, as we chat over late-morning coffee, I’m well aware that most of the people Goldman sits down with in the course of a workday can buy and sell me several thousand times before breakfast. Called “a rock star” by Forbes, and the country's premiere executive coach by Fast Company, he typically ministers to those at the highest reaches of the corporate ladder.

<< HELPING HAND: Top CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith helps improve workplace dynamics - and gets the Gordon Gekkos of the world to lighten up a bit.

Second, as you might imagine, Goldsmith, 57, commands a hefty fee for his efforts - some $250,000 per client. (Though he only collects it if it’s agreed he’s produced meaningful results. Generally, he collects it.)

But mostly, I’m thinking about money because my debt to this corporate guru is growing by the minute.

See, to operate according to Goldsmithian principles is to follow a number of simple rules. Things like: Be a good listener. Don’t make excuses. Don’t pass judgments or make destructive comments. Say “Thank you” and “I’m sorry,” and learn to ask for forgiveness.

What’s getting me into trouble at the moment is one of Goldsmith’s favorites: Don’t start a sentence with “But,” “No” or “However.” He likes this one so much he charges his clients $20 every time they do it, a practice that over the years has raised $300,000 for charity.

These “negative qualifi ers . . . secretly say to everyone, ‘I’m right. You’re wrong,’ ” he writes in his new book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful.”

As we speak, my habit of starting sentences with “But” is racking up a hypothetical debt so fast I might as well sign my paycheck over to him right now. He silently clocks it every time I do it, and occasionally interjects a tally. As in, "That's $160."

But if you'd assume that by now I feel like taking the aforementioned coffee and dumping it in Goldsmith's lap, you'd be wrong. A longtime Buddhist who has an easy laugh and favors khakis and moccasins, Goldsmith has an important gift for a man in his line of work: a jovial, almost goofy bonhomie that makes him impossible not to warm to even as he's gently busting your chops.

As a coach, Goldsmith doesn't sharpen clients' negotiating skills, or delve into their psyches. He just helps them get along better with the people they work with - to be seen as less judgmental, or more receptive to others' ideas, or just plain more civil and pleasant to be around.

Turns out, the coach to the industry stars just wants us all to get along.

Of course "civil" and "pleasant to be around" aren't always prized attributes in Fortune 500 boardrooms, and Goldsmith has a reputation for cracking some hard cases. One of his favorites started out with a percentile rating of 0.1 for personability, meaning that out of 1,000 people at his company, he ranked dead last. (He turned himself around, and after a year hit the 57th percentile.)

Goldsmith's method for helping such people is deceptively simple. "Simple, but not easy," he likes to say. First, he solicits "360-degree feedback" from colleagues, bosses and underlings to identify what they perceive as the client's negative traits. (Sometimes family members are consulted as well.) He presents the client with the results, and zeros in on the behaviors that are holding him or her back.

Then he trains the client to cease those behaviors and replace them with more benevolent ones - like, say, thanking an underling who presents an idea and promising to think about it, instead of shredding it on the spot.

More often than not, what holds people back, he writes, "are simple behavioral tics - bad habits that we repeat dozens of times a day in the workplace - which can be cured by (a) pointing them out, (b) showing the havoc they cause among the people surrounding us, and (c) demonstrating that with a slight behavioral tweak we can achieve a much more appealing affect."

In the book, he highlights 20 of the most annoying workplace habits; among them "clinging to the past," "playing favorites," "withholding information" and "failing to express gratitude." Such habits are "transactional flaws performed by one person against another ... that make your workplace substantially more noxious than it needs to be."

With his book riding high on the business best-seller lists, we sat down with Goldsmith to find out how the methods he uses on the country's top tycoons can help make your work life easier and your workplace happier.

Part of your job is to walk into the offices of very successful people and confront them with the divide between how they think people perceive them and the way they're actually perceived. What's the typical reaction to that?

Well, when we hear what we don't want to hear, our first reaction is, "They're confused. They don't understand, the problem isn't me, it's them." It's hard to realize that sometimes other people can see things in us that we can't see in ourselves.

Which traits tend to be the least recognized?

One I talk about, that's somewhat counter-intuitive, is the idea of winning too much. Because we're so geared to winning. And especially the people I work with. These are winners. The derby of life, they won. What's hard for them is to not always win everything.

Here's an example I give: Say you go out to dinner with your wife or significant other, and you want to go to X and she wants to go to Y, and you get into an argument. Then you go to her choice, and the food tastes like crap and the service is awful - what do you do? Do you critique the food, or do you shut up? We should shut up, but what do most people do? They critique the food and try to be right.

Isn't the need to win part of what got these people where they are?

Parts of it are, and parts of it are not. That's the classic problem: "I behave this way, I am successful, therefore I am successful because I behave this way." Wrong. That's the success delusion. They're where they are because they do many things right, and in spite of screwing things up. And what I try to do is help people sort out "because of" and "in spite of."

How much can you separate these things? Take "goal obsession," which you say underlies many of the negative behaviors in your book. That's something a lot of successful people share. At what point does it become a problem?

When the goal becomes more important than the mission. And that happens. People get so wrapped up in achieving a goal that they forget the mission.

I worked with a guy on Wall Street who was working 80 hours a week, and I asked him, why are you working 80 hours? He said, "Because I need money." I said, why do you need money? He says, "I've been married three times, and I need to pay alimony." Well, why have you been married three times? "My wife didn't understand how hard I had to work."

See what I mean? It's crazy. And stuff like that happens all the time. We're so wrapped up in winning and proving how smart we are that we forget that this battle is not worth winning.

If someone has a lot of natural aggression and drive, and that makes them good at what they do -

Let's stop there. Parts of that are probably making them good. Parts of that are probably not making them good. And by the way, I'm not saying you shouldn't try to win. Win big things, don't win trivial things.

Has anyone ever looked at you and said, "You're not listening"? You've had this experience at least once in your life. Let me guess what you did: You said "Yes I am," and you repeated what they said verbatim. And did that dramatically improve your relationship with the other human being? Not really. In fact it made it worse, didn't it? Next time someone says that, you know what you're going to say? "I'm sorry, please accept my apology, no excuses."

You're very big on "Thank you" and "I'm sorry."

You know why? We all make mistakes, it's OK. If you want other people to take responsibility, you go first. Let them watch you take some responsibility.

You suggest saying "Thank you" not only when it's appropriate, but even at times when you feel like saying -

"Just shut up." Look at it this way: I'm trying to help you. If you're going to argue with me, I'm going to quit talking to you. So what I teach people to do is just shut up and listen and say thank you. But it's very hard to do this. Because our first reaction is, "You're confused, you don't understand." It's so ingrained.

You say you don't care why people change, just as long as they do, and by the same token, the question of why somebody behaves the way they do -

I don't deal with that at all. Not only don't I care about it, I don't discuss it at all. To me, that's just excuse, excuse, excuse. I have a theory - once you pass 50, blaming Mommy and Daddy is weak. So, you know, "Poor me, Mommy was mean," or "Daddy was mean" - I mean, you're 50 years old. It's time to grow up now.

You're a Buddhist. How does that influence your approach?

All my stuff is Buddhist stuff: Let go of the past. Anybody can change. And another very Buddhist idea, which I always practice with my clients - Buddha said: Only do what I suggest in my teachings if it makes sense in the context of your own life. That's exactly what I say. So let's say you're the future CEO. I say: Mr. Future CEO, now I'm going to give you my ideas. Let's say I give you the dumbest idea in the whole world. What do you say? Thank you. Just don't do it. Why waste your time and mine proving I'm wrong?

You warn people about passing judgments. But isn't that the job of the decision maker?

Sure. Decision makers have to make judgments all the time. But here's what they do wrong. Let's say you're the boss and I report to you. I've got idea X, you've got idea Y. What we do too much as a boss is to think, "Let me prove to you why you're wrong." Instead of just saying, "We disagree." And I try to get people out of that.

You take it further than that, and say that even adding your two cents is something to avoid.

Well, it's something you have to watch. Because the thing there is adding too much value. It's very hard for smart people not to constantly add value. Like: "That's a great idea, but ... let me add this to it." And the problem is, the quality of the idea goes up 5 percent, but my commitment to its execution goes down 50 percent, because you've taken the idea away from me.

Do people underestimate the importance of interpersonal relationships in the workplace?

No. 1, I think people do. No. 2, the educational system does. The biggest rap on MBA programs is they're not training leaders, they're training technicians, and I think the educational system grossly underprepares people for people issues - leadership issues, teamwork issues.

You're big on sentence completion as a technique, so let me throw one at you: "The average workplace would be a happier place if ..."

If the manager regularly asked people how he or she could become a more effective leader. And if the people regularly asked each other how each person could be a more effective partner or team member, and listened and followed up on a regular basis.

What are some ways to determine what your own annoying habits are?

Ask. Get in the habit of asking people.

Is it fair to say you're less concerned with changing people's attitudes than changing their behavior?

Yes. To give you an example: Everybody gets mad sometimes. There's nothing wrong with that. But that doesn't mean you need to scream at people. So, the point is not "Did you stop feeling things?" but that you have to watch how you act.

The other thing that's very important today is to watch what you e-mail. People get angry in e-mails, and it's almost always a mistake. But it's hard not to do it. One of my clients, the CEO of a bank, held a BlackBerry up in front of a group of people and said, "This can be our death."

How often do you hear from people that the things you teach them spill over into their home life?

Eighty percent. Some things I might work on, like building better relationships across the organization, may not have any connection to anything at home. A lot of this stuff, though, is like, be a better listener, give better recognition. And by the way, if we're stubborn and opinionated at work, what are the odds we become excessively open-minded when we get home? So for most of us, the same stuff at work is at home.

The Marshall Plan

Want to improve at work, the Marshall Goldsmith way? In his new book, "What Got You Here Won't Get You There," Goldsmith offers four exercises. He calls them "stealth techniques" that will "identify the main problems in your workplace behavior."

1. Make a list of people's casual remarks about you. For one whole day, write down all the comments that you hear people make to you about you. At the end of the day, review the list and rate each comment as positive or negative. If you look at the negatives, some patterns will emerge. Do this again the next day and the next. Eventually, you'll compile enough data about yourself to establish your challenge.

2. Look homeward. Your flaws at work don't vanish when you walk through the door at home. If you really want to know how your behavior is coming across with your colleagues and clients, stop admiring yourself in the mirror. Let your colleagues hold the mirror and tell you what they see. If you don't believe them, go home. Pose the same question to your loved ones-the people in your life who are most likely to be agenda-free and who truly want you to succeed.

3. Turn the sound off. When my clients get bored in meetings, I ask them to pretend they're watching a movie with the sound off. They see how people physically maneuver and gesture to gain primacy. They lean forward toward the dominant authority figure. They turn away from people with diminished power. They cut rivals off with hand gestures. You can do the same for yourself: turn the sound off and watch how people physically deal with you. Do they lean toward you or away? Are they trying to impress you or are they barely aware of your presence? If the indicators are more negative than positive, you'll know you aren't making the right impression.

4. Complete the sentence. Pick one thing you want to get better at. Then list the positive benefits that will accrue if you achieve your goal. For example, "I want to get in better shape. If I get in shape, one benefit to me is that . . . I will live longer." That's one benefit. Then keep doing it. "If I get in shape, I'll feel better about myself." That's two. Keep going until you exhaust the benefits. As you get deeper into your list, the answers become less corporately correct and more personal. That's when you realize you've hit on an interpersonal skill that you really want and need to improve.



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