“Never promise to do everything people say because it’s not a popularity contest"

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith chats with Aditya Birla Group's D Shivakumar about the attributes of a good leader, his upcoming book 'How Women Rise' and much more

Published 6 years ago on May 07, 2018 8 minutes Read
Soumik Kar

Leadership and management coach, Dr Marshall Goldsmith has authored many bestsellers including What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts — Becoming the Person You Want To Be. As part of Outlook Business Leading Edge 2018, we got him in conversation with D Shivakumar, group vice-president, corporate strategy and business development, Aditya Birla Group.


D Shivakumar: You make a distinction about being a leader and a follower…

Dr Goldsmith: One of my deepest learnings over the past two years is that we all need help. It’s healthy to admit that. We are not going to be leaders at everything we do. Once we get over that line of thinking life gets better for all of us.  

D Shivakumar: What are the traits of a good follower?

Dr Goldsmith: Peter Drucker taught me that our mission in life is to make a positive difference. It’s not to prove how smart we are or how right we are. He also taught me that decisions are made by people who have power. As a follower, I can influence a person in a position of power to make a positive difference. Like a ‘salesperson’, I need to sell my ideas for change. If I can’t sell it and change things, it’s prudent to let it go. 

D. Shivakumar: Not many people know that you’re one of the pioneers of 360-degree feedback. What are the positives? How does a good leader respond to the findings?

Dr Goldsmith: Here’s what I teach people: You ask for confidential feedback, pick the behaviour you want to improve and ask for ideas to achieve that change. Never promise to do everything people say because it’s not a popularity contest. The idea is to listen to everybody, think of ideas and follow them up. It’s called ‘feed forward’. Leaders who do this over and over get better. The technique is not restricted to the nature of work or country. In fact, some of the best scores in the world are in India. It works great here. 

D Shivakumar: One of the things you’ve said about leaders or successful people is that they are superior planners but inferior doers. Why?

Dr Goldsmith: In my book, I talk about a bunch of reasons. Let me give you the biggest one, which is also my favourite. I call it the dream. Years ago, Johnson & Johnson was my biggest client and I had the privilege of working with their CEO, all the way down to person 2,000. I asked them all to pick up an aspect they wanted to improve, talk to people and measure the improvement. 98% agreed. A year later, 70% of them had achieved something; the rest 30%, nothing. When I asked them why, the answers had to do with the dream. 

I can predict that half the room here has had the same dream. It goes like this: “I’m busier than ever, overcommitted, given all the pressures of work, home and technology that follows me around. It’s out of control at times, but the worst will be over in 3-4 months. Then, I’ll take some time to get organised, everything will be different. It won’t be crazy anymore.” How many years have we been having the same dream? Sanity is not going to prevail. The pace of change we are experiencing today is the slowest it will ever be for the rest of our lives. The reason people stay away from implementing things is they are so bombarded with things, it’s hard to keep up.  

D Shivakumar: You say there are words such as no, but, however that a leader should never use. Why? 

Dr Goldsmith: The word, but, is a discounter. If you give a person positive recognition and say, “That’s great, but…”, it discounts all the great. It eliminates it.

Also, the most comic phrase uttered by smart people is:  “No, I agree with you”. What does that mean? “No, it’s fantastic”, “No, I think it’s great”. What that no means is I already understand what you’re saying. I know everything. So get into the discipline of not using no, but and however because that immediately establishes a negative interaction with the other person. 

D Shivakumar: You’re writing a new book on a topic that’s a cause of much discussion in corporate circles right now — diversity. Tell us more about How Women Rise? How is it different from how men rise?

Dr Goldsmith: Let me give you some of the issues that come up. One of them is perfectionism. Women tend to be much more perfectionist than men. For example, women are much more likely to sacrifice their career for their job. What that means is if you’re doing a job at 95%, that’s pretty good. It’s going to be a huge effort to get that to 99%. As opposed to putting all that effort to gain that extra 4%, they could invest it in their career. 

The average woman also gets better 360 feedback than the average man. In the quest for being a perfect everything to everyone, women get even more self critical. One thing I tell women far more than men is not to be so hard on themselves. Now, women in India, they get a little bonus. See, they not only get to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect daughter and a perfect boss, they also get to be the perfect daughter-in-law! A little bonus that Indian women get much more than men. 

D. Shivakumar: How do the same rules apply for men?

Dr Goldsmith: It’s different. Let me give you an example. At a program for 60-70 women in Mumbai, I started by saying we’re going to have four rules. Rule 1 – You cannot attempt to learn something. All of a sudden, they start getting a little uneasy. Rule 2 – You can’t try to be more productive. Rule 3 – You cannot even consider being a better person. And Rule 4, the hard one — You cannot even think about helping others. By this point, most of the women were uncomfortable. Then I said for 10 minutes, you’re going to focus on one thing – your own happiness and self acceptance. Just 10 minutes. Half the women in the room had tears in their eyes. 

Now imagine a group of men. Now when I say, “No matter how difficult it may be men, for the next 10 minutes you must focus only on your own happiness”. How many men would have tears in their eyes? They would say let’s spend all day on it!  

D Shivakumar: I want to take a quote from somebody who has worked with you and benefitted, Alan Mulally, ex-CEO of Ford. He said, “We decided on two areas after our interaction with Marshall, and as a team we improved dramatically”. So how does an individual improve compared to a team? And what are the dynamics of team improvement?

Dr Goldsmith: Well the first thing is, I learnt more from Alan than he did from me. He figured it out quickly being a brilliant engineer. When he did, he said, “Why don’t we get the whole team involved?” Probably, 200 people benefitted from it, not because I am a better coach but because he was better. I’ve learnt, my key to success is not me. It’s working with wonderful people like him. Alan told me one thing, “Your whole job is customer selection. You pick the right customer, you’re always the winner. You pick the wrong customer, you’re never a winner”.  

The biggest problem with all the coaches that I’ve trained, including myself, is ego. You see, we want people to get better so that we can look in that mirror and feel good about ourselves. Look how much better they got because of me, me, me, me. It’s hard to get over that. 

D Shivakumar: So would you say that’s the single biggest blind spot of a coach?

Dr Goldsmith: Ego is tough and it’s hard for any of us to get over it. The other difference is, you see for the great achiever, it’s all about me. Everyone in this room is a great achiever. They probably did well in school. They took test after test after test. You have to prove yourself over and over and over again. But the moment you move into leadership, you have to change. Leadership is about them. You have to quit being the expert, quit being the story. You have to quit making it about me and create a world where they are the heroes and the stars. There’s a big difference between being a great achiever and a great leader. A great achiever is about ‘me’. A great leader is about ‘them’. It’s a hard transition. The same applies to a coach.  

D Shivakumar: There are six questions you go through in coaching. One of the questions is: ‘If you’re your own coach, what would you advise yourself?’ Now we agree that ego is the biggest problem that leaders have. So how would a person with that blind spot be a good coach to himself or rationalise the thinking around it?

Dr Goldsmith: That’s one of the questions. In many cases you just get people thinking and they go, “Oh yeah, there is probably something I can do better”. I have used this process with several different CEOs and it always works. James Morton,CEO-John Hancock, went from an 8% to 98% in four years. That’s all he did.

George Borst, ex-CEO-Toyota Financial Services thought people would say “fluff” to that question. If you are a coach, he thought, you would say, ‘you work too hard’ or some such nonsense. He was amazed at the level of depth in people’s heads. You see, it’s structured that way; as a leader, you still have the responsibility of leading them in that process. So if the person says nonsense, you don’t have to deal with them, on the other hand giving them the opportunity helps.