Interview – Marshall Goldsmith on Coaching and Leadership


One of the world’s leading business coaches talks to The Coaching Connector about coaching in an increasingly globalized world.

For 39 years, Marshall Goldsmith has coached countless leaders in the business world. In that time, he’s helped many people learn to change their behavior, resulting in their becoming better leaders and better people. Twenty-seven CEOs of major companies — including Nils Lommerin, President and CEO, Del Monte Foods, Inc.; Tony Marx, CEO, New York Public Library; and Deanna Mulligan, CEO, Guardian Life — endorsed Goldsmith’s most recent book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be. Despite his busy schedule traveling the world to coach clients, Goldsmith took time to answer our questions about coaching and leadership.

What are the hallmarks of a good leader?

Leaders who are successful in changing their behavior tend to exhibit three qualities: the courage to look in the mirror, to look at themselves; they have the humility to admit they can improve, and they have the discipline to follow-up and do the hard work required to get better.

Why do you think leaders of any type need executive and leadership coaching?

Of the top 10 tennis players, how many of those have a coach? They all do — not because they’re losers, but because they’re trying to get better. They realize if they don’t try to get better all the time, they’ll probably get worse.

It’s good to look at coaching as something to help successful leaders get better — not fixing helpless losers. I feel good about the progress I’ve made in turning coaching away from being something that was seen as a negative into something that’s seen as a positive. We can all get better. I’ve never met anyone who was so wonderful that they didn’t need any help.

What are some of the signs that a leader may need coaching? Can all leaders benefit from it?

Everyone I coach behaves the way they behave, and they’re all very successful. They’re all successful because they do many things right in spite of doing a few things that are stupid. I’ve never met anyone who’s so wonderful – including myself – who didn’t have anything in the stupid category.

The higher up we go in business the harder it is to hear the truth.

Two things happen as we get promoted: one is you get more and more positive feedback. People laugh at your jokes, act like you’re smart, and everyone sucks up so you start feeling better and better about yourself.

Number two, you get more power. As you get more power, it’s harder for people to tell you the truth. We all tend to accept feedback that’s consistent with the way we see ourselves and reject or deny feedback that’s inconsistent. The better we feel about ourselves, the harder it is to hear the truth.

It’s good to work with a coach who will let you know the truth.

Recount a particular instance where leadership coaching made a significant impact.

The client I coached who improved the most is the client I spent the least amount of the least amount of time with Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Boeing Commercial Aircraft, who retired as President and CEO of Ford Motor Company.

He explained that the biggest challenge I have is if I pick the right customers, my coaching process always works. If I pick the wrong customers, my coaching process will never work. I don’t get paid for spending time; I only get paid for results. I work with people for a year, year-and-a-half. If they get better, I get paid. If they don’t get better, it’s all free.

The client I spent the most amount of time didn’t improve at all. The client I spent the least amount of the least amount of time with was Alan — he improved more than anyone I’ve ever coached. He ended up being CEO of the Year in United States.

Alan told me, “Don’t make it about you. Make it about your clients. It’s not about how smart you are. It’s about how hard they work.” That was such profound advice.
It changed my life.

This is not about me being a good coach. It’s about you getting better.

Over your long and illustrious career, how have you seen the field of coaching evolve?

Thirty years ago, there wasn’t anything called executive coaching. There was no field. The field has not only changed a lot, it’s become a field. Today, there are thousands of coaches; thirty years ago there weren’t any.
The field has changed because it’s much more acceptable than it ever was in the past to have a coach. Today, coaching is seen as a positive, not a negative. On the negative side, though, there are too many coaches. I tell people that when they select a coach they have to make sure they’re picking someone who has the expertise they need.


With globalization and the world becoming increasingly flat, how does someone invest in global leaders through coaching?

I conducted a study a few years back called Global Leadership: The Next Generation. I asked what’s the difference between a leader of the past and a leader of the future. Five factors came up. The first one was global thinking. Historically, leadership has been domestic. You worked in the village, the town, and ultimately the country, but it’s still always domestic. The idea of global leadership is a reasonably recent phenomenon. Number two was cross-cultural appreciation. Three is called technological savvy. Next was building alliances and partnerships. The final is shared leadership. The leader in the past really ran a linear organization. The leader of the future is much more distributed in partnerships and alliances.

How does coaching bridge cultural differences in such a case?

Leaders that ask for input, listen to the people around them, follow up in a non-defensive way,
and keep sticking with it and have the discipline to keep doing the follow up get better. It works in every country in the world.

The reason coaching works around the world is you learn from the people around you. So when I’m in Saudi Arabia I don’t have to be an expert in their culture. I coach the head of the Islamic Development Bank, but I interview everyone around him and I really help him learn from the people around him. When I’m in India, I was working with Mr. GM Rao, Entrepreneur of the Year. I’m not an expert on everything about India but I interview everyone around him and help him learn from the people around him.


So my own coaching process is the coach as a facilitator not coach as the expert. I help people learn from the people around them. That’s why it works around the world. They’re learning from people in that culture not from somebody outside the culture.

Michele Wojciechowski

Michele "Wojo" Wojciechowski is a national award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They'll Carry Me Out in a Box. For more on Wojo, go to

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