Posted: Jul 1st, 2010

Marshall Goldsmith reminds participants, “You are all very successful people. If what I have to teach works for you, great. If not, don't do it." It takes a confident teacher to invite his students to disregard his message. But Goldsmith's low-key style isn't just for show. As someone who has helped dozens of CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies achieve breakthrough leadership results, he knows that most of his students wouldn't be in his class if they weren't already successful, high-achieving individuals.  But some executives succeed in spite of themselves, as Goldsmith explains in his best-selling business book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. Being the smartest person in the room might help execs climb the corporate ladder, but that can actually hurt them when it comes to managing larger teams to help the entire organization succeed. "The problem most CEOs have is winning too much," says Goldsmith. "They have to learn how to let go and let the team win."

On the other hand, he says, "Successful people love getting ideas that allow them to achieve their goals." Goldsmith should know. Over the past two decades, he has been named by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Top Ten Executive Educators, by Forbes as one of the Top Five Respected Executive Coaches, and by Fast Company as the Best Executive Coach in the country. What he's found in research and in practice is that when top-level executives want to break through a barrier, the skills they say they need to improve have less to do with their business expertise and more to do with the interpersonal skills that allow the people around them to achieve success as well.

To teach the concept of ‘letting go,' Goldsmith takes executives through a series of exercises to teach them how to communicate with—and inspire—those around them. Unlike programs that focus on specific functional expertise, his lessons are transferable across industries and cultures. "I'm not an expert on strategy and the big picture. I don't deal with organizational behavior," he says. "My mission is to help successful leaders achieve positive long-term behavior. That's all I talk about."

This concept, which Goldsmith calls the ‘inner circle,' is part of his proven coaching system for  involving other people in the process. "If we really want to change our behavior—not as judged by ourselves, but by other people—then we need to involve other people in the process," he says. This is an intensified version of 360° feedback—a technique that many companies are adopting to get a more complete picture of a manager's performance. Goldsmith has witnessed the importance of building in follow-up and reinforcement of new concepts and behaviors. "If changing behavior was easy, then everyone would be thin. Just read the weight loss book and it's done. But there's a misconception that if they understand, that will do, and this is not the case."

As simple as some of these life-lessons may seem, it's Goldsmith's approach and delivery that have made him so effective as an executive coach. "He's able to take something a lot of us might be uncomfortable with and make it look easy," says Clark Callahan, executive director of Tuck Executive Education, who credits Goldsmith's success to his rare combination of natural charisma and humility. "He approaches executives in a very disarming way, with fun, folksy humor and anecdotes, and makes them feel completely comfortable saying, ‘Yeah, I could probably improve on a few things,' and they don't even know it's happening."

For more than a decade, Goldsmith has relished the special relationship he's developed with Tuck faculty and executive education students alike.  In the Tuck environment, it's about developing leaders, not just teaching courses. Goldsmith's mission is to effect positive long-term change in executive learners, but exchanging ideas with other faculty is also a big reason he returns to Tuck year after year. He's developed a rapport with other thought leaders, and the whole community benefits as a result. Interactions with executives at Tuck have helped crystalize his philosophies on leadership. "Coaching is what I'm famous for, but teaching is what I love most," he says. "It's my favorite part of my job."

What's next for Marshall Goldsmith? A slightly more existentialist mission. Drawing from Buddhist philosophies and 30 years of experience coaching top executives, his new book, Mojo, focuses less on interpersonal skills, and more on intrapersonal skills—that is, looking inward to develop one's own internal happiness and personal identity. Like everything he teaches, the lessons are easier learned than put into practice—which is why Goldsmith has developed a series of daily exercises, and even a computer application, to keep students constantly measuring progress towards their own internal goals that lead to the external success of their companies (visit Tuck's Thought Leadership page for free downloads). "The greatest leaders I have met in my life consistently communicate a sense of meaning and happiness about what they are doing," says Goldsmith. That's a lesson he doesn't just teach—he practices.