Coaches don’t come any bigger than the international coaching phenomenon that is Dr Marshall Goldsmith. For the past eight years he has been consistently ranked the world’s number one executive coach, as well as a top ten business thinker. Twice named as the Thinkers50 Number One Leadership Thinker, he has penned 40 books during his career, including three New York Times bestsellers, and has 1.2 million followers on social media site LinkedIn. He is also an official Companion of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

Secret to success

Over the years, Goldsmith has worked with the leaders of some of the world’s biggest and most prestigious organisations, delivering both leadership development and coaching. So what’s the secret to his success?

“I have a clear mission,” says Goldsmith. “My mission is to help successful leaders to achieve positive, long-term changes in behaviours. That might not sound like an unusual mission today, but when I started out, coaching was about fixing losers, not helping winners.”

A 360-degree view

Goldsmith’s advice-based approach to coaching contrasts with common practice that is based on “sitting in a room with someone, asking them questions and hoping that the insightful nature of the questions will mean that a person’s life changes”. He gets a 360-degree view of a client, based on confidential feedback from the key stakeholders that the client interacts with. This feedback enables him to identify the areas in which the client is already performing well, along with the areas where he or she needs to improve. “If they’re the chief executive, I involve the board,” Goldsmith explains. “If they’re not the chief executive, then I involve the chief executive.”

“I teach them to ask for input from everyone around them – shut up, listen, thank people and never promise to do everything. To be a great leader, it’s not all about you; it’s all about them. You have to let them be the heroes.”

It’s not all about you

While this concept is easy to understand, it’s hard to apply in practice, however. Many leaders still cling to the belief that great leadership is all about the leader, rather than about the people being led. “It’s the same for coaching,” admits Goldsmith. “Most coaches, including me, want people to get better so that we can feel good about ourselves. It’s got nothing to do with our clients. It’s all about me, me, me – and that’s very hard to stop.”

The most powerful coaching lesson Goldsmith himself has learned came from his past client and current friend, Alan Mulally, the former chief executive of Ford Motor Company. It was: “Never make the coaching process about yourself and your own ego and how smart you think you are. Make it about those fantastic people you work with, how hard they work and how proud you are of them.”

Goldsmith believes that taking this approach was the foundation of his own success because it allowed him to make his coaching process transferable. “It’s not about the coach. It’s about all the people around the client. That’s why it’s called stakeholder-centred coaching.”

He also advises strong self-awareness, saying, “Every problem I’ve ever had as a coach, I only had to look to one place to see the source of the problem. I looked in the mirror.”

Abridged from an interview in ‘Edge’ magazine, summer 2019; writing by Sally Percy.

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