Review + Notes: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

How Successful People Become Even More Successful

Do you ever feel like your hard work is finally starting to pay off … you are doing relatively well in your chosen field… but still, something is holding you back?

If an invisible barrier truly is standing between you and the next level of professional achievement, have you considered whether it might be nothing more than an annoying little habit? It may be possible that one small personality flaw — a longstanding behavioral tick you barely even recognize — is the number one factor that’s keeping you from where you want to be in your career, and your life.

The harsh reality is, the corporate world is filled with very talented men and women who’ve worked just as hard as you to reach the upper levels of management. With only rare exceptions, most upper managers are intelligent, skilled, and even charismatic. Yet only a handful of them will ever reach the pinnacle — the vice-president and presidential ranks. At those rarefied levels, it’s not competency that separates the wheat from the chaff. Instead, as America’s number one executive coach Marshall Goldsmith confirms in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There , it’s subtle nuances that make all the difference.

Your burning need to “win at all costs” (Annoying Habit #1), or your tendency to “play favorites” (Annoying Habit #4), may have been instrumental in getting you to a fairly comfortable upper management position, but according to this new research, unless you’re prepared to shed those traits, that’s where you’ll stay.

Marshall Goldsmith is an expert at helping global leaders overcome their little annoying habits, and attain the highest levels of success. His work with many of America’s most influential Fortune 500 executives has been profiled in Forbes , the Wall Street Journal and other leading journals. So it should come as no surprise that his one-on-one coaching normally comes with a six figure price tag attached. But don’t despair! On the pages that follow, you have a rare chance to access Goldsmith’s great advice without the hefty fee …

The Success Paradox

You may remember, a few years ago, a big insurance company ran a series of ads showing a powerful grizzly standing in a stream, with his neck extended to the limit, jaws wide open and teeth flaring. The bear was about to clamp on a defenseless salmon jumping up-stream. The copy read: “YOU PROBABLY FEEL LIKE THE BEAR, WE’D LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT YOU ARE THE SALMON.”

The ad was designed to sell disability insurance. But when Marshall Goldsmith saw it, he had a different take. He saw it as a powerful statement about how we all delude ourselves about our achievements and our contributions, in that we too often: (1) Overestimate our contribution to a project; (2) Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and standing among our peers; and, (3) Exaggerate our own project’s impact on profitability by discounting real and hidden costs.

According to Goldsmith, most of our self-delusions actually come from a frequent association with success, not failure. Since we get positive reinforcement from past successes, we tend to believe that they are predictive of great things to come. In some ways, this is only natural. Any human, or indeed, any animal will tend to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. And so, the more successful we become, the more positive reinforcement we receive — and the more likely we are to experience the “success paradox” (i.e. “I behave this way. I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way”).

Of course, the fact that successful people tend to be delusional isn’t all bad. Our belief in our own wonderfulness fills us with a needed sense of self-confidence. But as Goldsmith points out, while our self confident delusions can sometimes help us achieve great things, they can also make us very resistant to change.

According to Goldsmith, overcoming the success paradox requires constant vigilance, and understanding that “what got us here, won’t get us there.” The closer we get to the pinnacle of an organization, the more scrutiny we’re going to get. And all of a sudden, our annoying little habits come under the microscope.

The 20 Annoying Habits that Hold Us Back

So, what’s wrong with us anyway?

Before we can talk about how to fix our shoddy workplace behavior, we first need to review Goldsmith’s list of the “20 Annoying Habits That Hold Us Back.” That’s because diagnosing the problem is a critical first step on the path of change.

Fortunately, no one person has all of Goldsmith’s Annoying Habits. Sure, we may have a few of them, but probably not to a degree that it really hurts us. In other words, our co-workers don’t particularly mind them, even if we are occasionally annoying. But, according to the author’s research, we all have at least one or two, and they may be serious enough to affect our success at work. Obviously, these are the ones we need to identify and start working on as soon as possible!

Do you recognize any of these annoying behaviors?

1. Winning Too Much Goldsmith describes this annoying habit as: “the need to win at all costs and in all situations — when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.” And he notes that it’s easily the most common behavioral problem he observes in successful people. Strangely, when we’re asked to think about it rationally, most of us would agree that maintaining a positive working relationship with others is far more important than winning every trivial argument and creating unnecessary hard feelings. And yet … the burning urge to WIN very often gets the better of us.

2. Adding Too Much Value . This one is described as “the overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.” When you’re in a leadership position, this tendency can have a detrimental effect on employee morale. If an employee comes to you with a great idea, Goldsmith’s recommended response is to say “Great idea! Go run with it.” The alternative would be to say, “Great idea, but here’s how we can improve it …” In the process of adding your two cents, he reasons you may have improved the idea by 10%, but you’ve reduced the employee’s commitment to executing it by 50%, because her idea has now morphed into your idea. Was it really worth it?

3. Passing Judgment . This is the need to rate others and impose our standards on them. In Goldsmith’s view, there’s nothing wrong with offering an opinion on a particular path or idea in the normal give and take of business discussions. But it’s never appropriate to pass judgment on other people.

4. Making Destructive Comments . The needless sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty simply have to go. They can be unnecessarily hurtful, and they’re impossible to take back once spoken.

5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However.” Goldsmith points out that we’re almost all guilty of blatant overuse of these particular qualifiers, which clearly say to listeners, “I’m right. You’re wrong.” In the author’s experience, when you start a sentence with “but” or any variation thereof, no matter how friendly your tone, the message to the other person is immediately a competitive one.

6. Telling the World How Smart We Are . This is the unyielding need to show people we’re smarter than they seem to think we are. Few people do this overtly in actual words, but many of us do this unwittingly all day long, perhaps even with our body language (e.g. nodding our heads impatiently while people are making a point we already know). According to Goldsmith, what you’re subtly saying through these behaviors is, “You really didn’t need to waste my time with that information.” That can be very off-putting. His advice is to let such moments pass with a simple “Thank you,” and move on.

7. Speaking When Angry . Be wary of using emotional volatility as a management tool. Some bosses deliberately use anger to try and shake things up, but it’s very difficult to predict how employees will react to anger. Instead of shaking things up, you may be shutting things down.

8. Negativity . This is an incessant need to share our negative thoughts, even when we weren’t asked. It’s similar to Annoying Habit #5 (overusing “No, But and However”), but even worse because it is pure, unadulterated negativity.

9. Withholding Information is the refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others. Intentionally withholding information is the opposite of adding too much value. In a typical workplace, this often manifests itself in passive-aggressive people who routinely answer questions with other questions or give only partial answers to your e-mail queries. This type of behavior quickly engenders fear and suspicion among-st those around us and it’s incompatible with success in today’s knowledge-based economy.

10. Failing to Give Proper Recognition . This is the inability to offer praise and rewards. “When you deprive people of recognition,” writes Goldsmith, “you also deprive them of closure. And in any interpersonal transaction — positive or negative — we all need closure.” Of all the gaffes we may be guilty of, failing to give proper recognition always endures in the minds of the slighted.

11. Claiming Credit We Don’t Deserve . The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success is by claiming credit we don’t deserve. Some people steal credit brazenly. But according to Goldsmith, many of us who display this particular interpersonal fl aw do it without even realizing. For example, “When it comes to determining who held together an important client relationship during a particularly rocky phase, the evidence may be fuzzy.” So, given the choice between claiming all the credit OR leaving it for someone else to claim, we may fall into a trap. The author’s preferred approach is to share the credit as fairly as possible.

12. Making Excuses . Goldsmith describes this habit as “the need to re-position our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.” It is not just about making excuses (e.g. “I’m sorry I’m late, the traffic was murder.”) It’s about attributing our failings to some sort of an inherited genetic flaw that cannot be altered, no matter what (e.g. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’ve always been terrible at time management. My spouse can’t stand it. I guess that’s just the way I am!”). Goldsmith writes that he’s amazed by how often he hears otherwise brilliant, successful people making willfully self-deprecating comments of that nature. There’s no basis for these types of excuses!

13. Clinging to the Past . This one is all about the need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past. It’s closely related to Annoying Habit #19 (blaming everyone else). According to Goldsmith, among the various types of executives he coaches, those who cling to the past are often the toughest ones to fix. For reasons he cannot himself understand, these folks want to re-live past injustices, and blame their parents or former teachers, etc. for things that have gone wrong in their lives. Of course, we can’t do anything to change the past. The challenge is to let go.

14. Playing Favorites often involves failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly. By condoning suck-ups, you’re likely not encouraging behavior that’s in the best interest of the company. After all, if everyone is always fawning over the boss, who’s going to challenge you when you’re heading down the wrong path? Worse still, playing favorites tilts the field against the honest, principled employees who refuse to play along. This amounts to a “double hit” of bad news — not only are you playing favorites, but you’re likely favoring the wrong type of people!

15. Refusing to Express Regret . This is the inability to take responsibility for our actions, or admit we’re wrong. Goldsmith suspects that many people have a fear of apologizing because they see it as having “lost” a contest (and as we’ve seen, many successful people have an irrational need to win at everything!). The irony, of course, is that saying “I’m sorry,” can have precisely the opposite result. Instead of causing you to lose ground, a sincere apology can in effect turn disgruntled co-workers into allies, or even partners. Apologizing is always a winning strategy!

16. Not Listening is simply “the most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.” The reality for leaders of the future is that very bright people are no longer willing to tolerate rude or disrespectful behavior. If you insist on regularly looking at your watch, or typing away on your Blackberry, while junior staff are giving a presentation or seeking your direction, then there will come a day when those staff simply get up and leave for another company. “Remember, their time is valuable too!”

17. Failing to Express Gratitude is simply the most basic form of bad manners. As is the case with apologizing, saying “thank you” is a magical super-gesture of interpersonal relations. It will never annoy the person hearing it, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to say. Especially when you are stuck for something clever to say. You can never go wrong with “thank you!”

18. Punishing the Messenger. This one is a misguided need to attack the innocent, who are usually only trying to protect us. If your goal is to stop those around you from giving you input — of any kind — then there’s no reason to stop shooting your messengers. But on the other hand, if you happen to possess this annoying habit, all you need to do when you receive a bit of unwelcome news is say “thank you.” That’s always the best way to keep the lines of communication with your co-workers open, and honest.

19. Passing the Buck . This is the need to blame everyone but ourselves. Unlike many of the other Annoying Habits listed here, which are often subtle and can go unnoticed for a period of time, passing the buck is a high-profile behavioral flaw, as obvious as belching in public! “When we pass the buck,” writes Goldsmith, “everyone notices, and no one is impressed.” The irony, of course, is that no one expects us to be right all the time. Even the brightest lights are not infallible. But when we’re wrong, people certainly expect us to own up to it. Admitting as much is a great way to demonstrate character.

20. An Excessive Need to Be “Me.” This last one is about exalting our faults as virtues simply because they exemplify who we are. For instance, Goldsmith has worked with executive clients who feel entitled to express their opinions at any time, no matter how harmful or non-contributory they may be, simply because they’re exercising their right to be “me.” The sad truth is, no matter who you are, it’s never about you. It’s about what other people think of you!

Bad Habits CAN Be Fixed

Once again, the good news is, these behavioral faults are inherently correctable. The fi x is within the skill set of every human being. And in some cases (e.g. Annoying Habit #17 — Failing to Express Gratitude), the solution can be as simple as remembering your “thank you’s” and learning to deliver them in a sincere way.

Unfortunately, some of the other bad habits on Goldsmith’s list tend to be more deeply rooted, and are often centered on emotion. For example, when we play favorites, or get angry, we are succumbing to emotion — and displaying it for the entire world to see. Overcoming these emotional pitfalls can be a challenge.

Assuming some of these Annoying Habits hit home with you, as a starting point, the author recommends that you pick no more than two areas for behavioral change. On the basis of many “before-and-after” interviews (one year after receiving input), Goldsmith has learned that, for most executives, three or more is simply too many. The reason being, if you’re like most other successful people, you are already too busy now as it is. And the main reason busy people do not stick with a particular change plan is over-commitment. They don’t have time for a “laundry list” of goals. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and changing one or two high-leverage (negative) behaviors is sure to create a very noticeable difference!

Once you’ve figured out what you want to work on, the next step is to rally others to your cause. If future leaders can find ways to involve key stakeholders in the change process, they get better. But if they don’t involve those around them in the project, they usually are not improving.

Involving Stakeholders

According to Goldsmith, stakeholders require up-front guidance in order to ensure they’re able to offer constructive and focused coaching services.

Once one of your stakeholders — be it a boss, trusted co-worker, or a client — has agreed to participate in the coaching process, you should encourage them to:

1. Let go of the past. “When we continually bring up the past, we demoralize people who are trying to change. Remind your stakeholders at the outset that, whatever happened in the past happened. It cannot be changed.” It is only by helping you to focus on a future that can get better, that your key stakeholders can help you, a budding leader, to improve. Goldsmith calls this process “feed-forward” instead of feedback.

2. Urge them to tell the truth. The author states: “I never want to work with a client, have them get a glowing report from their key stakeholders and then later hear one stakeholder admit, ‘Well, he didn’t really get better, we just said that’. This is not fair to my client, to the company or to me.”

3. Invite them to pick something they want to improve about themselves. If you’re looking to make a change, it’s critical that you’re open and transparent with your key stakeholders. But as a quid pro quo , Goldsmith encourages you to similarly invite each of your stakeholders to pick something they themselves hope to improve. This makes the process “two-way” instead of “one way”. The stakeholders will become “fellow travelers” who are trying to improve, not “judges” who are pointing fingers.

Getting Down to Business
Once the ball is rolling, it’s important to develop a regular, ongoing follow-up process with your stakeholders. Interactions should be very efficient and focused. Questions like, “Based upon my behavior last month, what ideas do you have for me next month?” can keep a focus on the future.

Of course, the onus in entirely on you to respond constructively to the stakeholder advice and input you receive. But chances are, if you’ve selected your stakeholders carefully, you won’t be able to ignore their messages. After all, most people are more likely to take advice from people they care for and respect. The source of the feedback and suggestions can be as important as the content.

After six months of hard work, conduct a mini-survey written with your stakeholder group. Ask them to confirm whether you’ve become more or less effective in the areas targeted for improvement. And if you’ve been taking the process seriously your stakeholders are certain to report improvement. Finally, build on your success by repeating the survey process one year later. This type of follow-up will assure continued progress on your initial goals, and chances are, your stakeholders will appreciate the follow-up!

Concluding Thoughts:

Peter Drucker once wrote: “Most up and coming leaders don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.” Marshall Goldsmith couldn’t agree more.

At the top of most major organizations, any positive change in behavior — even a small one — can have a really big impact. Even the simple fact that a senior manager is actively trying to improve their behavior (and is therefore being a positive role model) may be even more important than the particular behavior the manager is trying to change. Even the appearance of improvement matters!

If you’ve come this far, chances are you believe that there’s room for some positive self-coaching. You may even act on some of Goldsmith’s advice (after all, how hard can it be to stop “shooting the messenger” or remembering to say “thank you” more often?). That alone could be a great start on your road to self-improvement. So use this invaluable advice as your guide and don’t let your annoying little habits stand in your way to a brighter, and more prosperous, future.

To learn more about What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful , by Marshall Goldsmith, please visit the Marshall Goldsmith Partners LLC.

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