Book Review: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith’s New York Times Bestseller, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful is an excellent self-help book for executives and managers wishing to improve their “soft skills” and other interpersonal traits.

Goldsmith is an executive coach who has worked with more than 80 of the worlds foremost CEO’s.  As a symbol of his influence,  Alliant International University recently renamed their school of management after him.  With these credentials, probably anything he writes is worth reading.

In his book, Goldsmith lists twenty-one common “soft-skill” dysfunctions he has encountered while coaching top executives.   He explains that the higher you go in executive management, the more your problems are behavioral.  A few of these behavioral problems are as follows:

  1. The need to win to much
  2. Making destructive comments
  3. Starting sentences with “No,” “But,” or “However”
  4. Telling the world how smart you are
  5. Speaking when angry
  6. Withholding information
  7. Clinging to the past
  8. Playing favorites among direct-reports
  9. An excessive need to be “Me” (or, “I can’t change, that’s just how I am”)
  10. Goal obsession

To get the whole list, you need to read his book.  The first half of the book details these ten and the other eleven common issues at length.

One of the primary challenges Goldsmith writes about is getting executives to understand how they are perceived by others in their work environments, and at home.  He separates our personal “perception” into four categories:

  1. Public Knowledge (Traits known to others and self)
  2. Private Knowledge (Traits known to self but not to others)
  3. Blind Spots (Traits known to others but not to self)
  4. Unknowable (Traits unknown to others, and not know to self)

Goldsmith says that the most interesting traits to examine and study are #3, the blind spots known to others but not to ourselves.  He provides a formula for detecting these traits, examining them, and fixing any negative discoveries.  The formula is:

  1. Collect feedback from everyone around us, using both deliberate and subtle tactics.
  2. Apologize to everyone for any negative traits.
  3. Advertise that you are beginning a personal campaign to improve and that you would like their feedback periodically as you work on improvement.
  4. Listen to feedback in terms of “what can I do in the future to improve” and not “what did I do wrong in the past” (one is positive, one is negative)
  5. Thank people for their suggestions, and don’t disagree with them.
  6. Follow-up relentlessly.  This is the key to the improvement process taking shape.

He explains, for example,  that as a professional coach, he and a colleague call each other each evening and report to eachother on the progress of their goals.  This simple practice enables them to metric their performance over time–the same thing effective executives do to examine trends in their departmental interests.

Goldsmith discusses several other topics in his book.  One interesting aside is a list of common reasons why goal setting can fail:

  1. Time: It takes longer than expected, so it couldn’t be completed.
  2. Effort: It’s harder than was expected.
  3. Distractions: Nobody expected a “crisis” to emerge that took resources or time away.
  4. Lack of Rewards: After they see some improvement, they don’t get enough positive response from others, so they give up.
  5. Maintenance: Once a goal is met, there is no fortitude to stick with the pattern that brought success.

One of the closing thoughts in Goldsmith’s book struck me as quite novel.  As one of his executive coaching tools, he sometimes asks executives to produce a “How to Handle Me” guide for his staff.  This is a short memo detailing behavior, values, lessons from past experience, and input from past and present coworkers and direct reports.

As new hires are onboarded, part of their welcome packet is the “How to Handle Me” guide from their manager.

I found the most valuable part of Goldsmith’s book to be his formula for collecting feedback about others’ perceptions of us, and how we can affect change within ourselves where needed.  I appreciated Goldsmiths continuous transcentions that all of these tools and dynamics also have value at home to improve our family lives and social relationships.  This was a reoccurring theme in his book.

I recommend Goldsmith’s book for middle to senior level management, and to any husband or wife.

Mike J. Berry

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