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Succeed more by winning less

You didn't get this far at work without picking up a few bad habits. Lose them, says top executive coach Marshall Goldsmith.

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Interview by Eric Schurenberg, Money Magazine managing editor

Executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith

(Money Magazine) -- You can think of executive coach Marshall Goldsmith's job as a kind of workplace public service: He teaches bosses how to stop being jerks. It's a growth business.

The introduction to his book "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" (a No. 1 business bestseller last year) is crowded with quotes from corporate brass - including the CEOs of Ford, Herman Miller and GlaxoSmithKline - testifying to the transformations he wrought on colleagues whose prickly, overbearing or blustery personal styles threatened to stunt their careers and drive away talented underlings.

The Goldsmith cure starts with something like a ritual act of atonement in which the errant manager seeks feedback from his staff about his shortcomings, apologizes and then asks for their help in getting better. Learning what coworkers really think tends to shock the exec into reforming. If it doesn't, Goldsmith's own relentlessly cheerful and studiously nonjudgmental chiding generally finishes the job.

In a recent interview with Money Magazine managing editor Eric Schurenberg, Goldsmith discussed how high achievers can make life more pleasant for all around them - and in the process, improve their own career prospects.

Question: You're usually dealing with top executives. If they're already that successful, why do they need your help?

A. All my clients are intelligent, successful people, just like your readers. But that makes them that much more likely to fall for what I call the success delusion. It goes like this: "I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I am successful because I behave this way."

Wrong. You succeed because you do many things right and in spite of a few things you do that are stupid. I've never met anyone so wonderful he had nothing on the "in spite of" list. The problem with the success delusion is that it's superstitious. Any person - any animal, for that matter - will keep doing whatever receives positive reinforcement. If you think you're being rewarded for the stupid things too, you'll keep doing them, even though they hurt your career and make your co-workers miserable.

Question: What stupid things do smart people do?

A. The No. 1 bad habit is, they win too much. It is very hard for them not to win. If it's important, they want to win. If it's trivial, they still want to win. Even if it's not worth it, they want to win anyway.

Question: What's a workplace example?

A. Let's say I'm your enthusiastic subordinate and I report to you with a great idea. Rather than saying "Great idea," you say "Nice idea, why don't you add this?" What happens? The quality of my idea may go up 5 percent, but my commitment to it may now go down 50 percent. It's no longer my idea! You won - you got to show off how smart you are - but it wasn't worth it.

Question: So what should you say when someone pitches an idea?

A. Say "Thank you!" That's all. Let's assume I'm that enthusiastic subordinate again and I give you three ideas. To the first you say "Great idea!" Second: "That's interesting." Third: nothing.

What message did you give me? A, C, F. Are you listening to my ideas or grading them? And what have I learned? From now on I'm going to give you only the ideas I think you want to hear, which may be the last ones you need to hear.

Question: Okay, so how can subordinates manage up better?

A. There's one basic concept that people don't get. If they did, it would save a lot of misery. It's this: Every decision is made by the person who has the power to make it. Not the smartest person, not the prettiest or the best, but the one who has the power.

You can influence that person, but you have to think like a salesperson. Sell what you can sell. If there's no chance to sell an idea, don't bring it up. Focus on the bigger picture, not your own needs. Prepare for objections. If you sell it, great. If you don't, make peace with the decision. And if that decision doesn't require you to do something illegal, immoral or unethical, just salute the flag and go make it work.

Question: If you had to choose one piece of advice that would help people achieve more happiness on the job, what would it be?

A. Imagine that you're 95 years old, on your deathbed. But before you take that last breath, you get a wonderful gift: the ability to go back in time and talk to the younger you who's reading this story right now and help that younger you have a better career and, more important, a better life.

What would that wise 95-year-old tell you to do? Now listen closely because this is the best bit of career coaching you're ever going to get: Whatever you think that 95-year-old would urge you to do, do it. Starting now. When the time comes, you want that 95-year-old to be proud of you. If he says you were a success, you were.

Trust me, of all the performance appraisals you'll ever have, that's the only one that really matters.

Send feedback to managing_editor@moneymail.com. To top of page

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