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5 leadership tips from top executive coach to CEOs, Marshall Goldsmith

Before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself if what you are about to say is worth it.

Not only is he a New York Times bestselling author of multiple books, he was also recognised as the world’s number one leadership thinker last year in the bi-annual Thinkers50 Awards, often referred to as the “Oscars of management thinking”.

Here, author and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, who was in Singapore to speak at HR Summit 2016 in May, offers five tips for self-improvement.

1. Triggers pull us away from our plans.
A trigger is any stimulus that might impact our behaviour, and that people are “constantly bombarded” by these triggers as they journey through life. They might occasionally push us in the right direction, but usually, they pull us away from our plans.

“If we become aware of what’s happening before we act, behaviour becomes a function of choice, rather than a result of an impulse or trigger. You begin to control your world more as opposed to the outside world controlling you.”

2. Overcome such triggers with the “daily question process”.
It is a self-monitoring system that entails answering a checklist of questions based on your own life priorities to find out if you have done your best at the end of each day. Goldsmith says he pays someone to call him each day to listen to him read out the 32 questions he wrote, and his answers for that day.

His questions range from personal self-discipline issues such as whether he did his best to work out, to addressing behavioural change, such as whether he did his best to avoid angry comments at people. “For example, one question of mine is how many times did you try to prove you are right and was it worth it. It’s hard for the old professor not to be right all the time,” he says wryly.

Goldsmith says very few people will go to the same lengths as he to track their progress because they are embarrassed. But he is candid about his shortcomings. “I do it because I am too cowardly and undisciplined to do it on my own – that’s why I get pay someone to call me every day. I need help, and that’s okay.”

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3. Three qualities that differentiate those who have improved the most.
These traits are: courage to get honest feedback, humility to admit they can improve, and discipline to do the hard work needed to get better. But sometimes, many top leaders are not even aware of mistakes they are making that hinder them from reaching the very top.

The biggest problem, he says, is the overwhelming desire to win. “The people I coach are very successful people, so it’s very hard for winners to not constantly win. Even if it’s trivial and not worth it, we still want to win – because we love winning. It’s a very deep habit,” he says matter-of-factly.

4. Leaders have a penchant for “adding too much value”.
Or, put another way, the bad habit of wanting to add one’s two cents worth in every discussion.

“For example, a young, smart and enthusiastic worker comes up to you with an idea. You think it’s great. Instead of saying it’s a great idea and leaving it at that, your natural tendency is to say – why not add this or change this instead?” he says.

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While it may seem to be better for all parties if ideas are improved upon, Goldsmith says it is not always the case. He explains that the problem with this is that the quality of the idea may go up by 5 per cent, but the commitment of the young worker to execute it will go down by 50 per cent. That’s because it is no longer the young man’s idea, but the leader’s.

“We get so wrapped up trying to improve the quality this much, but we damage the commitment even more,” says Goldsmith.

Leaders who cannot resist adding their opinions to matters they are unsure about may also find that, very often, those viewpoints become orders that get followed without question, no matter how ridiculous they are.

His advice: Before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself if what you are about to say is worth it. Leaders may find that there is more to gain by not trying to “add value”.

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5. “Thirty years ago, no CEO would even admit to having a coach.”
He adds: “They would be ashamed and feel weak.”

Goldsmith says he gets paid only if the coaching client has achieved positive change in key leadership behaviours, as evaluated and determined by their key stakeholders. He adds that the cost to his clients of hiring him is their time. “What’s their time worth? I’m not here to waste your time. I don’t get paid for time, I get paid for results.”

He says this is the opposite of what many executive coaches do, whose income is largely a function of whether their clients like them or how much time they spent coaching. He declares that neither is a good metric for achieving positive, long-term change in behaviour compared to paying for results.

“I don’t get paid if my clients don’t get better by a certain time period. And sure, I have not been paid before. We all fail sometimes, it’s okay,” he shrugs.

Adapted from The Business Times.