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Business Officer Magazine

On Your Best Behavior

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith explains how interpersonal skills trump technical savvy and why business officers should care.

By Connie Adamson

While Goldsmith’s typical client is from a for-profit environment, he’s well aware that business officers lead in a different realm. In a large corporation, says Goldsmith, the line of authority makes the decision-making process reasonably simple. Educational institutions, however, can be more difficult to navigate because of the more prevalent consensus, dialogue, and discussion that blur such distinct boundaries. “I think that the need for the kind of behavioral skills I talk about is even greater in such a complex organization,” says Goldsmith. Consequently, he says, “the chief business officer is a person who really does need to be able to connect across the organization, build relationships, and influence people—often without direct-line authority.” In fact, contends Goldsmith, when you don’t have that authority, interpersonal skills are essential.

When it comes to identifying the best behavioral skills for today’s top leaders, Goldsmith draws on rich experience. He has coached CEOs, team leaders, and strategists from corporations the likes of Ford Motor Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Goldman Sachs, and General Mills. The American Management Association has named him one of the 50 greatest thinkers and business leaders who have most influenced the field of management. And, his books have appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List. Whether he is coaching individuals or providing written advice, Goldsmith’s specialty is helping highly successful people become even more successful.

Goldsmith will have more to say about leadership strategies in a presentation at NACUBO’s Thought Leaders Program, February 10–12, in St. Petersburg, Florida (see sidebar, “Other Thought Leaders Join Goldsmith,” for details). Here, in an interview with Business Officer, Goldsmith explains the challenges, roadblocks, and disciplines leaders face in adopting the kind of interpersonal behavior that supports their changing roles.

From Technical to Tactical

Other Thought Leaders Join Goldsmith

A distinguished group of presenters, including Marshall Goldsmith will launch NACUBO’s inaugural Thought Leaders Program, February 10–12, in St. Petersburg, Florida. The conference, designed for senior business officers, will feature the following speakers:

James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and director of the Millennium Project, opens the program with his thoughts on the changing environment of higher education and leading through changing times. 

Phil Goldstein, research fellow at the EDUCAUSE Applied Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, leads a conversation on the challenges business officers must address as leaders to position their institutions to thrive in the future.

Paul Jansen, director of the nonprofit practice at McKinsey & Company, New York City, presents results of a study on the horizon issues and change drivers in higher education.

Michael A. McRobbie, president of The Indiana University System, draws on his background in technology, research, and higher education, to provide thoughts about leadership in the new millennium.

The program is designed to provide ample time for active participation and discussion with colleagues from similar institutions. For more information or to register, visit or phone 800.462.4916.

In his latest book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (Hyperion, 2007), Goldsmith points out that the higher a person rises in an organization, the more important behavior becomes. Technical skills take a back seat to the interactions with people that are required to move the organization forward. For many, that represents a different way of behaving in the leadership role. “And behavior—the way you act—is the one thing you can change,” emphasizes Goldsmith.

Based on his coaching results, Goldsmith believes that anyone can improve if he or she really wants to. But doing so, he warns, is not easy. “To be successful in improving yourself, you need to be intentional,” he says. “You have to work at it, and you have to stick with it.” He’s designed a process that people can use to become more effective leaders. “If they follow the process, they get better,” reports Goldsmith. “If they don’t, they don’t.”

At the same time, Goldsmith understands that it’s not so easy for high-level professionals to identify their own leadership development needs. And, when they look at others who appear to be effective leaders, they may make some incorrect assumptions. “When someone is successful,” he says, “the tendency is to think, ‘Joe did this; therefore, this made Joe successful.’ Well,” he continues, “Joe is successful because he did many things right, and Joe is successful in spite of doing some things that are stupid.

And I’ve never met anyone who was so good that he or she had no entries on the ‘in spite of’ list.”

This seeming disconnect between success and the behavior needed to support it is one of the reasons why Goldsmith begins his coaching work with a new client by interviewing an average of 15 of the person’s coworkers. The perspectives help him determine the characteristics that support or detract from the client’s leadership effectiveness. To avoid negative dynamics of this 360-type approach, he asks the coworkers to make four commitments before providing input: (1) let go of the past; (2) tell the truth; (3) be supportive and helpful, not cynical and negative; and (4) pick something that you can improve in yourself, such that everyone is focused more on improving than on judging.

Changing Your Ways

Once areas of desired change have come to light, Goldsmith has influenced positive results in leaders with what he calls “feedforward.” The process includes four steps:

  1. Pick the one behavior that you would like to change and that would make a significant, positive difference in your life.
  2. Describe this objective in a one-on-one dialogue with anyone you know.
  3. Ask that person for two suggestions for the future that might help you achieve a positive change in your selected behavior.
  4. Listen attentively to the suggestions. Then, repeat the process with someone else.

None of this is easy. Even leaders most committed to changing their ways may be sidetracked by what Goldsmith calls “habits that hold you back.” He sees that several of the 20 habits that he has identified are common among financial professionals, including the excessive need to prove they’re smart, establish that they are generally right, and show that they have the right answers. He calls these “misguided” habits. The real focus, he advises, should be: “How can I make the biggest positive difference? This is far from: How can I prove I’m right? The important questions are: Are we creating a positive difference? Are we helping people get a quality education?” 

“In higher education,” Goldsmith observes, “you’re dealing with a lot of very smart people…who, in a sense, can look down on the business person in the academic environment as a second-class citizen.” And the negative reaction for the business person is that he or she becomes defensive, instead of realizing the need to influence people in a positive way.

Improving on Purpose

New Demands for Tomorrow’s Leaders

“It’s tough out there!” says Marshall Goldsmith. “The competition level has gone way up.” Goldsmith’s research reveals five key leadership skills that you need to consider as you try to keep up with a changing world. 

Think globally. Today, expect to deal with international issues and developments—or, at minimum, to be influenced by globalization, even if only indirectly.

Appreciate cultural diversity. Cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity have expanded such that you must answer the question: “How do I deal with people across the world from all kinds of cultures with very different backgrounds?”

Demonstrate technological savvy. Understand how technology impacts your organization. Even if sophisticated processes don’t influence your core business, they likely will be important to the long-term vitality of your organization.

Build partnerships and alliances. Fostering these relationships is a critical part of your effectiveness. Be inclusive in your organization and reach out to other groups to create the types of dynamics that harness the energies and resources of all. As work becomes more complex, people from around the world are becoming involved with day-to-day operations.

Share leadership. Peter Drucker noted that the leader of the past knew how to tell, while the leader of the future will benefit from knowing how to ask. Shared leadership creates an environment of listening, asking, and learning—and involves everyone in the organization and many from outside. Foster this kind of atmosphere—and your leadership results will improve.

“I think a real challenge in leadership development,” says Goldsmith, “is not so much understanding, it’s doing. Most people I work with do understand what they need to do to become more effective. Their challenge is doing it.”

Goldsmith likens the task of improving leadership skills to that of sticking to a diet or an exercise program. “You don’t lose weight by buying diet books,” he notes, “and you don’t get in shape by watching somebody else work out.” Goldsmith says the process for improvement has got to be intentional. You have to work at it, and you have to follow up. “We all want to be able to check the box and solve our problems,” he says. “In reality, behavior doesn’t get fixed by checking a box. Progress requires the courage to admit you have things to improve.” It also depends on asking for ongoing input and asserting the discipline to stick to your goals, he adds.

That’s where another of Goldsmith’s feedforward exercises comes in. He suggests that leaders (a) let go of the past, (b) listen to suggestions without judging, (c) learn as much as they can, (d) help as much as they can, and (e) learn points that help them become great coaches.

What about the popular advice to focus on your strengths? Goldsmith says that the technique may be helpful at some career levels. However, he cautions against using it as a crutch to support the illusion that no further professional development is necessary. “I think a lot of this build-on-your-strength [strategy] is misused,” says Goldsmith. “People rely on it as an excuse to justify dysfunctional behavior. When I deal with CEOs, for example, they can’t just say, ‘I’m good with strategy and terrible with people—and that’s OK.’ I tell them, ‘It’s not OK. It’s your job [to engage people], and it’s not acceptable to ignore that fact.’”

Not only do leaders need to change their behavior and continually upgrade their people skills, says Goldsmith, they also need to be perceived by those around them as having become more effective. “Leadership is not about what we say,” he emphasizes, “it’s about what others hear. It’s about making sure that [colleagues] understand that we’re taking their feedback seriously and that we’re following up.” To confirm that change is real, those around us, he says, must agree that we’ve gotten better. 

One principle that Goldsmith tries to instill in his clients is the idea of individuals helping each other overcome challenges for the overall improvement of their institutions. He says, “I like to leave them with these words of advice: ‘Help more, judge less.’”  

CONNIE ADAMSON is director, education and workshops, at NACUBO.