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Banishing Regret and Achieving Lasting Change: A Q&A with Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith, a leading executive educator and coach, says you should not assess your value based on outcomes.

An older man smiling with a white beard and blue dress shirt.

​Marshall Goldsmith believes his mission in life is simple: to help successful people achieve positive, lasting change in their behavior—not just for themselves, but for their teams and organizations, too. 

As a leading executive educator and coach, Goldsmith has spent the past four decades helping CEOs, professional athletes and other high achievers gain a better understanding of how and why their beliefs trigger negative behaviors—and how overcoming those limiting beliefs can yield even greater success. 

Traveling the world, Goldsmith engages high fliers through both large-group presentations as well as one-on-one coaching sessions, serving as a sounding board and wise counsel and asking the questions that help his clients focus on changes that make them more effective leaders and better people.

Goldsmith holds a doctorate from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and has taught management practice at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. He has also authored or edited 51 books that have collectively sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. 

His latest book, The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment (Penguin Random House, 2022), provides practical advice and exercises to help readers understand how to lead lives unbound by regret and move beyond short-term careerism to find true fulfillment in their careers.

What is the “earned life”?

We live an earned life when the choices, risks and effort we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcome.

This definition is very non-Western in that it is not heavily focused on outcomes. My definition is more aligned with the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu text that includes insights on the ethical and moral struggles making up human life, and which stresses [to] never assess your value as a human being based upon outcomes, because one never has complete control over outcomes and [because] achievement of outcomes only brings limited, short-term satisfaction.

'The great Western disease is: "I will be happy when …" The reality is that only one book always ends with "and they lived happily ever after"—this is a fairy tale.'

The great Western disease is “I will be happy when …” The reality is that only one book always ends with “and they lived happily ever after”—a fairy tale. Happiness and peace can only come from the inside, not the outside.

What is your ­coaching approach?

I practice stakeholder-­centered coaching, which involves a very clear discipline of using confidential feedback and follow-up.

Can you provide an example of one of your coaching successes in the business world?

One of my wonderful clients was Hubert Joly, the incredibly successful CEO who led the turnaround of Best Buy. Hubert received confidential feedback from his key stakeholders, selected his most important areas for improvement, followed up with them on a regular basis and kept getting better. Perhaps even more important, he led by example and publicly asked stakeholders across the company to help him become a more effective leader. He then encouraged every associate in the company to do the same thing.

Can—and should—improving ­interpersonal skills and empathy be an HR-driven, organizationwide program?

Improving interpersonal skills for leaders can definitely be an organizationwide program. We have many examples of organizations that have done this with huge success. But it should not be HR-driven. It should be driven by the line management of the organization and executed through HR.

You advocate a “­feedforward” approach, as opposed to feedback. Why is one so much better than the other?

I love feedforward. When leaders ask for face-to-face feedback, their stakeholders are often too intimidated to tell the truth. But when stakeholders are asked to provide feedforward—ideas for the future—their psychological reaction is invariably more positive. I have practiced feedforward in courses involving hundreds of thousands of participants from many countries around the world. Participants almost always find it to be positive, useful, helpful and even fun.

Why do so many people, including high achievers, often have trouble asking for help, and can organizations put policies in place to address that?

We have been conditioned by society to communicate, “I have willpower. I don’t need help. I can do it on my own.” This is nonsense. How many of the top 10 tennis players have coaches? Ten. They ask for help not because they’re losers, but because they’re winners. My clients not only ask for help, they publicly ask for help. They are not ashamed to ask for help.

The Earned Life suggests that executives become specialists, mastering a specific expertise within their field. Should HR executives move beyond being generalists?

This strictly depends on the individual’s career goals. Being an HR generalist is still a very specialized occupation. If your goal is to maximize impact within an organization, being an HR generalist is a great path. If your goal is to have impact across organizations, developing an expertise or specialty within your field will give you a much higher probability of success.   

Interview by David Ward, a freelance writer based in North Carolina.


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