What Got You Here Won't Get You There

How Successful People Become Even More Successful

by Marshall Goldsmith

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Table of Contents



In this book, Marshall Goldsmith shares his coaching experiences with leaders in some top organisations, teaching the behaviours that make people successful and showing what holds them back when moving up their success ladders. He has identified that as people move up to higher levels of organisational life, all the leading players are technically skilled. The problems holding one back are likely behavioural instead of technical. This book will highlight the changes one can make from here to the next progression.

Key Ideas

The Trouble with Success

Successful people tend to have a high internal locus of control. They believe that with their past successes, they can and will continue to be successful. These success beliefs — that they have the skills, the confidence, the motivation, and the free choice to succeed — can make them superstitious.

One has to be wary of cognitive dissonance. It refers to the disparity between what we mentally believe and what we experience. It works in favour of successful people when they apply it to themselves to “stay the course” but works against them when they should change course. Avoid mixing correlation and causality. For example, despite being a poor listener, one can succeed because of talent, hard work and good luck. He should work on his poor listening habit instead of being superstitious and defensive about it.

Getting one to change requires a subtle appreciation of what motivates them.

People will do something—including changing their behavior—only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.

Is it money, power, status or popularity? If you know what truly matters to you, it's easier to commit to change.

The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top

We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. Goldsmith says we don't spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop.

The recognition and reward systems in most organizations are totally geared to acknowledge the doing of something. ... Our performance reviews are solely based on what we've done, what numbers we've delivered, what increases we have posted against last year's results. Even the seemingly minor personal goals are couched in terms of actions we've initiated, not behavior we have stopped. We get credit for being punctual, not for stopping our lateness.

Start by shifting into neutral. For most people, turning all of their negative behaviours into positive ones is intimidating. It is easier to "be nicer" if you "stop being a jerk" first.

When someone offers a less-than-brilliant idea in a meeting, don't criticize it. Say nothing. When someone makes a helpful suggestion, don't remind them that you already knew that. Thank them and say nothing.

Goldsmith identified 21 everyday annoyances to stop:

  1. Winning too much: Suppress the desire to win at any cost, even if it is irrelevant.

  2. Adding too much value: You may improve the idea, but you reduce your colleagues' commitment to execute it because the idea is no longer theirs.

  3. Passing judgment: Overcome the desire to assess others and apply our standards to them.

  4. Making destructive comments: Avoid doing this in front of people and even behind their backs

  5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: Instead, say “thank you”.

  6. Telling the world how smart we are: Avoid the need to show that you already know something. Thank the person instead.

  7. Speaking when angry: Avoid justifying anger as a management tool. It will be the only thing people remember of you.

  8. Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won't work”

  9. Withholding information: Set aside inviolate time to update others

  10. Failing to give proper recognition: Make a list and drop a note to recognise people

  11. Claiming credit that we don't deserve: Reflect on your achievements everyday, and ask if anyone else earned recognition for what you achieved.

  12. Making excuses: Apologize, but don't give an excuse.

  13. Clinging to the past: Accept the past and change the future. Stop blaming others for the choices you made

  14. Playing favourites: Rank your direct reports by how much they like you, their contribution to the company and how much positive personal recognition you gave them. Avoid encouraging behaviour that serves you but is not in the best interests of the company.

  15. Refusing to express regret

  16. Not listening: Stop demonstrating impatience when listening to someone. Subtle body language, such as drumming your fingers, can reveal your impatience to the speaker.

  17. Failing to express gratitude: If you don't know what to say, say "Thank you" instead

  18. Punishing the messenger

  19. Passing the buck

  20. An excessive need to be “me”: Avoid using our faults as virtues simply because they're who we are. When you find it hard to praise someone, ask yourself, "Why can't this behaviour be you?"

  21. Goal obsession: When pursuing a goal, never lose sight of the broader vision; even the honourable pursuit of a challenging goal can turn into self-absorbed schemers who ignore others who don't help us.

How We Can Change for the Better

Be wary of self-diagnosis. Just as people tend to overestimate their strengths, they also tend to overrate their weaknesses. They think they're really bad at something at which they're only mediocre or slightly poor—an F when they're really a C minus.

The interpersonal flaws revolve around 2 factors:

  1. Information compulsion - people have an overwhelming need to tell you something you don't know, even if it's not in their best interests.

  2. Emotion

So always ask 2 questions first:

  1. Is it appropriate?

  2. How much should I convey?

Next, acquire 360-degree feedback.

How to get feedback

Marshall interviews 15 pax on average for an hour each for their 360 feedback (at least 8 to max 31 pax). Before doing so, he first asks his client who he should interview (so that they will accept the validity of the feedback). Interviews must make 4 commitments:

  1. Let go of the past
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Be supportive and helpful - not cynical or negative
  4. Pick something to improve yourself - everyone is focused more on "improving" than "judging". Asking the person to improve makes both parties fellow humans engaged in the same struggle to improve.

Change is not a one-way street. It involves two parties: the person who's changing and the people who notice it.

The feedback format is simple.

Does the executive in question:

  • Clearly communicate a vision.
  • Treat people with respect.
  • Solicit contrary opinions.
  • Encourage other people's ideas.
  • Listen to other people in meetings.

There are 3 forms of feedback: Solicited, Unsolicited and Observation.

  1. Solicited feedback: The only question you should ask is: "How can I do better?" Pure unadulterated issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to (a) solicit advice rather than criticism, (b) be directed towards the future rather than obsessed with the negative past, and (c) be couched in a way that suggests you will act on it.

  2. Unsolicited feedback: Be appreciative of blindside events. Our self-awareness can be divided into 4 parts, based on what is known and unknown about us to other people and what is known and unknown about us. We can use the Johari Window Model. Problems we deny to ourselves may be obvious to others. Goldsmith realised he had been overly focused on pleasing his professor during his PhD module.

The simple wisdom of the Johari Window: What is unknown to us may be well-known to others. We can learn from that.

  1. Observation: (1) Make a list of people's casual remarks about you. (2) Turn the sound off (to observe physical gestures & movements more sensitively), (3) complete the sentence (“I want to …exercise. If I exercise, I will …live longer.” The deeper you get into it, the more personal the answers become (e.g. If I become more organised, the company will make more money… my team will become more productive, …other people will enjoy their jobs more… I'll be a better person”, (4) Listen to your self-aggrandising remarks & challenge it because your boasted strengths and disclaimers could possibly be your most egregious weaknesses, (5) Look homeward by asking your family to check your claims.


The next magic move is to APOLOGIZE after receiving FEEDBACK: "I'm sorry. I'll work harder in the future to improve. The final element helps in putting the past behind us.

Then ADVERTISE. Tell everyone in the world what you intend to change. Due to people's cognitive dissonance stereotypes of you, you must perform 100% better to receive 10% more credit. To improve, tell people, do it weekly, and solicit feedback.

And don't skip the “dumb phase” - one must advertise relentlessly.

You failed to appreciate that every successful project goes through seven phases: The first is assessing the situation; the second is isolating the problem; the third is formulating. But there are three more phases before you get to the seventh, implementation. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't pay close attention to phases four, five, and six—the vital period when you approach your coworkers to secure the all-important political buy-in to your plans. In each phase you must target a different constituency. In phase 4, you woo up—to get your superiors to approve. In phase 5, you woo laterally—to get your peers to agree. In phase 6, you woo down—to get your direct reports to accept. These three phases are the sine qua non of getting things done. You cannot skip or skim over them.

Treat every day like a press conference so that you are on alert on what to say and repeat it with extreme discipline until it sinks in. Treat every day as a chance to take on all challengers, think of the process as an election campaign where your colleagues elect you, and think long term.


Be a good listener. Think before speaking, listening with respect, and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”. Treat the speaker as if she's the most important person in the room. Great listeners do this all the time. It's automatic for them. For them, there's no on-and-off switch between caring and empathy and showing respect. It's always on. They don't rank personal encounters as A, B, or C in importance. They treat everyone equally — and everyone eventually notices.

Express Gratitude

Write THANK YOU notes to everyone you are grateful for.

Follow Up

Once you master the subtle arts of apologising, advertising, listening, and thanking, you must follow up—relentlessly. Follow-up shows that you care about getting better. Following up consistently each month or so shows that you are taking the process seriously and not ignoring your coworkers' input.

Practice Feedforward

Practice Feedforward in 4 steps:

  1. Pick a behaviour, eg.I want to be a better listener
  2. Describe the objective in one-on-one dialogue with anyone you know
  3. Ask that person for 2 suggestions for the future.
  4. Listen attentively to the suggestions and say thank you. Repeat the above process with someone else. And again.

Pulling Out the Stops

Some may find it hard to identify or accept the behaviour holding them back. Below are some strategies to navigate the process of change.

  1. You might not have a disease that behavioural change can cure - the line between a behavioural flaw and a technical shortcoming can get blurry.

  2. Pick the right thing to change.

  3. Don't delude yourself about what you really must change

  4. Don't hide from the truth you need to hear - Don't be afraid to solicit feedback

  5. There is no ideal behaviour - You can't dominate in all categories. Everything gets better with just 1 change.

  6. If you can measure it, you can achieve it - Everything can be measured, eg. time spent with your loved ones.

  7. Monetise the result, create a solution - monetising the punishment makes you notice them more acutely.

  8. The best time to change is now.

Special Challenges for People in Charge

  1. Try writing a “Memo to staff: How to handle me”. Warn people of your tendencies; be brutally honest, eg. 12 “Manager READMEs” from Silicon Valley's Top Tech Companies

  2. Stop letting your staff overwhelm you—delegate work by asking your team 2 questions. (1) are there areas where you think I need to be more involved and less involved, and (2) do you ever see me doing things that a person at my level shouldn't be doing, such as getting involved in details that are too minor to worry about?

If they need too much of your time, you can't just tell them to stop bothering you. You have to wean them away and make it seem like it's their idea. Let them figure out what they should be doing on their own. Let them tell you where you're not needed. There's a fine line between legitimate face time and get-out-of-my-face time. It's up to you as boss to make the troops face that.

  1. Stop acting as if you are managing you. Different people interpret the same event differently. Refrain from assuming that your staff is exactly like you - in behaviour, enthusiasm, intelligence, and especially in how they apply that brainpower.

  2. Stop "checking the box". People understand doesn't mean that they will do. Follow up with them to make sure they heard, understood, and finally did something about it.

  3. Stop being prejudiced about your employees.

    • I know what they want (e.g. that bonus matters. Generally, people in their 20s want to learn, 30s want to advance, 40s want to rule).
    • I know what they know.
    • I can always get someone else (but companies need knowledge workers more than these workers need companies)
  4. Stop trying to coach people who shouldn't be coached.

    • People who don't think they have a problem

    • People who are pursuing the wrong strategy

    • People who should not be in their jobs - people who feel that they are in the wrong job.

    • People who think everyone else is the problem.

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