When You’re Out of Your League (Or: My Weekend with Marshall Goldsmith and Friends)
How do you rate yourself?
Marcella and I met in 1992 and it was pretty much an instant connection, so it’s been 24-plus years since I’ve had to date. (And let me just say, phew!) But I’ve watched enough movies to know about the “I’m a 6 and she’s a 9” phenomenon — that ranking of oneself with the notion that more than plus or minus 2 and you’re dating out of your league.
Dating. Working with people. Different. The same. There are times when we suddenly feel like a small, small fish in a big pond.
To rewind a bit, I was one of the first 15 (then 25) people selected to be part of what’s become the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches project. Here’s the skinny: Marshall —#1 exec coach, seller of a gazillion books, etc. — picks 100 coaches and teaches them all he knows. Those 100 coaches have no obligations other than to do the same, to pay it forward.
Some 12,000 people applied and these 25 people were picked. We all met a couple of weeks ago in Phoenix, and I’ve had a bunch of inquiries from my friends on LinkedIn and beyond asking me about the weekend.
I’ve got lots to tell you, but for now let me mention four lessons I learned about playing out of one’s league. Just to spice things up a little, #1 contradicts #2, and #3 contradicts #4.
1 Do your homework
Did you check out that list? Sheesh. It’s got four of the Thinkers50. It’s got people who’ve written brilliant books. It’s got CEOs. It’s got future CEOs. It’s got entrepreneurs who’ve made their millions, and then done it again. It’s got . . . intimidation power.
But then again, everyone’s three-line bio has a bit of intimidation heft. Here are My Headlines. These are my Gold Medals. And there’s always more to it.
So I jumped on to LinkedIn, read up about each of them and got a sense of their journey. For instance, I discovered that Alexander Osterwalder, author of the fantastically good Business Model Generation, spent time working to eliminate AIDS and malaria. Aha! A connection with my End Malaria project. Garry Ridge, the CEO of WD-40, turns about to be a fellow Aussie. So I like him immediately.
I also asked to connect with all of them on LinkedIn (similar to how I endeavour to shake the hands of all participants at my keynotes and workshops), as a way of initiating a relationship and reminding myself that they’re human too.
Executive summary: Know who you’re dealing with.
2. Forget your homework
But here’s what happens when I do my homework like this. I make stuff up. And mostly, I make up how much I’m probably not going to like these people and how I’m not going to fit in. And that they’ll be pushy, ambitious, arrogant, cliquey and so on.
I get like this for high-school reunions too. Look how far I’ve come in 30 years, I think. Why would I want to mix with some of those high-school guys? Of course, I’m making up that, in 30 years, they’ve failed to develop and mature at all. Only I managed to do that.
So step two is to forget your homework.
On the first night, we all meet for cocktails (lesson 2a: start drinking asap) and then a meal. As soon as I start talking to people, I discover that they are humble, interested, excited, messy and genuine. Just like me. What a surprise! What a relief!
Executive summary: See the human being behind the resumé.
3. Stay relentlessly curious & make others look good
One person I was very keen to meet in person was Whitney Johnson. She’d already been on my podcast to discuss her book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and I was excited to get to know her a little more deeply. (Her podcast, Disrupt Yourself, is a must-listen!)
It turns out that Whitney is a genius at these sorts of meetings. More than anyone else I met there, when she spoke to someone, she stayed relentlessly curious about who they were and what Great Work they were up to. More than that, she made others look good. She’d introduce me to someone she’d just met, and say lovely things about me and about The Coaching Habit.
It turns out that one surefire way to make yourself look good is to work hard to make others look good.
Executive summary: Focus on others, not on yourself.
4. Remind yourself about you at your best
Focus on others. You got that, I know. But there’s danger in that advice. It’s the Too Too Humble trap.
Adam Grant touched upon this in his book Give and Take, in which he shows that there are two ways of giving. The first — and powerful — way is to give in a way that’s generous, openhearted and doesn’t leave you depleted and diminished. The second way is a sacrificial approach whereby you give up your boundaries, your ego and your status for the sake of others, which of course does leave you depleted and diminished.
To help me take option A rather than option B, I carried my This/Not This card with me throughout the weekend. On it are eight pairs of words, the words in the “This” column capturing elements of me showing up at my best, the words in the “Not This” column being how I show up when I’m off my game. Anytime I felt a bit wobbly, I’d take a quick check of the list, identify the issue (“Feeling anxious”), identify its alternative (“Be comfortable”) and then consciously work to embody that.
Executive summary: Show up as the best version of yourself.
You can swim at the deep end
The weekend with Marshall and the other 24 coaches was much more than just hanging out with impressive people. We spent a morning with the former CEO of Ford, Alan Mulally, and it was eye-opening to learn from him how both simple and difficult it can be to manage others. Marshall, of course, shared some of the key parts of his work, and we talked a lot about paying things forward.
However, a good deal of the magic of the weekend really came about because of the others in the room. And learning how to show up to give and take with the best of them was part of what I learned.