August 2005

Making Good Leaders Great -- How to Keep Them Great

by Marshall Goldsmith

In today’s complex, knowledge-based economy, companies need extraordinary leaders. Having senior (or even mid-level) managers who are just “competent” is not an option.

Because of the significant human and financial capital expended on leadership development, major companies need to have the right answers to these questions:

  • What type of developmental activities will have the greatest impact on increasing the effectiveness of their leaders?
  • What can be done to ensure that this increased leadership effectiveness is sustained?

In the leadership development field, it’s often remarked that there are as many approaches to executive development as there are executive coaches. As executive coaches ourselves, we can vouch that the saying is true. Fortunately, however, we know that beneath all successful approaches to coaching is a simple rule: Leaders must have real, open and ongoing communication with, and input from, the people they lead.

Increasing and Sustaining Executive Effectiveness

Over the past 16 years we’ve worked with large corporations in almost every industry. They all had the same over-arching goal: to find the best means of developing and maintaining the highest level of leadership possible. To this end they used – and still use – a variety of methodologies: offsite training and onsite coaching; internal and external coaches; or more traditional training and on-the-job experiences.

Regardless of the type of program, leaders, who discuss their selected areas for improvement with co-workers – and then follow up regularly with co-workers, show striking improvement. On the other hand, leaders who do not have ongoing dialogues with colleagues tend to show improvement that barely exceeds random chance.

Leader/Co-worker Interaction

A study1 by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan highlights the importance of open dialogues with colleagues when working to improve leadership behavior. The study examined eight companies’ leadership development program results over 16 years for 11,480 participating managers. All eight companies measured the frequency of managers’ discussions and follow-up with co-workers, and compared this measure with perceived leadership effectiveness. Participants in the study who followed-up were viewed by their colleagues as far more effective than the leaders who did not.

In interacting and following up with their co-workers, there are three key principles for leaders to abide by to change their behavior to become and remain better leaders:

  • Develop leaders out-in-the-open
  • Systematically ask co-workers - “What needs to be done?” and “As your manager (or team member) how can I do a better job of helping you achieve your goals?”
  • Use a coach who encourages the practice of leadership

1. Develop leaders out-in-the-open

Leadership is a relationship.  The most important variables in improving this relationship are neither the coach nor the training methodology; the most important variables are the leader and his or her colleagues.  

One common view and approach to coaching is that it should take place just between the coach and the leader, without need for participation by the leader’s peers, managers or direct reports. We don’t agree.  Our studies show that when a leader involves co-workers in his development, the leader they help tends to become, and is seen as being, a more effective leader. Conducting coaching in a manner that is out in the open and puts the leaders’ co-workers at the center of the process yields the best results.  It gets results that are tangible, measurable and that ultimately improve the bottom line. 

2. Leaders Must Systematically Ask Co-Workers ‘What needs to be done?’ and ‘How can I do a better job of helping you achieve your goals?’

Peter Drucker has said that “The leader of the past knew how to tell.  The leader of the future will know how to ask.”  We agree.  In today’s world of knowledge workers, most managers lead people who know more about their work than their boss does.  In such a world, leaders can’t just tell. They have to ask, listen and learn.

Peter Drucker has said that the most important question a leader can ask is “What needs to be done?”  We agree again.  If the leader asks, s/he must let co-workers know what s/he is doing and follow-up on how it is working.

Coaching is generally only effective when its core is in inspiring the leader to follow-up with his or her people for feedback on whether or not s/he is making progress. Systematically following up with colleagues -- asking “What can I do to improve” and really listening and acting upon the responses -- is the lynchpin of developing top leadership skills.

In every one of our executive development engagements, the frequency of follow-up by managers with their co-workers has been seen by the co-workers as a key factor in increasing their leaders’ effectiveness.

The mini-surveys compiled in the Goldsmith and Morgan study asked the co-workers to rate the amount of improvement they saw in the leader on a seven-point scale of -3 to +3.  A “+3” indicated that the co-worker was seen as becoming a much more effective leader, a rating of “0” indicated no change in leadership effectiveness. For those leaders who:

  • Did not do follow up -  average perceived change was around 0
  • Did a little follow up -  perceived change averaging around +1
  • Did some follow up -  perceived change averaging around +1.5
  • Frequent follow-up -  perceived change averaging around +2
  • Consistent or periodic follow-up - perceived change averaging +3

Leaders who ask for input and then follow-up to see if progress is being made are seen as leaders who care. Co-workers might infer that leaders who don't respond to input must not care that much.

3. Make Sure the Coach Helps the Leader ­Actively Practice His or Her Understanding of Leadership

If it’s all about the interaction between leaders and co-workers, how do executive coaches fit in?

An executive coach is, in many ways, like a personal trainer. Much of the trainer's role is to "remind" the person being trained to do what s/he knows should be done. Good personal trainers spend far more time on execution than on theory. The same is true for leadership development. Most leaders already know what to do. They have read the books and listened to the gurus’ speeches. For most leaders, the great challenge is not understanding the practice of leadership; it’s practicing their understanding of leadership. Executive coaches should help them practice.

In our work with clients, we’ve found a strong, positive correlation between the number of times the coach followed-up with the leader and the number of times the leader followed-up with his/ her co-workers. 

Leaders' Reactions

Some leaders are not comfortable with this approach and some leaders are not open to coaching at all.  That is fine.  We don’t take them on as clients.  You have to want to change – want a different outcome than you are currently getting for coaching to show results.   

When coaching a ‘Wall Street Warrior,’ who did not think he needed coaching let alone this method of coaching, he improved his feedback scores from peers and direct reports and moved from last place to 50th place within one year.3  This ‘Wall Street Warrior,’ we’ll call him Jack, was making $4 million a year when the CEO called me to coach him.  The CEO saw him running over everybody at work, plus he had scored dead last in an assessment of 1,000 managers. 

Jack did not think he needed coaching since he was already on the management committee and making $ 4 million a year.  So I asked him, “How do you treat people at home?"  Jack said, "I don't bring my work home. I'm a warrior on Wall Street but a pussycat at home."  So we called his wife to ask her.  When she finally stopped laughing at her husband's statement, she concurred that Jack often acted like a jerk at home, too.  The kids agreed as well!

Jack thought about it for a minute and said, "I'm going to change, and the reason I'm going to change has nothing to do with money and nothing to do with this firm. I'm going to change because I have two sons, and if they were receiving this same feedback in 30 years, I'd be ashamed to be their father."3  Not only did Jack greatly improve his interactions with peers, but he also doubled his income.

Leading by Example: Great CEO Case Studies

Steve Sanger, the CEO of General Mills, provides a great case study of leading by example.  Steve received a 360 degree summary from his direct reports that he could improve in the area of  “effectively responding to feedback.”  After reviewing his report, he not only talked with each of his colleagues to address this issue – like the other leaders in our research – he personally followed-up.  Sanger publicly discussed his own feedback and improvement efforts in leadership development sessions with the top 90 leaders in General Mills.  One year later, he saw a very positive change in his summary feedback.

Michael Dell is the world’s youngest billionaire.  He doesn’t have to openly discuss his “areas for improvement” with anyone – but he does.  Michael publicly talks about what he is trying to improve and recruits his co-workers in his ongoing efforts to become an even more effective CEO.

When CEOs like Steve Sanger and Michael Dell openly discuss their development efforts with co-workers, they send a great message throughout the organization.  Many leaders preach about the importance of leadership development – role model leaders demonstrate the importance of leadership development.  The most effective way for leaders – at all levels – to help others develop – is to start with themselves!


If the organization can teach the leader to reach out to co-workers, to listen and learn and to focus on continuous development, both the leader and the organization will benefit. After all, by following up with colleagues, a leader demonstrates a commitment to self-improvement – a determination to get better. This approach to leadership development requires commitment and personal contact between leaders and those they lead.

Leaders need to stay in constant contact with colleagues about their own leadership skills and behaviors. The key to improving behavior is “learning to learn” from those around us, and then modifying behavior based upon their suggestions.

1 “Leadership is a Contact Sport,” Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan
Strategy+Business, Issue 36, Fall 2004.
2 See, “To Help Others Develop, Start with Yourself” by Marshall Goldsmith in
Fast Company, March 2004.
3 See “How to Learn the Truth About Yourself” by Marshall Goldsmith in Fast Company, October 2003.



Marshall Goldsmith, founder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners, has appeared in The Wall Street Journal – as one of the top 10 executive educators, Forbes – as one of 5 most-respected executive coaches and The Econmist – as one of the most credible thought leaders in the new era of business.Marshall is one of a select few consultants who has been asked to work with over 70 major CEOs. He can be reachedat; visit him at Website: and

©2005 Innovate LLC (all rights reserved)

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