Creativity and Executive Coaching

Imagine for a moment that you are a newly-minted executive coach. Now suppose your first clients were the three most recent U.S. Presidents – Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Now imagine how you would approach each of them. They all possess distinctive and powerful positive strengths and equally compelling weaknesses.  There is no single template of executive coaching that would be effective for all three. This is where the consummate skills, experience, and yes, the creativity of a great coach like Marshall Goldsmith become the essential ingredient to successful behavioral change.

When does the generally positive quality of “authoritative” become “dictatorial?” Or when does “collaborative” descend into “indecisive?”

I have written before about Marshall’s excellent book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, but like all great books, it is a continuous fountain of insight as I have moved along my career path. (See link at bottom of post).

Goldsmith has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from UCLA and over 35 years of experience measuring and analyzing behavior in organizations.  He writes: “My job is not to make them  smarter or richer. My job is to help them—to identify a personal habit that’s annoying their coworkers and to help them eliminate it—so that they retain their value to the organization. My job is to make them see that the skills and habits that have taken them this far might not be the right skills and habits to take them further. What got them here won’t get them there." “

He trains executives to behave more effectively in the workplace enrolling them in a rigorous regimen.  In the discovery phase, he solicits “360-degree feedback” from their colleagues…”as many as I can talk to up, down, and sideways in the chain of command, often including family members—for a comprehensive assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Then I confront them with what everybody really thinks about them. Assuming that they accept this information, agree that they have room to improve, and commit to changing that behavior, and then I show them how to do it. I help them apologize to everyone affected by their flawed behavior (because it’s the only way to erase the negative baggage associated with our prior actions) and ask the same people for help in getting better. I help them advertise their efforts to get better because you have to tell people that you’re trying to change; they won’t notice it on their own."

 Goldsmith continues: “I help them follow up religiously every month or so with their colleagues because it’s the only honest way to find out how you’re doing and it also reminds people that you’re still trying. As an integral part of this follow-up process, I teach people to listen without prejudice to what their colleagues, family members, and friends are saying—that is, listen without interrupting or arguing. Finally, I teach them the miracle of feed forward, which is my “special sauce” methodology for eliciting advice from people on what they can do to get better in the future. “

What has always impressed me with “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There,” is his carefully honed observations about those personality traits that hinder success – like overestimating your contribution to a project, taking credit, partial or complete, for successes that truly belong to others, having an elevated opinion of our professional skills and our standing among our peers and conveniently ignoring the costly failures and time-consuming dead-ends we have created.

So what about creativity?  To me, it is the essential catalyst to enhance skills of a coach to adapt to the unique behavioral DNA of an individual.  Years ago, I talked with an executive coach who told me, “I know what you do well, tell me about what you don’t do well?”

It may be template question, but it was timed creatively to achieve maximum effect.

Goldsmith’s powerful insight is that a certain level of leadership, it isn’t your skill set that will hinder you, but your personality traits.   This book doesn’t belong on a shelf, it belongs in your hands, in your Kindle or ereader, or ultimately in your mind.

My earlier post on What Got You Here, Won't Get You There.

A link to the book on Amazon:




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The Creativity of Argument

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that on both the public stage and in private rooms, we haven’t raised the level of oral argument and rhetoric in general.

While often used in the pejorative, rhetoric is rightfully defined as the “art of influence, friendship, and eloquence – and “it harnesses the most powerful of social forces, argument.”

In 2007, Jay Heinrichs wrote a funny and provocative book, “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

The book deftly introduces rhetoric concepts and ideas that provide a clear, logical and eloquent tool kit for creating more effective arguments.

He writes, “the ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership – knowledge so important that they placed it as the center of higher education. It taught  them how to speak and write persuasively producing something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke.”

In his book and in his talks, Heinrichs often tells the story of his son George and the toothpaste tube.

One morning, as he stepped out of the shower and into the luxurious warmth of a towel, Heinrichs reached for a tube of toothpaste and discovered that it was empty.

The nearest new tube was in the depths of his freezing basement.  He opened the door – steam escaping into the void and called for his teenage George. 

 “George!” he yelled through the door, “Who used all the toothpaste?”

 “A sarcastic voice answers from the other side of the door.  “That’s not the point, is it, Dad “The point is how we’re going to keep this from happening again!”

“You’re right,” Heinrichs said. “You win. Now can you please get me some toothpaste?”

To score some points against Dad was a small victory but a victory that had been years in the making.  Heinrichs had been teaching his son for years how the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choice and decisions.


Yes, there is a kind of grammar for argument.  Heinrichs has fondness for Aristotle, who devised a form of rhetoric for each of the tenses – and Aristotle had his own fondness for the future tense.

One of the tools of argument espoused by Heinrichs is controlling the tense. “If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense,” says Heinrich. 

 “Try this in a meeting.  Hold your tongue well into the discussion.If an argument bogs down in the past or present tense, switch it to the future -- you’re all making good points, but how are we going to….” 

Heinrichs offers up a variety of tools – from using emotion effectively to Stalin’s Timing Secret – to help create a master class in argument and ultimately the art of persuasion.

Like my friend Dan Pink (In his book, To Sell Is Human), Heinrichs delves into murky areas – the thin line between persuasion and manipulation.  In many ways, the stick can look deceptively like a carrot. (And the reverse is equally valid).

If you want to be a more creative and compelling persuader, I suggest you get or download a copy of Heinrichs' book, Thank You For Arguing.

And if you have a spare hour and fifty minutes or so and want to see two weapons of mass argument (William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan go head to toe on the Panama Canal (With Sam Ervin, a young George Will and Pat Buchanan) this old C-Span video has gems strewn about.






How to nudge your creative default.

When the idea first appeared on my radar, it had me at hello.  The term was “choice architecture.”

Admittedly, the phrase may not leap off the page; it has at its core, a compelling insight about human behavior.

I discovered the idea in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s excellent book,

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.  Their stripped down definition:  “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.”

A great example of the effect of choice architecture was described in a paper by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein and wonderfully retold by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

The accompanying graph shows the percentage of people, across different European countries, who are willing to donate their organs after they pass away.

According to Ariely, “When people see this plot and try to speculate about the cause for the differences between the countries that donate a lot (in blue) and the countries that donate little (in orange) they usually come up with “big” reasons such as religion, culture, etc.”

What might explain these differences? 

Surprisingly, it is a choice architect at the DMV. In countries where the form is set as “opt-in” (check this box if you want to participate in the organ donation program) people do not check the box and as a consequence they do not become a part of the program. In countries where the form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate in the organ donation program) people also do not check the box and are automatically enrolled in the program. In both cases large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.

If Opt out is the default, then most people typically opt in. 

Companies create defaults (your wireless phone for example) and most of us accept them rather than make uninformed or seemingly inconsequential choices.  For example, when you a salad bar before the main courses in a buffet line more people will select salad options. 

So, what does these insights have to do with creativity?

We all have default modes.  The key to becoming more creative is recognizing when you’re defaulting and when you are creating.

In the organ donor example, the opting in or out is merely check box and yet, it is one more element in filling out a bureaucratic form.   Yet, the consequences are enormous. 

One of the barriers to creativity is simply defaulting by lack of inertia.  We tend to ask either/or or whether/or not questions, rather than “and” questions.  We narrow our focus because it’s generally easier. 

Red or Blue? What if the creative answer is red and blue?  Or another color all together?  Picasso’s “Blue Period” wasn’t because he didn’t have any other colors in his paint box.

One of the most creative questions you can ask is, “am I in default mode? “

Are you defaulting because of lack of inertia?  Are you asking either/or rather than and questions?  What constraints are visible?  What (un)conscious constraints might be affecting your choicexs.

Awareness doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily change your answer, but it will be you haven’t mindlessly checked the box.

In the world of choice architecture, you’ve made the informed choice.

The creative choice.








Improve your decision making: The project premortem.

In Brief:

There is often a business process de jour – an idea or method that is adopted and then often discarded as other ideas fill the “newest” gap.  Gary Klein’s Premortem concept is one of those ideas that deserves a second and third look.   Instead of the post-mortem or 360 review, it’s imaging the project is done before it begins.

The Article:

Dan and Chip Heath talked with Dan Pink recently about their new book, Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work.

They mentioned an idea that research psychologist, Gary Klein, described in his 2007 Harvard Business Review article Performing a Project Premortem.

Klein writes, “Projects fail at a spectacular rate. One reason is that too many people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phase. By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, you can improve a project’s chances of success.”

In the article, Klein cites research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado. The researchers found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. We have used prospective hindsight to devise a method called a premortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset

Klein writes, that a “premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.

Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.”

Dianne Rees, an instructional designer and creator of the Instructional Designs Fusions blog, has written an excellent step-by-step version of the premortem process 

“Setting the stage: Before a pre-mortem, all team members should come to the table being familiar with the basic project plan. What are the goals? What tasks are going to be undertaken to get the project moving? Which groups are involved? At the pre-mortem meeting, a facilitator should give a quick briefing to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Step 1. Imagine a fiasco

Ask team members to imagine they have a crystal ball. In it they see that the plan has failed. Not just a little but catastrophically.

 Step 2. Generate reasons for failure

Here, team members are asked to imagine why the project will fail. This is the step where you let team members give their inner skeptics free rein.

Step 3.  Share the list of reasons why the project might fail

Each participant should read from his of her list. A facilitator can record reasons on a whiteboard or flip chart. When you’ve gone around the room once, repeat the process until everyone’s completed reading from their lists. Depending on team dynamics, you might collect concerns written out on post-its, and have the facilitator read them out to preserve anonymity.

Step 4. Identify the top concerns

What concerns are really resonating with team members? Prioritize these. You’ll want to make sure you address these. Team members should then brainstorm strategies for mitigating these risks for failure.

Thanks to Gary Klein, Chip and Dan Heath and Dianne Rees for their collective inspirations.


Dan Pink Show

The Heath Brothers

Dianne Rees


Forget the Tipping Point; Find the Trigger Point.

One of great revelations of behavioral economics is the study of how people actually behave rather than how we think they should behave. 

A classic example is shrouded in a term that might make your eyes glaze over  -- the theory of relative positioning.   What makes people happiest is increasing their income and wealth relative to other people.

We have the same income of $70,000 per year. If my income increases by $10,000 and yours increases by $8,000, this will make me happier than if both our incomes increased by $10,000.   We don’t just want to keep up with the Joneses; we want to do better than the Joneses. 

Which is why I am such a fan of Jonah Berger – the James G. Campbell Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School.  In his book, Contagious, he explores the question of what makes things popular? Why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others? Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And what makes online content go viral?

One of the big ideas in his book is the idea of triggers. 

Berger writes, “Psychologist Gráinne Fitzsimons and I conducted a related study on how to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Promoting healthy eating habits is tough. Most people realize they should eat more fruits and vegetables. Most people will even say that they mean to eat more fruits and vegetables. But somehow when the time comes to put fruits and vegetables into shopping carts or onto dinner plates, people forget. We thought we’d use triggers to help them remember. “

Berger and his colleague asked participants to provide feedback on a public-health slogan targeting college student.  Just to make sure they remembered the slogan, they were shown it more than twenty times, printed in different colors and fonts.

“One group of students saw the slogan “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.” Another group saw “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” Both slogans encouraged people to eat fruits and vegetables, but the tray slogan did so using a trigger.

The students lived on campus, and many of them ate in dining halls that used trays. So Berger and Fitzsimons wanted to see if they could trigger healthy eating behavior by using the dining room tray to remind students of the slogan.

“Our students didn’t care for the tray slogan. They called it “corny” and rated it as less than half as attractive as the more generic “live healthy” slogan. Further, when asked whether the slogan would influence their own fruit and vegetable consumption, the students who had been shown the “tray” slogan were significantly more likely to say no.”

Berger adds, “But when it came to actual behavior, the effects were striking. Students who had been shown the more generic “live healthy” slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the “tray” slogan and used trays in their cafeterias markedly changed their behavior. The tray reminded them of the slogan and they ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables as a result. The trigger worked. “

What resonated with me is that the creative solution was creating the right trigger and not the “right slogan.”  A more rigorious test  might have been to see if the more creative slogan and the trigger would have yielded even better results.

So the idea of creativity isn’t merely in realm of the copy or a concept, it’s in finding triggers and connections.

Great lesson. 

Special thanks to authors Johan Berger and Morris Altman.  


A business lesson from a Supreme Court Justice

Copyright Time, Inc.Recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talked with Charlie Rose to discuss her new memoir, "My Beloved World."

There was  moment in the interview about 12 minutes into the interview that resonated with me.  It was an answer to Rose's question "Have you had great mentors?"  

She answered simply and confidently:

"Tremendous mentors. And each one of them taught me something very important. Every one of them has hired people who they thought were smarter than they.  I understand you do the same thing. I have been told that…I’m told by the President that he does that. … to have the confidence not to be challenged by people who are smarter in a negative way…not to be afraid of them but to grow yourself from them is wonderful, wonderful characteristic."

Rose added:  Also, you have to be careful you don’t intimidate people.  One who has power has to make sure that the power doesn’t intimate someone so they don’t tell you what you need to know to do your job best."

She replied, “I actually have a beginning conversation with my law clerks each year. And I sit them down and tell them “I don't hire yes people. You will have failed me if you think I am wrong and don’t challenge me to think different.”

It's common wisdom that is generally uncommon in the real workplace.

Whether conscious or unconscious, some manger's hire people who they feel won't eclipse them.  Many years ago, an executive consultant told me, "... she would like to hire you but is worried you will outshine her."  I replied that, an insecure manager may be the scariest of all the leadership types."

If you read enough Marshall Goldsmith and other leadership coaches, it's obvious that what keeps managers from reaching higher levels of leadership are personality traits that undermine your ability to motivate and garner respect.  

Yes, there will be ambitious people nipping at your heels, but if your focus is on creating great work and great teams, then hire up. 

Here's a link to the interview:




The Personalization Conundrum: The Murky Side of the Web.

“In the effort to create a personalized web experience, data is the driver.  And companies who mine that data are in the driver’s seat.”

                               Marty Baker

Image by SillySilOn July 30 2010, Julia Angwin -- the award-winning investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal – pried open window on the invisible side of the web.  In an article called, “The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets,” she wrote:

“The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

The code knows that her favorite movies include "The Princess Bride," "50 First Dates" and "10 Things I Hate About You." It knows she enjoys the "Sex and the City" series. It knows she browses entertainment news and likes to take quizzes. "Well, I like to think I have some mystery left to me, but apparently not!" Ms. Hayes-Beaty said when told what that snippet of code reveals about her. "The profile is eerily correct."

Angwin’s article reveals that Ms. Hayes-Beaty was being monitored by Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company that uses sophisticated software called a "beacon" to capture what people are typing on a website. The company packages that data into profiles about individuals, without mentioning the person's name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers.

In the quest for deeper, more relevant personalization, the tracking of consumers “has grown more pervasive and intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.”            

The Wall Street Investigation found that the nation's 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

Enter Eli Pariser, former executive director of and author of The Filter Bubble. 

In his book, Pariser writes, “Search for a word like ‘depression”’ on, and the site installs up to 223 tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so other web sites can target you with antidepressants.  Share an article about cooking on ABC News, and you may be chased around the web by ads for Teflon-coated pots.”

The invisible side of the web is a market for information about virtually everything you do online – “driven by low-profile, but highly profitable personal data companies.” One company, Acxiom has accumulated an average of 1500 pieces of data on each person in its database – “which includes 96% of Americans – along with data about everything from credit scores to whether they’ve bought medication for incontinence.”

Angwin and Pariser both illuminate the great data dilemma.  In the effort to create a personalized web experience, data is the driver.  And companies who mine that data are in the driver’s seat.

Pariser adds, “In the view of the ‘behavior market’ vendors, every ‘click signal’ you create is a commodity, and every move of your mouse can be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

Stanford law professor Ryan Calo told Pariser “every technology has an interface – a place where you end and the technology begins.  And when the technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens…there’s lots of ways for it to skew your perception of the world.”

So the conundrum is a murky trade off.  The consumer gets access to “free” services like, Kayak, or Google and in return these companies get a MRI of your life.

The ethical challenge is that much of that trade off is invisible to the consumer. 

When it isn’t invisible, it is shrouded in impenetrable legalese and a gauntlet of privacy-setting controls.

Let there be light.

For more insight, check out Angwin’s WSJ article at:

And Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble at:

Here is Pariser's TED talk: