The Coach and the Cockroach

The new year has finally arrived, and I hope it is terrific for you in every way. The one which passed was eventful and this one promises to be as well. To make sure you laugh a lot I recommend reading at least one novel by P G Wodehouse each month.

Did the title of this blog grab you? It was designed to!

One of the many blessings of doing what I do is that I regularly get to meet remarkable persons. I told you about Ben Zander in my last blog. Today I am going to tell you about Marshall Goldsmith.

Marshall is one of the top executive coaches in the world and his client list is studded with corporate stars. Dozens of articles about him have appeared in major media — some laudatory and some fawning. Very few have been critical because he does what he promises to do — help highly successful executives make significant improvement in their experience of life.

I have known Marshall for two decades and what first attracted me to him has nothing to do with his fame or success.

Let me tell you how we met.

Josh Klenoff was a Wharton graduate who specifically came to Columbia Business School because he wanted to take my course “Creativity and Personal Mastery” (CPM). He came to my office and told me how much he loved the syllabus and would I please permit him to enroll.

I liked his enthusiasm and told him to come back in a year. My course was an advanced elective and MBA students at Columbia could only take it in their second year after they had completed the required core courses.

I vividly recall his response. “Professor Rao, let me worry about that,” he said earnestly. “Will you accept me in your course?”

I do not know how he did it, but he remains the only student to have taken CPM in his very first semester at a top business school. Josh now runs a company that helps entrepreneurs scale their business. Check it out at https://helm.ceo.

Later in his MBA Josh faced some career uncertainty and I asked him to pick up the phone and call a certain Marshall Goldsmith. New Yorker had published a long article devoted to his work and I liked a lot of what he said there.

I was confident that Josh would not get through. Or, if he did, would get five minutes of bromides.

I was wrong.

Marshall gave him some terrific advice — stuff that is never mentioned in business school. I thought that the advice was something that others in my class could benefit from, so I sent the syllabus to Marshall and invited him to speak to my students.

Marshall read the syllabus and was intrigued. He readily accepted my invitation. I knew the speaking fees he commanded and hesitantly told him that there would be no compensation. He waved the matter away.

Marshall was a huge hit with my students — he always is! — and the discussion was deep. Josh lived in a studio close by and invited Marshall and everyone to adjourn there. We did so. Josh produced cold pizza and coke.

So, there was Marshall, sitting cross legged on a mattress on the floor, in an Upper West Side studio so small that the rats had square shoulders, eating cold pizza and dispensing priceless wisdom. There were a dozen or so MBA students squatting or squeezed in everywhere — on the window ledge, on the radiator, on the kitchen counters.

Those familiar with the area will readily recognize a denizen that is always present in these dwellings. One appeared and climbed onto Marshall’s lap.

A cockroach.

Marshall flicked it away and carried on as if nothing had happened.

I remembered two lines from one of my favorite poems — If by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch

That is when I recognized how different Marshall was from the celebrity business titans who are everyday visitors to Columbia Business School.

Marshall has many facets. One has a powerful, even monstrous, ego. He will readily name drop the many Fortune cover CEOs he has coached, and how much they paid him, what advance he received for his book and how many million miles he has on American Airlines. I doubt he would have been able to work with the powerhouses he has without this.

But he is also comfortable in plebian surroundings, such as Josh’s studio, with none of the accoutrements of sumptuous living that are so much a part of his regular life. And he is genuinely comfortable. Not “Got to spend some time with the hoi polloi so let me put on my best face” comfortable.

Over the decades I have come to know Marshall better and my life has been enriched by the association. He is one of only two persons I have invited to my class at Columbia, London Business School and Berkeley.

Marshall is brutally honest, and his advice has been invaluable.

Let me share one powerful teaching with you. I was bemoaning the state of corporate ethics and political discourse. I knew that he agreed with me. But he stopped me.

“Srikumar,” he asked, “Are you, right now, prepared to spend the time and resources it takes to try to make a significant change in the situation you find so troubling?”

I had to admit that I was not.

“Then let it go,” said Marshall and we walked on.

Since then, I have let many things go and my life has become more productive.

Are there things in your life that you should, perhaps, let go?

Peace!

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Srikumar Rao is the author of “Are You Ready to Succeed?” and creator of the celebrated MBA course, “Creativity & Personal Mastery.” // theraoinstitute.com

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Srikumar S Rao

Srikumar S Rao

Srikumar Rao is the author of “Are You Ready to Succeed?” and creator of the celebrated MBA course, “Creativity & Personal Mastery.” // theraoinstitute.com

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