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Tuck Prof On ‘Triggers’ That Hold Us Back

Executive coach & author Marshall Goldsmith

Executive coach & author Marshall Goldsmith

In the jungles of executive coaching, Marshall Goldsmith reigns king. A self-described “philosophical Buddhist,” and often recognized as the best executive coach in the world, Goldsmith’s work has influenced the CEOs and their teams at more than 150 companies—many of them top American brands. He’s been recognized through numerous awards and acknowledgements from leading publications and has authored or co-edited 35 books, his latest being Triggers.

A Kentucky native, Goldsmith earned an MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in 1972 and a PhD from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in 1977. He’s since founded multiple executive coaching firms and is a professor in executive education at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

Goldsmith’s coaching hit the mainstream in 1993 when the Wall Street Journal named him a top-10 executive educator. His New York Times best-selling book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There won the Harold Longman Award as Best Business Book of the Year and was named the No. 1 book by the Wall Street Journal.

In his latest book, Triggers, Goldsmith examines what he calls the “extra-personal” of personal and professional development. “It’s a book about not only, ‘How do I create the world?’ but, ‘How does the world around me create me?” Goldsmith tells Poets&Quants in an exclusive interview.

The core of the idea is that our environment is full of “triggers” that keep us from focusing on and making meaningful change. Triggers are constant and affect our personal and professional lives. The constant dialogue on our smartphone screens keep us from engaging in who’s across from us. The trigger of our favorite series being added to Netflix could cause us to binge-watch the show all weekend instead of venturing outside with others.

Change for the better can be hard and require immense focus and intention. Goldsmith offers solid advice and strategies to overcome the triggers in our environment and achieve strong abilities of willpower, focus, and self-discipline—or seek out those who can help us develop those skills.

In an MBA-specific interview, Goldsmith speaks about issues this generation, specifically, struggles with—be it “monkey mind,” internet addiction, or a lack of interpersonal skill development.

What originally piqued your interest in researching the concept of triggers and then writing a book about it?

There are two trends that led me to start writing Triggers. When I wrote What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, that book was about interpersonal relationship. My second was called MOJO, which was more intrapersonal—or how I view myself. Triggers is really extra-personal—or about the outside environment. It’s a book about not only, ‘How do I create the world?’ but, ‘How does the world around me create me?'”

So, one theme was the theme of how the environment changes us. As a coach, it’s not just how I am as a coach, it’s about the outside environment and how important that is in shaping our behaviors.

Then the second was the theme of employee engagement. What I began to realize is almost everything written about employee engagement was centered on what the company can do to engage you. There’s almost nothing about what you can do to engage yourself. I wanted to teach people to understand that the environment is important and you have to take responsibility for your own engagement in life.

Were there qualities or types of people you found that were consistently less affected negatively by triggers in the environment?

Yes, and I would say a key variable there is focus. It is incredibly difficult to stay focused. We tend to answer that question by saying, ‘Yes, there are people who have willpower, focus, and self-discipline, and that is one group that is less affected by the environment.’

The second group, though, are people who don’t necessarily have the same degree of self-discipline or willpower, but are smart enough to admit they need help and are willing to get the help they need to combat the environment.