Joel A. Garfinkle: An interview by Bob Morris

Joel A. Garfinkle is recognized as one of the top 50 executive coaches in North America. His valuable insights have been sought after by leaders in companies such as Google, Amazon, Hewlett-Packard, Gap, Starbucks, Deloitte, Cisco Systems, Oracle, Bank of America, Citibank, and Microsoft. He is the author of seven books and more than 300 articles on leadership, executive presence, getting ahead at work, career transitions, and work fulfillment. His most recent book, Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level, was published by John Wiley & Sons (2011).

He is regularly featured in the national media, including ABC News, National Public Radio, New York Times, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, USA Today, Newsweek and Fast Company. Sign up to Joel’s weekly report, Fulfillment@Work Newsletter (delivered to more than 10,000 subscribers), and receive the free e-book, 41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now! For more than two decades, Joel has had first-hand experience advising thousands of executives, senior managers, directors, and employees at the world’s leading companies. He draws from this experience to provide coaching programs that serve individuals and organizations throughout the world.

He is also a sought-after speaker who conducts workshops, trainings, and keynote addresses that empower corporate audiences. He has delivered more than 1000 customized presentations that provide fresh insight into common issues that employers and employees face. Learn more about his books, executive coaching services and over 300 FREE articles at

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Morris: Before discussing Getting Ahead, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Garfinkle: My wife, Jueli. We’ve been together for eleven years. In this relationship, she is has always been 100% committed to her own personal growth. As she consistently focuses on her own spiritual development and growth, it has spilled over to me and the relationship we have together.

We use the relationship as a vehicle for our own growth. We both dedicate ourselves to communication and connection at all times. We are willing to work through the difficulties that arise (and they do). We never go around them, instead we go through them.

Together, we both spend time doing spiritual work that helps us develop as human beings so we can be more truthful, honest and clear about who we are in the world and how we want to show up as authentically as possible.

I am honored and very blessed to be in relationship with Jueli. She helps me be a better person, father and husband. She knows my issues, challenges and difficulties extremely well. She uses a soft touch in reminding me when these issues show up and I’m unaware. We are both steadfast in living the examined life.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Garfinkle: I’ve thought a lot about this question. I’ve never had specific mentors who have had huge impact in my professional development. I am extremely driven in my own professional development and work hard to become the best at what I do. My business, coaching practice, speaking and writing are specific areas that I work hard to improve.

I’ve always been dedicated to growing and learning more about who I am. This has had a strong influence in my own professional development. I’m constantly looking for ways to do things at work more efficiently. As my business has continued to grow, it’s forced me to grow with it and learn new ways of doing business. I will always strive for ways to make things work as smoothly as possible so that I can have the right balance. Balance is important to me. I will always prioritize myself, my family and my connection to Jueli. Thus, part of my professional development is learning how to streamline my business as effectively as possible so I can have time for my life.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Garfinkle: The turning point in my life came in college. I found psychology an easy subject, as I’ve always was curious about people. Business, accounting, science and other subjects never were as easy for me. Psychology felt right and something “‘clicked”‘ inside of me. That’s when I became clear on what I really wanted to do. The name of the specific profession, coaching, hadn’t been invented yet, but I knew that I wanted to help healthy individuals improve the quality of their lives. The word healthy was a clear distinction. About eight years later, I was reminiscing and realized that what I had been describing in college was the profession now known as “coaching.”

I found my true essence and what I was meant to be doing after eight long years of exploring what my dream job might look like. I felt that I wasn’t in the right field, industry, job or career and was very frustrated. The job environments and the people I worked with didn’t feel right either. I was tired of trudging my way through a series of unenjoyable jobs that didn’t align with who I was as a person. I didn’t necessarily know who I was, but I knew something was wrong.

I knew that I was working for companies that didn’t respect me and treated me poorly. They didn’t allow me and my gifts to come forward and shine. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly what my gifts were, but I definitely knew that my environment was suppressing them. I kept getting subtle and not-so-subtle hints that began to create a great deal of frustration and unhappiness

Throughout these years, I began to employ an unconventional, yet simple, method to find my true essence. I said to myself, “I want to enjoy my job. I want to enjoy my life. How can I get there? How can I find work that matches who I am?” The quest to find answers to these questions led me to my life’s work.

I stood by my decision and knew I had to find a way to follow my dreams. I was talking one day to someone about the purpose I had identified in college—to help healthy individuals better their lives. I was amazed when she told me, “That’s called coaching.” Finally there was a label for my dream profession! I joined a three-year coaching program and started my own company. That was 16 years ago.

I took the biggest leap of my life and said NO to just having a job and YES to fulfilling my dream. I left the corporate world to follow my passions and do what I really wanted. I realized that it is truly possible to create work aligns to who I truly am!

Morris: Opinions are also divided, sometimes sharply divided, about 360º feedback. What do you think?

Garfinkle: I had a client who worked at Deloitte. She was successful in her job. Throughout this period of coaching, she had a clear understanding of how she was perceived in the company. She thought others saw her as: Smart, dedicated, cares about her people, well-organized, sees the big picture, tremendous at execution, others respect her skills/abilities, she is one of the best sales people in the entire company and customer love her.

After a few months of working together, we decided to do 360 degree interviews. I interviewed two people below her, two people at the peer level and two people above her. A lot of the feedback was positive in affirming how she thought others saw her in the company. However, all six people did provide a negative perspective of her that even surprised me. They said she was a bully, harsh, blunt, hard-ass, forceful and intimidating. This was the lens they saw her as. This became their reality and truth. She was shocked by the feedback and we did a lot of work from that moment onwards to get others to view her as she saw herself.

As you can see from this example, my client at Deloitte had no idea she was being viewed this way. Her perception was drastically different then what others thought of her. This is why I like 360 degree feedback, especially if I am conducting interviews (and not an assessment) because I can dictate the direction of the interview to gain the key information. The 360 provides important information on how others view you in the company.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Getting Ahead. When and why did you decide to write it?

Garfinkle: For over two decades, I have had firsthand experience working closely with thousands of executives, senior managers, directors, and employees at the world’s leading companies. Before starting my own company, I lived and worked in London, Hong Kong, and San Francisco doing performance-improvement consulting for Ernst & Young in Hong Kong and change-management work at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in San Francisco. Since 1997, I’ve owned an executive coaching company that provides me access to clients from around the world and in countless industries.

This experience has provided me with a unique and expansive perspective on what both employees and employers want, need, and desire at work. No matter where my clients are from, what companies they work for, or what their titles or responsibilities are, I’ve seen a pattern in the kind of qualities that make one person more successful than another. I’ve learned that while everyone has access to perception, visibility, and influence, it’s only the most successful leaders who fully utilize these elements.

This is why I decided to write this book because the PVI model came to me by spending time for two decades trying to answer this one important question – “Why is one person more successful than another?” The answer is the PVI model.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Garfinkle: Minorities need a competitive advantage. When you apply perception, visibility, and influence, you gain the competitive edge necessary in today’s intense and aggressive atmosphere. PVI provides people with the necessary tools they need to compete and succeed. The challenges faced by people who are the minority in an organization are being treated unfairly, going unnoticed, not being included, or being defeated, judged, or not fully respected.

The PVI model will help them alleviate these difficulties.

Work is competitive. If you want to stay ahead, you must use each of the three areas of PVI fully. Dedicating the necessary time and making PVI your top priority will give you the competitive advantage. You’ll gain the most from all your efforts at work. You’ll utilize your talents and reach your full potential. Increased productivity, performance, and job security will become commonplace.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Garfinkle: Recently, I looked at my original outline of the book when I first started writing and was contacted by the publisher. I was amazed how my outline for the book was 80% identical to the final version. This surprised me. It showed me how clear I was from day one of the type of book I wanted to write and how I stayed true to that vision.

Morris: I was especially interested in what you say in the Introduction about Vivien Thomas, a person of whom I was previously unaware. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain his significance.

Garfinkle: In 1944, cardiac surgery pioneer Dr. Alfred Blalock, renowned chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school, was about to begin open-heart surgery on a 15-month-old baby who weighed only nine pounds.

More than 700 of the best doctors and researchers in the world were watching and waiting for this groundbreaking surgery to begin. Surprisingly, Dr. Blalock refused to initiate the process without one particular person present: He said that he must have his laboratory assistant, Vivien Thomas, at his side in order to commence surgery

Racism and segregation were extremely rampant in Baltimore in the early 1940s. Vivien Thomas was African American. When he would wear his white lab coat, people were shocked. Typically, the only African American employees at Johns Hopkins University were janitors.

Though the outside world did not perceive him as such, Vivien Thomas was an equal and a peer to the medical doctors with whom he worked. He didn’t let his status or official job title as lab technician limit the ways he used his talents and skills. He stood out, got noticed, and became invaluable. Despite his apparent lack of power and authority, Thomas became a difference maker who saved the lives of millions and changed the surgical profession forever. His influence became his legacy.

Morris: What are the three “steps” to which the subtitle refers? To what extent are they connected, if not interdependent?

Garfinkle: The three steps in the PVI model are perception, visibility and influence. When used together, these three powerful principles will catapult you to the next level in your career and ensure future success.

The most successful leaders have gotten to where they are by leveraging and applying perception, visibility, and influence better than anyone else. By honing these three areas, you too can fast-track to the next level and become both a valued employee and an in-demand leader.

The PVI Model

o  Improve Your Perception: Create the right image of yourself by taking control of how others see you, so that the perception of you accurately reflects your impact on the organization.

o  Increase Your Visibility: Increase your profile across the organization and among higher levels of management by standing out and getting noticed.

o  Exert Your Influence: Have impact and leverage your power to alter, change, and improve situations, regardless of your position or level of authority.

Morris: Which of the three steps do most people seem to have the greatest difficulty completing? Why?

Garfinkle: The most difficult step (of the three) changes for each person. Generally, Increase Your Visibility has a lot of challenges associated to it. Many clients inform me that they are afraid to speak up. People often fear that what they say would open them up to criticism and rejection. Whether speaking up feels unnatural or you simply tend to be a bit shy or hesitant, you still must find ways to be visible, or your career will suffer.

Morris: What are the most important advantages gained by effectively managing one’s perceptions?

Garfinkle: They include these four:

1.     Impact Your Career Advancement: How quickly and successfully you advance in a company is a result of the perception you create, not just the merit you have accumulated or the skill level you have achieved.

2.     Keep Your Status as a Desired Employee Inside the Company: You can’t rely solely on skill, merit, and hard work for employability and career success. You realize at some point in your career that your continued achievement at a given company is based on perception.

3.     Eliminate the Negative Ways Others May See You: Others can view your behavior and attitude negatively. They may dislike you or look unfavorably on something you do. You want to eliminate these damaging perceptions and take actions that cause others to see you in a more positive light.

4.     Reduce the Number of Career-Limiting Maneuvers: While it may take only a few moments to do something that others perceive critically, it becomes a career-limiting move and can impair you professionally for a long time to come.

Morris: There’s a statement on Page 83 that seems to put the cart before the horse: “Without visibility, you won’t be noticed, and your career progression will come to an abrasive halt.” Won’t consistently creating outstanding results create “visibility” for the person who does that?

Garfinkle: Clients often ask me, ‘‘Why should I increase my visibility? Why can’t I let my work speak for itself?’’ You may think that your skills or outstanding results will naturally make your worth known and that you don’t need to do anything to be visible. Unfortunately, you are relying on luck, chance, and hope—three things that you should never count on. My response has always been: ‘‘You can’t assume decision makers are aware of your accomplishments or know the impact of your work and your value to the organization.’’

Morris: How to promote one’s self without [begin italics] being perceived to be [end italics] excessively ambitious, irritating, offensive, obnoxious, perhaps even toxic?

Garfinkle: Make certain that what you do is of substantial benefit to your group, your department…indeed the entire enterprise.

The self-promotion process can often cause you to concentrate on what you’ve accomplished without giving any thought to how it benefits the company or management. A big picture approach can soften the impression that you care more about furthering yourself than you do about your organization’s success. You need to show how what you do benefits other business units, customers, clients, and people above you, below you, and inside your own department. Try to think constantly about how management will value the task you are completing or have just completed.

Morris: The Emerson quotation you cite in Chapter 8 also caught my eye: “Who shall set a limit to the influence of a human being?” Dale Carnegies has a great deal to away about what influence is and can help to accomplish. Here’s my question: How do you define “influence” and what is its proper relationship with “getting ahead”?

Garfinkle: Think of perception and visibility as the pillars that support influence. You must be perceived positively if you want people to follow you, and visibility is essential to becoming known and valued in your company. You must enhance your perception and gain visibility first. Only then will you be able to influence others.

People who have influence make important decisions that have impact. They move the company forward and create powerful, game-changing results. They inspire their followers to make things happen. They sway the opinions of others and bring them around to their way of thinking. They inspire others to help and support them so that they accomplish things that they could never do on their own.

Definition of influence: Influence occurs when you have the power to alter or change a situation. It could mean swaying just one other person or a large group, undertaking a major project, or creating new initiatives. In short, you influence the outcome of something by improving it, and you make important decisions that have impact. Influential people do what others deem to be important.

Morris: What does “influencing down” involve? What are the major do’s to keep in mind?

Garfinkle: Most people think downward influence is easy, but that’s not necessarily true. Influence is not about giving orders and having them followed; that’s authority. When you have influence over someone, they follow because they want to, not because they have to. By empowering your employees with the authority to make choices about the way they do their jobs and allowing them to see how the decisions they make affect the company, you put them in control and make them want to do well. Assign important projects and then step back and let them own the results. They’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment and fulfillment and you’ll earn their respect as a leader.

1.     Allow employees to be accountable for their actions. When an employee’s actions have consequences for the company as a whole, the employee develops an increased amount of support for organizational success. The employees are no longer just individuals who receive paychecks; they now feel as though they own their work.

2.     Grant more opportunities to make decisions. Allow and encourage your employees to make important choices independently of management. Let them become responsible so that they see the results of their decision making, and ask that they rely less on going to their manager for answers. They need to feel like they are in charge.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Getting Ahead, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?

Garfinkle: As a small business owner, you have an image and a reputation that are tied to the image and reputation of your company. When you improve the way you are perceived as an individual, you improve the way your company’s perceived as well. No matter how you are perceived now, there are steps you can take to manage perception among everyone you come into contact with in your business—from your employees and suppliers to your customers.

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Joel cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level

Garfinkle Executive Coaching Website

100+ free articles that provide practical, ‘‘how-to’’ information and insights to help you become an effective leader and boost your career success.

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  1. Philip McAdams on January 7, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Excellent interview! Would like to personally say “Thank you” to Joel for writing the book “Getting Ahead”. I initially found the book through Safari Online and couldn’t stop reading it. I recently purchased the book through Amazon.xom so I could take notes on the pages. As an African-American working in IT this book has already proven to be a truly valuable resource for me. One of the main things that I have really appreciated about the book is the chapters on “Visibility”. They have been pivotal in helping get out of my own way and get out of my proverbial “shell” in the workplace. I plan to use Joel’s resources continually help me keep my career moving forward and in the right direction. Thank you Joel!

    • bobmorris on January 7, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      Good afternoon, Philip.

      Thank you for your comments. You can contact Joel directly at

      I wish you great success in 2013 as you pursue new adventures in the vineyards of free enterprise.

      Best regards, Bob

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