Mark Goulston: Part 1 of an Interview

This interview of Mark Goulston continues to be among the most popular of all my posts because, if anything, his insights are more valuable now than they were when the two parts of the interview were first posted.

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In his career as an organizational consultant, relationship counselor, and hostage-negotiation trainer, Mark Goulston has found what works, consistently, to reach all kinds of people in any type of situation.

In his book Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, he and co-author John Ullmen share what they learned while interviewing more than 100 influential people and distilled a four-step model that they have in common. As he explains, “We are in a ‘post-selling/post-pushing’ world where most people can’t stand to either of these done to them and don’t enjoy when they have to do it to others.” He says, “There is a way to persuade without pushing and that is by positively influencing people, because influence can last a lifetime, whereas persuasion sometimes doesn’t even last until the end of a conversation.”

In a later book, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Goulston introduces a communication process in a book (first published in 2010) that can help almost anyone get to almost anyone else who may otherwise be inaccessible. Dorothy and her friends were advised to follow the yellow brick road. Goulston advises his reader to follow the five-step “persuasion cycle.” There won’t be any flying monkeys to worry about but there may be distractions so focus on the basic nine rules he identifies and master the twelve “quick techniques” he recommends.

Mark blogs or contributes to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Business Insider, and writes the “Closing Bell” for C-Suite Quarterly magazine and the Tribune syndicated column, “Solve Anything with Dr. Mark.” He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Before discussing Real Influence and then Just Listen, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Goulston: William (“Mac”) McNary, PhD, Dean of Students, Boston University School of Medicine. One of my greatest personal accomplishments is that I dropped out of medical school twice and finished. I didn’t drop out to see the world. I had hit a wall and although I was passing my courses, I couldn’t retain or recall information. I took my first year off, and recovered enough to come back, but then hit the same wall after being back less than a semester and sought another year off. The Dean of the medical school wanted to have the promotions committee ask me to withdraw (since I wasn’t flunking any courses) because each time I was out, they lost matching funds for an unoccupied place. I couldn’t blame him for doing so.

However Mac stepped in at that point and saw value and a future for me that I didn’t see. He saw that not based on anything I had to do, but based on something he saw in me. And so at a time when I didn’t think I had anything to offer anyone he said, “Mark, even if you don’t finish medical school or become a doctor or do anything else in your life, I’d be proud to know you, because you have goodness in you that the world needs. However you won’t know that until you’re 35…but you have to make it to 35.” (Pause and then pointed his finger at me) “And another thing, Mark. Look at me. You deserve to be on this planet… and you’re going to let me help you.”

Years later I came to believe that Mac was an actual angel sent to save me. Now the good news about being touched and blessed by an angel, is that you walk differently in this world. You are also compelled to pay it forward. So I have even come up with something I call the Diamond Rule, which is: “Do onto others, as someone who loved you did onto you.”

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

What Mac did for me by not just listening to me, but listening into me and not just understanding me, but causing me to “feel felt” by him is something I use in my professional life. I do my best to follow the directive from psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, which is to listen without memory (a past personal agenda you’re trying to plug someone into) or desire (a present or future personal agenda you’re trying to plug someone into). I do this by practicing and teaching others to be a PAL, which stands for Purposeful Agendaless Listening. Your purpose is to help others self discover through their conversation with you, what is most important, critical and urgent to them.

To what extent has your formal education been valuable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

My formal education gave me an appreciation for following a process when assessing issues, coming to solutions and then taking action. In medical school that followed: CC (Chief Complaint); HPI (History of Present Illness,); ROS (Review of Systems); PE (Physical Examination); Differential Diagnoses (all the possible diagnoses); Plan, which includes further Diagnostic Tests and Procedures; and ending with Treatment Plan.

At the Goulston Group, our valuing the power of a clear step-by-step process has informed what we refer to as “Disruptive Digestible Business Solutions.” Disruptive because you often have to break through people’s resistance and inertia in ways where an “innovative” solution will not work and Digestible in that everyone who is tasked with executing them (in the areas of Hiring, Business Strategy, Marketing, Consulting, and Selling) will be able to follow all the steps.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

What I have come to realize is that specialties and silos don’t care about other specialty’s passions, but only care about their bottom line. When we work with IT specialists we have to repeatedly tell them that non-technology people don’t give a hoot about how and why a certain technology works, they just want to be able to use it and have it be reliable. That may explain why a significant number of public company directors don’t even know the name of the CTO. In the world of silos, “my silo is your silo, but your silo isn’t my silo.”

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Love that! Maybe a paraphrase might be, “The more people participate in the decision making, the more committed they will be to acting upon it. Also the more credit a leader can give his/her team the more pride and esteem they will feel and the more gratitude they will feel towards the leader.” Gratitude like that translates into a positive attitude and increase motivation and performance.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Seeing is believing, but doing is achieving or how about, “follow through means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

I believe it was Stephen Covey who said: “Too often people spend their lives climbing up a single ladder only to discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall.” One of my very close friends executive search firm Ryan Miller CEO, Lee Ryan, gave me great advice to counter this by saying one should formally set aside time at least once every three months to ask their key executives (and significant others), “Are we on the right track to where wanting and needing to go?” And if you aren’t, do a course correction.

In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

It is important to gather input from other and key advisors, but it is up to the leader to make the final decision. Something that a leader needs to keep in mind is something I heard that General Norman Schwarzkopf explained to First Star Founder and serial social entrepreneur Peter Samuelson. He told Peter, “When you become a General, you take off all your specialty pins, because you are no longer a part of that specialty, you are a generalist only committed to the Mission.” I think this means that the Greater the Man, the Greater he/she is able to listen in an unfiltered way to and consider the input from all relevant divisions under his/her command in making his/her final decisions.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

My response is that a mistake is just a lesson you have yet to learn, correct and then act upon so that the mistake doesn’t reoccur. At that point it is no longer a mistake. To me Schoemaker’s statement, “Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?” underlies one of the key components to LEAN business strategies which is to frequently and regularly check whether the actions you are taking are aligned with the “problem to be solved” by your services and products. And if not, change them.

In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

There are a few reasons. First, they don’t trust that others will do them correctly or up to the standard of that executive. This possibly comes from having felt disappointed or being dressed down in the past by one of their superiors after one of their subordinates messed up. Second, they have trouble letting go of control. Often this is because staying in control of and doing something they feel highly competent at helps them feel a sense of confidence which can offset areas where they are feeling doubt.

What they need to realize is that being a C-level executive means getting things done not just through other people, but through layers of other people. One way to correct this is what I learned as an attending psychiatrist when I needed to entrust the care and decision making to a psychiatric resident and then in turn to an intern and then to a medical student as part of the education process. The process that served us well in learning to trust and have confidence in those below us was what was referred to as: See one (watch your immediate superior do a procedure), do one (do the procedure yourself under supervision), teach one (teach what you learned and did to the person below you). What we discovered in others and ourselves was that you didn’t really own an ability (i.e. be competent in it) until you could effectively teach it.

The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Couldn’t agree with that more. The reason is that when you tell stories, a. you’re connected to what you’re saying which causes you to be more “authentic;” b. others who are listening identify and feel into the story and generally particular characters in them which is easier to remember than an abstract concept; c. stories are much easier to retell and be remembered than concepts (that’s how the “Bible tells us so”). To quote Maya Angelou “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Stories makes us feel much more than abstract concepts.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

I have a slightly different spin to what O’Toole said. I believe that in many cases, perhaps all of them, resistance doesn’t exist. What exists is non-rational, non functional self-preservation. To me it’s not a matter of comfort, but a matter of people’s increasing feeling of a much narrower band of competence hard (and rigidly) wired to confidence wired to control. Change represents a force that threatens to pull someone who is overly specialized out of their sense of competence that then leads to a loss of confidence and then a loss of control. And such a situation creates tremendous anxiety.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Being able to engender and then sustain trust and confidence collectively from customers, clients, employees, shareholders, partners and their community. Leadership, at least visionary leadership is about: 1. Defining reality (for example, Steve Jobs defined it as the world/masses will beat a path to whoever builds technology that is simple, reliable and beautiful); 2. Declaring intention (Jobs declared that he would build such technology); 3. Deciding strategy (Jobs couldn’t personally build such technology, but he recognized it when he saw it and his strategy after his return to Apple was to build such things, but also add to that the lessons he learned about finance and scale from his prior failures at Apple and Next). The key is be able to see into the future what a large market is going to want and need that even they don’t know. The focus on customer experience is moving in that direction, but the standout successes will be those CEO’s who see into future customer experience, which will give his/her company time to develop products and services that won’t be obsolete once they come out.

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

Mark’s Amazon page link

AMA/Amanet link

Patreon link

Goulston Group link

Heartfelt Leadership link

Twitter link

Facebook link

LinkedIn link

HBR link

C-Suite Quarterly link

Huffington Post link

Psychology Today link

Business Insider link

Leadership Excellence link

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