Updated on 12.02.07

Review: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development or personal productivity book.

goldsmithI was really hesitant to read this book because based on the synopses I’d read online about What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, I expected it to be very similar to The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back, which I discussed a while back.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There holds the basic premise that there are a handful of workplace habits that often keep successful people from making the next big leap forward in their career. The author, Marshall Goldsmith, seeks to identify those habits and help you to overcome them so you can make that next big leap in whatever you’re planning to do with your life. While this book has a heavy skew towards management, there is a lot of meat here that applies no matter what you’re doing. Let’s take a look.

Looking At What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Section One: The Trouble With Success

Whenever someone experiences success in the workplace, they usually get a very positive feeling out of it, and this generally results in a net positive for the person. Their self-esteem goes up and they begin to have more confidence in their abilities. However, this only goes so far: often, when a person has a string of successes, they begin to adopt a handful of beliefs that aren’t necessarily true. They begin to believe that they are more responsible than they actually are for the success of projects and they begin to believe that their value is much higher than reality actually shows.

This is a human failing, one that anyone with some measure of success can fall prey to. I’ve fallen prey to it myself – more than once, I’ve managed to make myself believe that I was somehow superior simply because I performed my individual role well. This is a dangerous thing to ever believe, even if it happens to be true. It alters your own behavior in a lot of ways and sets you up for failure, not for success.

Section Two: The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back From The Top

This trouble with success often manifests itself in the form of destructive habits in the workplace, of which Goldsmith lists twenty. He lays out very brief summaries of these twenty habits on a single page, which I’ll quote for interest’s sake:

1. Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations – when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.
2. Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
3. Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them
4. Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.
5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”
6. Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
7. Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
8. Neativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
9. Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
10. Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to praise and reward.
11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.
12. Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
13. Clinging to the past: The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
14. Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
15. Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit when we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
16. Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
17. Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.
18. Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually trying to help us.
19. Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
20. An excessive need to be “me”: Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

That’s an impressive and insightful list of criticisms. In fact, that succinct list inspired me enough to actually print it out and post it at my desk so I’m reminded to try hard to avoid these habits. He goes on to devote a few pages to each habit in detail which was very insightful and interesting, but I was most bowled over by the list of habits.

He also goes on to devote several pages to the “twenty first” habit, goal obsession. Goldsmith argues that many people lose sight of the here and now because they spend their time plotting out their long term goals, not realizing that the here and now is often the best place to take that first step to whatever you have in mind. In fact, obsession with goals often is the underlying factor in many of these bad habits.

Section Three: How We Can Change For The Better

Goldsmith offers up a seven step plan for fixing these bad behaviors, both individually and as a whole.

Feedback Whenever feedback is given to you in any form, never respond by arguing about it. Instead, write it down and consider it later when your immediate flared passions are calmer. Thank the person for offering their opinion, put the advice aside for a while, and then look at it later with a cool head, and you’ll often find something specific you can improve on. If you want to be proactive about feedback, don’t be afraid to ask for it, but never argue about it.

Apologizing If you realize that you have done something wrong, either very recently or in the past, apologize. Swallow a bit of pride, go up to the person, and just apologize for whatever it is. Likely, you’ll both feel better for it – you’ll lose at least some of the bad feeling and the other person will feel better too (almost always). I’ve found that apologies are almost always a very good thing, but they’re often very hard to do.

Telling the world, or advertising Now that you’ve apologized, what are you going to do to change? The next step is to define the changes you’re going to make and to let everyone know about them, especially the people you’ve apologized to. Apologies don’t mean anything if they’re not coupled with some effort to change.

Listening When someone speaks to you, listen to them. Don’t interrupt them, and try to fully understand what they’re saying before formulating a response. This is always a strong tactic to use when someone is trying to talk to you. If you can’t fully describe and articulate the message someone is trying to deliver to you, your response is guaranteed to be less accurate and thorough than it could be if you listened to the message and to the messenger.

Thanking Whenever someone does something beneficial for you, thank them. I’m personally a big advocate of the handwritten thank you note (I think in this modern era that it really seems special), but any form of thank you will do. Just be sure to take the time to thank everyone who contributes to your success, both directly and in public opportunities when given the chance.

Following up Once you’ve started to really work on these things and started eliminating the bad habits from your life, follow up on them. Wait a few months, then ask the person you’ve apologized to if things are still seeming okay and if you are doing well on your “advertised” plan of attack. Stay diligent yourself, and try to remind yourself often of your goals. Constant follow-up keeps you on task and on focus with anything in your life.

Practicing “feedforward” At this point, you’re making real progress on your negative habits. Now, step back and ask for some future suggestions on where you should go with these changes. Ask someone who you’ve had experience with in the past for two specific things that you can do in the future to help with the behavior(s) you’re working on, listen, thank them, then work on implementing them. Much as feedback talks about the past, “feedforward” talks about the future.

Section Four: Pulling Out the Stops

The final section really focuses heavily on people involved in management. Here, Goldsmith focuses on wider issues within an organization, such as handling these bad habits when they pop up both in superiors and in subordinates. Most of the suggestions here, though, really boil down to one thing: candor with a healthy dollop of honesty.

For starters, if you have subordinates, be very clear to them what’s expected of them specifically from you. Similarly, if you have a new boss, be sure to ask (even repeatedly) what specifically is expected from you. If you see the bad habits mentioned earlier popping up in the office, be candid about it with that person, but don’t let it evolve into whispers and backstabbing.

In short, a healthy organization is one that is open and honest enough to nip problems in the bud. Most major issues become major because the root causes weren’t dealt with quickly and with candor and honesty.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is an excellent book, well worth reading for anyone who works in an office environment. If you’re willing to be serious about improving yourself, this book has a great deal to teach, and Goldsmith is an excellent writer on the topic. I know I’ve personally found a few things to work on from this book, and I’m using some of his advice to work through them.

How does it compare to the obviously similar The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back? What Got You Here Won’t Get You There focuses on more general problems and more general solutions, at least from my perspective – you can apply a lot of the information in this book even if there aren’t significant problems in the workplace. However, if there are some specific issues going on, The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back deals with specific issues more intensely and thoroughly. Both were well written, they just turned out to be somewhat more different than I expected.

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  1. Heidi says:

    Thanks for posting the habit list. I am guilty of more than one of those 20 behaviors – I’m going to take your lead and post it at my desk.

    I find great value in your book reviews. Look like I need to add this one to my holiday wish list.

  2. Steve W says:

    What I find hard to believe is that those “Twenty Habits That Hold You Back From The Top” got anyone anywhere near the top, or the middle.

    Yes, I’ve worked with people who’ve manifested those traits. Most don’t get far, for long. The Michael Scott’s and Dwight Schrutte’s exist mostly on TV, not corporate America (at least not successful corporate America).

  3. Lisa says:

    I am going to check this book out.

    The author has a free pdf to download of the 20 Bad Habits. The link is on the webpage below:


  4. Daisy says:

    I’m guilty of a lot of the things on that list. Thanks for posting on this! :)

  5. rhbee says:

    Thanks for the link, Lisa, I’m printing it out as I write. I no longer work in an organization but I wish I would have had this list then. However, I do still work in a partnership and quite often, now that I look at the list, I have found that the habits from the list really do exist in the way I approach a discussion. My most consistent one is the “speaking when angry” one, though my partner would claim that “Winning too much” is the one she sees most often. Reading through the list, I did find that time and travel through life have taught me how to correct some of these things but still, I can see where I need to make some changes so thanks Trent for the review. BTW, I think you meant “Negativity” not “Neativity”.

  6. Steve W says:

    If you really want to know what traits comprise employees in a great company, then you should read
    **Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t** by Jim Collins.

    Here’s a good article that discusses it: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/51/goodtogreat.html

  7. partgypsy says:

    Great advice. Now how do we get GW to read this book? He especially needs to work on 1, 15, and 18…

  8. Marta says:

    Great book choice, Trent! I actually checked this out from our local library and I really enjoyed it. I’m particularly working on the “thank you” and listening skills. It’s definitely worth a read for everyone, even for working on our personal relationships, not just the business ones. Thanks!!!

  9. teddy omara says:

    good book, will be buying it for jerome, someone very dear and close.

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