Monday, July 25, 2011

Self-Confidence and Success

One common characteristic of the great leaders I meet is self-confidence, which of course makes sense. Leaders have to inspire confidence in others. It would be difficult for others to believe in us if we don't even believe in ourselves.

Great leaders have to take risks. While getting to "acceptable" may not involve risk, getting to "one of a kind" does. Self-confidence gives great leaders the courage they need to take their companies - and themselves - to a new level of success.

A huge part of self-confidence comes from our previous success. Successful people tell themselves, "I have succeeded in the past. Therefore, I know I can succeed in the future." That's the good news about successful people's belief in their previous success. The bad news is that it makes it hard for them to hear negative feedback.

Your Highlight Reel

You may not think that this applies to you, because surely someone who can't hear negative feedback is suffering from an ego run amok. But look closely at yourself. How do you have the confidence to wake up in the morning and charge into work, filled with optimism and eagerness to compete? It's not because you are reminding yourself of the screw-ups you have created and the failures you have endured. On the contrary, it's because you edit out failures and choose to run the highlight reel of your successes.

If you're like the successful people I know, you're focused on the positives, calling up mental images when you were the star, when you dazzled everyone and came out on top. It might be those five minutes in the executive meeting when you had the floor and nailed the argument you wanted to make. (Who wouldn't run that highlight reel in their head as if it were the Sports Center Play of the Day?) It might be your skillfully crafted memo that the CEO praised and routed to everyone in the company. (Who wouldn't want to reread that memo in a spare moment?) When our actions lead to a happy ending and make us look good, we love to replay it for ourselves.

My partner, Mark Reiter, discussed this with a baseball star. Every hitter has certain pitchers against whom he historically hits better than he does against others. The star told Mark, "When I face a pitcher whom I've hit well in the past, I always go up to the plate thinking I 'own' this guy. That gives me confidence."

"What about pitchers you don't hit well?" Mark asked. "How do you deal with a pitcher who 'owns' you?"

"Same thing," he said. "I go up to the plate thinking I can hit this guy. I have done it before with pitchers a lot better than he is."

This hitter figured out a way to use his past success and apply it to a situation that wasn't a total fit - using his prowess against certain pitchers to give him confidence when facing all pitchers. Successful people don't drink from a glass that is half empty.

How Much You Contribute

When achievement is the result of a team effort - not just individual performance - we tend to overestimate our contribution to the final victory. I once asked three business partners to estimate their individual contribution to the partnership's profits. Not surprisingly, the sum of their answers amounted to more than 150% of the actual profit. Each of the three partners thought she was contributing more than half.

This overestimation of our past success is true in almost any workplace. If you ask your colleagues (in a confidential survey) to estimate their percentage contribution to your enterprise, the total will always exceed 100%. There is nothing wrong with this. (If the total adds up to less than 100%, you probably need new colleagues.)

This "I have succeeded" belief, positive as it is in most cases, can become a major obstacle when behavioral change is needed.

Delusions of Superiority

Successful people consistently overrate themselves relative to their peers. I have asked more than 80,000 participants in my training programs to rate themselves in terms of their performance relative to their professional peers. We found that 80% to 85% rank themselves in the top 20% of their peer group, and about 70% rank themselves in the top 10%. The numbers get even more ridiculous among professionals with higher perceived social status, such as physicians, pilots, and investment bankers.

(M.D.s may be the most delusional. I once told a group of doctors that my extensive research had conclusively proven that half of all M.D.s had graduated in the bottom half of their medical school class. Two of the doctors insisted that this was impossible.)

Please remember this as you progress in the corporate world. The higher up we go - the more successful we become - the harder it may be for us to hear negative feedback. I ask my CEO clients to complete a simple exercise. Complete this sentence, "I am success because of ___," Then complete this sentence, "I am a success in spite of ___."

I have never met anyone who was so wonderful that he or she had nothing on the "in spite of" list. (If I did meet such a person, I would suggest that he or she work on "humility.") My readers are generally successful people. Make your own two lists: figure out your "in spite of" - and get to work.

Life is good.


Every two years there is a global survey to determine the world’s top 50 business thinkers. In 2009 Marshall's friend the late CK Prahalad was ranked #1 and Marshall was ranked #14. To participate in the 2011 Thinkers 50, visit

My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.


Marshall's Upcoming Schedule

Monday, July 18, 2011

Demonstrating the Entrepreneurial Spirit

After the publication of one of my BusinessWeek articles, I received many passionate e-mails from parents and educators thanking me for writing the piece and sharing their beliefs in the importance of instilling the entrepreneurial spirit in young people.

Why I realize we cannot all be entrepreneurial in the sense that we can't all start our own companies, I believe we can all be entrepreneurial in terms of how we approach our own careers. This column will include a few suggestions for demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that we can all implement:

o Love what you do

Years of hard work (which generally precedes success) don't seem so hard if you are doing what you love. My friend and mentor, Dr. Paul Hersey, upon receiving an honorary doctorate, shared one of his secrets for success with graduating students. He beamed at the hundreds of young people in the audience and said: "Looking back on my career, I don't feel like I have ever worked a day in my life. If you really love what you are doing, it all seems like fun!" Finding what you love to do may take some effort, but it is worth it.

o Be curious

One of the greatest entrepreneurs I have ever known is Mr. G.M. Rao. He is the founder of GMR Infrastructure, which is now a large infrastructure company in India. When I asked his colleagues what Mr. Rao was doing right, they all marveled at his constant curiosity. One commented that "he travels through life, constantly observing. He makes notes on all kinds of potential opportunities, which most people might not even notice. He doesn't just observe - he acts! He immediately follows up with messages to staff that say, 'please check this out.' While many of his observations do not turn into business opportunities, some do. This is one of the reasons that he is so successful."

o Find your own market niche

In the same way that successful entrepreneurs provide innovative solutions to market opportunities, you can work to develop a special competency that differentiates you from everyone else. Be creative. Look for market needs that everyone else may not have considered. Anyone can do what everyone else is doing. Great entrepreneurs provide products and services that are better or different than what everyone else is doing. You can also do this at your present job: What should be done that isn't?

o Become a world expert

As intimidating as this sounds, achieving serious "world-class" expertise may not be as daunting as you might believe. If you pick a reasonably narrow area of specialization, focus on it, and learn as much as you can, you will start to accumulate serious knowledge within a few years. While you can never become the world authority on everything, you can definitely become a world authority on one thing.

o Learn from the best

As you ponder your career options, ask yourself: "Who do I want to be like in 10 years?" or "Who are the world's experts in fields that are related to my desired area of expertise?" Try to learn from these people's lives. You may be surprised. Some may even go out of their way to help you.

o Do your homework

While the role models you look up to may be willing to help you, respect the fact that they are very busy people. Their time is valuable. For example, if they have written books on a topic, read the books before you ask them questions. If they are executives in your own company, study their history - read their bios - and learn from their co-workers before you ask them to invest their very limited time in helping you.

o Build your own brand

Peter Drucker once told me that companies should be able to "put their mission statement on a T-shirt." The same can be true for individuals. For example, my own mission is to be the world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. Your customers (or employers) will respect you more if you do not pretend to know everything about everything but instead have a unique brand. My friends, David Ulrich and Norm Smallwood have discussed how this same process can be applied to corporate managers who develop their own brands as leaders (, 10/2/07).

o Pay the price

It is possible that you may just get lucky and become incredibly successful without having to work very hard. Don't count on it. The successful entrepreneurs - and the successful people - who I know work very hard. The "luck" that they experience is often impacted by the years of effort that have prepared them to take advantage of fortuitous opportunities.

I hope these ideas are useful for you or young people you are striving to help.

Life is good.


Every two years there is a global survey to determine the world’s top 50 business thinkers.  In 2009 Marshall's friend the late CK Prahalad was ranked #1 and Marshall was ranked #14. To participate in the 2011 Thinkers 50, visit

My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.


Marshall's Upcoming Schedule