Design the Life You Love: Learning from the Most Humble Executive Coach, Dr. Frank Wagner
The best coaches are always overshadowed by their students. That’s the aim of a coach, to give more than he, or she, takes. Consider Frank Wagner, for one. You have probably never heard of him. But you may know one of his closest colleagues, Marshall Goldsmith, a man considered one of the most influential thinkers in the field of leadership and management (and recently inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame). For 40 years he has been working in the field of coaching and, in the last two decades, he fulfilled Marshall’s request to design and teach other coaches how to coach using his methodology. Not so long ago, Frank visited Moscow for the first time and, despite his busy days, he agreed to talk with us. We wanted to learn about his personal experience of what is it like to be an executive coach and mentor for leaders of large companies. And of course, we talked about happiness and meaning.
Frank with his brother Michael!
Frank was in the mood for memories. In one of those memories he said: "I remember the premiere of the first “Star Wars” film. The father of a student of mine was the film’s special effects creator, and so I got a ticket to the first show. The film begins with a great starry sky and a huge spaceship flies past. You just cannot believe your own eyes! You didn`t see anything like that in a movie before. That “first time” feeling is unique. You will not experience it in the second film, or in the third. That “first time” feeling occurs in many parts of life, never to be experienced again. Like your first kiss.”
Frank's visit to Moscow is a first kiss. It was his first meeting with Russian culture and Russian people on their home soil. We got the chance to share this unique moment with him, and to show him real Russian students. We told Frank about us, about student life, about the project “My Mentor” and also asked him a few questions. Here are some of his unique answers.
- What is ‘success’ for you?
I was in Hawaii last week. People gathered there to share their experience and help each other to solve various problems. One of them asked us what ‘success’ is. I was surprised by the answers that others gave. Everything that other people mentioned, I imagined as a real failure. They wanted to be famous, travel a lot, make a lot of money, and speak to the public on a big stage and so on. I want none of that. If my life was like that, I would take a gun and pull the trigger. It is much more important for me, is what my grandchildren think about me. Of course, I'm not against all these things that I listed, but I do not want them to be the source of meaning for my life.
- And so what is the meaning of your life?
I have a philosophy. It is not mine, it belongs to a man whose name is largely unknown. Hans Selye was given the title: “the Einstein of medicine.” He formulated a concept in which he considered physiological stress as a response to demands on the body. Selye considered stress as a reaction that helps the body to survive. At first his colleagues did not recognize his concept, but his research proved his theories and he won the Nobel Prize for medicine. Hans` father worked as a local doctor and treated everyone, whether a person could pay or not. And many could not pay. But when Hans, as a little boy, went out every morning, he always saw milk, bread or eggs lying on the doorstep. People just brought food to them as a form of payment. And so Hans developed his personal philosophy he called “altruistic egoism.” Translated this means: Looking out for yourself by being necessary to others, thus earning their good will. My philosophy is exactly the same with one word changed. Looking out for yourself by being useful to others, thus earning their good will.”
- Marshall Goldsmith, your friend, has a well-known methodology. According to it, a person should answer several important questions, which determine his success, every day. What questions do you ask yourself?
I ask myself only three questions. By the way, the Marshall has a dozen or more. "Did I choose to be happy today?" is the first question. I'm not asking myself if I was happy today. For me, one of the definitions of success is to choose happiness, not just let it happen to me. The second question is: "Did I do enough to make a positive difference today?" This is about being of service to others. And the third: "Did I do my best today to avoid regrets?" In their last days, most people who are dying generally give the same advice to those who will keep on living. That advice is "do not leave any regrets." That’s truly wise, selfless advice.
- So, happiness and success are synonymous for you?
Perhaps you have heard about Marshall's book "Mojo", which tells the stories of different high-ranking people. For any person holding a senior position, the next step will be resignation. Everyone has to leave sometime. But leaving is hard. Their position might have given them everything in their lives: they have a personal driver, everyone laughs at their jokes, they eat in the best restaurants, and if they call someone, they are sure to be answered. But when they lose their positions, they are no longer in demand. And when you ask them what they want to do in the future, these people answer: “I want to be happy, I still want to change something in the world and give meaning to my life”. In our world it is difficult to unify success and happiness, but I try to make sure that these concepts are not too different for me.
- How do these people combine professional life with a family?
The well-known concept of a work-life balance is vital. The real trick here is to do a good job of work-life integration, doing well in both one’s personal and professional life. A while ago, Marshall and I conducted research for a well-known company where we studied their best leaders to determine their common features and the differences between them. And we realized the best leaders all have one constant. All of them have high standards for all of their commitments and get the same from their employees. Not just some of them. They were not the type of manager who, more often than not, were saying "yes" to work, and saying "no" to their families. I have tried to live up to that standard. I'm also not perfect. I missed my son's graduation at college because I was in Alaska and could not fly out because of a “white-out” snow storm that prevented me from flying out. My wife often reminds me of this moment. We have been married for 49 years, and she still has not divorced me. She understands that, although I’m not always available to her as much as she would like, I spend much more time with my family than other people of my profession. People just need to look for a compromise and divide time as fairly as possible.
- You mentioned leaders. What are the main requirements for a leader today?
I deal with the aspects of leadership that do not change. They are the same for leaders in the past and leaders in the future. A person cannot be a leader without others choosing to follow. A good leader will always have to know which attract others to follow. Leaders have to be first-class communicators. And, good leaders always know how to listen. This builds the ability to share responsibility with others and trust others. Delegation is also very significant. The higher you go in an organization, the more you have to master delegation. Lastly, really the best leaders are characterized by the respect they give to others. They never act disrespectful towards their colleagues and stand up to those who do. These requirements for leaders are core requirements and they will not change until the basics of human nature changes. And, I don’t see that happening for a long, long time, if ever.
- What role do mentors play in our life?
For most of us, our mentors become our heroes. Heroes make us aspire to be better. Having been fortunate to have a number of outstanding mentors, the one who sticks out is Marshall. I trust him, and he trusts me. I met him by accident when we started the Ph.D. program at UCLA, and he has played a huge role in my life. I think everyone should have a mentor like Marshall.
- What advice would you give to our mentors?
Your role is not limited to teaching your mentee with the wisdom you have gained over the years. And, more importantly, you teach better through the example you set. Mentors should always give advice when asked; and, be careful to avoid giving too much advice. Part of your role is to open doors, and help mentees build bridges. You do not need to pretend to be another person or a better person than you are. Sometimes you need to admit that you do not know something. The most important thing is to be a role model for what is important for your mentee to learn.
- Who is the ideal mentor?
A person who will speak from their own rich life experience. Good teachers tell interesting stories, stories from their lives and from the lives of their acquaintances. It is really valuable today. Perhaps, after our meeting, you will tell someone your own story of meeting me, and how it made a difference to you.
MY MENTOR expresses special thanks to Sergey Sirotenko and his colleagues from Ward Howell and MG100 for making this interview happen.