Learning how to listen to the subtext. Just because someone tells you they understand your instructions, you should not simply assume that they are ready for your instructions. Their mouths may say, “no problem,” but their eyes and body language may tell you something different.
The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure to interview Andrew Sachs.
Andrew Sachs is a successful entrepreneur, commercial real estate professional, and venture capital investor with a unique background in the parking industry and digital media. He is an SEO expert with a proven record of connecting online audiences to real-world interactions.
Andrew is an owner and president of Harbor Park Garage, a 1300-space garage in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and the founder of Gateway Parking Services, whose clients include Marriott Hotels and SP Plus Corporation. He is a Venture Partner at NextGen Venture Partners, and in 2019 he founded the Heart of The Park effort that gave away over 20,000 free meals to people thrust into need by the Covid-19 pandemic. Heart of the Park also helped save Chef Nancy Longo’s Pierpoint restaurant, where Andrew now has a guaranteed seat at the bar (at least on slow nights).
One day he will write a book titled Everything I Need to Know about Business, I Learned in Regional Theater!
Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?
I started my career as a theatre director and producer. In retrospect, I’ve realized that this was an amazing training ground for business entrepreneurship. Early on, I was an assistant director on a Syracuse Stage production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The director had a stellar reputation. But he was older, and he was lost. The production was in trouble. The Artistic Director, to whom I would have normally reported, had quit a few weeks before rehearsal started and upper management at the theatre company was a mess. All I could do was watch, as I was not empowered to do much, and there was no one for me to report to in management.
On the morning of the first preview with a live audience, we discovered that one of the leads was in the hospital with an emergency appendectomy. There were no understudies. I saw my moment and jumped into action. I brought in a graduate student to be the stand-in. With zero rehearsal, I guided her onto the stage with the book in hand and a crib note version of her intention for the scene. The actors onstage guided her through her blocking (movements) and gently pushed her off stage, where I met her to get her ready for her next scene. The audience, who had been made aware of the last-minute replacement, was with her 100%, and the night was a hit.
Over the course of the next week, I redirected the entire show, not just the scenes with the understudy. The rest of the cast had been desperate for direction, and when they saw my guidance for the understudy, they sought my advice and support. We kicked into high gear, broke almost every union rule in the book, and in the end, the show received excellent reviews and was a sellout success.
It was a crazy intense period that was a masterclass in leadership with lessons that resound well past the theatre’s proscenium. This was the moment in my life when I stopped being the reticent kid in the corner and became a leader. Teams need direction, and they need it in clear and active terms. Vision is important, but how you implement it is critical. In that first show, the understudy needed extremely focused direction and lots of moral support. Anything more would have shorted her circuits. Later with the entire cast, we could take a breath and work at a less frenetic pace. The team was focused in the same direction, and the end product was a resounding success. That same process applies to any product launch, be it software or Shakespeare.
John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?
I am not sure I agree with Mr. Maxwell. I believe a leader is someone who knows where they want to go, is open to finding the way that works for the collective whole, and can get out of the way when the team starts building up a head of steam. Simply put, a great leader points a team in the right direction, gives them pithy and active marching orders, and then gets the hell out of the way!
If a leader knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way, they will have cut off all opportunities for discovery, empowerment, and self-reliance. That would be a crime. I would much rather work with a group of people I have empowered to perform as a cohesive unit where the sum is greater than the parts. Maxwell’s way is a path to a dead end when presented with an unknown obstacle. And let’s be real, when does the unknown not suddenly interrupt a project? Great teams can adapt and move on. Teams locked by a man with a plan are left to backtrack when unexpected winds come blowing in.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
I don’t! A great leader must be both a manager and a coach. The management half of the equation involves setting clear and actionable goals. The coaching side involves understanding how your coworkers operate and what they need to achieve those goals. If you can’t do both, you will have real difficulty becoming a valued leader.
One of my heroes is Indra Nooyi, who was the CEO and Chairperson of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018. Her clear and active vision is evident in her success in redirecting the company in a rapidly evolving world marketplace. By all accounts, she was also a brilliant coach. One thing that she did that inspired me, something I borrowed from her, is write detailed, personal letters to the parents of her immediate subordinates, thanking them for their child. Can you imagine getting a letter like that from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company when the last feedback you got on your child was their high school report card?
We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?
Great coaches need to be able to:
- Listen with intention
- Speak less
- Empower more
- Tailor their management approach to the specific needs of every individual.
- Model the behavior they want others to adopt.
We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?
Evolution is, for the most part, slow and steady. As such, upskilling is an ongoing process. I am constantly on the lookout for new tools to increase productivity and decrease wasted effort. My team may groan when I want to try a new SaaS product, but they appreciate it when it makes their job easier and their day smoother. And, of course, they love making fun of me when it flops.
With this in mind, I also keep an eye on who might benefit from a new tool, skill, or responsibility. There are some great management classes online from companies like Hone HQ, and I have asked employees if they are interested in trying the course. Some have said yes, and others have replied that they don’t have the time. Both answers are valid.
If we are slow and steady in guiding employees through new tools and skills, we will be prepared for massive disruptive events like COVID when evolution flares up with sudden furry disrupting everything in our path. It is too late to bolt down the house if we wait until the earthquakes are rolling in.
Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”
First, it is critical that we remember that peak performance does not always equal performing at full RPMs at all times. Too many leaders think that it is their job as a leader is to push their workers to maximum productivity even when the situation does not call for it.
Peak performance is about identifying and allowing for each employee’s and cohort’s intrinsic rhythms. People and teams can overheat and burn out just like an overworked engine, and even the best coaches will burn out top performers if we push or “coach” them to always go all out. The rhythms of work, like life, ebb and flow, and we need to leave time for introspection, focused work, or the doldrums if we are going to have the wherewithal to rise to the occasion when things get genuinely busy.
The second is learning how to listen to the subtext. Just because someone tells you they understand your instructions, you should not simply assume that they are ready for your instructions. Their mouths may say, “no problem,” but their eyes and body language may tell you something different.
Third, be patient. Just because you can quickly do a familiar task does not mean someone else can. They may be new to the subject, or maybe it does not suit their skill set. As leaders who coach, we need to allow enough time for events to unfold so that we can assess and figure out how to adapt. If we jump in too soon and simply fix the immediate issue for an employee, we have left the system broken, and the same issue will repeat when the employee is faced with similar circumstances. But if we look, listen, and learn, we can coach the employee to identify and resolve the issue for themselves.
Fourth, listen more and talk less. This one is hard for me — but it is critical. I remind myself to do this daily, and in every meeting. A great coach will observe how people work and then guide people according to their needs. Some employees may be easily thrown by public criticism and need a quiet word after a meeting; others welcome collaborative discussion in a group. Others may need to have steps broken down for them in an easy list of bullet points, while others have zoomed ahead, are bored by the slow pace, and want additional responsibility. How can you identify what each individual and the team needs if you are not listening?
Fifth, be supportive! This means calling out the kudos while looking out for your team’s best interest. I frequently check in with one go-getter manager to ensure she does not take on too much. I love her dedication, but regularly remind her to take time to enjoy life both at work and home. We are in different time zones, so I often email after her work hours — that does not mean she needs to respond immediately. When she does, I remind her that it is important to ignore me until the next day.
Finally, remember that failure is an option! I had an employee try something that was not successful. The failure cost us $10,000 in revenue in the first month. He was horrified when we broke down the metrics. But it helped when I pointed out that I had made a similar miscalculation just a few months previous for an even larger amount. That self-deprecation diffused the situation and it became a teachable moment. In the end, I thanked him for taking the chance on something, even though it was not a success. If we start with an ethos that does not recognize failure as an option, people cannot afford to take chances, and we have cut off the ability to learn/adapt as an organization.
We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?
True diversity is about recognizing every individual for their unique talents and traits. A diverse workplace with lots of empowered perspectives and opinions will almost always yield the richest solutions.
The hard part is helping everyone — across generations –feel empowered to share. Again, it’s about learning how to listen and creating opportunities for everyone to be heard. I like to start our weekly stand-up meeting with a report from the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. This sends the message that everyone’s opinion counts, and we are all here to listen.
Sometimes, due to limited experience, a younger employee offers a suggestion that does not take into account the big picture. This is a great opportunity to respond with “That is a great idea, but I don’t think it will work,” and then ask a more experienced employee to explain the roadblocks. That starts a conversation and diffuses potential conflict.
Other times, a younger employee will use an acronym that flies right over older people’s heads. When that happens, I plead ignorance and ask them to explain it to me. That can save older employees embarrassment for feeling out of touch.
This also brings up the limitations of the top-down approach to management. How can I empower all voices if I come in with all the answers? I learned this from Zelda Fichlandler, one of the American Theatre’s pioneering greats.
At the first rehearsal for a new play about the children of Nazi war criminals, she said, “I see fire being integral, but I don’t know how it connects.” The room was full of designers, actors, show carpenters, admins, and interns. Five days later, the shop foreman came back with an idea. He ushered the cast and crew — including me — into the empty theatre, where there was nothing but a toy train set. The train started moving, the lights dimmed, and after a few loops, the train burst into fire as it continued in its little circle in an otherwise dark theatre. The room was in awed silence. The sound engineer chimed in, “can we cast a ten-year-old blond kid to watch the train as his hopes and dreams go up in flames?” This combined input was pure genius that came to define the show, and the idea came from two people who were encouraged to think outside of their lane. The playwright didn’t write it, the casting director didn’t add the young actor, and the director did not speak it from on high. Instead, two technical people responsible for very different tasks were empowered to share — and the show was much better off for it.
You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?
Model the behavior you want your coworkers to emulate. I am a huge believer in customer service. That means if I am in a parking garage and I’m not otherwise occupied, I will jump up to help a customer stuck at a gate. What kind of leader would I be if I sat there while a busy parking attendant had to multitask? And, of course, I am open to some good-hearted teasing when I inevitably screw up.
Kibbitz with intention. I learned this from my father. He owned an office furniture dealership, and his office door was by the main entrance and was always open. He knew the big benefits of small talk. A quick laugh or an inside joke made the day more enjoyable. Over time, deep relationships formed based on little bites of interaction. And most importantly, this was his way of probing to ensure the people that came into his orbit were okay. He could quickly sense if something was off, and that invited a deeper conversation. The door would close, and he would set aside his work to delve into the heart of the issue, whether it was work-related or not. And the end of the day, his employees knew that he cared
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
My favorite saying is, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.” It is a great segue into launching a group investigation that can yield huge and unexpected results. People laugh now and often reply, “You totally know!” That may be true, but why would I feed them “my” answer when we can achieve so much more by figuring out how to get “our” answer? And, of course, sometimes I really don’t know.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
One of my first jobs out of college was as a stagehand at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Scene changes involved detailed choreography of scenery flying, furniture rolling, and costume changes handled by a team of 15 people. Everything had to happen in 30 seconds while the curtain was down. Staffers used to stop by backstage to watch us work. As one person bends down to roll up a rug, another leaps over the top of the first with a new costume. And so on, as the entire stage is completely transformed. If that first person stands up too soon, that second crashes into them, and together, they would bash into a third. The timing was everything. We were like a well-greased pit crew at an F1 race — and it was a blast.
Just as I was about to raise the curtain for the first show, Sean, the wizened seasoned stagehand, whom I wanted nothing more but to impress, leaned over to me and said, “Hey, Andrew.” I whispered back, “Yeah?” to which he replied, “Don’t Fuck Up!” A beat later came the cue “Go cue one. Raise the curtain.”
With that simple joke, he reminded me of the critical importance of having fun. He knew I was prepared. We had rehearsed this countless times. He also saw how serious I was. Now was the time to get out of my head, stop thinking, and simply do what I had trained to do.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation. What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and to stay current on what you’re discovering?
Readers can reach me via LinkedIn. If they are interested in contacting about our about SEO services or have Parking & Mobility related questions, the Gateway Parking Services website is the best way to connect.
They can also follow my blog Open Spaces, dedicated to the parking and mobility sector.
And if they want to have some fun, they can follow my blog, Parking Porn which pokes fun at the absurdities of the parking garage and work life in general. Without satire, where would we be?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.