Make sure your managers can tell you the leading strength for each of the people on their teams, and how that strength is aligned to work.
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 Christine Sandman Stone.
Christine is a transformation and change leader with a track record for developing talent, dedicated to advocating for and empowering marginalized groups who have not traditionally had opportunities to lead. She advises executives and cohorts of leaders, provides new managers with structured coaching and leadership skills to succeed and flourish in their roles, and has transformed technology teams at high-profile international corporations including McDonald’s, Volkswagen, and Dell. Chicago-based with a master’s in management and organizational behavior, she mentors with Chicago Innovation Women’s Mentoring Co-op, AnitaB, Chicago female founders, and the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, in addition to authoring two books: The Parent Track: Work-Life Balance Hacks to Elevate Your Career and Raise Good Humans (2020); and The Modern Management Mentor — Next-Level Tools for New Managers (2023), a practical leadership guide for newly promoted managers on how to successfully build on their workplace skills, accomplishments, and the reputation that has led them to their new role.
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’m in a crowd of thousands at an event and standing next to the chief of staff for Don Thompson (the first Black CEO for McDonald’s) as we watch Don speak. Don is just amazing, and the crowd is completely engaged. During his talk, he strides across the stage and makes a point to one section of the crowd, then he steps forward and pauses before a significant observation. I turn to Mason and say, “I have never seen a more organic and natural speaker.” Mason smiles at me, nods at Don and says, “Sometimes he will practice a talk 20 times.” He explains
how Don works to understand his most key points, and creates a plan both verbally and physically to bring the points home in the talk. Don knows timing to the minute. By the time he gives the talk, he has such muscle memory that he rarely needs the teleprompter, and can comfortably ad lib if the audience is taken with one of his statements.
What I learned that day is that leadership can be learned, and practiced. Ultimately, your leadership brand is significantly impacted by your investment in practice and learning. I never forgot.
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?
Deb Hall Lefevre, the CTO for Starbucks, used to call me the “Queen of Getting Sh*t Done.” She’s a dynamo, so that compliment stays with me. I love how Maxwell nests his message, tying ‘know’, ‘go’, and ‘show’ together. It’s key that ‘show’ is the last one. Research says that 10% of what we learn is from training, 20% from observation, and 70% by doing. When I lead by example, I get our team members closer to doing the work on their own. I also convey an expectation of urgency, accuracy, innovation, humility and so much more in how I work.
My career has been built around showing by example — accelerating the development of others so teams succeed at constantly growing their delivery scale.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
I love this question. As leaders we really only have two jobs — get work done, and retain our talent.
The Leader as Manager is responsible for work delivery. We have to create clear alignment between top business goals and our teams’ objectives, clearly translate complex business strategy so every single level in our organization can do their jobs and make decisions independently, and measure results so we know what is working and what isn’t. We have to be objective, black and white.
The Leader as Coach has a different tool set. We must understand the unique strengths of team members and managers so we can optimize those strengths both for the person’s career growth, and for organization success. If Leader as Manager is the black and white, Leader as Coach is all gray. The work gets done by people, and people aren’t tidy and consistent — they are wonderfully different, and they each need the leader as coach to adapt and be what they need.
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?
The best quote I have heard in the last three years is, “A butts-in-seats strategy rewards lazy managers.” Madeline Stone-Kutis is a 30-year-old tech manager, and her observation was that companies’ strategy of pushing people back into the office (versus using remote and hybrid work arrangements) was rooted in poor management. I agree. I believe the most critical skill a manager needs now is the ability to manage both relationships and work without seeing someone in their seat in an office. You can build a relationship with people without being in person, and you better be able to measure work by outcome and output versus presence. The managers who master managing hybrid working resources are going to rise, and rise fast. They will be exponentially valuable to global, innovative, and growing companies.
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?
When I was in my master’s program for Organizational Behavior, the research I worked with was rich and deep. (By the way — big plug here to pursue a master’s at mid-career, it is so valuable to have a ‘lab’ of your work team and setting to immediately apply classroom concepts to). David Cooperrider has done fascinating research on Appreciative Inquiry, and how innovation accelerates when you build on something that is already working well. Gallup has years of research on why some teams are far more profitable than others — showing statistical correlation between human engagement, vital friendships at work and ultimately discretionary effort and profitability. All of these build on the positive versus the punitive. When I was at Dell, there was a senior leader who called people on Fridays to say thank you for specific contributions. As a recipient of that outreach, I can tell you it impacted me. It gave me optimism to keep leading my struggling team to success. I am a big fan of the positive, and its impact on people and productivity.
Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work?
Kristy Maksim-Braden, who led Organizational Excellence at Volkswagen Financial and co-founded Inflection Point Leadership, was my partner on a project to improve our talent pipelines at VW. We created a program that compiled our favorite methods for coaching others — having a clear understanding of your work as it relates to company outcomes, understanding your unique strengths, building networks inside of your own team and company, developing sponsors to guide you and share your stories of success, and then how to do the work and then tell the story. Those key elements hold true. Each of us needs to understand why our work (and our unique contributions) matter — both to the company, and to our career. That context is the heart doing things with the best quality and outcomes.
How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context?
Set. Measure. Reset. If you want peak performance, you should follow the titans:
1) Give your team a sense of purpose, impact, and hope.
2) Clearly communicate top business goals, and your measurable expectations for the team.
3) Use Objectives and Key Results as a structure to set goals for teams.
4) Recognize incremental progress, and celebrate adjustments (failures quickly achieved).
5) Have a 90-day goal plan (and assessment) for every person on your team.
6) Make sure your managers can tell you the leading strength for each of the people on their teams, and how that strength is aligned to work.
7) Make sure your team still has a sense of purpose, impact, and hope.
What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”
GIVE COMPETENT PEOPLE SPACE
When I landed my first job as a manager, it was because I was the strongest Program Manager in the division. As a result, I came into my role believing in my best practices. I immediately made a big mistake and mandated that other Program Managers follow my best practices. There was a revolt — and rightly so. When they pushed back hard, I decided to observe for a while. To be honest, I was going to observe and try to make a case for why my methods were best. Instead, I was surprised. One program manager wandered around the office with a coffee cup, chatting with people. He’d say, “Jill — how was fishing this weekend?” and they’d chat about fishing and laugh and then he’d slip in a question like, “Gosh, I know the team was struggling to build the new interface last week, any progress there?” I realized he got the same information I did, but in a much less formal way. Plus, he was building a harmony with his team that was valuable to how they got work done. I saw the same thing from other Program Managers’ wildly different approaches. I realized if I forced each of them to abandon their unique way of working, I’d both take away some of their effectiveness and make their jobs less fun.
When you have competent people, give them space to do the job their way. It’s so hard for us, as former exceptional and competent individual contributors, to let go, but letting go is essential to getting great results from your competent folks.
BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH PEERS
Ed Dzadovsky, CTO for Couche-Tard / Circle K, pulled me aside when I was a first-time director on his team. He gave me tough feedback, saying that it was clear I’d come from a previous role where each leader was separately evaluated. He said “at a point in your career, your relationship with your peers becomes more important than your relationships with your team and me. You are at that point. You are senior enough that your work is strategic, and you need the collaboration with other directors to deliver. You have to build not just professional relationships, but professional friendships with your peers.” It was a tough transition for me to shift from my value being only about my teams’ results, but that transition was deeply valuable. I was honest with people I had angered, told them I was working on it, and that I had made a mistake.
I invested in those relationships, and I am still close with those folks. We delivered significant results as a collective.
UNDERSTAND YOUR BUSINESS
When I was at McDonald’s, the strategy and change management teams were key contributors to tech strategy. One year, our strategy was called “The Year of the Drive-Thru,” and our goal was to speed delivery in the drive-thru. If your project didn’t do that, it was shelved. Great ideas were put on hold. There was no work that year on the mobile app, kiosks for self-ordering, or digital menu boards (technologies that are deeply valuable and key to business now). Instead, there were construction projects to create dual lane drive-thrus, and technology to speed orders, raise accuracy, and identify different cars as multiple order pipelines merged. You could have a brilliant project, but if it didn’t help the drive-thru, it was paused. This ferocious focus helped us all prioritize work and achieve the business outcome.
Have ferocious focus. Know the top goal. Put all your resources and focus there.
FIND PEOPLE EXTERNAL MENTORS
This sounds contradictory, right? We are talking about leaders as coaches, so you’d think this would be about being a better mentor. I believe the best mentors are outside of our organizations. They can be objective with our team in ways we cannot, and they are a safe place for a person to share doubts. If a team member shares a doubt with us, they might worry that we will assess them as not ready for a promotion, or disloyal.
Team members need safe spaces for tough conversations. I mentor in multiple co-ops and as an external advisor for women leaders in several companies and consistently find these partnerships to be remarkably productive. I wish I had realized this earlier in my career for myself and my teams.
After a 360 review (a multi-dimensional assessment where my leaders, peers and team were polled about my style), I got feedback that people had a sense that I wasn’t open to others’ ideas. I talked with my mentor, Betsy Blanchard, and she recommended counting to 7 seconds slowly after I asked, “Does anyone have questions or feedback?” She knew that my personality type was ENTJ — so I thought fast, spoke fast, got things done fast. Her thought was that my audiences might be introverted thinkers, or be considering things through a different perspective, and if I gave them time, it could help. She warned me that 7 seconds to me would feel like 10 minutes of miserable silence, and she was right. I shared with my team that if they wondered what was up, I was counting seconds. Sometimes, I even asked the question, then put up my hands to show the seconds adding up in my mind. They laughed, but darn it, they started asking more questions.
It was a terrific pragmatic tool for me to indicate I was open to their feedback, I understood it, and I was taking steps to get better. Yes, my scores improved in this area next time around, but more importantly, a new sense of teamwork set in, and the team’s results improved.
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?
A team with multiple generations mandates that you be a situational leader; there is a significant opportunity for you here. One of your team members might want more than anything to have an international assignment (it could be an empty-nester, or a recent grad), another might want career progression (it might mean a promotion to leading a team for one, or an individual contributor role in technical architecture for another), one might want to slow down and stay in place for a while (perhaps a new parent, or a late-career person who wants to spend time with an aging parent). Figure them out and give each what they need as you are able.
And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?
Multiple generations in a team are a huge advantage, and let’s be honest, it is kind of a pain too. You have people who don’t get each other’s jokes, who have different internal alarm clocks or expectations about company socializing. BUT — you have people who have different educational experiences, people who have different depths of situational knowledge or business evolution and emerging trends. When you can help them see value in each other, and make sure that all voices are heard, your team will solve problems faster and more effectively than homogenous teams.
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?
Step 1 — Share the spotlight. Great leaders bring their people with them to board meetings, all-hands meetings, and vendor negotiations. Great leaders give credit by telling stories and naming people in their teams who have contributed. They get their people promoted and are generous with letting leaders in the company know about talented individuals who might not otherwise get exposure.
Step 2 — Apologize and then do something about it. Empty words do a lot of damage. You might see growing attrition of diverse folks off your team, so you release a statement about how critical diversity is to you. But it’s only when you’re transparent about the number of diverse people at every job level, and show progress each quarter, or start working closely with diverse talents to help them prepare for opportunities, that your words carry weight. You might have a reputation as hard-driving and try to balance that with your words about how you care about work-life balance for your teams. But it’s only when you actually start scheduling emails to be sent during the workday, or you stop checking your messages when you are on vacation, that people believe you.
Apologize, recognize the issue, share your strategy, then actually do something.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
I believe the “important words” change. In 2023 the most important words are:
STORIES — First, be able to tell the stories of why work matters to your teams and help them find the context of their work to company success. Secondly, be able to tell your teams’ stories (and name them) when they do great work. When you tell stories about your team, you both show appreciation, and you amplify the value of the appreciation when you add the context.
MEASUREMENT — I call BS if you have goals that you can’t objectively manage. Put a number out there that is meaningful and objective. If you make it, celebrate, and explain how you made it. If you miss it, assess, and explain why you missed it. When goals stop being squishy and subjective and they take on materiality, that is when your credibility and your results rise, especially in times of economic change and challenge.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley, says, “Know the difference between your mentors and your sponsors.” Her explanation is that sponsors advocate for you to get new opportunities. The sponsor needs to know about your victories so they can tell your story and carry your flag. Your mentors, in contrast, help you in tough spots or in areas where you are learning. You share your doubts and frustrations with your mentors. You can’t let your sponsors know your doubts or frustrations, so make sure you know who is who. Carla notes you tell your mentor the good, the bad and the ugly. You tell your sponsor the good…. the good….and the good.
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?
I love connecting with smart people. Connect with me on LinkedIn (Christine Sandman Stone), follow me on IG @christinesandmanstone, or reach out via my site (www.christinesandmanstone.com) to participate in pilot cohorts for The Modern Management Mentor or to hear about my upcoming events in your area.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.