I talk to Thomas Gelmi, a specialist for InterPersonal Development, Executive Coach and Sparring Partner, about the importance of personal and interpersonal competence for outstanding leadership. We also discuss useful tips for various types of executives and crisis leadership for CEOs.

Thomas, can you tell us a bit about your background to introduce yourself?

Of course: I have quite an unusual and uniquely colourful biography, compared with many others in my field. I earned my first money as a hairstylist, then went into a few years of job-hopping. I toured with a circus and lived in a trailer for one-and-a-half-years. I had my first leading position as a manager of a call center with 40 people. Then, in my late twenties, I moved into the aviation industry. I spent seven years leading cabin crew on international flights for Swissair and was also a member of the emergency care team. After the grounding of Swissair in 2001, I joined a small consulting company in Zürich, specializing in leadership development in sales. This change was my entry point into the learning and development domain and the beginning of my career in this field. During the following eight years with the company, I pushed the lever forward in terms of my own further education and training and then started my own company as a professional coach. This was more than 10 years ago.

When did you realize that executive coaching is your passion?

In retrospect, I can see that I was already a good listener when I used to cut people’s hair, and I was always interested in having deep conversations. What sparked the flame for coaching was the experience of being coached myself: A friend of mine attended training in solution-focused brief coaching and asked if I would join as a “client” for an exercise. As I was at a crossroads in my career, I used the opportunity to bring this topic to the coaching session. After just one hour, I came out the other end – with answers. And I wanted to know more about this “thing” that helped me attain such clarity in such a short time. So, I signed up for the very same training and progressively got into coaching after that. Over time, my target group became more and more focused, and today, I mostly work with executives and leaders in higher positions.

What is your unique approach to coaching, and what sets you apart from others who work in your field?

Well, you see, coaching really is a people business. It’s all about connection, trust, and also chemistry. So, everyone is unique as a person, and no two different experiences with a coach are the same, which automatically sets me apart from anyone else working in my field. Besides this, there are, of course, some factors that make me stand out in the market. I fluently speak and work in four languages – German, English, French, and Italian – and I have a broad intercultural experience, as I’ve been working with leaders on all continents.

You are an expert in InterPersonal Development – what does it mean, exactly?

InterPersonal development, the way I write it, with a capital P in the middle, stands for the combination of personal and interpersonal skills. Wherever people want to accomplish something together, in leadership, teamwork, or customer relations, the ability to quickly connect, build relationships, and maintain them under difficult conditions is essential. The foundation for this interpersonal effectiveness is a well-developed personal competence. In other words, if you want to be an inspiring leader who can authentically connect with others and gain their trust, you have to start with yourself and take care of the most important relationship in your entire life: the one you have with yourself. The longer I am in this business, the more I see that leadership development is, in fact, personality development more than anything.

Why do you think effective leadership is important nowadays?

Leadership has always been important, as people have always been seeking guidance, orientation, and inspiration. In times of VUCA, this has become even more important, as the speed of change, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are on a steady rise. Organizations are, more than ever, in need of leaders who can be guiding lights in times of adversity. This being said, the essential nature and the style of leadership have changed over the recent years and decades. While in the past, organizations used to need employees, who did what they were told to do; they now need people who do what nobody tells them to do. Who think for themselves and take the initiative in the best interest of their customers. In other words, empowerment is crucial today and in the future. This requires an agile leadership approach based on asking the right questions rather than telling people what to do.

Can you share some tips on how to be a successful leader?

To be a successful leader in today’s world, you need to understand that leadership is not about you, and at the same time, it is all about you. What does that mean? A good leader is someone who truly cares about those whom he or she is responsible for. Someone who creates ideal conditions for each individual in the team to thrive. Let me use an analogy to explain what I mean: As a leader, you are like a gardener, and your team or your department is your garden. Your goal is to do what is needed so that each plant in your garden can flourish. This means you can’t limit yourself to a one-fits-all leadership style but have to get to know your plants (people), connect and build trust with them, and then give them what they need to perform at their best. In some cases, this may require you to step out of their way and let them do the work; in other cases, they may need guidance and direction. Your task is to understand the requirements and have the necessary behavioural repertoire to act accordingly.

What do you recommend for rookie executives?

It’s all about relationships. The first thing you want to do is connect with your key stakeholders and build relationships with them. This is done best by not making it about you too much, but about them instead. By getting to know their hopes and expectations regarding the collaboration with you. By having conversations around what you can do to create an ideal relationship with them and what you need from them for this to work out well. In addition, get as much feedback as you can – 360° ideally – so that you can eliminate your blind spots and your “despite” behaviours. These are behaviours despite which you have come so far that may demotivate others, and you may not be aware of. Above all that: be genuine in your interactions and avoid putting up a mask.

For whom do you recommend leadership programs?

Leadership development is beneficial for anyone in charge of other people, whether you move into a first leadership position or you are a more senior manager, moving into the next level of your career. For younger managers, it can prevent them from making the common rookie-mistakes; for more senior leaders and executives, it can help them reduce their blind spots and increase their leadership effectiveness. Especially successful leaders are often not aware of how much easier and at the same time how much more effective they could be if they would just get rid of some of their less effective habits and behaviours.

How do you think leadership has changed since the pandemic? What do you recommend for CEOs and directors during this crisis time in terms of leadership?

The current pandemic is a VUCA example par excellence. The uncertainty, in particular, has gone through the roof. Basic psychological needs, such as the need for orientation and relatedness, have massively increased due to the virtualization of many aspects of life. Therefore, my main recommendation to those in charge is to cater to these needs by showing their human side. By focusing not just on the hard facts and numbers but also on human factors like trustworthiness and vulnerability. I am confident that today and in the future, these human factors remain essential and become more and more critical as we move forward in the digital age. Because regardless of whether you are in the B2B or in the B2C business, it’s always H2H: human to human.

Due to the current pandemic, can people participate in your sessions online?

Oh yes, absolutely. Like so many other industries, my entire business has shifted from mostly in person to almost 100% virtual. The bandwidths, tools, and platforms available nowadays are great. They are constantly further developed, and it is, of course, necessary to invest in professional equipment. For group activities, we have almost all the possibilities we had in face-to-face events, and while one-on-one coaching has often been provided online already, it has taken up an even more significant share of my work now. So, while I am still working with clients worldwide, I can avoid the hustle and bustle of international travel, something I also learned to appreciate over the past 12 months. Some of my larger customers are even leveraging the pandemic’s momentum and decided not to go back to classroom training, given the effectiveness and great feedback of the virtual work.

Can you please name some of the organizations you work with and share some of your achievements?

I typically work with both large organizations like Roche, Ford, Siemens, Red Bull, Credit Suisse, or the World Trade Organization, and smaller SME’s or individuals. Each project, whether it’s a 12 months 1:1 executive coaching program or a comprehensive leadership development program with a group of leaders, is an achievement in itself. If each person I work with only changes one single habit and becomes more effective by doing so, it’s already an achievement. It’s often the small things that make a difference, and so far, everyone I have worked with has managed to achieve this. That’s why I also offer a no-growth / no-pay option in my coaching programs, where the most important stakeholders working with a leader are involved in the process and give their feedback about the achieved changes in the end. The prerequisites, besides the genuine willingness to change, are humility, courage and discipline.

How can our readers contact you and follow on social media?

The best way to reach out to me is through my website www.thomasgelmi.com, through LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook. Look me up and connect with me. You can also book a slot for a free 30-minute chat on my website.

Finally, can you please share your motto and your favorite quote?

My favorite quote is one by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What we all need the most is someone who can bring out the best in us” because it so beautifully describes the nature of my work. I see myself as a catalyst who brings out the best in those who choose to work with me.