Don’t be critical or judgmental, instead be curious! An effective coaching relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. You can give constructive feedback that is balanced with positive feedback (ratio of 1 critical to 4 positive). Show up as being naturally curious instead of critical or judgmental.

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 Karen Benz.

Karen is the Vice President of Coaching and an Executive Coach at BetterManager, a fast-growing Silicon Valley-founded startup with a growing global presence. The company was built and founded by early Google execs and their coaches on the belief that investing in the growth and development of managers at every level is key to organizational success. Under Karen’s leadership, BetterManager has built a global client roster of 200-plus customers and counting and earned itself an industry-leading NPS score of 90. In her role at BetterManager, she is responsible for the company’s coaching curriculum, as well as recruiting, onboarding, coaching, and supporting our coaching staff for 100+ coaches around the world.

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?

My experience up to that inflection point had been in business environments where I didn’t feel I had a voice. My defining moment dates back 35 years to a wonderful role model I had. For the first time in my career, I started working for a female boss. She modeled respect, empathy, compassion, hard work, communication skills, and more every day. For the first time, I felt like I mattered. She encouraged me to continue my education (I earned both a Bachelors degree and Masters Degree in Management as an adult). I knew, going forward, that I wanted to be that kind of leader. I knew when I became that leader, I would impact the lives of others and truly make a difference.

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 think to be an effective leader, you need to have the heart of a teacher. Being a leader is not about being an expert…or the smartest one in the room. It’s about building the capacity of those around you through modeling and teaching, and by being inspirational, motivational, and aspirational. I try to embody these qualities in my leadership role.

How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?

The leader as a manager is focused on the flow of work and how it gets done most effectively. The leader as a coach is focused on people and how they get the work done leveraging their talents and skills.

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?

Certainly listening is the top skill — more specifically, listening at a high level. We talk about three levels of listening. We describe Level 1 Listening as “Listening to Respond” — not ideal when providing coaching. Level 2 Listening is “Listening to Understand” — a much more desirable type of listening when coaching. And finally, Level 3 Listening is “Listening at Level 2 AND taking in the environment as you listen to the words — what is the person’s energy telling you?” “Asking” and not “Telling” is another skill demonstrated by asking powerful questions. Empathy is also at the top of that list. These top three skills and competencies of listening, asking powerful questions, and demonstrating empathy form the bedrock of coaching.

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?

Typically in executive coaching, the client will present challenges and issues they are having in their role. We use the phrase, “The skills that got you here won’t necessarily get you there” when working with highly successful managers. This phase illustrates the need for continuously upskilling and reskilling in order to meet the challenges and issues they face. Also, we encourage our clients to adopt a “growth mindset” — which focuses on continuous improvement of the individual and the organization. The growth mindset is also about turning challenges into opportunities!

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?”

Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches:

  1. Demonstrate empathy — truly understanding what the person being coached is experiencing.
  2. Listen well and carefully — Listening at Levels 2 & 3 consistently.
  3. Asking powerful questions — Sticking with “what” and “how” questions and avoiding “why” — which can make people feel defensive.
  4. Stop being the smartest person in the room — Giving others the opportunity to shine and know the answers. To be an effective coach and leader, you need to let others take (not share) the limelight.
  5. Don’t be critical or judgmental, instead be curious! An effective coaching relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. You can give constructive feedback that is balanced with positive feedback (ratio of 1 critical to 4 positive). Show up as being naturally curious instead of critical or judgmental.

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?

As coaches and leaders, there are a few leadership tools that work for every generation — Vision and Values. One of the most overlooked opportunities for any leader is to create a vision for the organization, as well as each individual team, that gives everyone a true north and a “why” for what they’re doing.

The best visions are those that are agreed-upon by multiple stakeholders in order to generate buy-in across the organization. Once people have a stake in what they’re striving to achieve and understand the “why,” it helps them to contextualize every task they’re expected to complete.

Hammering out a set of clear values of what the organization stands for provides an opportunity for everyone to feel seen and important, regardless of their background. Having those pieces in place creates a foundation on which everyone has the ability to thrive.

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?

According to Wendy Hanson, Co-Founder and Chief of Culture and Community at BetterManager, there are 5 things one can do to raise EQ. These include:

  • Take time for reflection — When you are able to “go up to the balcony” and away from “the dance floor”, you can be more strategic and intentional in your actions.
  • Keep a gratitude list — The more you focus on gratitude for what you have (versus what you don’t have), you will receive more of what you want!
  • Be a stellar listener who makes people feel heard — Listening occurs at 3 levels. Level 1 is listening to respond. Level 2 is listening to understand. Level 3 is listening at Level 2 with a focus on the environment. What is the person really saying?
  • Be aware and intentional with the impact you are trying to create — People aren’t always aware of the influence and impact their actions have on other people. It is essential to be intentional and think in advance about the outcomes you are seeking to create.
  • Slow down to move fast — We move so quickly in the workplace today! Learning to deliberately take pause, even if just momentarily, can make a major impact on the quality of your conversations and your relationships. Developing a practice of slowing down to take stock of a given situation or environment can often be the key to better decision making and moving faster toward delivering your long-term goals.

Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?

Empathy, compassion, flexibility, commitment. Leaders need to not only use these words, but live them every day.

I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?

“We judge ourselves based on our intentions. Others judge us based on our actions.” 
– Lee Cohen.

I love this quote because it emphasizes the importance of being mindful and intentional in our interactions with others. It doesn’t matter what you intended to do, it’s what you actually do that’s important and that others remember.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

— Maya Angelou.

This quote comes from the terrific John Kalinowski, who serves as our Coaching Team Lead at BetterManager. We are all meant to keep growing and thriving, so why not have the fullest experience while doing so? As leaders, it’s our job to provide an environment where others can do the same.

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?

The easiest way to connect with me and stay current on my work is to visit Personally, I am most accessible via LinkedIn at

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.