Offer goals, not benchmarks. It’s not about asking every salesperson to hit a certain number of calls a day, because that’s tactical and disconnected from the big picture. They’ll find more creative ways to produce results when they understand the ultimate goal for the company. Some of our salespeople may make more calls, while others may reach out to lapsed clients or find ways to trim costs, but they ultimately all increase profitability and service for our clients.

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 Kevin Cui.

Kevin is the president of Mallof, Abruzino, and Nash (MAN) Marketing, an employee-owned, full-service advertising and marketing agency based in Carol Stream, Illinois that has been serving clients for over forty years. Prior to joining MAN Marketing as a Teamshares network company president, Kevin was a management consultant with Deloitte Consulting focused on growth strategy, analytics, and process improvement across Fortune 500 clients. He is a slightly above average skiier and significantly below average golfer, but enjoys spending time on both of them. He received his BS in Finance from Indiana University, and an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business.

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 love that we get to kick this off with a great memory. I worked in management consulting before joining MAN Marketing, and I was very impressed by my manager’s bottom-up approach, which was unusual in that type of environment. He took care of his team first, which made us work as hard as possible for him and for the client, and that strategy ultimately delivered excellent results for everyone. It showed me the benefits of empowering your employees, which is critical for an employee-owned company like MAN Marketing.

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’m new to marketing and advertising, so a lot of times I rely on my team from a subject matter perspective. Our employees all have years of experience in this industry and an ownership stake in the business, so they are very thoughtful about how their actions can help the company grow. I don’t want to limit that. What I’m doing is showing the way: leading by example and making clear what our north star is. There are people in this company who know more than I do about specific things. I maximize my impact by using their knowledge appropriately, learning as much as I can as quickly as I can, and demonstrating that it’s okay not to know everything — but it’s important to learn as you go.

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

I’ve always thought of managers as purely business and KPI focused. They’re driving their employees to definitive checkpoints, which can be a little one-size-fits-all. It can also make motivation more difficult, since the employees are working toward the expectations of their leader instead of something more personally motivating. On the other hand, I see a coach as being more holistic. I played sports in high school and college, and the best coaches that I had weren’t just focused on winning the next game. Great coaches have a long-term vision. They know how to build players who will be successful not just for a quarter or a game, but throughout their lives. I compare being a coach-leader to being a teacher: it’s better to teach to personal development, instead of just teaching to the test.

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?

Inspiring others to be self-motivated is key, and that motivation comes from having a clear, shared goal. As both a leader and an employee, employee ownership makes you think in years; not days. It causes you to consider how your actions impact the whole, which is a good start. You also have to show restraint in your management style. When you lead a business, there’s a temptation to try to do everything yourself. However, the goal with an employee-owned business — and honestly, any business — is to have a team that could survive and thrive without you. Good coach-leaders should resist micromanagement, keep a long-term perspective, empower their team to make their own decisions, and view everything as an opportunity to learn and grow the business.

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?

I’m lucky because my company is employee-owned, so all employees directly impact and benefit from business growth. I’ve found that when employees have a personal stake in the company, they’re more likely to pursue new knowledge that will benefit the business. My job is to nurture and sustain this cross-collaborative learning, so I’m always ready to suggest new ways of working, give employees a chance to try those methods, and then reward them for taking initiative. I’ve enabled this by introducing an education fund for every employee, where we grant a $1,000 annual credit towards any course or program that they feel will help them become better at their job. My goal is to sustain growth, building a team that’s inspired to all want the same thing.

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?”

  1. Look at things holistically. Your job as a leader is not purely about this month’s numbers, but also inspiring company growth over time by ensuring employee satisfaction and retention. We’ve had regular all-hands meetings since I’ve started at the company that may have initially seemed like a waste of time to some, but they’ve really paid off in the long run. During these meetings, we all learn about our company’s finances together, running through our P&Ls and financial statements. Everybody, from our account coordinators to our digital directors, gets on the same page regarding how we’re doing and how everything is looking. We tend to do this over pizza, jokes, and personal stories during our breaks, but at the end of each meeting, we all end up with more knowledge on how the company is doing, along with a sense of camaraderie surrounding how we can work together to improve it. Everyone at the company is invested and educated in the company’s performance now.
  2. Use your people and their skill sets accordingly. Not everyone has the same talents, but everyone has something unique to contribute. You might have to design unusual growth paths or create new roles to keep people focused on what they do best, but it’s always worth it. We have great people at the company who are amazing cultural fits, but tried one or two different roles at the company before settling into their current role. Our investment in finding the right role for them has allowed them to strive for success in that role, and many of them have been with the company for over five years as a result.
  3. Give people the power to make the right profit-driving decisions. When employees solve problems for themselves, their solutions are more likely to be sustainable, and you avoid forcing short-term solutions that could hurt morale or client relationships. Being employee-owned means we all see the direct impact of those positive decisions, and it creates a flywheel of positive behavior and decision making. For example, we just saved $1,500 per month in printing costs because one of our employees — our accounts receivable team member — went out of their way to do the math and work with our printing provider to negotiate a better rate. That probably would have never happened if we didn’t enable everyone to have transparency in our finances and ownership in decision making.
  4. Offer goals, not benchmarks. It’s not about asking every salesperson to hit a certain number of calls a day, because that’s tactical and disconnected from the big picture. They’ll find more creative ways to produce results when they understand the ultimate goal for the company. Some of our salespeople may make more calls, while others may reach out to lapsed clients or find ways to trim costs, but they ultimately all increase profitability and service for our clients.
  5. Listen to your people. I make it a goal to have more people walk in and out of my office door than any other door in the building. Every time that I step out to interact with my team and every time that someone steps in to speak with me is an opportunity. By making sure that there are literal steps happening beyond just having an open door policy, I can better understand how an individual is doing, as well as how they are doing in the context of the business. Being able to have that kind of interaction with my team drives growth, builds trust, and inspires retention.

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?

Regardless of generation, everyone is additive, and is better off knowing that their colleagues are as well. For me, this has meant increasing opportunities for curious conversations, empathy-building, and interactions. It’s also important to demonstrate the behavior as a leader. Some of my greatest learnings have been from significantly younger or older generations, and I always make it a point to publicly share what and who taught me. It also doesn’t hurt to install a classic water cooler like we did here at MAN Marketing.

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?

I cannot recommend enough having a business coach or mentor that you regularly connect with; being a leader can feel lonely, and having a support network is crucial. As a Teamshares network company, I am connected with over sixty other presidents who are also making a small business employee-owned. I learn, ask questions, and get inspiration. The second step is maintaining a certain state of mind. A servant leader should know it’s not about them, and do everything in their power to make it about the team. Connection creates trust with huge downstream impact, and the time that it takes to form that connection is a critical element. One recent example is a conversation I had with one of our employee owners, a recently widowed father. Because of our level of trust, he was able to tell me about the pains of juggling work and children and then ask to collaborate on a new way of working — in this case, part-remote — to empower his best self both in and outside the workplace. Every employee deserves to have open and empathetic conversations with their boss about their needs. They should be able to tell by your words, actions, and culture that you are in their corner.

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

Knowing your audience is always valuable, and there are certainly language nuances when talking to employee owners about our shared goals. That being said, I’ve found that it’s not necessarily the specific words that matter, but the level of vulnerability that you bring to them. It builds trust and often helps find the best solution. For a long time, businesses benefited from a certain level of gatekeeping and a lack of transparency — employees didn’t always have the ability to learn how everything at the business worked, even if they wanted to. With modern information sharing and social platforms, and because of the specific nature of employee ownership at my company, employees have more visibility into day-to-day operations and the company’s finances; we refer to it as “open-book financials”. We’ve found that this openness and vulnerability isn’t just necessary, it’s actually beneficial to both employees and the business’s bottom line. There should be nothing to hide.

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

There’s a famous passage from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath that I think about a lot because it made me feel something that still motivates me. It’s long, so I’m going to shorten it for space without changing the meaning:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

While many see this as a warning on indecision, my interpretation is to strive to see everything you can. Make your educated decision, but don’t shut the door — always keep everything else you saw as an opportunity or reframe to consider in the future. Soak up everything you can, and ultimately forge your own path. Your efforts to interpret and engage with the world around you are always one-of-a-kind, so they always end with a new discovery. At the very least, they make for a great conversation.

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’m always happy to connect with others! You can email me at [email protected], and if any of your readers are in the Chicagoland area, feel free to drop me a line and we can continue the conversation in person.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!