Ask employees about short term objectives and long term goals. Have them be as specific and vivid as possible. Can you create a pathway for them to advance in the organization, or will this job be a dead end? Would they already rathe be someplace else? My Labrador gets in the most trouble when he’s bored. A bored employee is one who will find trouble.
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 Lucia Kanter St. Amour.
Lucia Kanter St. Amour is an employment attorney of 25 years, international workplace mediator and negotiation coach, and the author of For the Forces of Good: The Superpower of Everyday Negotiation. Lucia has seen just about every imaginable workplace situation and leadership type across a spectrum of industry sizes and categories. As a VP of UN Women USA, Executive Director of a nonprofit organization, law professor, and recovering CEO, she has also fulfilled various leadership roles.
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?
At age 49 at the start of 2021, when I became president /CEO of a very male dominated sports organization behind 94 years of men in that position, I realized about three months into the job (a) just how much I had normalized being bullied in the workplace throughout my law career; and (b) just how much I had been taught to prioritize pleasing people over psychological safety and setting appropriate boundaries. I learned the difference between a “tough decision” (that focuses on YOU as the leader and how you feel about it) and an “unpopular” decision (focuses outward on the organization’s members). It took a vivid and prolonged group bullying experience in that job to finally put into focus a pattern of workplace behavior for the 25 years that preceded it — and the leaders I experienced who tolerated inequitable and toxic conduct. It is quite insidious the patterns we normalize because they feel so familiar to us. I also recognized all the times I had spoken up about abusive (and even illegal) conduct, and was punished. Once I finally saw this, I couldn’t “unsee” it, and I decided that wouldn’t happen to me anymore, or anyone else in an organization I was a part of.
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?
Leading by example is the secret sauce — even (especially!) when it is inconvenient, time consuming, and costly. Let’s take corporate DEI efforts. They are often handled as a performative “one-and-done” workshop where everyone in the meeting nods their heads in agreement about how important allyship is. But when the rubber meets the road, it means making “unpopular” decisions that likely nudge legacy players out of their warm comfy zone; and risking one’s place in the established fraternity. A true leader doesn’t worry about that. They create repeatable practices and protocols for allyship and an environment where people call each other out — from the top level down — on behavior that is contrary to community values.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
A manager is directive. A leader is pedagogical. A manager will dictate actions and decisions. A leader gets their team involved in solving their own problems and assuming agency. If your team feels a sense of self-determination, they have purpose. If they have purpose, they are motivated. If they are motivated, they are more productive, the organization realizes lower turnover, and all of this impacts the bottom line.
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?
Listening is #1 on my list. Reading this, people may be thinking, “I’m a great listener.” I’m here to say, Captain Fabulous, that you are probably not as keen a listener as you think. I’m talking about listening to people like they have never been listened to before. It doesn’t mean being quiet while you wait for your turn to talk. It doesn’t mean being quiet, nodding, and then saying, “I understand” (how do you know you understand? How do they know you understand?). It doesn’t mean being quiet and then declaring vacuous empathy such as, “That sounds frustrating,” or “Wow. That’s crazy.” It means setting an INTENTION to listen; managing your internal noise (not canceling it; managing it); and listening for two categories: (1) words as facts (the WHAT is being said), and (2) underlying emotions as facts (the WHY it’s important to the speaker). We have two ears and one mouth and should be using them in that proportion. Talking is sooooo over-rated.
Another is empathy, which I will flesh out in a bit. Simply put, empathy isn’t just a “nice to have.” It’s a business imperative.
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?
Rapport. Rapport. Rapport. It never goes out of style. Combined with genuine CURIOSITY, you can open some transformative dialogues and action steps. Building rapport is the top stepping stone I’ve seen hopscotched in this age of video conferencing. People “just want to get down to business / what’s important,” and don’t bother to take some time to build rapport. Then they wonder why they’re stuck. Rapport doesn’t need to be mundane small talk. Make it meaningful and authentic. If you don’t know who will be on the call ahead of time, find out! Conduct some quick internet sleuthing. Do they like dogs or golf? Can you recommend a travel podcast or ask what shows they’re binge watching? Prepare a collection of rapport building ice-breakers in advance. If operating on the fly, even asking someone the origin of their last name (and then LISTENING to the story) will do.
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?”
- As for THEIR ideas! They know themselves best. What do they enjoy? What are they good at? What obstacles are in their way? I recall a manager who wanted all of the attorneys on his team to be interchangeable and equally skilled at all tasks. So, he purposefully gave us assignments in areas where we were “weak” (his lexicon, not mine). This was incredibly demoralizing. Find out people’s joy and strengths and find ways to play to those attributes. You may discover that a little reshuffling of assignments produces more motivation, improved morale, and higher quality results.
- Provide ongoing feedback. Take it from an employment attorney: waiting for the annual performance review before providing feedback is an amateur move. First of all, you are likely not accurately tracking all of their work and many performance evaluations fall victim to recency effect. Second, have regular 1:1 meetings with individual members of your team. You will prevent problems from festering and hold them more accountable.
- Track caregiver status of the employees and create structures that support caregiving employees. Everyone is impacted by care work, whether you know it or not. Organizations are losing $35 Billion per year due to caregiving responsibilities of employees. Most companies don’t track caregiver status. As demand for care increases, employers need to look at the support structures they have in place to retain and support employees. The U.S. lags behind other industrialized countries with these supports.
- Ask employees about short term objectives and long term goals. Have them be as specific and vivid as possible. Can you create a pathway for them to advance in the organization, or will this job be a dead end? Would they already rathe be someplace else? My Labrador gets in the most trouble when he’s bored. A bored employee is one who will find trouble.
- Invest in mentorship and ongoing education. This dynamic is becoming a bygone of another era. More than a manager for people to report to, can you start a mentoring program within your organization? This benefits both the mentor and the mentee. Also, provide enrichment / continuing education opportunities (and even expectations!) so that your team is constantly learning and honing their curiosity and innovation (see “bored Labrador gets into trouble” above).
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?
Multi-generational workplaces are an embarrassment of riches. If you don’t believe me, schedule a team-building outing at an escape room. We went with my son for his 14th birthday. Our group of six was composed of four 14-year olds, my husband (an engineer) and me (attorney and linguist). The escape room coordinator assigned to our group told us, after we managed to escape successfully, that we had done so in record time. Why was that? What I noticed along the way was that there were puzzles that the teenagers were able to solve in short order because of how video games, TikTok views, and the like had molded their minds; then there was a binary code along the top perimeter of the wall that no one but my husband recognized; then there was a secret word cipher that only I decoded because of my many years of studying grammar of other languages. A team of six of our adult peers may not have even made it out of that room. A team of just the six teenagers . . . ditto. But working together with our combined experience — analog, digital, linguistic — made us unstoppable! If you have a multi-generational workforce, do not squander the power of those combined diverse skill sets and ways of thinking. Harness 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?
- Recognize that the brain has an ancient and sturdy negativity bias, and understand that it doesn’t need to be fed snacks. When you have a substandard experience at a restaurant, you’ll tell 10 friends about it. When you have a great restaurant experience, you’ll tell 3–4 friends. The brain feels negative feedback five times more powerfully than positive feedback. Inversely, that means that it takes 5 positive interactions to overcome one negative one. Imagine how employees feel about the workplace now that you understand how the negativity bias is already playing out in everyday interactions! Got workplace gossip? Eradicate it. It’s feeding the negativity bias and you will lose good people because of it.
- Don’t be stingy with praise or empathy. I’ve seen too many organizations adopt the policy of only minimally praising employees so that they always have an “out” to terminate them. While it is important not to falsely praise an underperforming employee (and to make sure they understand specifically how they need to improve, and exploring what support they need — see “get them to solve their own problem” above), withholding praise is dehumanizing and discouraging. People need to be appreciated. As with tapping into what motivates employees, it increases productivity, decreases turnover, improves workplace culture — all of which impacts the bottom line. Also, model and expect a culture of empathy. It reduces the “us” versus “them” paradigm that can take hold even in groups working together, decrease the stress hormone (cortisol) that the brain produces from the negativity bias, increase rapport, augment productivity.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
Look: buzz words and phrases that populate my social media feed in memes as click-bait are a pet peeve of mine. “Get out of your comfort zone” is one of them. Yes yes yes, of course you need to get out of your comfort zone to cultivate a “growth mindset,” but here’s a news flash: you’re not meant to live there. And many women (like me!) have been operating out of any semblance of a comfort zone for most of our careers. So, let me answer this question with some actual content and specificity:
Practice curiosity questions, empowerment questions, agency questions, and the language of empathy:
“Imagine if . . . “
“What would happen if . . .”
“How would that work? / Play that out”
“Tell me more”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I bet that took courage”
“What questions do you have” (instead of “Do you have any questions” — and then let the SILENCE sit until someone speaks. Pro tip: they DO have questions!)
“Please don’t interrupt her.”
“What tools are you missing to help you do your best work?
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
“You can’t win if you don’t play.”
Participate. If you wait until you think conditions (or your skills) are perfect, you are missing out on everyday opportunities for engagement, bonding, and the glory of failing. We learn more by doing things badly than performing them perfectly the first time. Play the game. I didn’t become a single digit index golfer (and I started learning golf at age 46) by spending years at the driving range before going out to play the golf course. You have to play the course and learn how to deal with real situations. I practiced enough to know I could make consistent impact with the ball and I trudged out there (again. usually the only woman in the foursome) and hit a ton of bad shots — IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE — before i started consistently hitting good ones. My score after my first full round of golf in 2017 was 146. I got that down to a low of 73 in 2021 because I kept showing up to play. Plus, you never know what might happen: I ended up as an ambassador for PGA Magazine on an all-expense paid 5-day golf trip in Hawaii.
And leaders: create a safe work environment for people to experiment, try, fail, recalibrate — without shame and punishment as the sword of Damocles hovers over them — within reason.
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?
Soooo many more what I call “Everyday Super Tips” (and original art by ME!) are in my splashy, stylish book, “For the Forces of Good: The Superpower of Everyday Negotiation.” It’s not just for business; it’s everybody’s business. And you can find me on LinkedIn or pactumfactum.com
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.