Human behavior over frameworks: I’ve had the pleasure of leading multiple clients and organizations through a lot of change.

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 Melissa Goldner.

Melissa Goldner is a Service Leader, Mother, and Partner at a growth and strategy consulting organization called Prophet Consulting. She is most commonly sought-after to lead large scale transformations coaching executives and their teams to bring goals to life in a human way. She is often described as an empath on steroids and believes true leadership is lifting those around you.

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 should probably start by defining what I believe it means to be a leader. A leader is not title-based. A real leader lifts others around them, amplifies the voices of unsung heroes and historically marginalized groups, removes barriers for others to thrive, and multiplies the scale and impact of leaders by creating more of them.

The most defining moment that shaped who I am as a leader was when I was a poor example of one and a woman on my team called me out. It was my first job out of college. I had grown very quickly in the organization. I was achievement-oriented and cared about the velocity of my career growth vs the impact of my short sightedness on my teams and company. When my colleague pointed out the error in my ways, I was abhorred by who I had become. I was the Head of People at a consulting organization and was failing at the most important part of my job, the people. When I recognized this, I was desperate to change my ways. That constructive feedback as well as my former colleague were true gifts as they helped define the remaining part of my leadership journey.

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?

In complete transparency, I don’t believe I fully know the way and that’s 100% OK. I’m still learning, and I hope to for the rest of my life. I believe once a leader thinks she or he knows everything, that’s when they stop growing. I believe in leading by example and investing time to coach and equip others with as many tools that might aid them in their paths of growth.

One way how I embody this is creating space before any project to meet with the individual team members to understand their likes, dislikes, short-term and long-term goals. It’s important for me to get to know people as a whole human vs just a member of the team. This way I can carefully craft or recommend responsibilities for the project that is aligned with their personal and professional objectives.

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

A leader as a manager is more directive. They tell people what to do often without consideration for the person or team. A leader as a coach asks questions, they listen more than they speak, they create a psychological safe environment where people can show up as their authentic selves. They trust their teams and allow the space for learning and mistakes.

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?

Active listening skills and cultural intelligence. Active listening is important because it creates trust and makes people feel valued and understood. Not only does it set a good example, but it also creates a safe place to drive innovation and ultimately better decision making. Cultural intelligence recognizes that different members of your team may have different ways of thinking or expressing themselves. Understanding how a team member’s culture differs from your own makes you a more inclusive, supportive, and effective.

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 believe it’s important to start with each person’s “why” and connecting that with the team’s north star. There’s an African proverb that comes to mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to far, go together.” Once we are all moving towards the same direction, there’s more clarity on the skills and capabilities we collectively need to reach our goal.

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 . Create a psychologically safe environment: Have you ever joined a company or meeting where you felt like you had to “cover” a part of yourself, where you were fearful of judgement or being misunderstood? Now compare that to a time where you felt free to show up as your authentic self. How did that impact your ability to participate, co-create and innovate? I remember being a member of a team where the leader was toxic and led through fear. One of my team members ended up hospitalized due to panic attacks, another ended up taking anxiety medicine to make being in the same room with the person more tolerable. Others including myself were ready to leave their jobs with no backup jobs. I felt like I had no autonomy and that I was just a number, a body there to churn out work as fast and accurate as I could.

At Prophet Consulting, we have embedded a ritual called a SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness) as part of our operational best practices. SCARF is a neuroscience-based model built around 5 social domains that drive productivity and engagement at work. The purpose of SCARF is to create a teaming environment that is open, honest, and safe for all team members to express how they are feeling. Team health matters.

2. Make it a habit to meet 1:1 with your team members: I read a book that introduced the concept of an employer and employee “tour of duty” where the employer and employee come up with a social contract that defines how each party adds value to each other. This inspired me to create a best practice to invest 1:1 time with each team member to better understand their goals, desires, pet peeves, and what they’d like to learn. Based upon what they say, I try to provide them with opportunities on the project to stretch their thinking and increase their experience based upon their personal and professional goals.

3. Co-create a Team Charter: One of the things I’ve learned over time in the field or Organizational Effectiveness is the importance of inclusion and communication. One of the tools that I’ve found useful is co-creating a team charter. A team charter is a way to define your team’s objectives, resources, and align on ways of working. A few years ago, I was put on a cross-functional complex project in mid-flight that was experiencing “teaming issues”. On day 1, I quickly realized that multiple members had different definitions and expectations on their roles, responsibilities, and what success looked like. We were able to reinvigorate the team by co-developing a team charter, aligning on our team’s goals and objectives, how we were going to get there and identifying what barriers we needed to remove. We posted the charter in our team space and kept each other accountable. We were able to re-direct the team towards one singular goal while reinvigorating the members at the same time. It’s been a practice of mine I’ve kept up with through different companies.

4. Human behavior over frameworks: I’ve had the pleasure of leading multiple clients and organizations through a lot of change. Want to know a secret? I’ve never really played by 100% by the rules and used my toolkits in the way I was taught via professional training. A Change Impacts Analysis is often a sought-after change management activity that is requested by clients navigating complex change. What it does is help you understand the impacted stakeholder groups and gives you the ability to map out what are the benefits or barriers to get from the current state to a future state. You can then take this information and produce strategic communication plans and figure out what are the necessary resources to support people through the given change. The problem of this tool is that it doesn’t take in account the reality of the whole human. A given stakeholder or person is likely going through multiple changes at the same time. For example, they may be experiencing something personal, or a financial transformation, a technology system change, hybrid working, COVID, as well as four other priority projects plus their full-time job. It is important to understand the macro environment, what may be happening in the world, internal and external politics, that may be impacting the person’s ability to absorb information and change. Historical change frameworks are fundamentally broken as they only look at part of the person, usually by just the role or department. If you really want change, you truly need to meet people where they are, as a human.

5. Celebrate successes and failures — what the F: I had an incredible opportunity to help navigate a major CPG client through an agile transformation. Part of that transformation required us to introduce and embed new ways of working. This company was notorious for having a culture that was all about driving performance which often incentivized leadership behaviors that contributed to poor morale and lack of engagement across teams. According to engagement survey data and stakeholder interviews, it was indicated that people were afraid to experiment new ways of working and employees were afraid to take risks in fear of failure. We quickly recognized a need for a leadership culture change. The organization started to experiment with a new ritual: What the F (failure) on Fridays. Each leader would take turns describing a “failure” at a weekly town hall and explain how these lessons helped them get to where they are today. By changing the narrative and sentiments around the concept of failure, employees felt more comfortable taking risks, raising their hands, contributing creative ideas and solutions.

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?

I think there are multiple ways to do this. I’ve done this formally for clients where you study the attributes of specific generations like Gen Z, etc. Many brands seek to understand where these people shop, what passions they have, and what communities they are in. I also believe you can do this informally where you create the space where people can share their experiences, needs and desires. It is important for all of us to appreciate the contributions of each generation while respecting the differences in behaviors that each generation displays.

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 firmly believe if you care about someone, you will automatically always try to do the right thing. For me, it’s creating the space for people to feel comfortable being their authentic selves and intentional active listening.

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

Understanding the power of inclusion.

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

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” — Dr. Maya Angelou

This quote means a lot to me because we all have our stories to tell. There are still many people in the world that aren’t provided the opportunity to use their voices so if this means standing up for myself, or speaking out against an injustice, even when it’s scary, I’m going to do it. It’s a responsibility I take seriously.

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?

Add me on LinkedIn and send me a message:

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