Be flexible and pivot your communication style — as humans, we naturally communicate with others in the way we want others to communicate with us, and we lead in the way we want to be lead. The challenge — this approach will not work for everyone. Be aware of your approach, and be mindful of what others need from you. When you “speedread” their communication needs (or better yet, have a conversation to explore these), you can adapt your style to find a “way in” with them, especially if there is often friction or frustration in your interactions.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Schafer.

Michelle is an award-winning career coach and owner of Michelle Schafer Coaching , specializing in leadership development and career transition. Certified by the International Coaching Federation, Michelle is known for her ability to connect with people and develop individual coaching programs to help clients clarify their career goals, develop a job search strategy to find work that energizes them, empower employees, lead teams in a hybrid environment, establish positive relationships with others in the workplace and have challenging conversations. Clients describe her as warm, honest, empathetic, a good listener, able to create a safe and comfortable environment that helps people relax and talk openly, and ask thought-provoking questions to encourage curiosity.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

I’m excited (and a bit scared!) about the prospect of starting to write a book this year to help people navigate a career exploration. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, and others have recommended to me. So I’m thinking the universe is telling me this is something I should do! I’ve found a publisher that fits my style and approach, and would like to kick-start this massive project in the late fall. I look forward to sharing my expertise with others to help them in this overwhelming and exciting crossroads in their life.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

Great question! Reflecting on my whole career, I most remember one of my earliest leaders when I worked for TD Bank Financial Group. She recognized my strengths, and empowered me to take on new projects to develop my skills. She gave me a wide berth to meet objectives in my own way, and I could count on her to remove roadblocks and address challenges when they arose. She employed a coaching style (well before coaching became “big”!) When I was restructured from TD, she was the first one I approached to solicit guidance and advice on my next steps, and I was so grateful for her fresh thinking and transparency.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

One of the things I’ll share with my leadership clients is “start as you intend to continue” — be true to what you need early on, and all your behaviours and actions should align with that intention. The funny thing is I didn’t follow this guidance early on when I started my business. I value family time and setting boundaries around my work, in addition to focusing my energy on work I truly enjoy doing. When I launched my business, I went against all these things — I said yes to some evening and weekend work as a way of getting my name out there and said yes to a lot of resume writing work to pay the bills (and resume writing is one of the things that truly sucks the energy right out of me!). These learnings have really shaped how I establish and hold boundaries now — not just around my work day, but also with the work I accept. Now, I say no to evening and weekend work — and ditto to resume writing! I’m a lot happier and more fulfilled as a result.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

Leadership is no longer about control, or about “my way is best”. Now, leaders are expected (not just by the company, but also by their employees) to bring empathy, collaboration, curiosity, support, humanity and encouragement to their leadership. And if leaders aren’t bringing these qualities, team members are seeking companies who employ leaders who do. Leaders can say “How can I help?”, “what challenges are you facing?”, “how are YOU?” (and not meaning how is the individual in the context of their work), “if you say yes to X, what are you saying no to?” or “What ideas do you have/how would you solve this problem?”.

Leadership is a journey — not an event. As a leader, it’s critical to continue learning, adapting and applying knowledge. I’ve participated in leadership development programs, and work extensively with leaders to explore their challenges in both 1:1 coaching sessions and in groups. But if I don’t bring this to my interactions and conversations, I’m not a leader. Leading by example is key, and modelling leadership behaviours to others. When I work with my leadership clients, or facilitate leadership development workshops, I model active listening, empathy, asking powerful questions and feedback delivery. This way people can experience leadership in action — what it looks like, and what it feels like.

In our rushed world, it can be hard to slow down. And yet slowing down is the best thing a leader can do to enhance their emotional intelligence — and having a high degree of EI is key for all leaders today. Pause, observe what’s happening, and reflect. What was your contribution in that situation -and what’s one thing you could build on/do differently next time? Reflection heightens awareness, and awareness is the precursor to development and change.

Leaders can also intentionally dial into the experience of the other person. For example, if a team member shows frustration, ask yourself “What’s most important to this team member, in this moment”. This shift in perspective also creates awareness and can help leaders better understand the responses and reactions of team members. The magic is in the communication — talking to the team member after to explore how they are, can demonstrate a leader’s ability to be fully present for their team and their commitment to support.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behaviour you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

This is a tough one — the sign of a great question, when it makes you think! I would say it’s the need to follow closely, in a way that shows a lack of trust in the other person. It’s not intentional, and yet it comes up on occasion (especially when I’m stressed). When expectations are clearly communicated, and team members know you are there to address challenges, closely following the completion of work becomes less of a priority and providing support and encouragement becomes more important. Now if I could only apply this approach more consistently to my two teenage boys (this is a work in progress! ☺)

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

Coaching — hands down. Leaders need to bring a human element to their leadership today — it’s more than meeting strategic objectives or communicating a vision. And in the career transition work I do, I see that people leave leaders — not jobs. Leaders today need to be emotionally intelligent — to be able to understand the experience of the other person, and all the emotions that go with it. In “coach-speak”, I like to say this is “seeing as” (borrowed from my Integral coach training) — being able to see the world from the perspective of the other person, as best as you can. Leaders can demonstrate curiosity — to ask questions, and listen intently — and both of these show a leader’s ability to be fully present and ready to support team members. All of these behaviours and qualities will support leaders to be more effective coaches — empowering team members to contribute and solve problems, and heightening their engagement.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

It can be really hard to make a shift or change — awareness is the first step. I recommend having leaders become more observant about their leadership — what are their approaches, and how do others respond? Then strive to transition your leadership from a “firefighter” approach to a “gardener” approach. A firefighter leader jumps into action the minute smoke is detected, suiting up for the fire. Firefighter leaders solve the problem independently (often quickly) without soliciting assistance from others.

On the flip side, gardener leaders create the right conditions for their plants (employees) to thrive. They empower them to contribute and take charge, and ask questions that provoke thought and demonstrate curiosity. They are open to ideas from team members, and encourage them to champion and lead the development of solutions.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

The biggest challenge I see with leadership clients who are new to leadership is the hesitation to let go — to allow others to move forward on projects and learn from the experience, or relinquish control over things they feel they need to have the final say on. There is a need to transition from being an operational/hands-on leader to a strategic one. This is not easy! If you realize you are “in the weeds” and need to allow your team members to do more, start by asking yourself “am I the only one to add value here?”. If the answer is yes, then keep this work. And if the answer is no, then start to make a plan on how you will transition this work to others, and what they need from you to be successful and confident. As much as it may be easier to do the work yourself, doing too much will bog you down. By getting team members more involved, you are developing their skills, building their confidence, and creating space for you to plan and strategize.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?

Do I have to limit myself to five? ☺

  1. Create psychological safety — in order to create a high-performing team, leaders need to create an environment where team members feel comfortable to raise challenges or make mistakes. And the foundation of this environment is trust — engaging in activities and behaviours that enhance trust, and avoid behaviours that erode trust. Simply asking “What am I missing?”, “let’s hear some dissent”, “this is new so we will make mistakes” or “I need help” can go a long way in creating that safety. To add to the leader toolbox, I highly recommend “The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully By Being More Human” by Karolin Helbig and Minette Norman — the 25 “plays” outlined in the book are easy to implement ways to enhance safety in teams. And when leaders model these behaviours, it makes it easier for others to demonstrate these behaviours, too.
  2. Demonstrate resiliency — Leaders who can communicate the message “This is tough, but we will be okay” can help team members navigate the ups and downs of a challenging situation. This is not ignoring the problem; rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the challenges and showing confidence in the team’s ability to navigate these challenges. During a large-scale restructure, I worked with a leader whose own job was on the line, in addition to the jobs of her team members. Although it was an uncertain time for her personally, she showed our team through her resilience that we could all get through this together.
  3. Show support, empathy and demonstrate vulnerability — Team members need to feel like their own needs matter, and that their leader truly cares about them. Ask team members what they need — then listen, and act. Team members need to feel that leaders are genuine and authentic, and not just paying them lip service. One of my leadership clients shared how her leader checks her phone and emails when in their 1:1 conversations. Demonstrating an inability to listen can have disasterous results (especially in turbulent times) when team members need to feel like leaders are really there for them.

Be vulnerable and ask for feedback — to draw out peak performance in others, you need to be open to receiving feedback which helps to create psychological safety and shows team members you are committed to learning and developing. You can ask “what would you like to see more of from me? Less of from me?” then be ready for what team members share. Actioning their feedback will be key to building trust in your working relationship.

4. Deliver recognition and constructive feedback in a clear and kind way — I see leaders miss opportunities here in two ways: not jumping on delivering recognition feedback at the moment (or not being specific enough) and hesitating to deliver constructive feedback because it’s a challenging conversation they want to steer clear of. Ask yourself “what would the impact be if I didn’t deliver this feedback” (likely not good for the individual, the team or the business as a whole) and “What would open up if I did “ (likely the opportunity to clarify expectations, explore what’s happening and uncover new solutions). When recognizing team members, go beyond “nice job” or “well done” — be specific about their contribution and the value they bring. When delivering constructive feedback, use the framework “I notice…”(share your observations — these are facts), “the impact is….” (share the impact of their actions — better yet, ask your team member what they feel the impact is) then explore the “why”, what they are willing to do/what they need from you, and gain a commitment from your team member about who is doing what by when.

5. Be flexible and pivot your communication style — as humans, we naturally communicate with others in the way we want others to communicate with us, and we lead in the way we want to be lead. The challenge — this approach will not work for everyone. Be aware of your approach, and be mindful of what others need from you. When you “speedread” their communication needs (or better yet, have a conversation to explore these), you can adapt your style to find a “way in” with them, especially if there is often friction or frustration in your interactions.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

I believe we all do the very best with what we have in a given moment, and each day we get out of bed wanting to do our best. So our masterpiece on Monday may look very different than the masterpiece we create in our day on Friday of that same week. We have gifts and talents to share — each day is a masterpiece if we are sharing those gifts.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

Two years ago, I listened to a podcast by Brene Brown that featured leadership expert Doug Conant. He shared a quote which I taped to my wall: “Your life story is your leadership story”. So true.

I want others to remember me as someone who listened intently, stayed fully present, provided support, and encouraged others to contribute and grow. Leadership is authentic to the individual — I am hoping others will experience my authenticity and genuine approach.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

LinkedIn is one of the best places, as I regularly post on this platform on both career transition and leadership topics. Other places are Brainz Magazine, as I contribute articles and thought leadership on a monthly basis, and my website. I’ve included the links here.

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