Start listening. Our egos are loud and noisy. They want us to stand up and say listen to me! But to coach, we need to ask questions, listen to learn, and take time to truly understand those that we support. We think we listen, but we most often listen to speak. Listen to hear instead.

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 Rikki Goldenberg.

Rikki Goldenberg is an executive leadership and career coach based in the NYC area. As an International Coaching Federation certified coach, she partners with senior leaders who are re-evaluating their relationship with work, and helps them to flourish and grow into what they truly want out of life. In addition to her coaching, she also speaks — and has delivered talks on the growth mindset, discipline and resilience for start-up founders and the tech community.

Rikki’s background is in human centered service design, design research and strategy and has had the pleasure of working for -and with- top names to bring thoughtful and strategic solutions forward — with a speciality in healthcare, government and innovation.

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 this question! I still recall sitting in a leadership training program and was hesitant to raise my hand and admit that I myself was a leader. But I was! And I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t realized they were. There’s a clear moment that I remember it solidifying for me, though. I was in Stockholm, and had spent the week in review meetings, advocating for my two direct reports to be promoted. They were incredible colleagues; strategic, thoughtful, visionaries that were always pushing the boundaries on design.

The review cycle was tense. It was an organization that had strict requirements around when someone deserved the next level, and the decision was open to everyone in the room. I had spent weeks preparing, collecting proof that these individuals were top notch, top performers, and deserved it. I remember sweating in the room, so anxious to fight for them.

In the end, they both got the promotions they deserved, after lengthy deliberations. And that moment, when I was able to call them both (it was so late in Stockholm but I couldn’t wait!) and tell them they were getting exactly what they deserved…. That’s the moment I think about. I’m honestly still emotional when I remember the honor of being able to advocate for those two individuals. It was amazing to be able to stand up for them and ensure they got what they should. Incredible. I get goosebumps! Amazing people.

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 always think about this as “walk the walk.” If I don’t do it myself, I can’t expect my team to do it. Whether that’s something small like attending a required safety training or submitting my timesheets, all the way to taking a big risk on a project. You have to demonstrate to the team and folks that you work with that you take seriously what you’re asking them to take seriously.

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

A manager is focused on managing: controlling, maintaining, all-knowing. It’s essential at some organizations to thrive as a manager to fulfill the requirements of that organism. But when a leader is a coach, they shift into supporting their team to rise to the challenges that they individually want to face. When you’re leading as a coach, you’re empowering your entire team to take ownership and initiative. When you’re leading as a manager, you’re ensuring the entire team is doing what they’re supposed to do. It truly will depend on the team structure and the organization’s requirements, but, you can develop a culture of coaching anywhere. You just have to start.

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. That’s it. Leaders need to truly listen to their team. What are they telling you? What are they trying to tell you? Listen. Remain curious. Ask questions. Listen to hear and understand them — not to interject with your own opinions.

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?

When we work from a place of expansive growth and discovery, we move further than a fear-based approach. Everything tells us that more psychological safety and trust in teams creates better work products, more resilient colleagues, and, a heck of a lot more enjoyable days. When we focus on working on ourselves first, and then support others to do the same, we create an initiative of self-growth, comfort in the unknown, and willingness to explore risks. It’s going to be a lot more fun. And I like more fun. Simply put, do it yourself, and let others see how it plays out.

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?”

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

  1. You have to walk the walk. If you want your team to work on self-improvement and growth, you need to demonstrate that first. Use that budget for learning & development. Take time away from work to attend that conference! If you show everyone that it’s not only okay, but actually good to go and work on yourself it makes it easier for others to try it on. Often our team members came from organizations that were only offering lip service around employee engagement, rather than doing it — so you may need to break the team out of following the “rules” from previous organizations. And maybe for yourself, too.
  2. It’s about them, not you. Shifting from manager into coach means you’re focused on the individual’s goals rather than just your own. Of course, you have your own mandates of what you’re trying to accomplish as a leader, but, to shift into coach, we have to invite the team members into what they want, not what you think they should want. I had an incredible team member who I adored, but wasn’t happy in their role. Rather than pigeon–hole them in, we talked about their long-term goals and started to find opportunities that let them shine in the areas that were more aligned with their future plans. That’s good! It made them happy to be on the team, and more excited to commit to their work.
  3. Communication is king. Or queen! Part of shifting into coaching is the way we communicate. People cannot read your mind, so it’s up to you to ensure that you’re sharing perspectives clearly, consistently, and candidly. Over and over again. Your communication needs to be direct, repeated, and shared with everyone equally. One of the fastest ways to be a troublesome leader is when you share some details with some team members but not others. If you want to be coaching the team to their highest potential, they need to trust you. Communication helps get them there.
  4. Start listening. Our egos are loud and noisy. They want us to stand up and say listen to me! But to coach, we need to ask questions, listen to learn, and take time to truly understand those that we support. We think we listen, but we most often listen to speak. Listen to hear instead.
  5. You can break the cycle. We tend to prefer folks that are just like us — they’re easier to manage and understand — low effort! But, for great work and amazing teams, we need to bring in diverse opinions. We have to open ourselves to being challenged, for trying things in new ways. At most organizations, there’s an inadvertent feeling of hazing, “I did this, and so you should have to, too.” That doesn’t have to be true. You can opt to consider new hiring, onboarding, training, recognition metrics, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be what it was, and you don’t have to expect people to follow directly in your footsteps. It makes for better work.

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?

The biggest item here is in recognition that we all bring value to the table. Being aware that there’s a benefit to accessing these diverse opinions is wildly helpful. Those that have established careers can share when history is repeating itself, or, there’s a previous experience to be applied. Those that are fresher can entertain us with new approaches that have merit. And those that are playing in the middle? They get to tie it together! If we focus on the value that we bring, rather than the age, it’s a game changer. It is painful when someone dismisses a younger generation because they assume they “don’t get it”, while an older employee is dropped because they can’t “keep up.” Begin with empathy and awareness that there’s a benefit to our teams, ourselves, and our work to have different perspectives.

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?

Emotional intelligence I think of in two parts: inner, and outer. The first step is to work on yourself. Emotional intelligence needs to be applied with curiosity to yourself and how you function. You wouldn’t trust a doctor who isn’t taking care of themselves. So why should you trust a leader who isn’t checking in on themselves? Becoming more self aware and open to trying things is first. For example, you can’t dole out feedback without demonstrating your own reception and openness to it!

The second step is then applying it externally. One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate emotional intelligence is around thoughtful curiosity. To ask questions, without judgment. To cut through the stories you’re telling and understand the facts and truths that others are sharing. We want to apply our exact approach to others, but, if we can center the story not on ourselves, but on our team, we are able to be much more open to leading in a new way.

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

Oh wow, honestly, these past couple of years have been rough, haven’t they? Between managing a pandemic, shifting to remote work, navigating a season of layoffs… The most important thing that leaders can be doing isn’t about some fancy verbiage that makes us all cringe.

The real language that we need to see is action.

If leaders are listening, absorbing, understanding, and reflecting back what they’ve heard — coupled with taking action to support those learnings, that’s going to be the biggest shift. People are tired of hearing about initiatives and ideas that don’t take shape, or take shape over the next 5–7 years and then dissipate if any of the advocates depart from the organization.

The most important words leaders can use right now are ones that are backed up by action. We want more rapid changes to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

We care about diversity. Great, show it. We’re focused on reducing turnover. How? We want our employees to grow here. Amazing, I want to see it. Following up our words with actions is the most important thing right now.

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

“It is failure that guides evolution; perfection provides no incentive for improvement, and nothing is perfect.” From Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. It’s a lovely reminder that not only will we fail, but it’s GOOD to fail. It reminds me that we don’t have to spend so much time trying to hold tightly. It’s in the release that we can have more fun.

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?

Yes! They can find me on LinkedIn:, Instagram: and, I have a newsletter: The Learn Something New(sletter) where I pull out my learnings from books, articles, and talks to deliver bite-sized actionable insights to try on right now:

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