Set goals together: Our research found that workers in organizations with strong workforce cultures are 515% more likely to have discussed their career goals and growth with their managers in the last 12 months. There are a couple of points I’d like to draw attention to here.

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 Sarah Danzl, vice president of client marketing and communications for Degreed.

Sarah has been actively involved in the learning space for 12 years, leading marketing and communications efforts in both corporate and startup capacities. Prior to Degreed, Sarah served as the Senior Marketing Communications Manager at Xyleme, helping grow their comprehensive authoring system into the leading LCMS provider.

When she’s not developing new content, she can be found experimenting with new recipes, getting involved in a local nonprofit, or walking her two pit bulls at the base of the Rockies in Boulder, Colorado.

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 am evolving as a leader regularly which I think should be a key goal for all people but especially managers. There will always be ways for me to improve. A defining moment in my career was being put in charge of a small team at age 26 with no prior training, let alone experience. I quickly realized that I was going to have to own my success, knowledge and career. This is a lesson that has served me well in many respects: no one will care about your career as much as you, so you have to drive your knowledge and go after what you want and need. Ask for help when you can and need, and most importantly, speak up!

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?

For me, this quote embodies that there is no job that is too big or too small for any member of my team, myself included. For me, it’s important that my team has guiderails and direction to be successful, but that they drive their goals, role and outcomes.

We rise and fall as an equal team. I think this is best represented at my weekly team meetings, where we cover blockers. If someone has a blocker to success that involves needing support, we rally around that person and their initiative. It might mean all of us doing a social media push on a new asset, it might mean stuffing swag bags ahead of an event, it might mean partnering with the client organization to find customer speakers for an event. No matter, we swarm together to solve problems.

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

The leader as a manager is someone who acts as the bridge between the business strategy and goals, and their team’s objectives and output. They ensure that their teams are equipped to do their roles, meet their goals, and that performance remains on track (and, if not, take steps to remedy this). This necessitates skills in leadership, project management, reporting and more.

As a coach, the skill set is different. Leaders as coaches are there to guide and support team members in creating work experiences that suit their individual goals and aspirations. They understand what their team members want and need from learning and career development, then seek out relevant opportunities within the business, ideally aiming towards a win-win balance where individuals fulfill their aspirations and purpose while the business fulfills its objectives and strategy. Leaders as coaches need good skills in listening, collaborating and facilitating connections that grow their team’s skills and career opportunities.

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?

At Degreed, we are firm believers that skills drive performance. The three most essential skills are power skills, functional skills and hot transactional skills.

Leaders build power with human and professional skills that remain durable over time. Power skills, including decision making, analytical thinking and risk assessment, help solve complex problems — a crucial coaching competency. Power skills help to build and maintain relationships, collaboration, communication and engagement in active listening.

A coach heads a team; a team must work together and listen to one another.

Relationship-building establishes manager-employee workflows and is a key first step toward trust in leadership. This sets up successful coaching, which reduces conflict down the line. Power skills such as social influencing, persuasion, calculated risk taking, global thinking and cultural skills cement team-member buy-in. From there, a good coach will innovate via ideation, introduce the team to design thinking and prepare teams to overcome obstacles or pivot when necessary. Teaching lessons in cognitive flexibility show team members what is needed for change management — a power skill they can use throughout their careers.

Functional skills are core-subject-matter skills required to perform a specific job. These skills will help a coaching leader optimize employee performance depending on their department. In the right situations, functional skills can be transferred to perform other jobs in different departments. Sprinkling in some of these skills — even when they may not be immediately applicable to a team member or task — will coach up cross-functional collaboration, improve interdepartmental communications, provide insight and extend understanding beyond a small team to the entire organization.

There are also what we call transactional hot skills: high-demand skills that are required to perform critical jobs related to your business strategy but often have a short shelf life. Hot skills will assist in accelerating transformation, like cloud computing, data visualization, behavior-driven development and more.

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?

Our mission at Degreed is to “jailbreak the degree.” We inspire companies to move beyond credentials and connections as the only way of assessing an individual’s ability to do work; to recognize that all forms of learning — taking place inside and outside the classroom, throughout the workday — build the skills needed to do a job today and prepare for future work.

Degreed was formed to provide accessible skills training to employees to meet people where they are rather than mandating antiquated education standards. CEOs’ priorities are changing because college degrees do not define who is competent, nor who has potential; in fact, they limit leaders’ ability to see people’s potential. Only 41% of open U.S. jobs in late 2023 required a bachelor’s degree, down 5% from 2019, according to Burning Glass Institute. Large, successful companies like Google, IBM and Delta Air Lines are also removing bachelor’s degree requirements for roles.

Focusing on degrees negates the importance, prominence and power of other ways of learning, and also carries implicit bias. “Formal” education is out. On-the-job skills training is in. Leaders who build a future where learning is always accessible for upskilling, or reskilling, will reduce bias, increase professional development and secure business success.

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. Understanding your team: You cannot coach someone if you don’t know what they want and need. Spending time understanding your team will help you to find learning and development opportunities that match their aspirations and skill gaps. It also helps you shape their career journey in a way that suits them, while they remain at your organization. What works for one person may not suit another, so you cannot assume everyone wants the same progression and development opportunities. I provide my team with guidance and opportunities that match what they’ve told me in one-on-ones and performance discussions. One team member I had was adamant that they never wanted to be a people leader, so their learning and progression focused more on lateral opportunities. Likewise, I use Degreed’s Skill Coach feature (designed for team leaders) to understand the skills within my team and spot strengths and areas for growth.
  2. Active listening: This links closely with the first point, as you cannot fully understand someone’s goals without listening to them. This doesn’t have to be a formal thing. I often meet with my team for informal check-ins about how they’re feeling and about their learning and development, usually over coffee or while walking outside. Sometimes, taking a break from your desk for these discussions can help to create the atmosphere you need to really dig into someone’s goals and interests.
  3. Understand Team Skills: As a manager, you are well placed to find the learning opportunities that your team members need to fulfill their career goals. Recognizing their interests and aspirations, and understanding what the business needs, can help you spot areas where both sides can benefit. For example, investment group Prosus needed to improve its digital and AI skills. By offering relevant learning to developers interested in AI, the company has built 101 new career paths into AI and additionally raised technical literacy for thousands more non-technical colleagues through its AI for Everyone program.
  4. Set goals together: Our research found that workers in organizations with strong workforce cultures are 515% more likely to have discussed their career goals and growth with their managers in the last 12 months. There are a couple of points I’d like to draw attention to here. Firstly, you need to create the kind of team culture that facilitates these discussions. It needs to be a trusted space with no ramifications for someone who is honest about their career plans (such as leaving). Trust is everything in coaching. Secondly, career discussions cannot be a once-a-year effort. Goals change all the time, as projects end, learning is completed and workers experience something new. Having a regular check-in will help you remain updated with what your team members are considering as their next career step. This can be informal, over coffee, or a more formal 15-to-30-minute meeting every quarter, or at the end of every project.
  5. Find real-world opportunities: In a strong workplace culture, workers are 379% more likely to say that their manager found projects and assignments that enabled them to practice newly learned skills. Seek out on-the-job experiences that give your team chances to stretch their skills and try new things. It doesn’t have to be in your team; you can find stretch assignments or temporary redeployments in other departments, or you can offer volunteering and mentoring opportunities.

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?

This is where the Degreed platform shines: offering a unique path to everyone, tracking progress to provide motivation in an interactive way and rewarding people along their journeys.

In a multi-generational workforce, specialization matters. We help build an open ecosystem connecting best-in-breed tech as opposed to something that tries to do everything for everyone.

The latest generation entering the workforce, for example, is eating some serious humble pie. They have a diploma for good grades but no practiced or applicable skills. Academia has not kept up with skills-based workforce decisions, leaving new graduates ill-equipped to succeed at many top companies and organizations who may be further along in their digital transformation journey. Neglecting pipeline talent will saddle students with the outdated thinking taught in an antiquated, credentialed system. Targeted workplace learning will help close this gap.

It’s imperative to improve the employee experience across generations to produce overarching business results. We make it simple to connect an individual’s development to business impact through intelligent skill technology and high-touch services, because an engaged workforce is a more effective workforce.

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 would first look to build psychological safety with my team so that they feel they can be open and honest about anything that’s challenging or concerning them. This might be outside of work, or it could be blockers within the company that are preventing them from achieving their goals. With safety in place, people can share with transparency and confidence, without fear of repercussions.

Secondly, I am a strong believer in kindness and empathy. We are all humans, working together toward a common goal, and it’s important to recognize that. It’s non-negotiable on my team to be kind and empathetic to one another — that’s how you foster strong connections and a team culture that is understanding and inclusive.

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

I would say “human” because, increasingly, leaders are expected to understand and support their people as the whole individuals that they are. Because life doesn’t stop when you enter the workplace (especially in hybrid work, where the lines between home and work are increasingly blurred). Understanding this is how you get the best out of your team; it’s how you nurture them and create work experiences that build trust and loyalty.

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

There are two quotes on my desk that keep me grounded and inspired:

  1. A coffee mug from a treasured colleague that says, “Ask me about my dad jokes.” This reminds me to keep things light and remember to breathe and see levity where possible.
  2. A little framed picture that says “Give a damn. Give more damns than anyone else.” This is my reminder to work hard, work with integrity and care. It can be about my work, my team, who gets my time, my colleagues, but no matter what, give 100% of my time and focus to whatever I’m working on in that moment.

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?

My Degreed profile lays out skills, ratings, experiences, achievements and learning for a better connection than the here’s-where-I-work-now-and-here’s-what-I-used-to-do setup on LinkedIn. You can also follow me @sarahdanzl and Degreed @degreed on Twitter and check our blog.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.