I believe if you have good teams, most people want to do good work, as they are human beings who want to feel that they’re accomplishing something meaningful.

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 Sonita Lontoh.

Sonita Lontoh is a public company board director with expertise in ESG, digital transformation, and cybersecurity. She currently serves on the boards of Sunrun, the largest consumer solar company in the US, and TrueBlue, a global workforce solutions company that in the past three years has connected more than two million people to work. She also serves as an advisor to Sway Ventures, a Silicon Valley VC firm investing in the sustainable transformations of foundational industries. Prior, Sonita spent almost three decades in a variety of global roles both at new, innovative businesses within global Fortune 100 companies such as HP, Siemens, and PG&E; and at entrepreneurial VC-backed Silicon Valley technology companies. She is a purpose-driven leader passionate about advancing technology for humanity and has led programs that have delivered positive impact to businesses, consumers, and society. She has been recognized by the White House and the US State Department; and has been inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame and the Women in Manufacturing Hall of Fame. Sonita is NACD directorship-certified, NACD-climate governance certified, Digital Directors Network cybersecurity-certified, and has completed the Stanford Directors College. She earned her Master of Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), her MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and her B.S. in Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

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?

My defining moments really started during my childhood. Both my parents were successful entrepreneurs who had built a very successful company. My mom was especially ahead of her time. What I observe from their leadership style was that they set a tone and a philosophy at the top that combined trust, risk-taking, and accountability, which in turn, contributed to the development of other leaders in the company. As I grew throughout my own leadership journey, from co-founding my own startup, to becoming a leader at several global Fortune 100 companies, to now in my portfolio life serving on public company boards and advising Silicon Valley venture capital firm and companies, developing others as leaders have become more and more important for me.

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 try to embody this by being a leader who not only talk the talk, but actually walk the walk. What truly sets great leaders apart from the mediocre ones is that they lead by example, they inspire and motivate their teams. I believe people in general respect leaders who practice what they preach and try to live by this guiding principle every day.

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

Managers usually leverages their positional power and controls to manage their teams to accomplish a goal. Leaders, on the other hand, influence, inspire, motivate, and enable their teams and others to contribute to a collective success. Moreover, leaders are intentional in coaching and developing others as leaders, not as followers. I have also found that when leaders are being intentional in coaching and developing others, they have a better chance of unleashing their teams’ positive energy, commitment, and innovation. This is a positive muscle that all leaders need to continue to develop.

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?

In addition to skills and competencies, I believe leaders also need to have a few characteristics and traits in order to be successful coaches. Overall, to be effective coaches, leaders need to have empathy, be trustworthy, authentic, and have high emotional intelligence, as well as strong communications skills. They also need to be able to practice active listening, which means not only do they listen, but they are also able to reflect on what they hear to be able to ask the right questions for exploration and provide feedback for development.

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?

The world that we live in is changing very fast. A myriad of challenges ranging from the pandemic, changing customer expectations, supply chain disruptions, economic uncertainty, and technological advancements have also necessitated leaders to upskill and reskill their workforce to be able to not only successfully tackle these challenges, but also turn these challenges into opportunities for long-term value creation. I think as a leader you need to have this mindset and vision and be able to clearly articulate this so that it sets the right tone at the top, which then will permeate to having the right mood in the middle, and eventually, the right buzz at the bottom of your organizations.

Let us 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?”

I believe if you have good teams, most people want to do good work, as they are human beings who want to feel that they’re accomplishing something meaningful. I believe the more you can help your teams see how they can combine their passion (what they like), with their skills (what they’re good at), to achieve a purpose (making a difference in the world), the more you as a leader will be able to inspire and motivate them to do their best work. One of the highlights in my leadership career was in the beginning of the pandemic, when the world’s supply chain was shut down. Our teams, together with our ecosystems of partners and customers around the world, rallied to quickly design and produce more than five million mission-critical healthcare applications in order to help healthcare workers and hospitals saved lives. This experience truly inspired and motivated the teams because they realized that their work, their contributions, mattered. I think it’s important for leaders to be able to link their teams’ work to how they’re making a positive contribution to the world.

We are 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 it all has to start with having and instilling the right mindset around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The framework that I believe the modern leaders should use in thinking about DEI really centers around answering the question of how best a company can create long-term sustainable value by authentically engaging with all of its stakeholders. So, it’s not only about gender or race or age per se, but it’s more about how companies can better navigate the modern challenges and opportunities of the 21st century by having more diverse skill sets, more diverse experiences, and more diverse perspectives in general. It’s about instilling a culture of inclusion that encourages diversity of thought, which then lead to more innovation, that create more long-term sustainable value. There are studies that have shown that diversity and inclusion made business sense. For instance, a McKinsey study found that gender-diverse and ethnically-diverse companies outperform industry norm by 15% and 35% respectively. There’s also another study by Deloitte that said that ~35% of millennials said they would leave a job for another job that has a more inclusive culture. You activate the collective potential by having this mindset of enabling diversity of thoughts for long-term value creation.

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?

The three pillars of emotional intelligence really center around self-awareness and self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Leaders need to be skill-full in these pillars and have a strong understanding of how their emotions and actions affect their teams and the people around them. Some steps leaders can take to demonstrate emotional intelligence is by showcasing their empathy, self-awareness, and self-regulations while motivating and guiding their teams.

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

The new, modern leadership language include phrases such as “Tell me more”, I appreciate you”, “What are your thoughts?” and “I hear you.” Moreover, leaders must also be mindful not to use divisive language. Practicing using inclusive language is very important in order to enable that diversity of thoughts and collaboration in the workforce.

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

“Leaders develop other leaders, not other followers.” This really resonates with me because at the end of the day, the pinnacle of leadership is truly about developing others as leaders themselves. A good leader or coach asks questions instead of providing answers, facilitates their team members development instead of mandating what needs to be done, and listen to their teams with empathy instead of judging them. When you develop others as leaders, more of the organization’s goals can be accomplished, while at the same time, you are also changing the lives of your teams as a whole.

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?

You can learn more and connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, and website.

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