Build trust through empathy — Show empathy and understanding for the person to build trust. Trust opens the door to innovation and growth.

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 Sunil Kasturi, Chief Growth Officer at Propeller.

Sunil Kasturi is a gifted leader — using equal amounts of compassion and inspiration to inspire growth and drive results — in both Propeller employees and the firm’s clients. He lives by the belief that he gets more out of helping others than they receive from him. As Propeller’s Chief Growth Officer, Sunil champions Propeller’s operational growth while overseeing client accounts and the firm’s accelerated expansion into new U.S. markets. As a collaborative business partner to CEO Amy Weeden, Sunil is a trusted and highly respected catalyst for expanding the capabilities of a gifted leadership team and a fast-growing bench of skilled consultants.

Prior to joining Propeller in 2013, Sunil held high-profile leadership roles for Microsoft, ACME Business Consulting, and Intel, where his work in IP telephony earned a patent. He holds an MBA from Duke University, a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Iowa, and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Science.

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?

There hasn’t been one critical inflection point that defines who I am as a leader, but rather a collection of experiences, learnings, missteps, and growth that has led me to where I am today.

During my career, I have been exposed to opposite ends of the leadership spectrum. Some have been demanding and allowed me to grow but lacked empathy and didn’t understand the roadblocks I was experiencing. Others were too empathetic and didn’t push me, which can lead to stagnancy.

These experiences have made me a leader focused on balance, one who guides with equal parts empathy and engagement, as well as results and action.

This is especially important as a consultant leader, where I’m constantly anticipating our clients’ needs and solving them with our internal staff and capabilities, while also focusing on the career development of our people — which is critical in a high turnover industry. All these pieces are interconnected and influence each other. Today’s leaders must understand how to balance them.

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?

Showing and going leads to the knowing. In a highly dynamic consulting environment, you don’t always know the way right off the bat. But taking a stance and using the available information to make the educated first steps needed to begin solving the challenge with your team is important as a leader.

At Propeller, one of our core values is to harness grit. And I embody that, working with my people to march towards the same goals with the same values. We embrace grit together. If you’re going to ask your people to do something, especially something challenging, you need to be ready to do it with them and guide them along the way.

For growth to happen, especially as a leader, you need to constantly be learning. When you go the way, you need to internalize what you’ve learned, both successes and missteps. This allows you to guide folks authentically — not purely from instinct but from deep experience.

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

When leading as a coach, conversations are more open-ended. You’re painting some possibilities, asking questions, and relying on the individual to come up with the answers and commit to implementing them.

Leading as a manager is more transitory. People are just doing what they’re told and not going through an entire thought process.

All leaders need to employ a little of both: acting as a manager to ensure the work is being accomplished and we’re achieving the desired results, but not telling our people exactly how to get there.

Coaching prompts people to come up with the answers. It sticks better because their transformations are created by themselves. It also leads to more engaged employees and better results.

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?

High emotional intelligence is an essential skill for leaders. To coach, you need to understand the individual — who they are, where they’re at, and personal things in their life outside of work. Then juxtapose that with the working environment, which, for us, involves both our own internal culture and the client’s. When you’re in tune holistically with the individual, you’re able to truly coach and guide them, resulting in better relationships, improved collaboration, and more productivity.

Leaders must also practice active listening. The voice in your head might want to chime in — but you need to assess when to do so and when to let your people arrive at their own answers.

Another critical skill is being results-oriented — ideally paired with emotional intelligence. Once you understand the person you’re coaching, you need to set a common goal. It helps generate external momentum and enables people to self-guide.

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 like your choice of the word “inspiring” because inspiring is core to coaching. It makes me think of the GROW model. You start with the goal — the inspiring part, the why. But part of the inspiration is defining what’s in it for me. And being very transparent about the benefits across all levels — for the individual, the leader, and the company. This sets the right stage for performance.

Companies and leaders also need to understand and communicate that not all career journeys are linear. We do a lot of career lattice work for clients to encourage a mindset that growth and learning aren’t always a straight path.

Finally, learning and development shouldn’t be a once-a-year conversation. It should be woven into your conversations as a leader about ways that individuals can gain new skills and uplevel themselves.

As a company, Propeller is heavily invested in growth. We’re constantly setting goals that are achievable yet stretch and challenge us. That mindset is woven into our culture and modeled by leadership at the very top — which has a trickle-down effect, inspiring folks throughout the firm.

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. Connect to a purpose or common goal — If everyone has a clear understanding of the purpose or goal, we all get better. You’ve set the mark or metric to collectively achieve.
  2. Build trust through empathy — Show empathy and understanding for the person to build trust. Trust opens the door to innovation and growth.
  3. Build off themes — Never miss an opportunity for a 1:1 and take notes so you can identify themes and build off them to facilitate growth.
  4. Provide fair and clear feedback. Feedback should be appreciative, constructive, consistent, and clear. If issues or problems arise, course correct immediately and transparently.
  5. Lead by example — You can’t ask others to do hard things and stretch themselves if you’re not willing to do the work, too.

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?

Don’t discount experience — on either side of the equation. If you’re coaching someone younger, listen and ask questions. Pay attention to how they solve the problem — it may be creative and different and result in a better process or outcome. When leading someone with more experience, lean into their expertise by asking the right questions.

Most importantly, don’t sell yourself short as a coach. In the coaching process, you’re not dictating, you’re committing to a process and allowing individuals to express themselves and participate in their own development. You need to trust in your ability to facilitate that conversation and lead folks to good outcomes.

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?

Empathy and a clear vision. First, gain an understanding of where people are coming from and their motivations; then, meet them where they are. At the same time, you also need to have high standards for what you want to achieve. Set the vision and clearly communicate the expectations.

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

Results and growth. Leaders need to support employee growth through empathetic conversations, understanding goals, and painting the vision. This helps the individual, their teams, and the organization all experience success.

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

“There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

I think this quote is an important reminder to leaders. I would ask any leader: how often do you find yourself speaking rather than listening? If you’re not listening, you’re not learning and therefore not growing. And more importantly, you’re not allowing others to grow.

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?

The best way to stay connected with the work I’m doing — and coaching others through as well — is at You can connect with me personally on LinkedIn at:

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