Leadership Tips From A Top Executive Coach

Alisa Cohn
Photo courtesy of Alisa Cohn

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Remember, if you don't ask, you don't get. Hello everyone, Kevin Kruse here, welcome to the LEADx Show. This is the smartest way to start your day. I'm so glad you joined me, and don't forget; tell your friends. Especially your friends who are managers, they need to visit LEADx.org where we offer a free training video every single day, on things like, how to run effective meetings, how to get to inbox zero, who doesn't want to get to inbox zero? How to fix your open door policy; you know it's broken. And so much more.

Now today, I talked to an executive coach and I asked her, ‘What's it like working with the legendary Marshall Goldsmith, her advice for making the shift from an individual contributor to manager, and our challenge of the day which is based on her failure story, is to ask for something that you know you will get rejected. Be bold. Ask your boss or a customer or your spouse for something that you want, but you're scared to ask for, you just think you're never gonna get it. Even if you don't get it, you'll be strengthening your professional courage muscle and building some resiliency.

Our quote of the day is “Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputations, can never effect a reform.” Susan B. Anthony.

Our guest today is an executive coach who works with startup founders, CEOs, and executive teams on topics like executive presence, influence and decision making. She contributes to Forbes, Worth, and was selected as one of the top 100 coaches in the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Project, which she talks about in this interview. Our guest is Alisa Cohn. Alisa, welcome to the LEADx show.

Alisa Cohn: Thanks so much, Kevin. It's great to be here.

Kruse: Great having you, and we have a tradition on LEADx. All of our guests get the same first question, because I'm fascinated by failure stories. I always think that although they hurt and we don't know it at the time, I think most failures do, they're stepping stones to something else for us in the future. So, what is one of your best failure stories and what did you learn from it?

Cohn: I'm completely on the same page with you about failures being, although very difficult, something important for all of us, what we learn from it. So I think what I would share with you is, after business school I was at PricewaterhouseCoopers and I was a strategy consultant there, and I just realized ‘This is not it.' So I had to go out and seek out what was ‘it.’ So I found myself in two spots; I got two different offers. One was from Goldman Sachs in their Private Clients Services, and one was from a startup. And so I thought about it and I ended up taking the role with the startup.

And then after a week of chaos, I thought, ‘This was the wrong decision, what a mistake!' So I actually pulled myself together and I plucked up my courage and I called Goldman back. And I said, “I really made a mistake and I really want to come to you guys.” And he said no. He said ‘That was it and it was the opportunity you had,' and it was no. And we had this long conversation about it. That all said, I was devastated. I thought I had made a huge mistake and I thought that I really was very, it was very tumultuous, I would say, inside.

Nonetheless, I made a go of it and ultimately, when I reflect about it, I think that was the best thing that ever, him turning me down, that second time, was the best thing that ever happened to me. It really started off my first love and my true love with startups. I got a ton of leadership experience very early, in those kinds of environments, very early. I figured out how to roll with things and become resilient, and then also just the experience of plucking up my courage and asking again. And even being turned down was so impactful for me, it helped desensitize me to the word ‘no.' I realized, ‘Hey, it didn't kill you, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!' And I realized this is something that my mentor, Marshall Goldsmith tells me all the time: “If you don't ask, you don't get.”

And so I saw a lot of that and I reflect on that and I realize it was a very great experience, although extremely painful at the time. And the last thing I want to say is in that conversation that we had—it was like neon for me—in that conversation we had, he said two things to me. He said, “You know, part of the best reason that I thought you'd be good at this job,” and we were having a nice conversation, he wasn't making me feel bad. But he was saying, “Part of the reason is because you did stand-up comedy,” which I had done back in my early days in Boston, and he said, “That's gonna be the best training for you for this job.” And the other thing he said to me was, “Alisa, you have a superpower that you can organize things the way that you want them to be and you can really talk your way into different environments.” And that was a great take-away from that conversation, even though it ultimately ended with the word ‘no.'

Kruse: Wow, so much good stuff in there. I love this, ‘if you don't ask you don't get,' and yet, you said that you asked, got rejected, I didn't know your story was going in that direction, but you said you got stuff from that. You plucked up the courage to ask, to call back, and you didn't get exactly what you wanted, but you're like, “Okay, that didn't hurt, I survived,” and you got other things from it. This is almost on a personal note; stand-up comedy, so the first thing that's, for our listeners, is it's interesting to me that, it's interesting to me that something that doesn't look specifically work-related was come back, and you don't have to do all the normal steps to get into this career path. Banking, no less. And I'm wondering, we were talking before on the air about our mutual friend Dorie Clark. And I know Dorie's been experimenting with stand-up comedy last year. So that's just another coincidence between the two of you?

Cohn: Yeah, it's a total coincidence. It's a complete coincidence. And you know, she would, I also sometimes say in a group, ‘Oh yeah, I did comedy back in the day in Boston,' and she kinda forgets that. It's difficult. Dorie's actually, I think, embraced it a lot more than I did. For me, it was a time in my life that I just felt I gotta do something that's gonna scare me. And I thought of two things. I thought, I'm gonna take flying lessons, or I'm gonna do stand-up comedy. And I picked comedy. It was sorta cheaper and more stressful in the end, and I spent about a year in doing comedy in Boston and it was really awful, actually. It was really, really, really hard.

Kruse: But again, I imagine that you've learned lessons and it developed you in ways that you remember and can lean on even now.

Cohn: Without a doubt. And one thing I remember vividly, that I've taken my job now, as an executive coach, and as a facilitator, is ‘keep going.' Keep going. There was a moment where I was in the middle of facilitating something and I literally forgot where I was. Someone asked me a question or pointed out a flaw, and I thought, ‘The next time this happens, I'm gonna just keep going.' And I thought, ‘Wait, I could keep going right now.' And that's what I ended up doing. And it's a very useful skill to have to be on your, to do things on your feet.

Kruse: You know, I wanted to see Dorie, she just launched her, she's been on the show twice, so listeners will know who we're talking about. She just launched her last book, and I thought it was clever, her launch party was at a comedy club, and I know she did a set at the end, and I wanted to go so badly, both to support her and to see her set, but I'm still wondering what her material is about. I'll have to catch it.

Cohn: Yeah, in that particular one she actually was able to do, I think, more intellectual jokes because of the crowd there. It was really up to speed. She made a joke about Ray Dalio, as far as I can tell.

Kruse: Yeah, that one probably didn't go over very well at the regular stand-up crowd.

Cohn: Exactly.

Kruse: So in the spirit of giving more advice, what would you tell someone who is just making that move from being an individual contributor to a manager. They're now a first time manager.

Cohn: Oh, yes. It's such a rite of passage. First thing I would say is get ready. It's a humbling experience. Get ready to have been great at something and getting a lot of kudos for being great at something, and suddenly not being so great about it, being kinda awkward and all gangly arms and elbows and knees. And then I would also say that as an individual contributor, you are primed and you expect that all your achievement is going to come through your results. And that's normal. As a manager you have to shift your mindset so that you have to realize that all your results, or a lot of your results are gonna come through the results of others. So your achievement is measured in the results of others. That is a big shift to make, and you think you're gonna be in charge and all this power, you got no power. And as you get more and more senior, you're less and less connected to the work, and all you have is the ability to encourage and guide and coach and develop and inspire others to their results. That is, the sum total of that is your achievement and your result.

So it's a very different mindset. And then I guess I would just add that it's the easiest, my best advice is the easiest way to make that mind shift is to fall in love with developing other people. And to recognize and fall in love with the fact that this is a learning journey for you. And think about it as a process and not as an outcome.

Kruse: Yeah, that's great advice there. It is sort of a shock. I like the way you phrased that. As you continue to have career success, you actually get further and further away from the work. It's harder to just get it done yourself, just fix things, and you need to sort of let go of that expectation.

You'd mentioned Marshall Goldsmith a few minutes ago, and you were selected and have taken part in the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches program, so what is that?

Cohn: What is that? Well, I've known Marshall for about 14, 15 years. He's been a huge mentor for me and has really—I've worked with him shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches, so I've learned a lot from him. He decided just about a year ago to create this legacy project of Marshall Goldsmith's 100 coaches. It's a pretty big deal. There've been 14,000 applicants, and he's now selected, so far, about 60 of the coaches. It's really for him, a pay it forward project, that he wants to select these 100 coaches, teach them everything he knows, for free, and then expect that in the future we all have this mandate to pay it forward to others. As he always says, “When you get old like me, you're gonna have to pay this forward to others.” So it's like this sort of self-propagating, virtuous spiral. There are amazing people in the program. Keith Ferrazzi's in the program, there’s Herminia Ibarra who used to be Harvard Business School, is now London Business School. Whitney Johnson, Liz Wiseman, both are bestselling authors, and also just Monday, named to the top fiftieth of the Thinkers' 50 Top Global Thinkers in the world.

Just being part of this community and this network of like-minded people who all want to give back, who want to learn, really, at the creator, the inventor of the modern day executive coaching, and also to build a community to support each other. You mentioned Dorie and we were talking about Dorie; and Dorie's also part of the program, by the way. She is a role model and we are all, I think, ourselves becoming role models for how to support each other and create a meaningful bedrock of relationships that we can all use to advance the mission of figuring out how to make positive, sustained change in the world through our own different vehicles and talents.

Kruse: This is really remarkable. And the key points, again, that you bring up. Marshall's doing this, it's not like a course where anybody can pay their $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 and then you go spend a weekend or a week with Marshall Goldsmith, he's doing it for free, and he's selecting people that he thinks he can work with and that have already shown quite a bit of promise. So what's the program been like? How have you interacted with him, do you go and is it face to face, is it remote, are you reading things? I think a lot of people are curious about how he's administering the program.

Cohn: Yeah, well, I think it's sort of an evolving process, but so far what he's done is he's named a number of different weekends, and if you can make it you go, and if you can't, you can't. They've been in New York and in Boston and Phoenix, and we just had one in London last weekend where he brings us all together. He often brings in other of his clients and colleagues, like Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, Dr. Jim Kim, the president of the World Bank, and they share with us things they've learned from leadership along the way. We also saw Dr. Jim Kim's, his movie which is called The Long Arc, which is from the long arc of history, and sort of the documentary about what he did back in the day to cure TB, tuberculosis, in various parts of the developing world. Very inspiring.

And then we all, Marshall speaks also about his long career, how he's built up his brand, and also how he does what he does. He's very innovative from the point, and very simple, from the point of view that he gives everything away. He says, “You should use all of this, absolutely you should help each other, and I'm here to support you in doing what you want to do in using all this material to do what you want to do.” Also we do—I should say one more thing. We do a training specifically in the Stakeholder Centered Leadership, which he's known for, which is really a version of 360 Feedback, which has made really significant positive benefit for executives, in terms of understanding how they are perceived and figuring out how they need to be perceived to be successful. That was the basis of his first major book called What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

Kruse: Incredible book.

Cohn: It's an incredible book, and he's an incredible person bringing incredible people together. So what we're doing is, we're doing, I would say, in formal and informal ways, one thing that I don't think he expected, I'm not sure if I expected it. We're also just talking offline together. We're all doing calls together, we're meeting up informally. I'm from New York, so in New York we have a group that meets informally, in Boston they do, in other areas. And it's been very rich. I should just say that. It's a very rich program.

Kruse: That's incredible, and I think not only will he make an impact through this program, but it's such a great idea that I'm sure there will be others that do similar things. Setting up, larger tribes that are set up to pay it forward in the future. I think that's great.

Cohn: Yes, I'm sure that's true, yeah.

Kruse: I know every one of your clients is different, but I'm curious; what is something that either you see a lot and help people with, or that you like to teach when it comes to leadership?

Cohn: Well, I think it's along what we're just talking about. When you're a leader, you have to realize that your suggestions can come across as orders. So you have to be very mindful about what you say, and what you do, and how you come across, because when you're coming from the top, you feel like, ‘Oh, I'm just me.' But in fact, you're very much the role of the CEO or the role of the leader. And then the other thing I would say is that it's your mandate to make sure the pictures in your head are communicated to the pictures in everybody else's head, in the employees around you. And the way to do that, I'm sorry to say, is repetition, repetition, repetition. You cannot communicate too much. It's over-communicate, over-communicate, over-communicate until you're sick of it, and that's when they hear it. You can't just say, ‘Oh, I told them that.' No, it's not just that ‘I told them that,' it's also that you tell them that in one-on-ones, in small groups, in email, in person, in large groups. It's a way that you have to recognize that you're on-call to constantly be telling them the same message so they can see what you see.

Kruse: It's something I kinda chuckle at. First of all, I used to get zinged as a young leader myself about not repeating myself often enough, and I'll talk to CEOs or C-level folks and they're just shocked that every employee doesn't know the mission and strategy of the company. And I'll say, “Well, why are you shocked?” And they said, “Well, we rolled it out at the company town hall in January, we sent that memo eight months ago!” They think they did it once.

Cohn: It's in the policy manual!

Kruse: Right, it's in the policy manual. And now we say, I say, “Unless they are making fun of you behind your back by saying it over and over again, you haven't said it enough. Your goal is to have them all make fun of you for saying it so much.”

Cohn: That is the marker: Are they making fun of you behind your back? And also, when you say something in a meeting, do they all kinda roll their eyes and finish your sentence? Now you know.

Kruse: I like that. I like that.

Cohn: You got through.

Kruse: So Alisa, this is a lot of fun, and congratulations on all your success. How can we find out more about you and your work?

Cohn: Well you can come to my website, which is alisacohn.com, or follow me on, and follow me on Twitter @alisacohn.

Kruse: We're both chuckling at the ‘and not or.' Self-correction there. It's both, not one or the other.

Cohn: Right, and I love hearing from people. And I love hearing from people both in terms of, ‘Can I help anybody? Can I give you any thoughts or advice? Happy to help,' and then also, ‘What has landed for you?' I have seven years of different newsletters on my blog, I tweet all the time, what has been helpful and inspiring for you? I absolutely want to know from people.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.