Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration: Christina Curtis of Curtis Leadership Consulting On How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine

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Understand their why. Knowing what excites and inspires them is fundamental to performance.

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 Christina Curtis.

Christina Curtis is a thought leader on motivation and goal attainment, regularly contributing to the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Psychology Today. As an accredited Master Coach with the International Coaching Federation — a designation held by only 1 percent of business coaches worldwide — Christina’s clients include executives from Google, KPMG and Xerox. In her new book CHOOSING GREATNESS: An evidence-based approach to achieving exceptional outcomes, Christina shares the science behind the choices we make that lead to greatness and success. Christina has a master’s in organizational psychology from the University of London and a bachelor’s degree from Queens University. Christina’s approach to success is based in science and psychology. By understanding how our brains work, she has been able to make some of the most successful business leaders reach the next level of success.

Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. 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?

We are all drawn toward certainty. It’s how we are hardwired! Without it, we become anxious, and our thoughts begin to ricochet around, analyzing one risk to the next. One fascinating (albeit ethically questionable) study found that participants who were hooked up to electrodes and told with certainty that they would receive an electric shock were less stressed than those who were told the electric shocks might happen. Even if predictability isn’t pleasant, it somehow feels safer and a little more secure!

As a leader, our job is to create that sense of certainty for others about the future. That sense of hope of what’s to come. This means crafting out:

  • What success looks like: turning a mishmash of “maybes” and hopeful ambitions from grayscale into popping Technicolor. A vision bright enough to not only see the summit but several of the footholds required to get there.
  • Why that vision matters: tapping into the purpose and payoff of achieving the goal to enhance energy and commitment.
  • How to get there: laying out the strategy in a way that’s easy to remember and retain, synthesizing it down to 30 words or less so it can be repeated. Only then will it truly start to influence decision-making and behavior long after you have left the discussion.

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

It’s not about being the smartest person in the room. That just limits your reach and potential! It’s about finding the people who can bring the strongest thinking forward and then harnessing the collective genius. One might say that a manager has all the answers, but a leader knows the questions to ask and brings the energy required to get there.

Leaders get people focused not just on what they are doing today, but on what’s possible to achieve in the next 6 to 12 months. While we all have great ambitions, crossing that divide from here to there requires a little inspiration. There’s a reason we tend to get the same feedback year after year, change is hard! Leaders help people clearly see where change is needed and why it’s so important. That way they are motivated to hold that discomfort and still choose change.

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?

The brain is designed to be highly efficient and won’t make new decisions if the old ones worked just fine. That’s why we operate 40% of the time on autopilot, plugging in the coordinates of where we have been vs where we want to go. Coaching gives people the time to take back the controls!

The goal is to inspire someone to disrupt their thinking, breaking apart previous patterns and pulling a new, fresh stream of ideas and insights in. To effectively navigate coaching conversations:

  • Prepare key questions that will elicit meaningful responses other than yes or no. The better the question, the better the results.
  • Send questions in advance so the individual has time to process and think, making connections that might not immediately have seemed obvious.
  • Build upon their answers rather than tearing them down. Otherwise, they will likely stay quiet in meetings, not share their ideas, and continue to hold back, unsure of how their thoughts might be received.
  • Provide encouragement and acknowledgment where possible. To perform at our best, they need to feel valued, seen, and heard.
  • Say what needs to be said. Hold up the mirror and reflect back what you are really hearing; sometimes they may be missing the roadblock that’s right in front of their eyes.
  • Set time aside once a quarter to focus on skill development vs task management. This demonstrates a commitment to helping them grow toward their goals as well.

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?

It’s an interesting question because people often confuse being kind with sugarcoating feedback. They deliver it in such a way that it can be hard to unpack and act against.

Kindness and respect don’t equate to saying nice things all the time. If I am struggling in an area, it is not nice to let me struggle! Instead, provide me with the information I might be missing to absolutely crush this task! Here are three things I would recommend:

  • Demonstrate respect at all times, regardless of how someone is performing. They have earned the right to be treated with dignity and sincerity.
  • Provide candid commentary in relation to a behavior or action, not the person involved. You can run hard at a problem; they can handle a ton of intensity! People cannot. Create the experience of standing shoulder-to-shoulder and challenge the problem together vs coming at the individual like a freight train.
  • Ask about people’s purpose, aspirations, and ambitions, so you can be in service of their growth in the areas that matter most! That way they can stretch toward the next layer of progress and know it is not only benefiting the company but their goals long-term.

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?”

There are four steps to supporting someone in achieving peak performance:

  1. Sharpen their focus. Clarify what success looks like and the milestones required to get there. Without this clarity, they can move a whole lot, but not necessarily forward faster.
  2. Understand their why. Knowing what excites and inspires them is fundamental to performance.
  3. Write those goals down and the milestones required to get there. Simply writing down goals makes them 42 percent more likely to achieve them.
  4. Eliminate what isn’t critical. A simple phrase to remember throughout your day is value over volume. Where will you get the greatest return on your effort, energy, and intellect?
  5. Acknowledge wins, no matter how small. This primes the brain to see what’s working, increasing overall energy despite setbacks and headwinds.

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?

As pack animals, we’re hardwired to work better together. With allies around us, research has shown that we take more calculated risks, are less likely to burn out, and persist 64 percent longer when pushing tasks to completion. And yet we aren’t all the same — so how do we accept one another’s differences in a way that can propel us forward vs hold us back?

  • Get people out of the office. Having connection time outside of work helps people build trust and create a sense of connection. Without trust, you will quickly see team members moving to a place of self-protection vs goal-directed behavior. People move into silos, point fingers and place blame.
  • Complete personality profiles at the team level. These are a meaningful way to unpack multi-generational differences without personalizing them so that people understand one another’s drivers, work styles, and motivations.

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 helps us read between the lines, listen for what’s not being said, and know how to respond effectively. Three tips to enhance yours?

  • Watch the body language in the room. All too often at work, we are moving so fast that we miss critical cues along the way.
  • Say what needs to be said in an assertive manner. Avoid a passive or aggressive approach, neither lead to generating effective long-term results.
  • Seek to understand rather than standing to be understood. If you find yourself repeating the same thing again and again, either you are missing something they are saying, or you aren’t framing your message in a way they will respond to.

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

Leadership has changed more in the past five years than it did in the previous five decades. Science has shown us the benefits a more connected, confident, committed workforce can bring. I’ll never forget my first job where my boss called and was yelling so loudly through the phone that my roommate could hear it down the hall — not the type of story we hear very often anymore!

As a leader, it’s important to recognize that everything you say will be amplified. A negative message will land harder. A positive comment will be worth its weight in gold. If they don’t believe you have their best interests in mind, then they will have their defenses up in your presence, activating the parts of the brain responsible for self-protection, rather than leaning in lit up, ready to engage.

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

My favorite quote is from Kim Rivera, the Chief Legal Officer at OneTrust. In the Harvard Business Review article I wrote, I interviewed Kim about taking on such lofty goals. She had said:

“I go into a situation with my eyes wide open knowing that it may exceed the limits of my intellect, the limits of my emotions and that sometimes I’ll be exhausted. I expect all that turbulence and still know I can get there.”

I love this quote because it highlights the fact that big goals won’t always be easy, nor will you always feel prepared. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean we are failing before we begin, it means we are reaching toward something so big that it requires continuous growth! Choose it and go for it. And when you hit a setback, choose again, discomfort be damned. This is worthy of your time and energy. This is worthy of your efforts. Difficulty is simply a state of mind.

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?

Upcoming book — Choosing Greatness: an evidence-based approach to achieving exceptional outcomes

Linkedin: Christina Curtis

Instagram: @christinacurtisofficial

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

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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