A new age demands new leadership- Alisa Cohn [Interview]
About Alisa Cohn
Alisa Cohn is the CEO of Alisa Cohn associates Inc. She was named the #1 Startup Coach in the world at the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Leading Coaches Awards in London. She was also named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus for Startups. She has been featured on BBC, Bloomberg, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other regional publications. Her specialties include the executive presence, power, influence & charisma, corporate politics, strategic decision-making, developing a strong personal brand, and building social capital. We are extremely happy and honored to have her on our interview series today!
We have the pleasure of welcoming Alisa Cohn today to our interview series. I’m Sumitha Mariyam from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum – peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome Alisa, we’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you so much. It’s really wonderful to be here. And congratulations on all your accomplishments. You guys have really built a lovely organization.
Thank you so much. And it’s absolutely a pleasure to have you.
So moving on to the interview, Alisa, Can you tell us a little bit about your journey so far? What brought you to Alisa Cohn and Associates?
Well, I was a CPA and a strategy consultant, and I was a CFO of a start-up and the head of the strategy of another startup. So all of that made me realize two things. One is that I really wanted to make a difference, that it was really important for me to make a difference very substantially and also that I had a lot to say about the world of business, have an MBA, and on the CPI and structure, trained in the business.
But I have a psychological orientation and I realized that I really cared about what made people tick in service of the greater good or in service of the company. So through all that I found coaching and started my own company.
That’s wonderful that you had that realization of, ‘I need to make a difference’.
Coming to your specialties, can you tell us a little bit about your work as a start-up coach? What are the main things that you help new entrepreneurs with?
So entrepreneurs who are first of all they start with an idea, and they have to become somebody who’s focused on building a product or a service into someone who’s building a business. So that requires a lot of skills. You go to galvanize a team. The ability to pool in resources that they need to, obviously raise money.
Most importantly, it requires them to understand what the situation is, having to adapt their skills very rapidly and then lead in a different way. So a lot of the startups I work with are high growth.
So if the company’s growing at high growth, how are you as a leader adapting yourself in a high growth way and also quite rapidly and that’s a lot of the challenges start-up leaders that I deal with face, and it’s both new entrepreneurs and then also successful entrepreneurs who have done it once or twice before. But they realize that they could use some help doing it differently this time around.
And also, how would you go about coaching new leaders? I mean, what would be the qualities that you want the new leaders to have? What would you focus on improving first?
Hmm? Well, I mean, if you think about startup leaders to startup founders, there’s a lot to be said for grit and persistence. And they’re looking at a lot that has been said about grit and persistence and resilience and the founders that I have dealt with have had many near-death experiences on the way to success. With stability, to sort of be able to adapt and, you know, take difficulties in stride and overcome them.
That’s one thing, and the second thing is to be able to do that learning and that fascinating thing that you need you. So the way I help founders work is really I do the 360 feedback for them, which tells him, get a sense from people all around them, how they are showing up, and I help them think about, where are they, where they’re going and how are they going to get there in terms of their ability to put different behaviors together and grow new behaviors to become better leaders? So one example of that is communication style.
When you’re a founder and you work with eight people or 10 people or 20 people, your communication cell can be pretty casual. You’re working one on one with folks. It’s easy to bring the whole team together. That’s very different from when you were a founder of a company that now, you know that you’re the CEO and founder of a company that’s like 100 people or 500 people.
You need to have a different way of thinking about who you’re including in decision making. How are you communicating with the team? How you’re thinking about your carving out an executive team to help you be a steward of the business? It’s a different way of thinking for a lot of founders and CEOs, and I help them think about that and then execute on that.
That’s quite interesting. So, let me ask you this question.
So now with this current scenario of the pandemic, we have a lot of remotely working teams. The members of the same team are working from different cities, sitting in their own houses. So how would you advise a leader of today to manage a remotely working team?
Yes, it is a challenge right now. I have actually written a number of articles on this for Forbes and for ANC. The first thing you know, you think that the crisis, there are different stages of the crisis and the first part of the crisis was just to get your arms around. Where is the company? How are people feeling? Things happened very quickly.
So my recommendation at that point was to quickly have regular all-hands meetings, to quickly pull your executive team together, to make sure you have one on ones with people remotely by video to check in and see how people are doing.
Now, in this stage, it’s very important to really figure out what are your clear, specific goals and how are you making sure that you’re very, very clear to the whole company about the most important tradition mandates, your objectives and goals and what you’re driving for, and to make sure that all your executives and all your leaders help their people understand their part in that goal.
When you can’t see everybody, you can’t have an informal organic, you know, sort of communication. Everyone needs to be much more clear about how they’re sort of feeding into the goal, what the deliverables are, and who they are working together with.
“Everyone needs to be much more clear about how they’re sort of feeding into the goal, what the deliverables are, and who they are working together with.”
So focusing on that and that kind of clarity is very important for a remote environment.
So the leaders have to make sure that their team members know what they’re supposed to do and the results that are expected of them
Yeah, in a much more clear way and then also about who can make what decisions again. Sometimes these things are kind of organically decided in the workplace. You check in with people. It’s very easy now. People are spread out, by the way, they’re on video in the remote, but they’re also now in different time zones.
Possibly they’re gone to different places, so making sure that you have communication systems that don’t rely on that organic communication, so they know what decisions they can make who didn’t check with that helps things more, much more smoothly.
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That’s a wonderful answer.
Do you have an ideal workplace culture in your mind? If there’s something like that, what would that be?
Oh, that’s interesting. You know, I think that workplace culture, if you think about startups, is very dependent on the nature and makeup of the founder. And I think that workplace cultures have to also adapt to the needs of the environment. So, for example, if you’re in financial services in your fintech startup, you know integrity and compliance, and also the process is actually super important in that kind of environment.
That’s very different from, let’s Say, a community based or social media startup where you really want to think about fun and joy and delight. Yes, integrity is important there, too, but it’s a different need in terms of the mechanics and specifications of what you’re trying to get done. So I do think that the ideal culture does come from the makeup of the team and kind of what they’re trying to do, what the company’s trying to do, and the founder.
“I do think that the ideal culture does come from the makeup of the team and kind of what they’re trying to do, what the company’s trying to do, and the founder. ”
And the last thing I would say about that is you know, the quirks and special sauce of the employees, how to build a vibrant and resilient and sustaining culture. And I think it’s important to think about culture in terms of who you’re bringing together here. The long answer. But much other isn’t ideal, but there’s probably an ideal for you.
Thank you so much.
So do you think you know the people we pick and the leaders play a very important role in, you know, maintaining the culture that we have established in an organization?
Yes, I think it’s very important. I think, that a founder, first of all, wants to think, actually, I worked with this one company. There are two co-founders and the co-founders who didn’t even launch a product for four years and didn’t really even build a team for two years spent a lot of that time, in the beginning, thinking about what is our ideal workplace.
Who are the people we want to have around? What kinds of values are really important to us? If we’re gonna build a company from scratch. And by the way, we are building a company from scratch here, how do we want to organize it so that it’s a reflection of our deepest values? And they spend a lot of time thinking about that.
Part of what they came up with is people first, and so they brought on people who are bought in two people first. And even as they’ve been navigating through this crisis, they’ve been demonstrating what people first look like in a whole bunch of different arenas, such as one example of the way I think it’s essential for founders to think in advance what kind of culturally wanna build and work towards building it.
Yeah, that’s very interesting.
So, how important do you think building an employer brand, for that matter is? How do you think it’s going to accelerate the growth of start-up or, you know, bring more profits in?
Well, I think you know it’s so interesting. Now is the time we are really focused on people and people’s health and well being. We see the importance of culture and of engagement out of people and talent in the workplace.
I think having a strong employer brand is essential if you want to attract the right people to it and also if you want people to work together, and to promulgate that people first or that that sort of specific employer brand.
“I think having a strong employer brand is essential if you want to attract the right people to it”
And, I think that’s really important. And I guess I would just add that the more you can have a strong brand with your people that translates, almost by definition, to customers. I think that customers can tell how the people feel about working within that company, and so that helps them either want to be engaged or, unfortunately, not wanna be engaged. So I think it’s important.
Yeah, yeah, so that’s an interesting answer.
But I would also like to ask you, we hear a lot of people talking about employee centricity and business centricity. It is employee centricity now and all of that.
But there is a side of it where, you know, there is another part where people speak about, you know, how employee centricity is a myth. And there are not a lot of organizations that actually apply what they’re preaching. So what is your opinion on that?
There’s no question that plenty of the companies I have been exposed to in my 18 years of coaching have this notion of their values are on the walls, but not in the halls, so they sort of have these great mission statements, they talk about how they care about their employees, but they don’t really do that.
There is no question that plenty of leaders say one thing and then do something else. You know, we see that all the time in our countries. So I think that most employees, though, can tell if ultimately over time, if their company really means in terms of being employees centric and if their leader means in term to be employees centric.
And ultimately, that congruence is what helps people win. I think a great example of that right now is Microsoft, and I think that Microsoft is doing a great job of showcasing the importance to them of their values in terms of being green in terms of focusing on employees, employees’ health and well being and also in terms of innovation. And I think we’ve seen the rise now of Microsoft in light of serving those underlying core values.
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Yeah, that’s a wonderful answer.
Also, Alisa, just to wrap up the interview, do you have any important sound bites that you would like to share with our audience?
Oh, how interesting. Well, I would say this one sound bite, I would have not just research for every single person is that I think we’re living right now in an age of, you know, anxiety and uncertainty. And I would encourage everybody to see this time as an interesting puzzle, an interesting set of constraints.
“I would encourage everybody to see this time as an interesting puzzle, an interesting set of constraints.”
And what can you do in light of these constraints that are gonna bring out your own personal best? And what can you personally do right now that’s going to make this very strange time in our lives, ultimately, like a treasured memory?
And as much as you can think about really living in this time as a moment in time where you started something wonderful or that it was a genesis or something wonderful or that you were able to complete something, or build relationships in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to do before. I encourage everyone to make use of that time.
That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for that. And Alisa, It was a pleasure talking to you. I really, really appreciate your time and, you know, sharing your views with us. It has been a totally enriching learning experience for me personally and I’m sure it will be the same for our audience too, so, you know, let’s keep in touch and have a healthy and safe time ahead of you. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. And thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
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