Introducing "Coach Carmen"

Recently we’ve added a new member to our Executive Team: Carmen Cook who joins Apptio as our new Leadership Coach. This is not a typical role you will find on an executive management team of a high-growth software company. But then again, we're not striving to be typical. One of our foundational cultural values is to Develop Our People. We recently passed the 250 person mark and when you're growing as fast as we are, it's essential that leaders are developed at all levels of the organization. This is why we've brought Carmen on  -- to proactively engage our executive team, directors, and senior managers so they can consistently find ways to continuously improve. I recently turned the tables on Carmen and posed a few questions to her: 

Q. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into leadership coaching?

I have degrees in Sociology and Education, have taught at the secondary and university level, and have always been interested in societal trends - how people learn and interact with one another - especially in large organizations. I left higher education for Silicon Valley and landed a H.R. position with Oracle in 1985. I was the 165th employee and Oracle was growing fast and furious at that time. It was a dynamic and intense period, ripe with opportunity. Within nine months I became head of the H.R. Department. During my tenure at Oracle, I developed a strong interest in work cultures, employee relations, and leadership development. I remained there for the next few years, went through the IPO, and left when the company had grown to about 1500 people. 

After leaving Oracle, I joined a training company focused on team development. I left that organization after three years and co-founded Highpoint Experience, Inc.  For the past 17 years, I have worked with thousands of people, scores of companies, and a wide range of teams and leaders.  My focus has always been on creating effective teams, leaders, and organizations.  In my consulting work, I saw a theme whereby leaders were hiring me for quick fixes - to do the work they weren’t taking the time to deal with - usually the soft skills work, dealing with imploding teams and ineffective leaders.  In 2000, I became a certified coach and began coaching leaders on how to build effective teams, and how to teach their leaders to lead.

Q. Could you briefly explain what a Leadership Coach is and your role at Apptio?

As a Leadership Coach, I focus on the potential of the person I am working with by providing a mirror of sorts to help the leader see their gifts and challenges more clearly. It’s rare, especially the higher up the ladder a leader goes, to have the benefit of an advocate who is intensely curious about their potential, who will assess their individual strengths and gaps, who will provide feedback that enables the leader to more fully realize the impact – both positive and negative -- that they are having on their people and their organizations. I provide a confidential sounding board for leaders to take time for their own development.  I also provide a cadence - most executives are so busy they often don’t think about their development until I’m sitting down in front of them.

I also partner with leaders to assess the effectiveness of their organizations from the people side of the business. We focus on how communication, decisions, and behaviors are impacting the business and the culture of the company.  To effect positive change in a person or an organization, the first step is assessment - identifying the root cause of what may be creating inefficiencies or churn, and then helping them figure out what needs to change. The next step is focused attention to "be the change".  As the Leadership Coach, I work with all the leaders in the company to some degree. 

Q. Is it typical to have a Leadership Coach as part of the executive team?

While it’s not uncommon for the head of the People function in a company to be on the executive team, and in some cases may act somewhat in a coaching capacity, I have not yet heard of another Leadership Coach being on an executive team.  Apptio is quite tenacious when it comes to finding ways to increase value in all aspects of the business. 

My role is to drive and support successful growth with the leaders, individually and collectively, thereby increasing effectiveness in and across the various business functions.  I believe, as I believe you do, that by accelerating leader’s potential and growth, we strategically impact the business for the better, in addition to delivering on our company value of  “Developing our People”.  When we invest in people, they are happier and more effective.  It’s a win-win.

Q. What does your philosophy of leadership entail?

I believe it’s imperative that leaders set a clear vision for the business -- one that is a stretch, but attainable -- and agile enough to play out in the market place. Leaders need to be absolutely clear and convinced why that vision will make a difference.  Secondly, leaders must communicate their vision over and over again.  People respond best to leaders who communicate frequently, who can paint a compelling picture, and provide, or empower their people, to develop an effective roadmap.  Additionally, effective leaders remove barriers, advocate for, or empower their people to become leaders themselves. 

My experience of working with smart people is that they do their best work when they have enough autonomy to initiate and innovate, have clear roles and accountability, understand how their work contributes to the big picture, and are rewarded with new challenges and opportunities.  High performers want to be challenged, they need to grow, and they want their leaders to be invested in their growth and success. I often tell leaders that leadership is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to lead. There are a lot of expectations for leaders to fulfill in order to be successful.   

Q. What are some of the most common mistakes young companies make when it comes to instilling leadership

The most common mistake I see with any sized organization is promoting very talented individual contributors (IC) to leadership positions that include managing people.  I think the view that success as an IC naturally evolves to the next step of leading an organization needs to be carefully assessed.  The most unhappy, dysfunctional, and ineffective teams I’ve worked with have had a leader who was an expert in some aspect of the business, but knows very little about managing people.  I’ve also witnessed talented IC’s fall from grace because they are put in a position leading people with limited ability to lead or manage effectively.  Ambition and a high IQ do not guarantee a high EQ (emotional intelligence).  Some EQ is required to be an effective people leader.

It is not uncommon for a young company to address people development only after there is a problem.  I first started coaching and training leaders at Apptio when there were about 150 employees.  It was fairly proactive to bring in professional development at that stage. One year later we are at about 270, and are experiencing the usual growing pains of a company meeting scaling challenges.  We are ahead of the game because we are developing and reinforcing a common language based on our values, and putting mechanisms in place to have continuous and transparent dialogue.   

Q.  What are “blind spots” and how do you help individuals transcend them?

Blind spots, a term widely used in coaching, is behavior you are demonstrating that you don’t quite understand -- or may be completely unaware of -- the effect it might cause.  To identify and reveal a blind spot for someone is a gold nugget in coaching.  When a coach can compassionately, but clearly, illuminate for a person that they have a blind spot, and why it is tripping them up, then significant awareness and growth can occur for that person.  Unfortunately, our blind-spots are often plain as day to the people around you, so it can be quite upsetting for a leader to be wielding a very annoying behavior and yet be completely unaware of, or accountable, for the impact it can create. 

One of the most effective tools for revealing blind spots is to perform a "360 degree review".  I conduct 360’s on leaders through an interview process, which enables me to get concrete examples of the effect a blind spot may be having on the leader’s colleagues, direct reports, etc.  I find people are very willing to share in these interviews, and it provides irrefutable examples and themes of where/how a particular blind spot shows up in a person’s work or personal interactions.

For a person to be open to feedback about their blind spot, it requires vulnerability, and a dose of humility. In my work with helping people see their foibles, I feel tremendous compassion, along with a commitment to “crack the nut” so they can be more effective. This can only occur if they are willing to meet me in that endeavor. I maintain that we are all a “beautiful work in progress.”  Who doesn’t have a blind spot?  We all do, and it’s a gift to have an advocate in your corner to help you eliminate it, for your benefit, and for the benefit of those around you.