Corry Robertson, a leading executive coach, discusses how psychological safety is the foundation of strong culture, how to lead with self-awareness, and why you don’t need anyone’s advice. 

Delohery: Hi, and welcome to The Staffing Show. I’m here today with Corry Robertson, who’s a leading global expert on organizational culture, engagement and retention in the tech industry. And she has a client list that includes startups and Fortune 100 and 500 companies. And she’s here to talk to us today a bit about leadership and creating strong culture. So welcome, Corry. It’s great to have you on the show.

Robertson: Thank you, Caitlin. It’s great to be here. And Happy New Year.

Delohery: Happy New Year.

Robertson: Thank you. 

Delohery: Could you share a little about your background with the audience?

Robertson: Sure. So my college experience, we go back that far, had to do a lot with psychology and human relations and human performance. And then I went on to university and studied communications. And then my early days of my career, I was heavily into advertising and magazine publishing and large-scale events, and it’s a really exciting field to be in. Then from there, while I was in that space as an employee, I got really curious about the difference between knowing leadership theory and actually applying it. And that’s where I started to recognize that there was a really, really big gap. Because in my studies, I was always really conscious of leadership development and really alert to preparing myself to present myself as a leader in the workplace in my early days of my career.

And so I didn’t really see what I had been studying in, leadership development. I didn’t really see it in the workplace. But what I did see is that lack of leadership series showing up in the workplace, it did take a massive toll on engagement, and culture, organizational culture, there’s a lot of toxic cultures, a lot of burnout, and a lot of unnecessary conflict, a lot of wasted time. So when I had the opportunity to go into private practice, I jumped on it. And where that came from is, I was working my own business, living in the UK with my husband and I was running a business, offering marketing tactics to very small businesses. I had taken my experience that I gained from working in advertising and magazine publishing and events, and I distilled that down into bite-sized and accessible tactics for very, very small businesses. 

And I was blessed and graced with the opportunity to meet professional coaches. And this is in a day when coaching hadn’t really caught on in Canada, where I’m from. It wasn’t really big yet. The coaching was still really much the realm of the sports world. So they wouldn’t say that this professional coaching business, when is this. And so, one of these clients of mine who became a friend offered me his training material to look over. So I read over the material over the weekend, and I enrolled for coaching. My own coach training that Monday morning, and that was in 2004. So now, 2021, I still have very much like a beginner’s mind when it comes to coaching. You know, it’s fascinating, and it’s powerful, it’s transformational. And it just answers so many of the questions that I think leaders should be asking right now. 

Delohery: And can you share a little about what a coaching leadership style looks like? Sort of let our listeners in behind the curtain a little bit. And what staffing leaders can learn from your orientation? 

Robertson: Yeah, so coaching is a leadership style. It’s really embedded in the primary coaching principle that most professional coaches embrace, and most great coaching schools teach, and that’s that all people are complete, resourceful, and whole. So when you look at your colleagues, your peers, your direct reports, when you look at people through the lens, that the person you’re talking to is complete, resourceful, and whole. It means they’re strong, it means they’re creative, it means they have experience and knowledge, and intelligence. And given the right context and the right opportunity, and being asked. When a leader can ask the right questions, it means that coaching is leadership style, the answers the solution, the motivation, the innovation come from within the person, as opposed to being directive and telling them what they should do based on your knowledge and experience.           

You open it up, you mine for those golden nuggets within your colleagues. And when you have those skills in and that’s why coaching is catching on like wildfire, as soon as people realize the power, the potential this approach has, you don’t look back. Because you say wow, this is amazing. And so that’s the approach you take. The answer is within the person, you don’t need to give it to them. You don’t need to hold their hand and be directive. Just give them some space and ask the right questions. 

Delohery: That’s wonderful and it seems like a much more collaborative leadership style than we traditionally hear about, I think. And also it seems like that orientation or that leadership style requires that your employees, your team have a certain amount of psychological safety that you fostered create a kind of back and forth and to help them really tap into their potential. So I know you think a lot about the role of psychological safety and strong leadership. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s created for a team? 

Robertson: Yes, so the ICF Core Competencies for coaching includes an entire competency around establishing trust and safety. And the precursor competency to that is coaching presence. So, when a leader has a very, very strong presence, and they’re really able to ground themselves in the environment in a way that the team members and the colleagues know that if they make a mistake, or if they speak up, or if they say something that maybe wasn’t the perfect thing to say, it’s embraced. It’s taken in as a learning experience. It’s taken like, even if a person says the wrong thing or makes a mistake. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a learning experience, we learn from this, it’s an opportunity for growth. That’s why mistakes happen. And when we can establish an environment where people can speak up, they can ask questions, they can elevate concerns, and they can say, you know what, I think I blew it. You know, I think I did the wrong thing. When that can happen with that is psychological safety.           

And, it’s such an interesting paradox, because people are so afraid of speaking up they’re so afraid of saying, “Listen, I see a train wreck on the way or I see something that’s not quite right.” They’re so afraid of doing it or saying, “I think I went off course here. I think I need some help in course-correcting now.” When people are so afraid when they don’t have psychological safety, they hide that. They sweep it under the rug. They protect each other’s backs. And what happens? These things fester and they get bigger and bigger, they snowball. By the time it comes to the attention of the leader, it’s a full out crisis. All because the leader didn’t establish an environment, a culture of trust and safety. Well had there been one, this could have all been surfaced, nipped in the bud, and resolved before it became a thing.

Delohery: And can you sort of model this idea? This is a question that I’ve asked a lot of guests recently, but it strikes me as particularly relevant right now. Can you talk about one of your failures or an apparent failure, and how kneading it in this way set you up for success down the road.

Robertson: Okay, so there was an experience I had several years ago, where my colleague and I were requested to come in and lead a mandate of leadership development. And it was a not-for-profit. The leader at the helm felt he really needed our help. And he was like, “Can you please come in here and help us? I don’t know what else to do.” So we made our suggestion, which included a needs assessment and a readiness assessment. This is to say, to really flesh out “Is your team ready for this? Do they have the psychological safety to have leadership development coaches come in and help heal, what’s going on here?” And he said at the time that he didn’t have the budget for that, and to trust him that it would be okay.            

And so we said, “Are you sure? Are you sure you have the backing of your seniors and your unions to go forward with this because what you’re asking for is a culture change? And culture change requires that everybody changes. And it’s not always comfortable. It’s not always easy. And it’s not always appreciated. So you have to make sure that everybody is willing to and prepared to do the hard work of the self-discovery and the self-transformation.” And he’s, “Yes, yes, yes. It’s all fine.” So okay. So we brought our proposal down into the budget that he could afford by taking out these needs assessments and these readiness assessments. And guess what happened?  

Delohery: They were not ready. They were not ready for what you brought. 

Robertson: They were NOT ready. And it would not have been natural for a group of folks who were suffering in their culture. They were not psychologically safe. There was a lot of infighting. There was a lot of toxicity. There was a lot of bad blood that had been festering. They didn’t feel psychologically safe. They were not ready for our intervention. And it would not have been natural for them to say, “Well, you know what boss, we asked you for this, but we were wrong, we’re not ready. You know what these consultants are bringing in, we’re not ready for.” Of course not, they’re not going to say that. They said, “Get these two out of here. Get them out of here, we’re not doing this.” 

Delohery: Of course. 

Robertson: That’s what we got asked if we would please cancel the contract, it’s not going to work out. So, I learned a really, really big lesson. We were trying to accommodate somebody we felt needed us, somebody we were going to help them out. We were not-for-profit. It was a local thing, or like, okay, we’re going to make this work, to fit the budget, because they need us. They weren’t ready. We made the mistake and that was where I refer to it as my failure, I should have, I’m “shoulding” on myself right now, but should have known better. Right, and so, learn from that, it was a mistake. 

Delohery: And also seems like it helped you develop self-awareness around the fact that it was unnecessary to make these compromises to your services, or your offering. That it’s one thing to work with a client, but it’s another thing to sort of compromise what you know works. Like you have this coaching system, this development, that works, and you were trying to make it work for the client. I see this coming up a lot in marketing, in staffing. You’re trying to make something work for someone. And sometimes what you need is to actually say, “This is what we know works. Are you ready for what works? Or do we need to go elsewhere?”

Robertson: Yes. And, for the leaders who are listening, I’m sure if I speak directly for a moment, leaders, I’m sure you have called in consultants and coaches and all kinds of experts to prepare proposals for you. And I would say, trust them. Don’t ask them to cut corners to save on your budget. Because if your consultant that you’ve trusted enough to come in and give you a proposal is suggesting that you cover bases before you launch in, listen to them. Don’t cut corners. You might win in the long term of saving some dollars, or maybe saving some hours. But in the long run, it’ll be a waste. And I saw this great documentary a couple of months ago, and this one line stuck with me. He said, “It’s amazing how you never have the time or the budget to do things right the first time. But you can always come up with extra time and extra budget to clean it up and fix it when it went wrong. And you need to do it over again.” 

Delohery: That’s great.  

Robertson: Isn’t that great?  

Delohery: It’s perfect.  

Robertson: Isn’t that great? So going back you were asking at the length between psychological trust and safety. It is critical to have a presence, as a leader, to be able to establish trust and safety on your team. It’s absolutely critical. If you don’t have it now or somehow you’ve lost it along the way or maybe your team is still new, and haven’t had the opportunity to build that trust yet, your coach can help you with that. And when I say, coach, I do not use that term lightly. Use professionally certified coaches, coaching is not a protected term. So anybody who wants to call themselves coach can call themselves coach. But if you really want the transformational results that professional coaches can bring, make sure you ask them about their credentials. Make sure they have credentials that they earned from the International Coach Federation, and then you’ll get the results of all of the transformation that the profession promises. 

Delohery: And then I think also what you’re pointing to is the need in leaders or was in this process or, really, any transformational process for sort of a baseline level of self-awareness. Can you talk a little about how leaders can sort of assess where they’re at with self-awareness or how they can foster more self-awareness in their team? 

Robertson: So self-awareness is another huge leadership competency. It’s part of emotional intelligence. And we say when you know better you do better. So, there’s a lot of tools on the market, instruments that you can start with, I use a psychometric called Lumina Spark. Psychometric is the industry term for what is often called a personality test. I don’t particularly like the term personality test because everybody approaches them, when you use that term, they think there’s a right or wrong or good or bad, or they don’t answer this properly, I won’t get a promotion. So if you start there, it opens some windows, or it opens the curtain. So you can start getting some awareness around how your personality shows up to others, how your communication style shows up, some of the strengths in your personality, some of the overextensions that might show up, and in the language that I like to use the best.           

The way I put it is, as explained when you’re overextended when you’re stressed out, exhausted, hungry, grieving, taken by surprise, whatever the case may be, you go into an overextension. And when we’re overextended, it’s a human reaction to overuse your strengths. So if you’re a very competitive person, and that’s how you always get the results you want, because you’re a go-getter, that competitive quality will start to look like needing to win at any cost when you’re overextended. Being results-oriented could become being overly demanding. So all of those wonderful extroverted qualities that we’d love can become overbearing. So we call that overusing a strength, we overdo what we know works. So when you have self-awareness, when you start feeling stress in your body, you start feeling stress, in your day to day and when you can observe the changes that happen in your body and your mind and your soul when you’re overextended. And you know, “I’m going to start overusing my strength, I’m going to become too much of a good thing. I have to rein that in.”

The onus is always on the leader. When you are a leader, even if you’re just a leader of yourself. I’m not just referring to leaders with teams and others. If you have responsibilities if you’re an adult with responsibilities, you’re a leader. Nurture the sense of self-awareness and when you have that self-awareness, and you start becoming attuned to the traits and the characteristics of the qualities and the how these qualities sharpen overextension, you can start noticing it in others. And especially when you’ve noticed it in others then you can take a coaching opportunity and ask, just sit down and say, “What is going on for you right now? Something’s not working.” So again before it escalates, beyond control, and before it escalates into a crisis situation, rein it in. Sit down, have a talk, see what can be moved around. 

Delohery: It’s so interesting because it seems like without that self-awareness, toxic cultures can be created out of sort of a calcification of this over-relying on strengths. That whole organizations can be just each person being overextended and over-relying on their strengths and that can really start to become a culture of a place.

And so it seems that what really pointing to is how self-awareness can disrupt even that, even that larger organizational poison. 

Robertson: Yes. And you know, when there’s poison and then when we’re overusing our strengths because we’re trying hard to do a good job. We’re trying hard to deliver on the results that are being demanded of us, right? Everybody at work I believe is trying in their best way to do what they’ve been asked to do. But when there’s overextension and we’re overusing our strengths, we end up damaging relationships, right? And when relationships are damaged, trust and safety are damaged. And some of those damaged relationships, some of the damage is really hard to recover from. I know we’re not supposed to talk about feelings at work. I know they’ve always said there’s no place for emotions in the workplace. That’s ridiculous. Human beings cannot be separated, we’re more emotional than we are logical as human beings. So once our feelings are hurt, once our egos are hurt, and I know egos get a bad rap as well, but they’re not always bad things.           

Once those things have been damaged, you can look to another person and place blame. So when you said that in the meeting you embarrassed me or you insulted me, or you threw me under the bus. When those things happen, trust is broken. Trust and safety is broken. And then people go up, their guards go up, or they in some cases look for retaliation, or then they start hoarding knowledge or hoarding resources. And here’s a company trying to accomplish something in an environment where there’s a lack of self-awareness, there’s a lack of trust and safety, there’s a lack of leadership presence, and it’s heartbreaking, especially this is people’s lives, not just livelihood, it’s lives. It’s your day. Your workday is like an environment. 

Delohery: Yeah. 

Robertson: It’s your life, it’s your career, and there’s no reason it has to be like that. 

Delohery: Yeah it seems especially important in the year we’ve all just lived through to acknowledge how much impact feelings can have in a workplace. The majority of people in this industry, the majority of our listeners, the majority of everyone I know, gone through some pretty intense grief during the past year that impacted productivity, that impacted really every facet of life from top to bottom. And it seems like what you’re outlining here is a way to rethink work in a way that includes the whole person. 

Robertson: That’s so beautifully said. Yes, rethink work in a way that includes the whole person. Absolutely. 

Delohery: And I feel like we’ve gotten into a really great theoretical place. And I’m wondering if we can identify some things that our listeners can do sort of on the ground right now to help foster that kind of wholeness, self-awareness, and safety. 

Robertson: Some tactics like a to-do list? 

Delohery: Yeah, maybe that’s antithetical to what we’re talking about.

Robertson: What are we going to do about this? 

Delohery: What do we do? 

Robertson: Yeah, that’s great. And that’s another really important aspect when you’re considering the coaching side because there is a creating awareness, which is one of again is coaching competency number seven is creating awareness, self-awareness, awareness of others awareness of your environment. But it’s also managing progress and growth. Because now that we have all of this awareness and knowledge and attitudes, so what are we going to do with it? How do we create a better future? What are we going to do? So to lay the groundwork I think it’s really important like I was sharing that story before of the organization that the leader thought his team was ready, but they were not. So if this conversation is resonating, listeners, go out there find yourself some consultants, meet a few, find someone that you click with, and start by running your needs assessment. A plain engagement survey, and just get a sense.           

Maybe sit down with your senior leadership team and bring in the consultant and have a really good talk around what is the purpose of our organization? What are we trying to achieve? Why are we trying to achieve it? There’s a lot right now on how important it is to have a purpose, like why are we here? What is the good of this organization, and most organizations do good. Although it might not be obvious on the surface, if you scratch a bit, you can find what it is this organization does in service to something greater than the self. So, to start there, start by assessing, what do we need and what’s our purpose? What’s our vision? So what is better in the world when we’ve succeeded at what we’re out here to do? And then the mission, how do we go about doing it? And then when you’re talking about the mission, how are we going to go about doing it? And then that becomes a big leadership question.           

So what are the behaviors that align with our values? Because we can all say, we value profit, there’s lots of ways of getting profit. I can roll up my sleeves and work really hard, be smart, and build great relationships, or I could rob a bank. Lots of ways of making money, but there’s different values. There’s lots of different sets of values that will propel your behavior in certain directions. And that’s where we see a lot of conflict in organizations, is we have the same value around what we want to achieve. But we don’t have the same agreement around how what are our behaviors that align with the values? How do we treat people? How do we talk to people? How do we dress? How do we treat our suppliers? Do we treat our suppliers and our clients the same way? That’s a good test of your integrity right? 

Delohery: Right. 

Robertson: Do we treat our direct reports the same way as we treat our bosses? 

Delohery: Clients? 

Robertson: So all of those things are really important to look at if you have a really great organizational development structure then you start building these things into the way you assess performance, instead of just sitting down with somebody once a year and saying, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, exceeds expectations, like to what? How are you getting your results, based on what our values are? So a really great leadership development coaching team is a great investment. It’s these kinds of things are important, and the studies that have been done around the connection between employee engagement and customer loyalty, there’s no denying it. Fostering strong cultures of employee engagement will lead to employee loyalty, but also customer loyalty. And when you’ve got employee loyalty and customer loyalty, that’s hands down money in the bank. 

Delohery: So you’ve given our listeners a lot of very golden advice. Is there any advice that you come up with or sort of traditional knowledge in your profession that you think we should do away with or any bad recommendations you hear in your profession? 

Robertson: Yeah, so coaches for us, we don’t like the notion of giving advice. So we think advice, for the most part, advice is not needed or necessary. 

Delohery: So it’s an advice in itself. 

Robertson: Yeah. So if for example, if you need a lawyer, then you’ll need advice. Or if you need an accountant or a doctor, you need to consult with them for advice. But when it comes to somebody coming into your office and giving you a call or asking you for a Zoom meeting, and they say, “You got a minute? I need your advice on something.” Don’t give it. Instead have a coaching conversation. Because you’ll notice, you’ll give your best advice over and over and over and over and over again. And the problem doesn’t go away. It comes back around maybe it was resolved in the moment, but the person will come back or somebody will come back with a similar problem. And you think, it’s just like Groundhog Day. I’m always answering this question. Or you give your best advice with your best intentions and all of your experience and your knowledge goes into this answer. And the person goes “yeah but it doesn’t work for me, I’ve tried that before.” So we’ve got to scratch the surface more. It’s really not advice the person needs.           

When we started our conversation this afternoon, I said coaches believe that people are creative, resourceful, and whole. And that’s the mindset that coaches have. So when you believe that, you know that people don’t need advice, and it’s really hard because our currency, our value is based on what we’ve learned, the experience we’ve acquired and how we can transform that into solutions and results. It’s not about asking people and taking the time and having the presence and trusting and making them feel safe enough to come up with that answer themselves. They just want you to tell them what to do so that they can get out of here, go into the next thing. But so that would be to challenge traditional wisdom. And I got a lot of pushback on this in my coach training courses, where I start saying, and I start giving the modules, when you’re coaching someone, you’re not telling them what to do, you’re not telling them what to think, you’re not giving them content from your brain. Because they’ve got content in their own brains. And that’s tough.

That’s a huge mind flip for people to get into. But once it starts working, like you need a couple of experiences where you go, ah, I did that coaching thing and it was amazing. And the person you’re talking to will say, “Oh my God, you know you’re such a genius. You just gave me the greatest idea.” And as the coach you go, I didn’t give you any ideas. I just listened to you. And I asked you questions. I fed you back what I was hearing. And you said the idea. I just heard you say it and asked you about it. And it came to life in that instance. 

Delohery: Maybe this is related. It feels very related. But for leaders listening, we’re looking ahead at 2021, many question marks seem to be in the path ahead of us, but what can leaders do to really strengthen themselves and their teams for this year of uncertainty? 

Robertson: Oh boy, that is such a huge question. I’ve contemplated this a lot, just from my own personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of my family. I think for 2021 I think we have to reset every time we start feeling the stress. And even, if you woke up feeling in a fairly decent mood, it’s really easy to get thrown off, right? By watching the news or listening, getting a call from somebody who’s stressed out. So for my personal practice right now, it’s about resetting back to the moment. In this moment I’m going to take a deep breath and I’m going to remind myself of all the things that are okay right now. I look around and I’m going to put my hands on the things I’m going to look at the things that are okay.           

Remind myself of those things that I can rely on right now, because there is so much uncertainty. And for those who have to budget for it and who feel confident investing, I think 2020 was such a huge duck-and-cover year. So many things went on hold, on pause. Everybody was just looking to see what’s happening next. I think 2021 leaders in the organizations and there are some industries that are thriving because of COVID and everything else that’s going on. Invest in your people, invest in all of these things that we’re talking about – leadership development, employee engagement, customer loyalty, society. Revisit your purpose, call a Zoom meeting with your staff and talk about your purpose. Give each other something to feel great about. 

Delohery: I love that. I think revisiting our purpose after the year we just had is a brilliant place to start and end actually, and to always come back to. 

Robertson: You know it’s a great anchor, right? It’s a great anchor on so many levels like why am I doing this? Why am I doing it? Well, there’s people out there that need this. They need what I’m doing with what this company offers, and I have a role to play. There’s no company that has ever complained about having too many employees, right? It’s like, way too many people working for me. No, everybody’s job is essential. If you’re there, your job is important, regardless of how many direct reports you have or regardless of your P&L, or regardless of the size of your team, what your office looks like. If you work there, you’re important because your organization is important. You have an important purpose. If your organization fulfills its mission and the world becomes a better place when you achieve your goals and you helped with that, that’s something, that’s inspiration. That’s an amazing reason to get out of bed in the morning and be strong. 

Delohery: Well, that’s a beautiful perspective and I want to thank you so much for bringing so much hope and a path forward kind of in all of this uncertainty as we start off 2021. So thank you so much for that Corry. 

Robertson: My pleasure. Thank you for giving me a platform to share and thank you to everybody who’s listening and if this resonated with anybody, I wish you all the best with your mission. 

Delohery: Thank you so much.