Meredith Farley

On Content People, host Meredith Farley interviews creative professionals and leaders to get a behind-the-scenes look at their career experiences and turn that into actionable advice for listeners. Tune in to hear from experts in various media, and get inspired to find contentment in your own creative career.

Episode #10 Summary

Ellen Gillis, founder of Gillis Group, joins Meredith Farley to chat about careers, communication and coaching. Thanks to a lifelong drive to help people, Ellen has plenty of wisdom about personal and professional development, when and how to lead, how to support self-discovery and more. 

In the tenth episode of Content People, I talk to Ellen Gillis. She’s the founder of Gillis Group, a leadership development and coaching company that’s all about one thing: helping her clients and their teams thrive professionally.

Ellen’s background is in learning and development and human resources. She quickly realized that helping people was at the core of all her pursuits — and coaching was a natural extension of that.

As a guide through the ups and downs of career development and leadership, Ellen has plenty of advice, wisdom and experience. Here are a few things we cover:

  • Maximizing personal and professional potential.
  • The differences between mentorship and coaching.
  • Balancing feedback — good and bad.
  • What it means to be “attuned” to people.
  • How coaching can be both a gift and a tool
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Thanks for listening!

– Meredith Farley, Creator and Host of Content People

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Podcast Transcript:

Meredith: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Content People, a podcast where we talk to creatives and leaders to uncover actionable advice for listeners. I’m the show’s creator and host, Meredith Farley. I’m here alongside Ian Servin, creative director of video and special projects at Brafton and the producer of this show. Hey, Ian.

Ian: Hey, Meredith.

Meredith: On today’s episode, we talked with Ellen Gillis. Ellen is a leadership development coach and a real expert on how to build the skills and strengths you need to be an effective leader. It’s kind of a funny story about how I got to know Ellen. She was actually doing some coaching and leadership training for the senior team and my fiance’s company.

And since at the time my fiance and I were both working from home, I started to hear these meetings with this really thoughtful, powerful, wise woman kind of beaming out tips, tricks, tactics, and great advice around leadership. My ears would perk up and I’d eavesdrop and be like, oh, I really agree with that or that’s a nice tip and I’m going to steal that. And so eventually I asked for an intro and got to know Ellen a little bit. She is so wise and kind. I love talking to her because she has a very grounded, clear energy and so much wisdom about coaching, work, and management to share.

Ian: Absolutely. In the episode, we talked about her background in HR and learning development, how she started her consultancy, and then we got into the weeds about defining what it actually means to be a good leader and how to delegate, communicate, and ultimately just really be a coach to your team.

Meredith: We hope you like it. And if you haven’t already, give my newsletter, also called Content People, a subscribe. A link will be in the show notes. Here’s our convo with Ellen.

Hi, Ellen. Thank you so much for doing this episode of Content People. I’m really excited to talk to you a little bit about what you do.

Ellen: Excellent. Thank you for having me.

Meredith: Would you be comfortable introducing yourself to our listeners and explaining a little bit about your work?

Ellen: Sure. Yes, my name is Ellen Gillis, and probably actually during the pandemic, I started my company called the Gillis Group because what better time to start a business than during a crazy pandemic? But I do leadership, training, development, and management coaching.

And so, thinking about what management coaching is, I actually went to the International Coaching Federation to kind of get their specific definition, and it’s about partnering with clients in this thought-provoking and creative process that really inspires them to maximize personal and professional potential.

And so, for me, I translated that into: it’s about helping people think through decisions and challenges and what’s getting in their way and forward. And that can involve 360 feedback and assessments, any type of tools to get there. So, I created my company to really kind of focus on leader development and coaching at every different level. You know, I support people to kind of become those resilient leaders that today’s world really demands. We know how fast it’s changing through COVID, et cetera.

So, coaching and the work can take a lot of different forms, too. I do coaching and leadership training. I’ve also done, you know, some onboarding practices with companies, helping them kind of figure out their practices. I’ve done 360-degree feedback for executive levels to help them get feedback that they’ve never done. I have a great leadership program I call LEAD that I can do at different levels, too. So, it’s about customizing it to different clients as well.

Meredith: I’m so glad there are people like you out there doing that work. I really want to dig into both the day-to-day and some of the thematic aspects of your work and experience. But first, could you talk a little bit about your pre-coaching background, like how did you get into it?

Ellen: Yeah, for sure. So, my background is learning and development and human resources. You know, years ago, I got kind of a master’s in training and development and just kind of went from there. And the worlds are very similar in terms of helping people. So, I’ve worked for a couple of different big brands and over the years, really realized that at the core of it, what I wanted to do was help people.

And so, coaching was really a natural extension of that for me and the work that I was doing with employees and leaders. What I’ve done is kind of, I went and got a coaching certification, too, just to kind of get more additional tools and that’s been really rewarding. So, I was able to kind of use coaching a lot throughout my career and then just kind of get a little bit more structure around it, too. And it’s interesting, you know, that you say that you’re glad that I’m out here doing this. It’s an interestingly crowded field these days, too. And so, you really have to kind of find what you do best to kind of help people and connect with people, as well. I think my background really lends itself to the work that I do now, as well, which is neat. 

Meredith: That actually, as we’re talking, I’m kind of reminded. We had a conversation with, she’s a good friend of mine, Brianna. We haven’t aired the episode yet, but essentially, she supports the sales enablement and coaching team at Wayfair. And she has a little bit of a different background than you, but also, she had a teaching background who was really interested in different pedagogies and I can totally see how that type of affinity lends itself to coaching in a commercial space, as well.

So, what type of clients are you working with? And I’m really curious to know, what are they generally coming to you with? What are the problems or challenges that they are looking for support around?

Ellen: Yeah. So, you know, I’m lucky enough to work with leaders from manager to C level in a variety of industries. And the way I get my clients truly is through relationships that I’ve built over my career. I’m not doing a ton of marketing or social media. It’s a lot about diving into LinkedIn, seeing the people who know, love me and have worked with me before to kind of get to work with folks.

And at the heart of so many of these challenges is communication. Just keep coming back to that as a core challenge. So, whether it’s how they interact with other people, how they manage conflict, how they find their inner voice or their, you know, leader, executive presence, that’s a ton of the work that I do. And then there’s also other engagements that center around people kind of finding the next step in your career. Somewhere right across roads to think about career moves or promotions or new experiences and trying to figure out what’s next and how to tap into their next step in their journey.

But undoubtedly, it’s really that communication is at the core of so many things for folks, for sure.

Meredith: What portion of your work right now is working with organizations that need some support from you on some of the things you mentioned, like coaching and developing their leadership team, 360 reviews or projects like that versus individuals who are in that kind of transition phase or looking to personally build up an element if they’re still set.

Ellen: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think more so, I work with clients that are in corporations and so it still might be a high potential employee and that’s the kind of content that we tend to work on with them. I don’t do as many individuals and sometimes corporate engagements are like a six-month type of thing.

Personal folks are more like maybe four or five sessions kind of talking to people through their resume, their next thing. So it’s a smaller subset of what I do. I’d say it’s more corporate folks, but still, it could be that they want to talk to me about, gosh, I’m really, and I’m a neutral party, they want to talk to me about their next steps and do I really want to be at this company, et cetera. So that stuff can come out as well.

Meredith: Yeah, I feel like a neutral, informed sounding board or advisor is so valuable because there are so many places we get in terms of career advice or advisement in life, but so often you could go to a parent, you could go to a colleague, you could go to a former boss, but there’s also a lot of different context and perspectives wrapped up in those relationships.

Ellen: Right.

Meredith: I think, and anyway, back to my earlier point, I’m just glad that there are folks like you out there and what I’m really curious about is how, sometimes I think I’ve conflated mentorship and coaching and I’m curious for how they might be different.

Ellen: Yeah, I think that’s interesting and that’s what I, it’s helped to when I’m working with folks or kind of getting into an engagement, trying to help them define what it means for them too because a lot of times people that are sponsors don’t really understand the difference or how they can help their own people. So for me, I think they are different. I think mentors are more like a guide or an advisor and they help you, they might help you navigate to companies, relationships, decisions.

So we tend to look to mentors to offer us advice and share their stories to inform our own journey. And so you see a lot of mentor programs and companies and it helps new hires to kind of learn and acclimate and figure out how they can learn from other leaders, either it’s a woman leader or someone in the space of finance, whatever it happens to be. A coach is much more about something that’s to your point, that neutral party, asking questions to get at the heart of the matter, the goal, the challenge, and it’s really not about advising without permission.

So I will, you know, I’ll offer models or past experiences at times, but I’ll usually ask the client, do you mind if I share something? Because we truly want to hear from that client first. If they come up with their own solution, they’ll own that in such a much stronger way than trying to repeat my actions, right? And sometimes you’ve got clients that are like, just tell me the answer. Just give me the, you know, advice here.

And so I really try to push them to think of things first and brainstorm a little bit and share ideas. Coaching is so much about people finding their own way. I often have people say, oh, you know, thank you so much for that coaching session. And like, it’s all you. I just asked you some questions. You really came up with all of these great answers for yourself. So yeah, they definitely are different, very, you know, they’re similar in terms of hearing from someone else at times, but there’s some differences there. 

Meredith: So coaching is more supporting their own self discovery and mentorships is more kind of, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Here’s what worked for me. Let me help you.

Ellen: Yeah. Absolutely.

Meredith: You can totally see myself being like, I’d love the cheat codes, Ellen. Thank you. Please.

Ellen: Absolutely. I just want to know what to do next. How do I communicate? Give me the answer. And sometimes, you know, and sometimes I can do that in terms of like, oh, you know, here’s a great model to give someone feedback or I need to hear more from you in terms of how you get to hear, understand what’s blocking you to move forward to. 

Meredith: Well, so with the folks that you’re coaching, would you say that there are particular themes where they need to, well, actually, hold on, let me rephrase this, because I think I’m curious about a couple of things. So one, with the folks that you’re coaching, are there things that you’re like, hey, here are the four things, everybody out there needs to keep working on and working to do better.

And then I’m also curious, second part, which we can come back to later, the idea of when you’re working with folks, are you often like, oh, man, leaders need to do better in this area because it’s causing a lot of pressure on things

Ellen: No, that’s good. Yeah, because I’m thinking first about kind of the LEAD program that I have in terms of leadership training. And it’s, you know, very essential. It’s a lot about the basics in terms of how do I give feedback? How do I communicate? How do I delegate? You know, how do I deal with conflict? How do I, you know, be a manager as coach and kind of use a certain level of skills to coach my people versus just telling them what to do. So there are some key things that, you know, at every level people need, I’ve done that program for managers and I’ve done it for SVP level, people who just never got those skills coming up through the ranks.

So there’s some really basic things that they need to continue to grow. And then when I think about, you know, themes with clients and what people need to do better, it’s making me think too about this idea of coaching should really be kind of a gift or an investment to help people grow and develop towards new challenges. And sometimes it’s a last resort, right? People might be really strong performers and, but they might leave dead bodies in their wake, right? Kind of plowing over people as they go. So they don’t communicate. They don’t recognize people. They might micromanage. They don’t really kind of shore up their own resources. And then you think about their managers, their HR folks aren’t giving them the feedback or they’re ill-equipped.

So they turn to coaching. So I think what helps them in the coaching process is doing a nice robust, 360-degree feedback process. They hear from all walks of life. And if they’re open to hearing that feedback and accepting it, then they can move forward and kind of see how they can continue to grow. So yeah, it’s definitely some basics that everyone needs, but it also goes back to that education of helping people understand what coaching is, and it’s not kind of the solve-a-problem type of thing. But a lot of leaders turn to it for sure.

Meredith: That’s really helpful. In some ways, is it? Well, I have a lot of questions about that. One thing I want to really specifically come to me is, I think the idea about the 360 reviews, like being a resource that can help you implement that, it sounds really helpful in any organization.

I’m also wondering, are you sometimes coaching people about how to receive the results? Because I know that it can be really difficult, especially at different levels to hear it and not to deflect or explain away the other people’s perspectives, essentially.

Ellen: Yes, that’s such a good point, because usually I’ll go through a robust report and give them a lot of time to kind of sit with it, and we’ll come back to it again and think about it. Because even sometimes people have a hard time accepting the positive stuff. I’ll joke with people and say, put this page on your fridge. This is great stuff. Don’t forget about this. But to your point, then they kind of go into more of the critical things, and they’re looking at it saying, I think this was Meredith who said this. And they kind of go off rails with that stuff.

So it is so much about kind of going through it and being open enough to say, okay, this has maybe some merit. Let me think about what I could do here. Because if you don’t get them to accept it, they’re not going to move on. They’re not going to move forward to being open to coaching as well. So it can be challenging. And I think I’m thinking back to one particular exercise I did with executive level folks who just had not had feedback in a long time. And some of those conversations were hard because they thought one thing, and whether they’re peers or directs that something else, it’s really about people taking a step back and being open to the possibility that there’s some truth in this. And how do we figure out what I can do with it for sure? It’s not easy.

Meredith: Yeah. I always find it, I haven’t done a ton of 360s with the teams I’ve managed, but I do think the general one thing whenever you’re soliciting feedback is going into it with an open mind and open heart, not discounting things just because it’s not your, you think you understand why their perception might be one thing, but they can also be really tricky.

I feel like I don’t want to get too into the weeds on this, but I remember I had a really negative perception of 360s for a while and I had a complex experience really early in my career. I was in like a director level role, and I think that was 24, 25. And one of the bits of feedback I got, which clearly has been branded on my brain, was only to the effect that she runs around the office like a chicken with her head cut off at the one where she doesn’t reach her neck in those heels.

And when I look back on it now, I’m like, well, no, no shade on. However, that was conducted at the time, but I feel like there’s also an art to figuring out what gets sorted out ahead of time. And I’m curious if I have any thoughts on that or if it’s interesting.

Ellen: Yeah, it’s so interesting because I think there’s definitely people who, you know, and I’m thinking specifically back to this exercise with a lot of executives and they just kind of fixated on certain points and then they would kind of go down a rabbit hole with those pieces and it’s helping them to understand that, you know, as much as they should be open to it, it is just data.

And so you have to figure out what you want to do with it and how you kind of use it to your advantage versus having it branded on your brain for so long. Because it could have been taken out of context. It could have been in a little survey. You don’t know the ins and outs of it. And so when I do 360s, I like to do interviews with people because it’s just so much easier. You can ask clarifying questions, et cetera, still protecting their confidentiality and their data, but it just helps to kind of get clear on things to understand it so that when I’m presenting it to people, it’s clear to them as well.

Because I think I’ve definitely had people who are looking at the third bullet and what does this actually mean and how, when did this happen? You know, they get so fixated. So the clearer you can be going in to create a nice, robust report, the better and to avoid things that happen to you. So you’re still thinking about that, you know, years later. But it stinks.

Meredith: So when you do 360s, you are actually interviewing the salient employees or the colleagues. And so being anonymous, you’re making sure that there is clarity and there’s a little bit of sorting. I’d imagine on your part to things where you’re like, all right, well, it’s not wholly relevant. So I might not bring that to the table, but…

Ellen: Exactly.

And if it’s so personal and such a specific thing, I’m probably not going to leave it out or might take some of the themes from it. But I’m also looking for consistent themes, too. I’m looking for people saying similar things and if there’s outliers, I don’t know how valuable that is. It could have been one person’s bad day, et cetera, so you’re looking for, hmm, okay, this person really isn’t speaking up in meetings, let’s say, or this person really needs to kind of work more on delegation, whatever it happens to be, you’re looking for patterns so that they can have something to act upon.

Meredith: All right. Well, one thing I always think is important, but not always, I don’t think it gets the attention that it deserves, which is the keys to the difference between managing out, managing across, managing down. And I’d imagine that comes up a lot in 360s. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts. What are the keys to managing up versus down?

Ellen: Yeah. It’s interesting, I was just teaching a class yesterday that involved some communication styles and we were talking about managing to people’s styles and preferences and meeting them where they are in any direction, up, down, sideways, but certainly that managing up can induce fear, it can feel like we’re challenging our leaders, right? So it’s, in reality, what we were talking about and what I often tell people is, how do we realize that we’re working to support our leaders, we’re working to support the business so focusing on good skills like active listening and understanding the why behind actions that our bosses might be doing to be successful there.

And so it’s almost a shift of mindset to support the business and the leader and coming from a more positive place to offer feedback or to offer ideas. And again, it’s going to depend on that boss too. I’ve definitely had people who don’t take that feedback very well, right there. It’s more of a threatening environment because they feel threatened about what you’re telling them what to do, et cetera. It’s about kind of shifting that mindset to say, I’m here to kind of help you be an even better manager. So here’s what I’m thinking we could do for you, for the team, for the business and even saying things like that can actually help the message get across a little bit more too.

But it’s one of the most challenging things in terms of how do I do that? It’s closely associated, I think too, with executive presence and such a buzzword these days too. What does that even mean? How do I carry myself or how am I communicating confidently, which also helps in that managing up piece?

Meredith: Yeah. Well, I agree. Executive presence is everywhere. How would, as a concept, how do you describe and define if that’s your presence?

Ellen: Yeah, it’s interesting because I have a lot of folks who come to me with saying, I need this or I’ve been told I need this. And we have kind of long conversations of what does that mean to you and how do you think you’re showing up? So when I see it, it is a lot about finding a voice in meetings and having that professional presence with people, working with people at higher levels.

So sometimes people are moving from a manager to director, director to VP, and some of those are big jumps for people to kind of think about, gosh, it’s a different audience. How do I interact with them and kind of speak a different language? So it’s a lot about kind of almost taking those basic skills of communication and connection and kind of putting them on steroids to kind of reach a different level, if you will. Oftentimes, I think.

Meredith: Yes. I can think of people I’ve managed as they were transitioning from manager to director to VP, and that being something that we talked on a bit, but I think that inroads to those conversations were often maybe not that big a deal, but like little mistakes they made or moments they felt uncomfortable and they realized, God, I feel like my whole, you know, was taking them a little bit for their nervous systems and perception and hurt to catch up with their new roles.

And I think to a certain extent, executive presence from my perspective is something that you need to be constantly, you need to be cultivating your self-awareness and working on things, being very mindful of what could I have done better there, but also time on job makes it so much easier. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone perfectly inhabit a new role after a couple weeks. So do you think that there is a, are there cheat codes to jump from director to VP with total grace, or do you think time on job is also like just an unnecessary part of the transition?

Ellen: Yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s a necessary piece of it. It’s, I mean, that would take a lot of grace to just kind of sail in there without any issues. And I think it’s great to have that mentor, that coach, that manager that’s helping you understand what this move means. It’s really helpful to have systems in place like competency models that say, here’s what you’re now responsible for as a VP.

Here’s your sphere of influence, your scope of role, those things that shift. And sometimes people even move from manager to director, some of the work is the same. So it’s hard for me to figure out, okay, is my mindset supposed to be the same, but the audience has changed and that kind of sphere of influence definitely shifts too. So it’s so nice to have someone who’s helping you along on that journey to kind of guide you a bit as well, I think. Yeah. That takes time.

Meredith: Yeah. And it’s like, I can see why you’re a little embarrassed right now. Don’t worry about it. Like, you’re going to make me help with some compassion. So just to pin it a little bit, I know you mentioned at the start, you started the Gillis Group during the pandemic and you’ve been working with, I’d imagine remote and hybrid and maybe in-person clients and I’m really curious about what trends are you seeing and what do you think leaders and employees really need to focus on in this new world of a grab bag of working environments?

Ellen: Yeah. The grab bag is such a good term for this because I’ve done a couple of things in person and I actually have a few next week. So it’s so interesting for me to suddenly get in my car and dress up more and all these different things again versus like the headshot. But I think it’s such a good question and it’s one I think that a lot of companies are still struggling to figure out. I think companies really want to re-engage and they want to bring back their culture, but a lot of them have college grads who have never known the culture to miss. So it’s really hard to get folks back in.

Others feel that it’s so much better working from home, I’m more productive and I’m frustrated by the commute, which they might see as wasted time now, which is rightly so. How much time do we spend in the car, on the train, et cetera. So what I’m seeing is I think that focus needs to be on some sort of balance. And so most clients that I see have a combination of days in the office and days at home. So when you go in, you have that ability to collaborate and connect and then you also can retain some of the benefits from working from home, whether it’s throwing a load of laundry in or spending a little more time with your kids or whatever it happens to be.

The key is really making the office time worth it. I know some people in a smaller firm, they can actually have everyone go in like on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It’s great. But in larger places, I have some clients that go in and they sit in the conference room all day because the rest of their teams are on Zoom at home and that is a waste of time. So I think companies are still figuring out, it takes a lot of strategy and logistics management to kind of get this team by team to work effectively. I think it’s a struggle we’re going to have for some time for sure.

Meredith: Yeah, and I’m really interested for what you think about this. I feel like one thing that I’ve noticed, I think it took me a while to get there is that, and it seems obvious as I say it, but for some people who are in a remote environment, I think some people are a little organically more inclined to still be attuned to things like body language, facial expression, moods of the folks that they’re working with, even though it’s on video.

And then for others who maybe would be especially attuned to those things in person, it feels a little harder for them to tap into and feel connected in the same way that they would. And I don’t necessarily have a solution for this, but I just feel like one thing I’d been noticing and thinking about was how it truly is different for each person, which means blanket policies are not always going to be, they’re not going to help everyone equally.

And I don’t really know a solution for that, except I guess I would say that if you don’t, if you’re struggling to feel connected to people in a remote environment, that there are probably some things you could do to bring more awareness in the moment into those remote meetings. But what trends are you seeing on that front?

Ellen: Yeah, I think you’re hitting on the self-awareness that’s so key and not only of the people, but of their managers to say, Ellen, I’ve noticed you don’t usually have your camera on or whatever it happens to be. It looks like you’re struggling to connect with people. Let’s talk about it. How can I support you?

So it’s also about the managers being aware of how their people are doing in these environments and maybe kind of hooking them up with someone else who manages it well, potentially in terms of some tips and tricks. I just saw there was a book out there that’s something around hybrid work and how to be successful just published in June. And I immediately bought it because I’m like, I’m always looking for some more trends or like some answer, some nugget. But I think it really has to be kind of people being self-aware, but if they’re not and they’re struggling, how are managers reaching in and trying to figure out going on with them? And it’s super hard in these little boxes, right?

But how do I have one-on-ones or kind of get on the phone with people and see how they’re doing to be able to connect in a different way? I talked recently to another person I’m coaching and he’s struggling with just trying to get the energy of the room going. And it was so much easier in person when he could do that and he could see everybody and see their body language below the neck and how they’re doing. And so it’s really hard to kind of engage that way. And I think more and more people are coming out with some different tips and exercises to do, but so many of us are, you know, the Zoom happy hour is an old idea, right? No one wants to do that stuff anymore. So what’s the next phase of kind of connecting with people differently?

And maybe we turn to some of the folks that have been remote for their career or offices that have people that are in different pockets of the country or the world and what works for them too. Because regardless of COVID, they’ve been doing this all along, so they probably have some better ideas. Yeah, thanks for that. It’s tough. I’ll give you some more nuggets when I read that book.

Meredith: Yeah, no, I’d love to hear about it. And I think it kind of, I wait until my next question a little bit because, well, just before we jump into that, I would say that in some way that I feel like the way that different people react to remote meetings for me is a good, always a good reminder in that for some reason for me, I don’t find it difficult. I feel as connected and attuned to the folks for the most part that are remote as I do in person. I think it’s like a double-edged sword because I think I can actually be hyper attuned to people in a way that ends up being kind of draining for me as a manager.

But I also think it’s a good reminder, more thematically, that sometimes as managers we take what is true for us and presume that that is true for everyone else and we need to be reminded, remain constantly curious about everyone else’s experiences and preferences and affinities. And so I think it kind of rolls into my next question, which is, in my experience, I need to truly coach someone. For me, when I was in management and leadership roles, really required me to connect with them emotionally and sometimes to give a lot emotionally in the meetings, but also thinking about them outside of work, trying to really see and support them in real time. And it can be as much emotional as intellectual labor.

And so I’m very curious about as a coach, what is that like for you? Is it emotional labor at times? If so, how do you make sure you take care of yourself and do you believe you need a real connection with someone to support and coach them?

Ellen: Yeah, those are really good questions and kind of just to quickly comment on your first comment around being attuned to folks. And I think someone was saying recently, how do I know when to lead? And it’s not like you put on your calendar from three to four, I’m going to do leadership today. It’s something you have to do all the time, right?

So it’s definitely a mindset shift again to kind of be in tune with people. But when I’m thinking about this emotional labor, I have some clients and I teach classes on Zoom and nobody has a camera on. And it’s a little bit, it’s a bummer because they’re probably on Zoom all day long. So they just kind of are taking those different, they’re paying attention, but it’s different. So you miss that connection. And so I think I put a lot in the relationships and there’s a lot of emotion there. And it’s super easy when you’re coaching people to get caught up in their struggles or their challenges. And so for me, what I find, I need to lead more into empathy versus sympathy.

And so empathy is more understanding, right? There’s a separation there in terms of how people are doing. Because that sympathy, gosh, I could really get into a personal connection and swirl and really feel bad. And now I’ve lost the point of what we’re talking about. So because it is, it’s so important for folks you’re coaching to vent and to really share what’s hard so they can get to a place where they can do that real work. And it’s rewarding when they find something new or they are past something.

So for me, taking care of myself as well, it’s like, how do I prep for the call beforehand? How do I go for a walk or get some lunch or something after the call too? There’s a lot, I think self-care is such a big thing. Again, another buzzword, but super important these days to really do that. And I also, to your second point, I do believe that chemistry needs to exist there. I often tell folks, it’s almost like finding a therapist, even though your therapist looks back and he was a coach, look forward, you still need someone you can believe in, trust to help you with whatever your challenges are. So I’ve been interviewed by prospective coaches. I do some work with a coaching platform called Go Coach, and they have their clients interview three different people, which is great.

So I usually say, pick your best match. If it’s me, great. If it’s not great, you’re needed to gel with someone to believe they can really help you. For sure.

Meredith: Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me when I think about even folks that I was maybe managing, but also doing a bit of coaching slash mentorship. But I did feel like it was very important that there was almost, there has to be consent on both parties into that work. Because if you’re trying to, in my experience, if you’re trying to mentor or coach someone that does not feel that connection or affinity for you or the way you do things, it’s going to be uncomfortable and fruitless for both parties. Right. So I think that that makes a lot of sense.

And I also think it’s a little different, a coach versus a manager, but I also think that some managers feel an obligation to also mentor and coach everyone that reports into them. Right. And I don’t know, maybe you’ll be like, nope, Meredith, that’s bad management. But I would say that it’s okay to be like, we just don’t have the chemistry for that. And I’m going to be kind and as good a manager as I can to them, but I’m going to slightly recuse myself from what feels to me like, I don’t know, knocking on a door that’s not going to open to other types of relationships with that person.

Ellen: Yeah, I think, I think certainly managers can be coaches and I have teach some workshops around manager as coach and giving them a different set of tools to kind of be curious with questions. But I totally agree that some managers are just too close to the people. There’s performance issues.

They may have assumptions about the person, the relationship that they can’t see clearly to help someone. So sometimes those managers are better served coaching people outside of their sphere and their direct report lines as they can take on some, you know, they can be that mentor or coach to others in the organization, which is cool. It’s a hard, it’s an interesting line of coaching, managing your people because you can use some of those good coaching skills to be curious and help people understand where they are. But at the end of the day, they may still have to hold them accountable for things. So it’s a dicey relationship sometimes.

Meredith: Yeah, and I think it’s one that I would guess it’s one that it’s a complexity that pops up in leaner environments where maybe there isn’t the resources to be bringing in coaches or to have a super robust soft skills training, training and the way that you’d want to.

So yeah, the manager is like, okay, I am managing these folks, but I also, if I don’t coach them and like to start to bring them up and mature them and move them into different roles, no one’s going to do it. So it’s already a lean environment. I think that can be an additional pressure on managers too, as I am the manager here, but I’m also the coach, I’m the mentor, I am the sole developer of them professionally.

Ellen: Yeah, wearing all of those hats is super challenging. And oh, by the way, I have a job to do too. So it’s all of those things that, yeah, can make it super challenging for them.

Meredith: So when organizations do invest in coaching and you have the opportunity to do that, what would you say the tangible returns for them are and or be intangible?

Ellen: Yeah, it’s interesting. It sounds kind of like a squishy thing, right, in terms of the soft skills that people need to work on or improve or change, it’s not about metrics or money. But sometimes if organizations are hesitant to invest, I often talk to them about the cost of not doing anything to help people, right?

That cost could be a high turnover, loss of faith and a manager, business, et cetera. So I go back to the 360 process in terms of, I do that at the beginning of a relationship and then close to the end, and you can see trends in terms of, how is it like to work with Alan now? What are her communication skills? How is she participating differently in meetings? You can really ask specific questions to get at how the person is doing against their goals.

And so the, I think the ROI for the most part is tangible, it just may not be as black and white as like dollars or resources, but it can be real just the same in terms of you can literally see people shift their behavior and try different things to interact with people in a different way, which is pretty cool when it works out too.

Meredith: Yeah, totally, I’d imagine like one, just a kind of broadening their own professional understanding of them, themselves and their teams, retention, and also a better employee experience for the folks that work with and for them.

Ellen: Yeah, for sure.

Meredith: Exponential. Well, if someone was working with you or a leadership coach in general, what does the process look like for the employers? And what are they like for the employees who you are coaching?

Ellen: Yeah, so I typically, you know, again, most of my relationships are through people I’ve worked with in the past. And when I am, they’re interested in coaching, I’ll typically meet with a prospective client again, going back to our point of you’ve got a job with someone to work with them. And then if it’s a go, I’ll partner with the client, their manager, and oftentimes that person’s manager or HR, that’s the sponsor of the whole engagement. So that’s a good in-depth process to ensure there’s a good alignment across everyone of what this coaching engagement will look like from goals that the client might have and the sponsor might have even, from manager meetings for 360 as well.

And so coaching itself is, you know, there’s a lot of great ethics around it from the International Coaching Federation. And there’s a lot of confidentiality too. So a lot of that comes up upfront, but I’m not going to discuss what our meetings are about, but I might meet with the manager and the sponsor just to say, here’s where we are in the overall plan. It’s typically a six-month engagement that I do, and I meet with folks probably bi-weekly, and there’s certainly an opportunity if people want to continue after the six months.

But it’s a lot about just focusing on getting that 360 result, those 360 results back, setting some goals with them, and then working each time we meet on those goals. And sometimes, certainly, someone could come to me and say, oh, I know we’re going to talk about this goal, but this meeting just happened, and I really want to talk about this. Great. Process through that, because ultimately, it’s all towards making a kind of a stronger employee for sure. But it’s really, it’s a lot of connection overall at a high level with manager, with sponsor, and client to make sure we’re kind of mapping the process for that six months.

Meredith: So HR or the management teams would be the ones to reach out to you to say, hey, with a certain number of individuals, I really want to work on XYZ, and then you’re meeting those employees regularly with those milestones in mind, but having confidential and very customized sessions with them.

Ellen: Yep. Absolutely. And I can, I’ve had, go ahead, sorry.

Meredith: No, no, you go ahead.

Ellen: No, I was just thinking, there certainly are some times where I’ll have leaders who say, even though we’ve agreed to come in confidentiality, what about this, or are they changing this? And what I often do is say, I’ll direct them back to the client, and I’ll direct the client to have conversations with them about their performance and about their improvements. It’s just because I really don’t want to break that confidentiality. So that’s something that I continue to reinforce, I would say.

Meredith: Yeah, I could see that. Because of the temptation, maybe the employer’s side for you to become a middleman or a bit of a de facto feedback deliverer.

Ellen: Totally. Yes. Yeah.

Meredith: Are there ever times where an organization has reached out to you, and they’re like, we really need some support for our teams in coaching, but you’ve actually thought, oh, you know what, that is actually not the solution to your problem right now.

Ellen: Yes. Absolutely. And that’s such an interesting thing. And again, it goes back to the definition of coaching and how to help people. So we talked about it being an investment in talent for sure. And when people aren’t performing, it’s probably more about feedback or even performance plans. And I’ve literally had at least one or two managers say to me, well, we were either going to have to fire Ellen or get her a coach, and I was like, cool. Thinking is probably not the best.

And so what that can result in is this person gets assigned a coach, literally, and they’re a prisoner to the process. They don’t even want to be there. So you want to work with someone who’s open to change and exploration. And again, this is that investment in them. So I will at times push back to say, are we sure this is the best solution to this? Has that person received some feedback from you, from HR? Have you thought about performance plans for this person, whatever it might be to kind of help them with behavior changes that are impeding their future in terms of the company?

And so it’s really important to go back and help define coaching for them so that they’re taking the best path for them and their employees.

Meredith: So when coaching is given as a gift in the spirit of wanting to invest in teams and improve them, beautiful. And when it’s sometimes utilized as a tool, as like a last ditch effort to prevent someone from being fired, that’s actually maybe something that HR management needs to be dealing with these more brass tax performance issues before the person’s ready for coaching. Is that right?

Ellen: Yeah, for sure. And I’m thinking back to when I first started my business, there’s certainly a scarcity mindset to think about, oh my gosh, if I don’t take this job, I’m going to have to shutter my business, right? So I’ve definitely worked with people and I can remember people on the other side of Zoom with their arms crossed, looking at me like, who’s this going to help? Why do I have to meet with her?

And I think there’s been some success there too, because it’s a six month engagement really kind of hearing their pain points and then diving under the water line to try to help. But it’s so that it can happen, it can be successful, but it’s so much easier when someone’s excited about it and an opportunity that of an investment, right?

Meredith: That makes a lot of sense. Well, is there anything that you think I should have asked you that would be interesting or relevant to people who are maybe for the first time on this episode, learning a bit about what management coaching is, like anything that I didn’t ask you for would be helpful for

Ellen: them to know? Yeah, you know, I think right now I’m thinking about our current state of the state, right? We’re hearing so much about the economy and recession and debt ceiling, more layoffs, you know, Microsoft yesterday, Alphabet and Google today, I see a lot of clients kind of pulling back and waiting on coaching or leadership development, saving their dollars. But the challenge here is that those needs remain. And what happens oftentimes is people get laid off, the people that are still there are challenged and are now taking on more. So it’s actually so powerful to invest in folks.

People now need to feel cared for more than ever before, that’s what I’m seeing. And so there are certainly ways to be creative, to do group coaching instead of one person or to do bite-sized learning that can be easier to digest or afford for companies. There’s a huge cost of doing nothing. So as a new coach or as someone new doing this, it can be hard to kind of have those conversations with potential clients, but it’s a lot about just kind of hearing them, hearing their pain points and seeing how you can serve them. I think for me, coming into this, I was thinking, the salesperson, I don’t know how to do this. It feels slimy to me, right? And shifting that mindset to think, now, this is about serving people versus selling something to them.

This is about partnering with them versus just working for them and taking tasks from them. So that helps me to kind of have robust conversations with people to just reconnect, hear how they’re doing, hear how they want to make changes, and then hopefully kind of help their people too.

Meredith: Yeah. And it is such a volatile time right now, and I think that coaching is, as you said, such a gift to teams and to managers, and so I hope that when possible businesses are able to keep that cool and invest in it for their people. Thank you so much, Ellen. You’re just like a font of wisdom.

Ellen: Thanks!

Meredith: I’m just appreciative of the chance to get to pick your brain about this, and I think that a lot of listeners will find this really to have been an interesting conversation too. So if someone wanted to reach out to you and get in touch, what are the best ways for them to kind of look you up?

Ellen: Yeah, for sure. You can look up the Gillis Group online. I can also provide email if you want. It’s just admin at is a dash between Gillis and Group. Certainly, I’m happy to kind of talk to anybody, whether they’re looking for help in partnership or they’re looking to kind of start coaching as well, more than happy to help out.

Meredith: All right. Well, yeah, we can draw those in the show notes, and thank you so, so much, Ellen.

Ellen: Thank you so much. Great conversation. I appreciate it.

Meredith: Thanks for joining us. We hope that you liked our convo with Ellen.

Ian: Next week, we’ll be speaking with Dina Smith, an executive coach and frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and more.

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Ian: And that’s our show. Thank you so much for listening. If you want to get in touch, you can always email us at