The Biggest Mistake These Top Executive Coaches See Leaders Make—and What to Do Instead

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As leaders of the executive coaching firm Velocity, John Baird and Edward Sullivan have seen a lot of companies flourish — and fail.

The two coaches work with more than 100 clients throughout the world, ranging from start-up founders to executives of Fortune 500 companies. Baird founded Velocity in 2015 and has helped mold top leaders at Fortune 500 companies including Apple, Nike and Twitter. Sullivan joined the firm in 2016 as CEO and managing partner and works with executives at Hinge, Doordash, Polaroid, Geico and more.

"I love the chaos of the start-up world, and the art of taking a company from a small operation to going public," Baird, 77, tells CNBC Make It of starting the firm. "A lot of investors approach us to help their high-flying, star founders navigate that chaos."

There's a trap, however, that many start-up CEOs fall into on their path to success, Baird and Sullivan, Velocity's CEO and managing partner, point out. "The biggest, most common mistake we see in start-ups is leaders taking the bait when an employee wants input on a business decision," Sullivan, 46, says. "But what happens 90% of the time is that the leader will tell the employee what they would do, and essentially makes the decision for them."

Instead of answering the employee's question with their opinion, a leader should coach the employee through making the decision themselves. "They should say to the employee, 'Tell me what you've thought of already, help me understand your thinking on this … what have you already tried?'" he says. "By responding with questions, the leader builds decision-making capacity within the organization, rather than making themselves responsible for calling all the shots — it might seem subtle, but it's a huge difference as the company grows, because you need to delegate and trust your colleagues to make decisions."

Edward Sullivan and John Baird.
Photo: Edward Sullivan
Edward Sullivan and John Baird.

There's another similar challenge Baird notices leaders at companies of all sizes often run into, which he calls "pseudo participation." "It's when leaders tell their employees that they value their input on decisions, and solicit feedback, but then nothing happens with the ideas," Baird explains. "Leaders need to be clearer about how they make decisions instead of falsely leading people to believe that we care about their input."

Collaboration and communication are important skills to master whether you're in the C-Suite or a new employee, Baird notes. One tactic he recommends for practicing these skills, and standing out at work, is going on a "listening tour" to get to know your teammates, what their interests are, the projects they're working on and how you can support them. "The best thing a manager can hear about an employee is that they're great to work with, not only do they get things done, but they're a team player," he says.

Sullivan adds that the workers who show their value the fastest are the ones who help others be successful, whether it be their managers or direct colleagues. "The most popular person on the team is the one who not only delivers on their tasks, but supports team members with their work," he says. "You want to develop a reputation for being someone who consistently shows up, rolls up their sleeves and says 'Let me help you, what can I take off your plate?' … that's always a winner."

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