Intrigued by a question about her approach to leadership development, executive coach Rebecca Zucker offers a quote attributed to Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
“A big part of what we do is help people reach new levels of leadership maturity and expand their individual and collective leadership capacity,” says Zucker, a cofounder of San Francisco-based Next Step Partners who works with organizations, teams, and individuals to develop leadership skills. “An organization will not outperform the collective leadership capacity of its most senior leaders.”
Zucker says she and her three equity partners employ about 50 trained coaches across the U.S., Europe, and Asia to work with organizations that span nearly all industries and all stages of development. The common thread, she says, is that their clients want to invest in developing their leaders and recognize the need for new ways of thinking and working to, as the GSB motto says, “change lives, change organizations, change the world.”
You say, “Profound change on the inside is the only way to deliver meaningful and sustainable change on the outside.” So which is harder to do, affect systemic change in an organization or personal change in its leaders?
I don’t think you can have systemic change without personal change. This is really at the core of the work I do and what makes it so meaningful and powerful for me. It’s about growing as a human being so you can grow as a leader. Just like there are stages of childhood development, there are stages of adult development. With each successive stage, we have a broader worldview that allows us to handle greater complexity and helps us be less reactive. That’s the progression I help my clients make, which allows them to be less paralyzed by fear and to do hard things like engage in conflict without making it personal or taking it personally. The highest compliment I ever got from a client is that she said she’s a better human being for having worked with me.
Why do you think so many leaders find themselves “in the weeds,” as you say, rather than pursuing higher-value strategic work?
Fear pulls them into the weeds. Strategic thinking is a common area for development, particularly at inflection points as people get more senior and they have to do less and lead more. To make space for this, they have to delegate, and that’s another common challenge at all levels of leadership.
Why is that fear-based?
That’s the thing we all share as human beings — fear and anxiety. And it’s different for each person. For one client I worked with, it was the fear that if I delegate, I get cut out of the loop and become irrelevant. For another, it was, “If I delegate, they’ll screw it up, and I’m going to look bad.” For another client, it was “if I delegate, somebody else is going to outshine me.” It’s about identifying those core fears and limiting beliefs that typically form early in life. They may have helped us succeed at one point, but as an adult, they no longer serve us. There’s unlearning that needs to happen before new learning can take hold to create sustainable behavior change. That’s the inner work. It does require vulnerability and that people look inward. That’s a must-have for a successful coaching engagement.
Do you use specific tools to get them out of that mindset?
There’s a methodology called “Immunity to Change” developed by two professors from the Harvard School of Education, Robert Kegan, and Lisa Lahey, that’s both very simple and very powerful. A lot of people say of this methodology, “Once you see the limiting beliefs that are holding you back, you can’t unsee it.” When my coach did this exercise with me during my certification with them, it wasn’t just my “Aha!” moment; it was my “Holy s***!” moment. To be able to bring that level of awareness and change to other people is incredibly fulfilling.
You’ve said you like to work with leaders who are willing to “ask themselves the tough questions.” What’s the most common tough question they have to confront?
It’s a combination of “What am I avoiding?” and “What’s my worst fear?” The things that hold us back are not rational fears, they’re emotional and self-protective. It’s not “I’m scared sales will take a hit,” it’s “I’m scared sales will take a hit, and it’s going to be my fault, and I’ll lose my job, and no one will ever want to hire me again.” Here’s the thing with these limiting beliefs and fears we have: We’re not always conscious of them, but they’re what drives our behavior every day. Part of my job is to make these fears and limiting beliefs more conscious for people. Once they’re aware of them, then they can challenge them and broaden their perspective and start to see the world in less constricted ways.
In your view, what’s the most profound change you’ve seen in the workplace during the past five years?
Everything has been impacted by COVID. But even before that, people were feeling consumed by work and consequently overwhelmed by it. And then COVID exacerbated it. It really made a lot of people step back and question current and future ways of working. It also created an important focus for organizations on the mental health of employees — and normalized a discussion of this important topic in the workplace. The issue always existed, particularly given how overwhelmed people already were, but again, this was intensified with COVID.
Why are you so passionate about the intersection of people and business?
Without your people, you have no business. If you’re not taking care of your people, you’re really shortsighted. Reexamining how we work may be the silver lining to come from COVID. Companies are still questioning this. Along with healthcare workers and other essential workers, HR leaders are the unsung heroes of COVID. They were grappling with so much change and uncertainty at that time, especially about how to handle the whole back-to-the-office thing, not wanting to get backlash from their employees. The smart ones just asked their employees what they wanted. What’s important to you? That doesn’t mean they’re going to get everything they want, but a lot of my clients during the whole work-from-home period not only met their goals but exceeded their goals with everybody working from home.
Aren’t there benefits to working together in person?
Yes, particularly in terms of facilitating greater social connection and collaboration. But that can happen remotely, too. That’s one of the biggest changes to come out of COVID, and I think that’s with us to stay. Both remote work and asynchronous work are inherent parts of a digital economy with a globally distributed workforce. We can allow people to work where and when they want as long as the outcomes are achieved. One thing I tell my clients, particularly when it comes to remote work, do you want the best person for the job or do you want the best person in that ZIP code? Because not having those geographic constraints opens things up to finding better and more diverse talent.
Are there leaders you’ve worked with who you think managed that transition particularly well, and how did they do that?
Two fall into that category. One was a private equity firm, and one was a foundation. They were very in touch with their people and communicated regularly to determine what their employees cared about, what they were concerned about, and what they wanted at every stage of the pandemic. They shared information via email, but they also talked to their people and did surveys to get aggregate information, particularly when it came to what people cared most about, specifically with respect to their return to the office.
What’s the most common leadership characteristic you find lacking in many corporate leaders?
The biggest pain point in organizations is the willingness and ability of their leaders to deal with conflict directly in a constructive way and make it safe for others to do so as well. I’ve worked with several conflict-avoidant CEOs. They’re human, like all of us. We all have things we find difficult and challenging to do. They need to see conflict as not only a good thing but also a normal thing. They have to be able to deal with the discomfort and have those hard conversations and also make them two-way conversations.
You’ve written for the Harvard Business Review on such topics as how to deal with feeling constantly overwhelmed at work, how to stop thinking about work at 3 a.m., and how leaders should respond to unreasonable requests. What inspired you to write these?
As I mentioned, even prior to the pandemic, people were overwhelmed at work. I saw many of my clients struggle with this. Both the volume and complexity of the work had increased significantly. They would just work harder for longer hours, but that was not the answer. One thing remained clear, which was that the tidal wave of work was not going to let up any time soon. Leaders needed strategies to deal with this, but they also needed to look at how they may be contributing to the problem — whether it was due to perfectionism, lack of boundaries, need for control, inability to ask for help or push back, or something else.
Photos by Nader Khouri