Laine Joelson Cohen on Culture Change
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Today’s guest is Laine Joelson Cohen, a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches project and director of Leadership, Executive and Professional Development at Citigroup. Laine believes that using, as a cornerstone of her work, a coaching style involving curiosity opens up channels of trust and leads to collaboration, performance and impact.
Listen in to explore:
- How transforming organizational culture requires change on many levels.
- The shift from “get it perfect” to “experiment and fail fast,” and what that requires of leaders and teams.
- How leadership standards provide ways of working internally.
- The key question to ask when you start to work with someone. (It has to do with feedback.)
These people and books are mentioned in the podcast:
Michael: It is Michael Bungay Stanier. This is the Coaching Habit podcast. I’m thrilled to have you with us. The Coaching Habit podcast where I get down and dirty with people who are thinkers, who are leaders, who are writers; some of them are even coaches. And we get talking about what it takes to have a good life, to strive to do more great work, to bring out the best in yourself and bring out the best in others.
So today, I’m speaking to Laine Joelson Cohen. In the 26 years that she’s been with Citi, Laine has held a number of different roles across both the brokerage business and also in the human resources side of things as well. In fact, for over 10 years she was a senior leader in the equity compensation where she honed her leadership skills, leading multifunctional and helping them work together successfully. No small thing. If you’ve ever lead a team, you know how hard it is to get multi-functional team to work together.
About five years ago, following her passion for coaching and leadership, she switched careers and became Director of Leadership, Executive and Professional Development. In fact, Laine and I got to know each other because we are both part of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coach Group where Marshall has blessed 100 people; so far he’s picked 50 of those 100 as his heirs, if you like, heirs apparent for the work he does in the world. Laine and I are both part of that, so that’s the connection we made there.
Of course, Laine believes that using a coaching style and curiosity as a cornerstone to her work opens up channels of trust and leads to collaboration, performance, and impact, which is exactly the thing we want to get into. So, Laine, thank you so much for being here.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Thanks for having me.
Michael: Your first ever podcast. How cool am I to get you as your first guest, your first podcast. I feel-
Laine Joelson Cohen: I know. This is great.
Michael: I feel pretty lucky.
Laine Joelson Cohen: As do I.
Michael: So you’ve had a 26-year career at Citi. You’ve traveled also to different paths and different journeys. I’m curious to know, as you think about what impact you’re seeking to have with your work now, where are you putting your attention? What are you trying to make happen in this world?
Laine Joelson Cohen: It’s amazing being in an organization for 26, gasp, years.
Michael: I know. It’s like, “Wait how can I have worked here for 26 years and be as young as I am.” I know that feeling.
Laine Joelson Cohen: It’s amazing when you start somewhere when you’re 12 years old what can happen.
Laine Joelson Cohen: So, I’ve had my own journey, but the organization is also having its journey. As I’m sure many people are experiencing, the world that we find ourselves in today and the environments in which we work are quite different, maybe, than they were even 5, 10 years ago. So having that actually requires us to take a step back and think about “What is the culture that we need in our organization that will enable us to exist and succeed in the world today as it stands?”
It’s been a really interesting time to think differently and try to work with leaders in an organization as big as Citi to contemplate who we need to be, what we need to be doing, and what is the environment or the culture that we need to, as I said, succeed and thrive in this crazy world that we found ourselves in.
Michael: Box of Crayons, my company, is a training company. We focus on coaching skills for busy managers and the like, but honestly, I cut my teeth where I would call an “OD practitioner,” or “OD facilitator.” It’s all about “How do you make culture change happen in organizations? How do you help companies evolve and grow so that they become the company we hoped they’d be so the people can flourish in there?”
Here’s the bottom line, it’s really hard. I mean the statistics-
Laine Joelson Cohen: It’s really hard.
Michael: The statistics are grim, Laine. I think change management processes in general, about 40 to 50%, fail outright. 40% make some progress, 10% actually, perhaps, maybe it’s 11%, I think I read, actually hit the target that they were aiming for. The bad news is the odds are against you. The good news is I’m sure you’ve got some stuff figured out. What are you learning in terms of what’s needed to make culture change happen?
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah, I think you’re spot on. First of all, every organization has a culture, right? It might not be the culture that they want or the culture that-
Michael: Or even the culture that senior leadership talks about and thinks that they have.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Absolutely. Culture is born out of so many different things. So often, what happens is you aspire to a culture in an organization with all best intentions, but sometimes the operating system kind of gets in the way. So, you might to do something different and it’s like tissue rejection, right? “This isn’t how we it here,” or the processes and the systems-
Michael: The organism is rejecting…
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. It really requires change on so many levels. When you think about culture, it’s not just how we talk about ourselves and how we talk to each other; there’s so many things. What is our purpose? How do we actually get work done? Because the way that we get work done, those processes and the systems and the structure, actually has a huge impact on culture. So we’re really trying to think about all of those things.
The great news is the first step, I think, is awareness: having good conversations about where we want to be and what we need to do differently in order to compete and succeed in the world today. If you think about a bank, a 200 year old bank, the world is very different in terms of the FinCon companies coming in and really changing the way that we do things. I’m so excited that we have so many innovative people in the organization who are really creating this, almost, ground swell of conversation and awareness of how we need to do things differently.
So, I’ll give you an example. We used to, I think … and many companies still do, we certainly still do as well, we used to think that in order to put out a product, whether it be something internal to the organization or a product that goes out to our clients, it needed to be perfect. We might, in fact, work on said product for two years, get it just right, and then launch it out into the universe and wait and see what happens.
Michael: That’s very, very 2004 of you.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Exactly. I think we’d all agree that just doesn’t work anymore. Things are moving so much more quickly. So the ability to experiment and fail fast and come out into the world with a minimum viable product is what we really need to be doing differently. Again, both externally to our clients and internally as an organization, whether it’s an internal system, or product, or process, it’s the same concept. That really requires a lot of different things from our leaders and all of our employees than, maybe, we had in the past. Different way of thinking and acting and so forth.
Michael: So part of the challenge, I imagine, with an organization as big and as diverse as Citi – different business units, different ways of working – is there’s not actually one culture, there’s multiple cultures. And if you’re striving to build a new culture, in some ways, what you’re striving to do is build an umbrella of “This is how we do things at Citi,” and then in your part of Citi, this is how your version of that shows up.
I’m curious to know do you start with one part of the bank and go “We’re gonna work here, and we’re gonna try and prototype here and go through rapid iteration of culture change here before we roll it out to different parts of the bank?” Are you trying multiple experiments in different parts of the bank? Is it a more classic from the top down rollout throughout the whole of the bank? How are you thinking differently about how to make culture change stick?
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yes. Yes. Yes. All of it.
Michael: Oh, cool.
Laine Joelson Cohen: So what I mean by that is we are having conversations with senior leadership. Culture has to really be owned in the organization as often it’s both coming from senior leadership in an organization kind of leading the way, talking the talk, sharing expectations and new ways of doing things. But it also has to happen in every layer of an organization. And as you mentioned, cultures can be really different all over the place. You might have one culture in a consumer bank that might be different in the investment bank and one culture in Europe that might be different than the culture that we have in Asia Pacific. What’s really important is having a conversation around the place where we not only have messaging that’s coming from senior leadership, but also starting to have conversations within the organization at all levels between leaders and their teams, between teams that work together cross-functionally, so that we start to really be more deliberate and set out how it is that we want to work together and what are those rule, if you will, that are so important in order for us to be able to shift the culture in the way that we want to do that.
For instance, we have a mission and value proposition as most organizations do. And we also have something called our leadership standards, which really talk about how we work together. So, making sure that those leadership standards are embedded in the way that we work and the way that we measure performance in all that we do is really an important aspect of that culture change and looking at it across the organization rather than in pockets. Wherever you work at Citi, those leadership standards are there, and then, individually in organizations, we sort of interpret “How do we bring this to life in the way that we work together or for us in our business?”
Michael: Right. What I like about that is I can see how leadership standards provide ways of working internally within a unit, but also kind of the connective tissue between units, but also the experience you might give your customers and your clients. ‘Cause I’ve been thinking so hard and long about habits … When you think about what a culture is, people say, “Well, it’s kind of the way we do things around here.” It’s one of those statements hard to disagree with. It’s always felt a bit vague to me. What do you do with that.
Somebody once said “What your culture is is your collections of habits.” So, if you’re changing your culture, you’re looking to change the way we do things by changing our habits. Part of what I like about that leadership standard inside is potentially what these are of the new habits for how we work with ourselves and with others.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. I thinks that’s a great way to think about it, and the concept of a habit is really relevant here because if we’re gonna do things differently, it doesn’t happen all at once, right? It happens over time and with practice. So, having a lexicon or a language to define that and enable us to do things in a certain way over time and to hold ourselves accountable, actually, and measure what we’re doing is so important because it does take a long time to change a habit, to build a habit and to build a culture.
Michael: So, let me shift the focus away from the entirety of Citibank to focus on you because so much of what I value about these conversation is what people share about their own path to become who they’re there. So one of the quotes I love … Regular listeners will have heard me say this many times, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.”
So I’m curious, as you look back on your past to what got you to here and the work that you’re doing now, what’s one or two, if you like, crossroad moments. Those moments where you’re like “Wow. Could take a left or a right. I’m taking a right and that kind of changes everything,” and that took you off on a path that you may never have expected.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. I love that question. When I think about that, I really think about the shifts that I made in my career path. I had the opportunity, as you mentioned in the introduction, to run big teams as part of a rather technical area of human resources at Citi. And as we talked about, my career has been at Citi for many, many years. In leading those teams, what I realized was that the products that we had, the products that we were responsible for, wasn’t the thing that actually got me out of bed in the morning. It wasn’t my purpose. It was actually leading the teams that really made a difference for me as a person and was so critically important.
I loved helping people be successful. I loved helping cross-functional teams work well together. But I didn’t really have a way to articulate it at the time. I was getting to a point where I was feeling a little bit like I needed to do something different, and serendipitously, I was invited into a leadership program at Citi. While I was there, they had coaches at each of the tables coaching the participants and we each got one-hour coaching sessions with these coaches. I walked out of that experience saying “This is what I need to be doing.” It was like epiphany.
Michael: That’s a fantastic moment. You’re like “Whatever your job is, I want that job.”
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. So it took me a while to sort of make it happen. And so about five years ago, I actually, officially, moved into the space. But it was so interesting because we think that sometimes people know us better than we know ourselves. When I shared with those that I’ve worked regularly with, the change that I was making, which was pretty … It was completely different career in the same organization.
Michael: Let me guess. They all went “Whoa. No kidding, Batman.”
Laine Joelson Cohen: Exactly. “That’s makes total sense,” and I said, “It does?” So, they all figured it out way before I did, but that was a really important moment for me.
Michael: That’s great. So, part of what makes for a good coach as somebody committed to coaching is self-awareness. I really think it’s like “teach and heal thyself.” Understanding what your own patterns and your own triggers are allow you to manage them better and show up more present and more fully for the people you’re working with. And part of that is just understanding which of the patterns are gonna repeat for the rest of your life. I certainly have those. Everybody has those. So I’m curious to know for you, what’s the hard lesson you’ve had to learn or maybe you have to keep learning?
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. I thought a lot about this idea of a hard lesson and I think for me, it’s really about understanding that not everybody wants to be coached. I really honed my coaching skills as a leader of teams, and then when I made this move into the learning space, I had the conceptual stuff to put against it to understand what I was sort of doing. What was really an eye opener for me was the fact that I needed to have a conversation with people to come to some sort of an agreement, or common understanding, of how we were gonna interact with each other and how we were gonna work together. I had somebody on my team who sort of exasperated and said, “Every time I just want you to tell me what to do, you start asking me questions.”
Michael: Yes, I do. Correct.
Laine Joelson Cohen: That was something that I’ve come up against over time, and what I really found is having that preliminary conversation to talk about what our expectations are of one another, whether it be a coaching engagement with somebody outside of my team or whether it be with somebody on my team, is really important. I guess I would say have I have to learn that over and over again because sometimes I forget to do that and get reminded pretty quickly.
Michael: I remember being introduced to the concept of social contracting through Peter Block. Peter Block’s one of my intellectual heroes. Social contracting is a way of framing exactly what you’re talking about which is before we talk about what we’re gonna work on, let’s talk about how we’re gonna work together. There’re questions that can be useful are things like, when you’ve worked with somebody like meet before and it’s gone really well, what happened? Well, here’s what happened on my side ’cause it’s an exchange of question and answer. When it’s gone badly, what happened? What was the unilateral action you started to take when things started going badly? What are you up against? How do you feel about the amount of power or control you have in this relationship? These are all weird, awkward, difficult questions. But what you’re talking to is the way power and relationship works.
What I loved about what Peter Block said was, he said this, it was in the context of kind of consultants and clients but it’s really in every conversation, “What you don’t talk about in social contracting is stuff you can never really talk about.” So, for instance, if you’re a consultant and you kind of fudge the money conversation, there’s just never a good time to have a money conversation. It’s always awkward. But what you’re doing by having permission, by having this conversation, Laine, is saying when things go off the rails, ’cause they will ’cause they always do, you now have opened up permission on both sides to talk about it not working, and that’s, I think, part of the genius of this.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. I love that. And another question along those lines that I really like to ask people on my team when we first start working together is “How do you like to receive feedback?”
Michael: Oh, yeah. Perfect.
Laine Joelson Cohen: We always think that people want to be recognized and they want to be recognized publicly for their good work. And I tell you, not everybody does. Some people … They want you to tell them in private. They don’t want it announced out to the broad team that they did something well. They just want to crawl under their desk and disappear. I thought that was a great learning for me as well. So, just that simple question is so powerful.
Michael: So, that’s a great question to ask. I’m curious to know, what other tool or process or model do you go back to when you’re working with people and you’re trying to be more coach-like or coaching them? I know I have a few kind of default favorites that I always pull out ’cause this is always good. I’m wondering if you have one or two that you’re like “I love this?”
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah. I think, you know it’s funny. When you’re coaching someone, I find that it’s always organic, right? So the conversations might go in different directions. But I love having a model to kind of fall back on. So there’s moments where you need an anchor. So I always love Sir John Wentworth’s Grow Coaching because of the simplicity of it. So you start with a goal, and it really gives the opportunity to the person that you’re coaching to own the conversation and own the direction. So what is your goal? What’s the current reality? What are the options? What might you do here? Then really to get that commitment at the end by asking them, “What will you do?” So it’s not on you as the leader or the manager, but it’s actually the person who you’re talking to who’s owning the direction of the conversation and it’s their reality. Your reality might be really different that their reality. So my favorite time to use Grow I will tell you is with my teenage daughters. That is the moment when I lose all rationality.
Michael: Exactly. You’re like I need an anchor here because things are going crazy.
Laine Joelson Cohen: So I change the wording so it’s a little more natural.
Michael: Yeah. Exactly.
Laine Joelson Cohen: But grow is one that I-
Michael: Well, that’s great.
Laine Joelson Cohen: – go back to.
Michael: This month, September 2017, they’ve actually just released the 25th anniversary of Coaching for Performance, which is John’s seminal book. Sadly he died, I think, about a month and a half ago or two months ago.
Laine Joelson Cohen: He did?
Michael: So, he didn’t see that coming out, but he and I shared a stage a few times. He was a lovely man that grew mortal-less, so influential.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Yeah, and the thing I love about it, too, for people who are building that coaching habit or that muscle, to have something really simple to connect to is always really helpful.
Michael: Laine Joelson Cohen. Director of … want to make sure I get this right, Leadership, Executive and Professional Development at Citi. Thank you being part of the Coaching Habit podcast with me today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Laine Joelson Cohen: Thank you for having me.