Interview with Michele Woodward - Leaders in Conversation

In this second interview of our Leaders in Conversation series, Michele Woodward joins Beth Wonson to talk about how the shifts in hiring, changes in leadership, and new issues executives face today, requires a change in mindset and leadership strategy if your organization wants to succeed.

Michele Woodward is one of America's top executive coaches. She works with leaders and innovators across industries and has been at it for 15 years. She's also a leader within the coaching community - when people say she's a "coach's coach", they mean it. She worked in the White House, in corporate America and is a someone journalists rely on for insightful and useful quotes. She lives in Washington DC and works with people all over the world. You can reach her at

You can listen on the website, or download the episode in your podcast player of choice.

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[VO] Welcome to a special episode of dynamics of leadership. The following interview is part of our leaders in conversation series.

[Beth Wonson] Today I have a guest who I am so excited about. I feel like every single one of you will want to know her. You'll want to hear what she's offering and by the end of our time together you're going to have some insight into leadership and what leadership can look like for you that you are not going to get anywhere else. Today we're talking with Michele Woodward. She's one of America's top executive coaches and that is a guarantee from me. I am not making that up. This is truth. She works with leaders and innovators across industries and she has been doing this for 15 years. She's also a leader within the coaching community. That's how I got to know her because she helps coaches build their practice and she's one of the folks that really helped me take my whole concept of navigating challenging dialogue and begin to train other folks to do this work. She gave me the confidence to do it. She gave me some key steps to be able to move that forward. I cannot thank her enough for that. What's interesting about Michele and what I love is her experience. She is someone who has worked in the White House under a few different administrations, so her veal and her lens of what's happening at that level of leadership is really unique because it's not based in party, it's more based in experience and what you've seen as great leadership and she speaks from that place. Her work in corporate America. She has worked with journalists, she's worked with actors and actresses. She's worked with leaders from companies you would recognize if she were to tell you that is which she will not cause. She's one of the most confidential people I've ever met. She lives in DC and she's totally accessible online at Michele, thank you for doing this.

[Michele Woodward] Wow. What a build up. I might just like replay this audio over and over again just to make myself feel really great.

[BW] I think there's a whole chorus of people who had backed me up on this so you can just call people and get the same info. One of the things that you said, which as liberal arm trying to emerge into leadership or figure out how to do it differently, I think is going to be important to them to hear this. I asked you what about your work makes it so you just can't wait to get out of bed in the morning and jump to it. And you talked about how every client session is an improvisation and I want to hear more about what that means. What do you mean by that?

[MW] So for instance, let's say I'm working with somebody for a long period of time, over a period of months or even a years, and there becomes a theme to the coaching, whatever the theme is that there's something that they're working on or something that's sort of their Achilles heel or some sort of issue. I have a coaching session with them at 10 in the morning. They call and they say, you know, all that  stuff that we talked about. I don't want to talk about that today. Today what I want to talk about is the fact that I had a very difficult conversation with my boss, my spouse, my child, my parent, my sibling, my neighbor and myself, whatever. It's completely different than what we've been working on, but it's extremely valid and important to the client, so I have to be ready when the phone rings or when the client sits down across from me to be ready for whatever they bring in and you know, I also have to have a poker face because sometimes they bring stuff that's like, okay man, you know I  didn't see that one coming. But that to me is the improv is just to be able to meet the client where they are and listen without any judgment and then ask the kind of questions that are going to help them get unlocked.

[BW] This is so great. One thing that I think that a lot of people who are working their way up to leadership. Or running their own company. Or whatever the case is, a place where I'm hearing that they may get tripped up as thinking that they have to be the expert. Right. Because as I hear you say, the types of things people show up with. I'm thinking, well, I don't know if you're in the cabinet and the White House or if you're running a giant company or if you're running your own little $100,000 dollar empire. Shouldn't you already know what to do in all those situations?

[MW] Well, you know  when you get lost in the weeds and you've got blinkers on you to like those race horses where the blinkers that go around their eyes, and things are happening really fast, it's impossible to be able to have the perspective and to see what's going on without the help of somebody you trust. And I think what's great about me and next to my humility, my humility is my really  my best thing. No. But what's great about working with a trusted coach is because I don't have a dog in the fight, I actually don't care what you decide as my client. As long as you're happy with it and you're in integrity with it and you feel good about it and you can stand behind it.

[BW] Mm-hmm.

[MW] So I can ask you the questions that your spouse won't ask you because they're like, well, what do you mean you're going to take that job in Chicago? I don't want to live in Chicago, although I love Chicago. No offense to Chicagoans, but you can't bat it around with your work spouse because they're like, "What? Wait, that has an impact on me," or whatever. So a coach, a good coach is that "outside eyes" as they call it in the theater, you know, that are looking at your performance and giving you notes in a way that you would never see at your own self.

[BW] Mmm, yeah. I really hear that. I think the help that you can give people to allow them to be curious about what they don't see is probably one of the biggest impacts that can be made on people that are in leadership to understand that there are blind spots and it's nothing to feel bad about it and be embarrassed about or try and compensate for. When you're thinking about leadership and the components that people need to be effective and what might be missing for people, what comes up for you in that regard? What are the top things you see?

[MW] This came up yesterday, twice. I taught a class and this came up and then it came up in a coaching session, as I found these little themes continue to bring themselves forward, but the one of the questions was about authenticity and somebody said like, "Okay, what if I'm authentically  kind of a jerk? Like what if I say to people have you don't like it?  This is me being authentic and I'm an abrasive kind of jerk? Right."

[BW] Wow.

[MW] My point is that authenticity is not that I like you or not that you're like somebody I want to have a beer with. When they do surveys of people, what do they want in leaders? One of the big things they want is they want predictable and they want consistent.

[BW] Mm-hmm

[MW] Think about the best teachers you've ever had in school. Some of the hardest teachers I ever had were hard. They were demanding, they had high expectations, but I also knew they were predictable and they were consistent in what they asked of me. It wasn't like walking on eggshells. It wasn't like one day, one thing and one day another moving target. It was predictable and consistent. So when I think of leaders, and when I work with people around growing their own leadership, a lot of what I talked to them about is how can you be predictable and consistent

[BW] Mm-hmm

[MW] because that is authentic.

[BW] Yeah. When I think about the research around the fight or flight, and I know there's a lot of talk about the use of the word trigger. And so when I talk about this, I'm not talking about PTSD, I'm talking about emotional hot spots, right? And when people go into fight, flight or freeze, which is a lot of what the Navigating Challenging Dialogue work, as well, that I do, I think sometimes leaders don't understand how their lack of predictability or consistency can actually put their staff into a place where they are either freezing, becoming super defensive, or avoiding accountability, avoiding being open about what's going on because they're literally feeling so vulnerable that their body chemistry is taking over and making them unable to be effective. What are your thoughts on that?

[MW] Absolutely. You know, I had a coaching session the other day with a male leader and we were talking about management style. And one of the things that I said is, you know, the kind of the leading edge here is not to manage people the way you'd want to be managed, but manage people the way they'd like to be managed. And I think a lot of times people make a mistake thinking, for instance, I'm highly motivated by money, therefore everybody is highly motivated by money. And so I'm going to do like the money thing. But what somebody else might be really motivated by being recognized with words or getting promoted or getting a day off for, you know, a variety of other things. So for my client, what I was trying to open his mind up to, the fact that really taking his leadership to the next level is figuring out how every single one of the people who report to him want to be managed, what causes them to fly to fight or to freeze. And so how can I manage them so that they don't have that kind of reaction? How can I speak to them? How can I direct them? How can I give them notes? How can I correct their behavior? How can I motivate them again on their terms and what they need to grow? And I think it takes a sophisticated leader to get to that place, but I think the ones who really have enduring successful careers ultimately get there.

[BW] Yeah, this is a question I get all the time from people is okay, that's great. I love hearing that and I can absolutely make that shift. I can acknowledge people the way they want to be acknowledged. I can communicate with them in aligned with how they best receive information. But, how do I find that out?

[MW] Well isn't it interesting that I know the answer to that question?

[BW] I was hoping you would because I want to know it also.

[MW] So today I had a, I had a meeting with a person, a woman who's just been named CEO. It hasn't been announced yet, but she's been named CEO it's her ideal role, ideal situation. It's just an ideal thing and I think she has four people reporting into her. And what we talked about was how she can sit down with each one of them and say, this is who I am and this is my management philosophy. Now tell me who you are and what's the best way I can work with you.

[BW] Mm-hmm.

[MW] I think being explicit and open and transparent. Like, say for instance, I was at a lunch one time and you know as you sit down at the table, the woman next to me turned full face to me and said, I am deaf in the ear facing you. So I'd love to talk to you but you're going to need to tap me on the shoulder when you'd like to talk to me cause I can't hear you. I appreciated that so much because I would have probably sat there and I thought, Wow, she is so rude. You know? She’s not even talking to me. But when she told me, I cannot hear in this ear, you know, I talked to the person on other side, my right side and then I turned to her. She wasn't talking to anybody. I tapped on her shoulder and we had a nice conversation. I use this little vignette with clients to say it is totally fair to say to somebody, I do my best work at 10 in the morning. So if we have a really important decision to make, set that meeting at 10 in the morning. Or I don't answer emails after 8:00 PM. So if it's a crisis, like things are really bad, please just call me or, you know, somehow reach me. But I don't answer emails and I don't expect you to either. I think it's totally fair to ask people what's the best way to work with you.

[BW] Hm-mm. So interesting. So simply having the courage to ask the question.

[MW] Right.

[BW] Yeah, that's it. Right? Clear and direct communication. Clear and direct communication. I know from knowing some of the work you do that sometimes you help coach people to leave an organization versus to stay, or leave a profession versus to stay. Can you say a little bit more about that?

[MW] So I think the most important thing is to try to see if you can get relief or make the place where you work better. I think that everybody owes it to themselves. And I do this with my first phase, to see whether or not they can turn the situation they're in at work around because I think it's easier to leave saying, I tried everything.

[BW] Mm-hmm.

[MW] It's true in relationships. It's true in work. Right? I really did try everything. And then when they feel like they've tried everything and it's just not going to change .. You know, I did that webinar for the Harvard Business Review on bullies and toxic people at work and there's a point at which if you are in a toxic workplace, if you are working for a bully, a narcissist, somebody who is not going to change, accepting that as a fact and either saying, "Okay, I can live with that fact and I'm going to stay where I am", or "I cannot continue in this environment and moving on." That's the same way to go.

[BW] Yeah, it is. It's really important. I heard somebody the other day talking about just knowing when it's time to say, okay, I'm done.

[MW] Yeah. One of the ways that I do with clients is I say, okay, so let's pick apart what the rules are at your work. The unwritten rules, right? What does that tell you about the game?

[BW] Yeah.

[MW] Do you want to continue to play the game? Because if you can, understand these are the rules. The rules are, we are all organized so that Larry can play golf on Fridays at noon. Is that something I can live with? And if it's something I can live with, okay. But if it's something that I can't live with, okay, I can't play this game anymore, I can go into a different game.

[BW] Yeah. Wow. It's so powerful because I think sometimes, particularly women, although I don't want to exclusively put it in the woman category, but I think sometimes women feel like they have to keep trying to make it work, have to keep trying to make it work. Right. Instead of saying, this isn't working or me, I'm not willing to do it, so I'm going to move on.

[MW] Well, so you know, the other people who struggle with this are very bright people.

[BW] Mm-mmm.

[MW] Very smart people feel like, Hey, I'm smart enough to figure this out now. I am smart enough to make a change here. I'm smart enough to turn this sucker around. And the fact is, if the facts of the game are what we think they are, they're not going to be changeable.

[BW] Right. Wow.

[MW] That's the hard thing, right.

[BW] Mm-hmm. I think that's going to be really helpful for a lot of the folks who are listening. So it sounds to me, and I think you and I have probably in agreement on this, but I don't want to put those words in your mouth, even though I just did, but that emotional intelligence is really kind of at the crux of all of this. Like who am I? How do I show up? How does that impact me and how does that impact the people around me? That's right. Yeah. I mean, you know, the older I get, the more I kind of walk through life, the more I realize how important it is to know yourself, to like yourself, to love yourself. And it sounds like a Hallmark greeting card. But the truth is that if I really do appreciate myself, I appreciate who I am, then it really opens up the space to appreciate other people, even if they're like crazily different than me.

[BW] Mm-hmm

[MW] But I have to get to that place first where that's something I can give myself.

[BW] Right? So one of the mantras from the Navigating Challenging Dialogue work is, "At the end of the day,  272 00:16:32,331 --> 00:16:37,331 the only person I can truly manage your change is myself. How does that factor" into your view of successful leadership or working with the coaching clients you work with?

[MW] This past week I had a client who made an emergency session because she had gotten kind of one of those emails that like you read the email afterwards and you say, wow, I wonder if they meant that to be so ouchy. 'Cause she forwarded me the email and said, Can you please make time? So she was talking about her reaction to the email and then she goes, You know what I love about you?" I said, What? And she goes, "What I really want you to do is say that my indignation is right and completely valid. And she said, ""In here, in" 20 minutes, you have not done that. You asked me to interpret what's happened to have my feelings around what's happened. She said, but you have not joined into my feelings. And I'm like, "You have now seen my trade craft. Is what I said." But I do think that that is one of the things I don't need to manage my clients. I need to witness them managing themselves. I need to help them find the tools to manage themselves. But if I have four or five or six clients a day, I cannot manage them. I cannot be their mom. You know what I mean? It's like I cannot carry their emotional load. And I had another client who asked me when we're not in a coaching session and you think about me, what do you think? And it may sound rude, but I said, actually, that's not the way my brain is wired. Like I'm 100% present with you during the coaching session and then I have to lay it down.

[BW] Uh Huh. Yes.

[MW] So in other words, what I really hope is that my clients learn skills. They learn tools, they learn things, they learn approaches so that they learn how to live their life differently, their work life, their personal life, whatever the thing is. And ultimately they don't need me. Yes. They like me, you know, but they don't need me.

[BW] Yes. Mm-hmm. Where do you see the coaching industry heading? And I don't mean like from a business marketing perspective, but the value and the importance of it. How do you see that evolving? Particularly given everything that we're faced with today in terms of good leadership, fascinating leadership, leadership that we don't quite understand sometimes. Where do you think the coaching industry is headed? Or the value of coaches in what's going on today? So as you mentioned, this is my 15th year as a coach, so that's like dinosaur era that I've been through and what I notice now is that the average client has a higher baseline knowledge than they used to have. It used to be like introducing concepts, I think because there are ted talks because there are classes because there are wonderful things like your Navigating Challenging Dialogue program. There are all these wonderful resources for people. I think the baseline knowledge has elevated. So what I think that means for a coaching as a profession is the coaches who teach the one oh one thing. Everybody pretty much has a lot of the one oh one now. I had a conversation with the Guy who runs the coaching program at Google, David Peterson, and he said, you know, we hire people who know how to manage their time. We hire people who are organized. So we're not looking for coaches who help people do that. And I am now also not looking for coaches who prepare people for tomorrow's meeting. I want them to prepare them for every meeting they're going to have for the rest of their career. So I think the coaches who are bold and to rise to the occasion are going to have as much work as possible. And I think there will be some coaches who will fade away and I think organizations are going to be looking for programs like your program that actually work and deliver results and they're going to be looking for coaches like me, like I'm 95% referral, so I'm good man. They're looking for people who can actually help their employees move the dial. Yeah. I had this realization last week and I wrote it down, is that I really only want to work with clients in the position to move the dial.

[BW] Yeah. You have given so much wisdom now. Is there any thing that is going through your mind that you feel like is important to inject into this? Any insight that you have? Anything that you think of my listeners need to hear or know about because hearing it from Michele Woodward is a great opportunity that you may or may not get again. So there you have it.

[MW] I would say that leadership is like technology. You could still be using the very first iPhone that ever came out. It could probably still function, but it's not the current thinking. It's not the current reflection of what's possible. Leadership, too, continues to evolve and change. I'll just say for myself in the last 18 months, my consciousness has been raised about diversity, equity and inclusion. My consciousness has been raised and now it's part of what I talk to people about when we're talking about leadership. So that's sort of a leading edge thing. I think for a lot of people it's a leading edge thing, so it's not like, okay, I got this leadership thing knocked, I've checked it off the box and now I don't have to learn any more about leadership because my leadership's good because nobody complains. I will say the other thing Beth, that I think is really critical for leaders right now, and I don't see a lot of people talking about it and I think it's something that's so important. We are, in the professional clas,s pretty much at functional, full employment, And so there's an organization I'm working with where the senior leadership team, I think there are 10 people in the senior leadership team, have had no pay raises for the last two years.

[BW] Wow.

[MW] They are at risk of having their people headhunted away. Because at functional full employment, I need to find a CFO or I need to find a senior VP of membership or marketing or whatever the big job is. The only way I'm going to find that person is by recruiting them out of an existing role.

[BW] Yes.

[MW] So if I'm a leader and I'm underpaying my people, I'm going to lose my people.

[BW] Yes.

[MW] And if I feel like it's still 2009, 2010, where there are 40 people in line for a job, there are not 40 people in line for job. In fact, I would go so far as to say if you've got somebody sending you a resume because they're available, they may not be that good of a candidate.

[BW] Yes.

[MW] Because when you're at like 2.2, what we're like here in Washington DC, 2.2% unemployment for the executive professional class, your management style has to change. You have to pay your people well. You have to have a flatter organization, in terms of being open to different voices and different perspectives. Because if you don't, they're going to go somewhere. We're also in Washington, we have Amazon's second headquarters coming here. They're predicting they're going to hire 25,000 people at an average salary of $150,000 a person.

[BW] Wow.

[MW] So how are they going to get those 25,000? They're going to be cherry picking them from existing organizations around Washington. Which then means, if I'm a leader who says, "I'll let them leave. There are15 people standing in line for the job." No, they're not.

[BW] Yes.

[MW] And so as a leader you have to future-proof your organization by treating your people well, by giving them training and professional development, by paying them well, by giving them extra days off, by letting them have authority and autonomy. This is what the future economy really is going to be all about.

[BW] And I would add to that by doing your own work to make sure that you are showing up in a way that's effective, that you're listening, that you're hearing your people, that you're giving them opportunity to put their ideas forward and not feeling threatened by that. That I think is also a component of what's going to help you keep the ball. I'm seeing the same exact thing with my clients, which is they're really struggling to get qualified good and young candidates. So they're really trying to figure out how do we keep the people we have and the people we have that are struggling? How do we build capacity within them so that they can be successful here?

[MW] Right.

[BW] That is definitely a trend that I'm seeing that is kind of new. Five or six years ago people were like, "Oh we'll get someone else.

[MW] That's" exactly right. And going back to your previous question about what does that mean for the coaching industry, right? It means that organizations really have to have tight succession planning. And if I've got somebody three rows down who needs to grow their leadership skills, or their communication skills, or learn how to be a CFO or whatever, then we better start working on that. You can hire a coach to help with that. You can find a mentor within the organization to help with that. There are a lot of things that you can do to make sure that your organization is strong and as I said, future-proofed.

[BW] Mm-hmm Well, those are two fabulous things for the audience to be thinking about and to be thinking about in their own practice. Michele, I just cannot thank you enough for taking the time to do this. My pleasure. Anytime I can talk to you is a happy day. Indeed. I love that because you are one of my idols. Well, you still are. That has not changed but for so long and then when I was able to access you for support and help through one of your programs that you offer to coaches who are trying to pull their stuff together. I was thrilled for that opportunity.

[MW] You know, I have sucha commitment to the coaching industry. That to me, those two programs that I run for coaches are really a labor of love and I know there are a lot of people out there coaching coaches to coach coaches about coaching, but that's not what I try to do. I try to really help people create enduring businesses. That'll last.

[BW] Yes.

[MW] Thank you for noticing that.

[BW] Yes, I sure have. If anybody out there, is wondering more about Michele's executive and leadership coaching services. I encourage you to go to her website, which is and check out what she has available. But I'm going to tell you, it is limited access, people So you need to be ready to do the work and you need to be ready to be responsible for your own stuff, but your life will be forever changed if you have the opportunity to work with Michele. You also have a blog that you send out occasionally?

[MW] I do. Yeah. Yeah.

[BW] That's another great way to be able to hear Michele's wisdom and to learn from her. So thank you, Michele, for, for taking this time.

[MW] Oh Beth, it's a pleasure. Thank you.

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