Interview with Rachel Cooke: Leadership & Micro-change coach

Rachel Cooke is the founder of Lead Above Noise, whose mission is to empower leaders to catalyze outstanding team performance. Through consulting, workshops, and talks, Rachel ignites the activation of small “microchanges” that deliver business results while minimizing disruption and enhancing the employee experience. Leveraging both her academic background in Organizational Psychology and her corporate experience in Fortune 100 Human Resources, Rachel has worked with such organizations as American Express, Cisco, Scholastic Books, and Audible. Rachel publishes the Making Work Work Better newsletter. Learn more here.


Your organization is ‘Lead above noise’- there’s no guesswork in that. What are some of the ‘noises’ you’ve seen leaders struggle with and how do you help?

Competition for our attention today is fierce. Our calendars are packed, our inboxes overflowing, and technology makes us available 24/7. And so many of these demanders of our attention aren’t important – they’re just squeaky and hard to ignore. It’s these distractions that I refer to as the noise; the things that pull us away from our most meaningful, result-producing work. I work with leaders and their teams to define the key drivers of their results (i.e., what actually should demand attention), establish systems and processes for staying focused on that work, while triaging or eliminating the rest and maintaining a consistent dialogue so that priorities and processes are always being reassessed and optimized.


Real candor is the trademark of what you represent, coach and consult on. Why do you think despite all the talk on integrity there seems to be still some way to go in getting real honesty and transparency in the workplace?

Yes – I talk a lot about this idea of SuperCandor. I think it’s one of the most critical enablers of effective teams, and yet it seems so elusive. I’ve worked with countless leaders and teams at this point, and the most common scenarios I’ve seen that inhibit transparency or SuperCandor are:

  • Leaders aren’t asking, making the time and space for people to offer up their ideas, thoughts and questions
  • We see the “team players” get rewarded and promoted. They never complained or criticized, so keeping our opinions to ourselves seems the safe bet
  • Our leaders often seem too busy to hear our ideas, our recommendations on how to improve a process, or enhance a customer experience.

I’ve developed a guide – available to anyone – called The Leaders’ Guide to SuperCandor – which will walk any leader through a simple process for getting his or her team to this place of great transparency.


The type of leadership style you coach on is one that engenders and embraces genuine dialogue. What advice would you give someone wanting to adopt this way of leading?

Quite simply, embrace the value and importance of transparency, and then start role modeling it for your team. Ask yourself – as a leader, where could you potentially grow or develop as a result of someone’s willingness to be candid? Then go ask for that candor. Start by offering it up first – in a way that is constructive, relevant, and compassionate. Candor becomes much less scary when we’re following the example of a leader.


In your experience what does effective and sustained employee engagement depend on?

I think the idea of employee engagement has been diluted. Too many organizations seem to believe engagement is driven by free food and ping pong tables. For me, engagement is all about an employee’s ability to actually do the work they were hired to do. People who are engaged are empowered to contribute and make decisions and drive results. Organizations need to be asking their employees “what inhibits your ability to contribute, and how can we start to solve for that?” to drive true and sustained employee engagement.


You also help clients to identify and implement micro-change. How does this approach work especially to bring about improvement at the right pace and scale?

Traditional organizational change tends to be big and grand – and frankly risky and disruptive. Too many leaders believe change needs to begin at the top and cascade down over months or years. I like to take a different approach with my clients. And that is to say – if we’re trying to get from Point A to Point Z, what is the smallest possible increment of change we could implement tomorrow to take our first tiny step in that direction? And through this approach, we have the opportunity to be much more iterative, testing and learning as we go, while minimizing disruption, because we haven’t restructured our teams or redesigned our strategy. We build momentum as we go, and create change from the ground up. It’s a powerful approach.


How can a leader establish a permission structure that gives people the confidence to step out and do more than they would normally do?

If someone wants to lose 100 pounds, they can approach this in one of two ways. Either they have to lose 100 pounds once (an overwhelming proposition), or they can lose one pound 100 times.  I recommend the latter. I believe the same philosophy applies in business, and I’ve written a piece on this topic. Leaders need to reign in the finish line – give people opportunities to deliver small achievements that add up over time, versus pushing them out on a scary limb with too-high stakes.


What have women leaders got going for them and what patterns have you noticed about how successful women are leading that other corporate leaders could learn from?

I think the biggest thing women leaders have going for them is frankly that they’re not men. And what I mean is not that I believe women are better leaders, but rather that a diversity in leadership that mirrors the diversity in our employee and customer bases (i.e, half of the world is made up of women) is an imperative today. There is tremendous research out there demonstrating that the neurology and brain chemistry of men and women are significantly different – from how we process information, to how we balance the solicitation of ideas with the need to decide and create action – both brains are valuable and complementary.  And women bring the missing half.


What key insights in ongoing debates about women’s leadership do you think are missing and what’s the most effective way to inject these to evolve the conversations to a new level?

It’s about women, but it’s also about diversity more broadly. I’ve never been shy with my passion for and perspective around the need for diversity in business. As long as enterprises think about leadership diversity as something they need to do – for optics and public relations – then they will never manage to fully capitalize on the true potential of a diverse leadership team. Only when businesses stop trying to manage optics, and truly focus on harnessing the power of competing perspectives and ideas and experiences will they truly leverage diversity, delivering their most outstanding results.


What type of ‘noise’ have you had to overcome in your own leadership?

The voice of perfectionism; it’s not helpful or constructive, and it inhibits my willingness to be bold and experiment and take risks. It’s now the most unwelcome guest at the party, and all of the other guests are able to thrive.


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