International Coaching Federation CEO Magdalena Mook: “Trust your team; Your team is the future of your organization”

Trust your team. Your team is the future of your organization. We all started somewhere. It was by the trust of my supervisors that I was empowered to try things and learn and grow to the next level throughout my career. I remember being asked to conduct a research project for my boss early in my career. It was a high stakes initiative for a board of directors composed of powerful national leaders. Thankfully, it went well, I was acknowledged, and soon after, I was offered a different position within the organization. It was my boss’s confidence in me, and his steady support, that allowed me to shine. I am paying it forward with my staff.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Magdalena Mook.

Magdalena Nowicka Mook is the CEO of the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Previously, she held positions with the Council of State Governments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. She is a trained coach and a frequent speaker on subjects of coaching and leadership. She received a master’s degree in economics and international trade from the Warsaw School of Economics, Poland. She also graduated from the Copenhagen Business School’s Advanced Program in International Management and Consulting.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My journey to my current role as CEO of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) has taken me around the world and across several industries. This experience allowed me to develop an acute sensitivity to different cultures, different perspectives and different approaches to work and life. In learning to lead across different cultures, I developed a strong interest in the coaching profession, and even became a trained coach myself. I was attracted to the profession because coaches support people from all backgrounds in reaching their highest potential. Coaching helps you find it and takes you, and your career, to unexpected places.

I grew up in Poland during a period of political turmoil and monumental social, economic and political changes; spent time in Copenhagen for school; and have lived in the United States for over 20 years of my career, first with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, before moving into a director role at the Council of State Governments, and then to ICF. I have always had an international focus in my career path, and leveraging that focus, passion and background was an important factor in making me a key partner for strategic thinking for the organizations I work for.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Two times in particular the coaching profession has surprised me, proving my assumptions inaccurate and reminding me to take an open approach when setting expectations.

Since I began leading the organization, ICF has grown its global presence significantly. When I first joined, membership was predominantly North American. Only a few years later, North American members represented less than half of our global membership.

Both the Middle East and Africa were regions that saw early, rapid growth during this period, and to me, both were unexpected places for the coaching profession to thrive. They are very different from each other, but the agility of coaching met each region’s needs for the best possible outcome, including female empowerment. In Egypt, we have powerful women leading that chapter; and in Kenya, coaching is offering opportunities for women not only to become coaches but gain a professional identity and global standing. I find that very exciting and fulfilling.

I am happy to say that my assumptions about where coaching would grow globally were proven incorrect, but … I learned. Perhaps the strongest asset of coaching is its adaptability. For ICF chapters around the world, each country has its own leadership. This has allowed the industry, and each country’s membership, to grow organically. Supporting that evolution is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I find it “funny” that one can come into a field with certain preconceived ideas — about the profession and one’s role in it — only to find out those are not necessarily correct. I entered my leadership role with ICF with a traditional conception of what leadership “should” be, which is to say, I believed I needed to have all the answers. What a daunting — and really, impossible — task! And how unfitting for the coaching field! Coaches draw out answers from the individuals they work with. They do not impose answers upon them. So, trying to have all the answers myself was…let’s just say…not the way to go.

But over my leadership journey, I’ve been grateful to be able to learn from the industry our association is dedicated to: Coaching teaches us that, not only is it okay to admit that I don’t have all the answers, but also that not knowing is a powerful state of mind. I had to unlearn my previous executive leadership programming.

When I can stay in a state of not knowing, I open up to possibility, new approaches, and wisdom from the team around me. Now, I approach leadership as a role of inclusivity and inspiration — my role is to draw out the right answers from the team.

Let me tell you a story. We were working on a complex implementation strategy for a new initiative. It was very new and definitely not conventional. There were many questions and many ways we could attempt to tackle it. My team was looking to me to tell them what to do. And instead of my “usual” approach — which is to say, “Let’s try it this way, and if it doesn’t work, we can try something else,” — I looked at them and said, “I have no idea what would work best, what do you think?” The team was shocked at first. But, they started popcorning ideas, plans and hypotheses. It turned into a brilliant brainstorming session, and what’s more, everyone at the table felt included, heard, and valued. The biggest lesson was mine!

This philosophy about a leader’s role has become more widely accepted in recent years, and I believe it is a far more effective and rewarding one, for the leaders and their teams.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Early on in my career at the Council of State Governments, I met a state official in Pennsylvania, one of the youngest people holding his position at the time. At a fairly early but pivotal point in my career, he shared his wisdom of what it means to be a leader and it has guided me throughout my professional journey.

For him, and now for me, being a leader means investing in your successor. It’s important to recognize that you will not be, and have not been, the only leader for your organization. An important aspect of executive leadership is learning from your predecessors, building on their successes, and empowering the leadership team around you, so the organization can continue moving forward.

As part of my role as CEO, I strive to build a team of leaders within my organization. Not only does that enable them to take responsibility and practice situational leadership, it creates a coaching culture in the workplace where people ask questions, work together to find answers, and keep reaching further to grow both themselves and the organization.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Even as the leader of ICF and a coach myself, I regularly work with an ICF-credentialed coach to help me manage the stresses of a leadership position and hold me accountable to the goals I set for myself and for the organization.

Some of it includes my commitment to well-being. I know I need exercise to function well, I know I need good nutrition, I know I need reflection time. And yet, at times, it is difficult to make it happen during very busy periods. My coach keeps me real with that, helping me understand that it is not “nice to have” but an essential element of me being a fit leader.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity is an asset. I grew up in a fairly homogenous society in Poland, but then had the privilege of meeting, working with, and living with very diverse populations. It opens your mind. If you approach diversity with that mindset, it becomes part of your organizational culture, your ethics, and your belief system. It seems too many organizations are coming to this late and struggling with it as if it were an obligation. Think instead of its value as an organizational asset and everything becomes more possible and positive. At ICF, we started to create dialogue and work together to find solutions for the organization. Diverse perspectives within these discussions leads to more ideas and greater insights, and ultimately, to better. more powerful solutions.

It may sound obvious, but the answers we get for any question depend on who is asked. For a business or organization, the ones being asked first are typically the executive team. This means that in order to gain from the richness of diverse perspectives in our decision making, we must create inclusivity and equality in the workplace — we need to have a diverse group of leaders at the table. We all have perspectives and experiences to share from our individual backgrounds, and our combined uniqueness creates an innovative space for the organization to grow.

Finally, integrity matters: Especially if your organization’s mission emphasizes changing people’s lives for the better, your insides need to match your outsides. It’s not enough to say your organization values diversity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice: You must demonstrate this every day.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

It all starts with recognizing our own conscious and unconscious biases. To begin, the group creating this inclusive, representative, and equitable society must be diverse itself. Just as we need to build diverse executive teams, we need to build diversity at all levels of leadership. A critical subcomponent to this is that all participating members must feel safe to voice their perspective with honesty. ICF is quite an example, where we have members in over 140 countries! Creating policies that work for all is not an easy task. So obviously, you have to create a core team; but checking with the others, to have that voice and opinion, is a crucial next step.

Creating a culture that is a safe space, and where listening is a top priority, takes time. It is not something that can be fixed easily, and it is worth asking questions, looking within, to explore what is going wrong, what is going well, and what steps need to be taken to do better. For example, we know that our colleagues from Asia may be less comfortable speaking up in larger groups, either yielding to more senior colleagues or waiting to being invited to share their opinions. Being aware of it allows one to draw their voices to the conversation, acknowledge them and respect them.

This process is ongoing — we must regularly assess where we are, where we need to grow, and what we can do to further embed these values into our society. In a business setting we do this with reviews, and in coaching we do this with self-reflection exercises. We need to take these practices even further and bring reflection into all aspects of our lives and to our consideration of how to make our organizations better, productive, and thriving.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

An executive holds the strategic vision for their organization and needs to work with other leaders within the organization to see it carried out. An executive also needs to be guided by the values of the organization and make decisions in alignment with those values, even if it could be difficult or unpopular.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

It’s often mistaken that an executive has or should have all the answers. The truth is that instead of having the answers, they are the person who can draw out answers from whomever they work with. However, a CEO still has responsibility of making decisions at the end of the day.

I also get asked regularly if I work 90-hour weeks. Some weeks, the answer is yes, but the truth is, you don’t have to. There is power in delegation, and through that, empowerment of your employees. It benefits everyone for executives to not work 90 hours and instead build trust and leadership within the workplace.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I can never truly know what my male colleagues experience since I am not one of them. But I certainly can speak about my own experience of the challenges I have faced as a woman, and we have a lot of research to back this up.

As a woman in a position of leadership, it is more difficult to be heard in a way that is authoritative and respected. Women are heard differently from men. There are times when, as a woman leader, you want to be as forceful as the next person. But because of gender perception, a woman’s attempt to communicate in more directive way may be seen as overly aggressive, whereas a man in the same position, communicating the same way, is lauded for his assertiveness.

These double standards can be addressed through dialogue. While they won’t remove the issues entirely, conversations between men and women can help us work toward sustainable solutions for modern leadership regardless of gender. In fact, numerous studies indicate that organizations led by women are more profitable! Very recently, I read that examples of countries led by women during the COVID-19 pandemic are recovering faster, or have not reached the same deep crisis level as some others. It has been associated to their leadership style — more inclusive, more embracing and more coach-like.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

The reality is that no matter how strategic you want to be, you’re still going to have to be a doer. You have to manage a team, write reports, build relationships with your board. There is a lot of “doing” in the job of a CEO that makes it easy to lose sight of your vision, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of moving the organization forward.

This is where coaching comes in. My coach acts as a sounding board and a reality check on where I’m spending my time, helping me plan small steps to work toward bigger goals.

Recently, after a busy week of meetings, I finally was able to sit down and create a list of follow-up items. That list was 38 points long, and it immediately overwhelmed me. Even after blocking out time for no meetings, I found myself self-sabotaging this by adding meetings anyway.

Working with my coach, I was able to set boundaries for how I work to eliminate any extra chatter. I evaluate my meetings and ask myself, “Do I really need to be there? Am I needed at the meeting to provide input, or do I want to be there?” This helps me set boundaries and manage overwhelm as a CEO. And then, of course, I can rely on my team of very capable professionals. That is absolutely essential to any CEO — a good team of good people.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

A successful executive, or a leader, must be able to both share knowledge and give advice. There is a difference between the two, and it requires listening and conversation when working with your team. You don’t have to be an executive to be a leader. Situational leadership empowers everyone to take leadership in their actions, even if he or she isn’t an executive.

If your goal is to be an executive, then that is a misplaced goal. Being an executive is a title, not a goal for your talent. Ask yourself what brings you joy, what you’re good at, and how you can contribute in a way that’s important to you. It may mean being a leader in title, and it may not. It’s more about what you’re doing, rather than what position you find yourself in.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Always be open to listening to what others have to say. If you think you have all the answers, you will miss opportunities to grow your organization and empower your team. And listen to really hear — there are pearls of wisdom in these conversations. At the same time, be decisive. At the end of the day, you will be evaluated on the results of the organization. Be daring, don’t hesitate to innovate, and let your team know that failure is only when you do not learn from your mistakes.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Coaching empowers people from within (as I have learned from my own personal coaching engagements) and part of my mission as the CEO of ICF has been to harness the power of coaching to make a difference in our society. I have been able to these skills to my own team, and have seen this happen for the people I work with.

At ICF, we have a Foundation that cultivates frameworks to provide pro bono coaching to social system change organizations. We are dedicated to making a positive change for a thriving society, because coaching has the genuine power to do exactly that.

Through ICF and the ICF Foundation, we provide coaching for the greater good. We demonstrate that coaching works by building capacity to accelerate and amplify results around the globe. As coaches, myself included, we have an essential role to play to bridge the gap between what is considered possible and what is needed to achieve a thriving society.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Trust your team: Your team is the future of your organization. We all started somewhere. It was by the trust of my supervisors that I was empowered to try things and learn and grow to the next level throughout my career. I remember being asked to conduct a research project for my boss early in my career. It was a high stakes initiative for a board of directors composed of powerful national leaders. Thankfully, it went well, I was acknowledged, and soon after, I was offered a different position within the organization. It was my boss’s confidence in me, and his steady support, that allowed me to shine. I am paying it forward with my staff.

2. Embrace your strengths — but also your weaknesses: These are both assets to use when working collaboratively. I am not good at taking notes or creating reports. But I have brilliant people on the ICF team that are! I invite them to help with developing documents that are informative and helpful to the rest of staff and the board.

3. Listen, don’t tell: This enables you to come up with solutions instead of assumptions. This also empowers the team and makes them feel valued. Not having the answer opens the space for brainstorming and innovation.

4. Be comfortable in the unknown: This is the space where you will find the most growth, and find opportunities to empower your team. Not the easiest of things to do. Ambiguity is not a friend to all. Recently, we have been implementing a rather sweeping change to the structure of our organization. We made specific plans based on the best knowledge we had during the design stage. Well, as you can imagine, many things changed along the way, and we had to pivot and adjust. Agility allows for a smoother transition, and especially in these times, it is a real asset.

5. Have an adaptable vision: Be prepared to incorporate diverse perspectives into your organization’s future. The organization belongs to its members or stakeholders, always. We have to be open to what is happening around us and adapt.

As social progress increasingly became a significant focus for many coaches, ICF determined that we must adapt and do even more to place this important value at the core of our work. Through initiatives like Ignite, which empowers coaches to deliver pro bono coaching to leaders in organizations that drive social progress, we increased our relevance to members and enabled them to deliver great value to the social progress organizations and the populations they serve.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement is here! It is called professional coaching! I want you to know that bringing a bit of coaching into your life is a game-changer. I dream of a world where everyone takes a “coach approach” in their lives. We can all use coaching skills — such as active listening, asking powerful questions and communicating effectively — in all parts of our life. Coaching helps us find empowerment, seek out opportunities, and work collectively to find solutions. It is a skillset that once learned, can help you grow your relationships, career, and overall happiness. It can change the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

For years, my favorite quote was one from Mr. Henry Ford. He said: “If I did what people asked for, we would have had a faster horse.” To me, it was such a powerful endorsement for creativity, for disruption, for trying something new and anticipating a need or desire before it is obvious. It is also an invitation to “daring greatly,” to quote Brene Brown, and to not be afraid of experimentation to realize a better world for many.

Another one is from another great entrepreneur and a fellow Polish person, Madamme Maria Sklodowska-Curie. She said: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” It sounds very appropriate today.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Many come to mind, but I would love to sit down with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. I am not commenting at all on her political affiliation. She simply is a strong woman who became the youngest head of state, managed to show the world that having a baby while in the office is very doable, and is lauded as a leader who handled the COVID pandemic effectively and efficiently. I also respect that social progress is a major focus of her work, especially child poverty.

I think women in, or striving for, leadership positions could learn a lot from her journey. And she seems to have a great sense of humor! I appreciate that as well.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Learn more about Meditation