Leadership Through Coaching: An Interview with Susanne Madsen

Photo Credit: Susanne Madsen

With experience leading projects at Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and private clients, Susanne Madsen is an acknowledged expert in leading projects. In this interview, we explore building trust in projects, how to use coaching in your leadership and more.

1. How did you get started in project management?

In the 1990s, I started my career working with a new media company. I quickly found myself in the role of bridging the gap between the customer, internal staff and other groups. Leading all these groups toward success was my first experience with project management and I enjoyed it.

2. Tell us about a time you made a mistake as a leader. What did you learn from that experience?

In 2005, I was managing a large project for a global bank. At a specific moment, the project badly needed to have a business analyst in order to move forward. With the time pressure, I decided to act quickly to hire a contract analyst. I moved through the interview and hiring process very quickly. Unfortunately, the person was not suited to the role and had to leave the organization.

I learned several lessons from this experience. First, it is vital to take your time in making hiring and staff decisions. Second, take the time to ask deep questions that explore whether the person is truly capable of performing the work. Assuming a person is qualified and competent is a costly mistake.

3. How have you built connection and trust with a new project team?

I use the principle of “be approachable” when I am getting started with a new team. Some project managers, especially those who are highly task oriented, are perceived as unapproachable by the project team. In addition, I view it as a leadership responsibility to trust the team until proven otherwise. You can always be proven wrong and change your view later, but it is best to start off by demonstrating trust in the team.

 4. What are your best practices for leading virtual project teams?

In several of my projects, I have worked with virtual teams in several countries. I have had projects with team members in the USA, UK, India and other locations. Bridging the cultural gaps in such a project is challenging. In working through that experience, I developed two approaches that made a difference. First, look for ways to bring offshore staff to your location. Second, I organized a PowerPoint presentation that included a photo and a personal summary from each person. Going through that PowerPoint file helped everyone to better connect.

I also found it helpful to have a team lead from the Indian group stationed at our office in London. It made a big difference to improve communication and understanding on the project.

5. How do you applying coaching as a leadership style?

There are many ways to apply a coaching approach to leadership. One approach is to lead a person by using questions. Let’s take a project management situation: someone on your team asking for advice on presenting to the project steering committee.

The standard approach would be to issue a series of directions and perhaps provide some resources. The coaching approach emphasizes helping the person discover their own approach. I would ask questions such as “who are you presenting to?” and “what action do you want the committee members to take after your presentation?” Through a process of questions, you help the person to discover their own approach.

Leaders who practice a coaching approach experience other benefits. In my own coaching practice, I find that I learn a great deal from the people I coach. As a coach, you can learn a great deal from the people you coach. You may be experienced and knowledgeable yet people may surprise you with an even better approach.

6. What advice would you give to an individual contributor seeking a promotion to a manager role?

The basic principle is to act as if you are already a manager. I sometimes encounter people who are holding themselves back at work because they are waiting to be promoted. Instead of waiting to be promoted to a management role, ask yourself “how would a manager act in this situation?” Most effective managers use a few key ideas: they are proactive, they understand what matters for the business and they know when to challenge the status quo.

By demonstrating the attitude and behaviors of a manager, you will be much closer to obtaining a promotion.

 7. Which leaders inspire you and why?

Two different examples come to mind from different areas of society.

I recently attended the U.S. Open and I was impressed by the performance of Serena Williams. As a top tennis athlete, Williams has considerable influence on other tennis players, young people and the public. To perform at that level, she has developed considerable endurance, skill and the ability to manage her mindset. Those are impressive qualities we can learn from.

In the political world, I have been impressed by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. During her 2011-2015 term, she led Denmark through a very difficult economic situation. I’m impressed by her ability to make tough decisions and work with opposing parties in Parliament to achieve results. She is a leader who understands the importance of solving difficult problems and is not afraid of making unpopular decisions.

8. Which resources do you use to develop and improve your leadership knowledge?

My favorite leadership resource is Harvard Business Review. The editors and writers have an outstanding commitment to quality and research. In the course of my practice and working on my books, Harvard Business Review has been an excellent resource.

In addition, I also found TED Talks to be useful because they are focused presentations that communicate important ideas. One of my favorite TED Talks is The Puzzle of Motivation by Dan Pink.

9. If readers are interested in connecting with you and learning about your work, where can they go?

There are two websites you can find out more information about me. For an overview of my coaching services, and other writing, visit the Susanne Madsen website. I also have a website about my latest book The Power of Project Leadership.

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5 thoughts on “Leadership Through Coaching: An Interview with Susanne Madsen

  1. Whenever I think about leadership, I always think about the following quote from the so-called father of modern management, Peter Drucker, who died in 2005 at age 95:

    “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

  2. Nice interview with Susanne! In terms of leadership style on question 5, her approach strikes a chord in servant leadership that Chris and I both advocate. Below is an article from Chris to define this leadership style.
    My question on leadership is variance in different industries. Does the same style apply if you work in banking vs. PM vs. engineering vs. other professional sectors?

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for commenting. I would approach the style question at the level of the department rather than the industry. The other point is that I have seen multiple styles reach success.