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Leading the Leader

C. Rosenberg

Combining her expertise in psychology, business, and academic research, Dr. Lilian Abrams helps executives in national and international firms become better, stronger, happier leaders

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

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M ost executives in firms like Unilever, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Bloomingdale’s are ambitious high achievers — that’s how they made it to top positions in the country’s leading firms.

They’re also typically smart and honest. Honest enough to know where their strengths lie, and strong enough to be vulnerable and learn how to improve in the areas where they’re not as strong.

So they reach out to Lilian Abrams.

An executive coach, Lilian works with the leaders of large national and international firms, helping them figure out how they want to guide their company’s growth and development.

“Many of the people I work with have strong expertise in areas like finance, IT, law, marketing, or medicine,” Lilian explains. “Because they’re so smart and capable in their area of expertise, they’ve been promoted to a leadership position. Then, they have to start leading — their job isn’t all about their technical knowledge anymore.

“I partner with clients to maximize their professional and personal potential. We discuss their goals, for themselves and for their organizations. While my clients ‘drive,’ I provide questions, support, observations, and insights, as well as models and examples from my practical and academic experiences, to help them gain greater perspective, and identify how best to move forward.”


Climbing to the Top

Today, Lilian is coaching the executives of the nation’s leading firms. Getting to sit in the control tower was no easy climb — but from a young age, Lilian was determined to make it. For as long as she could remember, she’d been sure psychology was her calling. But when she was in college, she attended a guest lecture given by a female president of a technology business. Seeing a woman hold a company’s highest role in a male-dominated industry was eye-opening, Lilian says.

“There was something about her business acumen and the strategic aspects of running a business that I was strongly drawn to,” she recalls. “And in her position, she could really effect the strategic and organizational changes she wanted to see, and that would affect the daily work lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of people.” 



Now, Lilian says, in a clear sign to her that she’s come full circle, she’s coaching executives exactly like the one who inspired her career direction.

Even before she began working, Lilian already had significant exposure to the corporate world from her parents, both of whom owned their own businesses. She loved the thought of seeing many different businesses from the inside, and comparing and contrasting their different business cultures and ways of being effective. What drew her even more deeply was the possibility of bettering the work lives of thousands of people. She loved the idea of working with businesses to improve employees’ experiences and interpersonal relations, and through that, helping them achieve their strategy and business goals.

“Many people spend 40 or more hours at work every week,” Lilian explains. “When I was thinking about these things in the ’80s, it seemed to me that most leaders weren’t yet really thinking much about how to improve the work experience for people while achieving their business goals. I already saw these two things as complementary.”

The three components of a career that attracted Lilian — psychology, business, and consulting — were more than just ideas: They comprised an inner conviction that these were the fields in which she was meant to work. And, determined to achieve her dreams, Lilian sought a program that would allow her to complete an MBA and PhD simultaneously.

By the time Lilian graduated, she had a lot more than degrees under her belt: Thanks to the prestigious four-year internships she’d completed at both Kaiser Permanente and Towers Perrin (which later segued into actual employment), she had practical know-how in both research and application skills.

“I went to Israel when my entire department at Towers Perrin was laid off,” Lilian says. “This was the first of my three layoffs. Each time, things looked a bit bleak to me. But each time, it turned out for the best.”

Lilian’s layoff spurred her to take a sabbatical to attend a seminary in Eretz Yisrael. The daughter of secular Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Lilian had grown up aware of her Jewishness. However, the lifestyle of Lilian’s parents wasn’t all that different from that of her non-Jewish peers. While she’d started exploring and growing in Yiddishkeit during graduate school, she now wanted a more immersive experience.

Upon her return, Lilian was offered a great job with a prestigious human resources consulting firm. “At the same time, I was also offered the lease on a beautiful garden apartment,” she remembers. “It had large picture windows, great architectural details, pretty lemon trees out front, and with my friends and family nearby…” In other words, all she’d been dreaming of. Except for one thing: a chassan.

While she’d been in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg had been adamant in his advice that she make the East Coast her new home for shidduchim purposes. So she shut her eyes to the tempting offers in Los Angeles and left for the East Coast — with little more than her faith in Hashem and tefillos.

Once Lilian landed, things fell into place remarkably quickly. The only person she knew on the East Coast was living in Passaic, New Jersey, and “just happened” to have an open room to rent available in her apartment. She then met her husband only two weeks after she moved.

Shortly after, her chassan gave her resume to another applied psychologist whom he knew from shul, and she was soon recruited into Nabisco’s internal organization effectiveness department. There, she created a leadership development program for high-potential early-career leaders, as well as other talent development projects.

After 18 months at Nabisco — by the end of which she had married and given birth to her first child — Lilian again found herself in middle of a corporate takeover. This time, Nabisco was bought out by Kraft, and she, like everyone else in her department, was laid off.

“I went straight from being on maternity leave to severance,” she recalls. But again, that turned into a blessing; she was finally catapulted into the role of independent business owner devoted to executive leadership coaching and organizational development.

It took “a lot of networking and patience,” Lilian recalls, but she was off to a good start when a contact at Nabisco recommended her for inclusion training at Ford Motors. Though her business took some years to build, by the time her youngest was in upper grade school, Lilian was in high demand by top executives.


“I was the Problem”

Some of Lilian’s clients have clear goals in mind, while others realize their goals during their work with her. What they all share is that they want her help in reaching those goals.

Take Natalya for example. A director at a global pharmaceutical of about 100,000 employees, Natalya shared a picture of her leadership behavior, pre- and post-coaching. Before working with Lilian, she admitted that she managed “like a dictator.” (As a Russian immigrant, Natalya said, this was an approach she herself had experienced earlier in life.)

Because Natalya cared so much about always getting things right, she was treating her employees as if they were unthinking machines, pushing her own solutions and opinions onto them. Yet Natalya was also so stressed about her team or herself making mistakes that she’d been sleeping only three to four hours a night.

Shortly after she began working with Lilian, Natalya soon made a decision to trust her employees. She built relationships with them, and she began to work with each employee’s unique strengths. Whereas pre-coaching, she’d once told her staff to “Take this class,” or “Complete that assignment,” her newly discovered mindset lead her to work with each employee differently, to give them tailored support based on their current skills and interests, as well as on where they wanted to go with their career. She looked at their strengths and asked each of them for their own suggestions on what and how they wanted to develop, and then Natalya gave them as much help and support as she could.

Now, Natalya says, her employees are much happier, more engaged in their work, and less afraid of making mistakes. They approach Natalya with their questions, and they are more honest with her about how their departments are performing. Meetings her employees once dreaded are now anticipated as positive calendar events.

“You helped me realize that the problem was in me,” Natalya shared with Lilian. “I only realized that I was micromanaging when I finally decided to try to let go. Now I’m asking for others’ advice. In the past, I used to jump into decisions and into writing e-mails too quickly, and I hurt people’s feelings. Lately, I have decided to take a different approach. Now my staff calls me ‘Natalya 2.0!’ ”

And the ultimate bonus? Natalya’s finally getting her well-deserved sleep at night.


Crafting an Image

Another one of Lilian’s clients, Joyce, is a chief data scientist and the only female C-suite level member for her global data-management firm. Joyce is brilliant, risk-taking, ambitious, knowledgeable, and hardworking — and, at least at the start of her work with Lilian, less skilled at managing her firm’s organizational politics than she needed to be. Whenever things went wrong, Joyce and her entire team were the scapegoats. And when there were successes, they never got their fair share of the credit. Not surprisingly, by the time Lilian started working with her, both Joyce and her entire team had low morale.

Lilian helped Joyce increase her political savvy, which included teaching her how to take charge of conversations and steer them to her benefit. Lilian also helped Joyce discover how she wanted to be viewed by the board and her C-level peers — and to realize that her previous actions hadn’t helped her build the reputation she wanted.

 For example, when there were setbacks, and Joyce’s colleagues turned on her and blamed her in front of the CEO, they put Joyce on the defensive. This meant that she was allowing her hostile colleagues to define her public image, instead of crafting it herself. What Joyce needed to do instead was proactively create a positive impression of herself and her group

Lilian suggested that Joyce actively seek natural ways to create messages and occasions that would help build the reputation she wanted her team and herself to have. Lilian also reminded Joyce to choose her words carefully, using mostly positive language about her team’s work.

In addition, Lilian encouraged Joyce to analyze her key audience members — whether they were coworkers or the CEO — and think about what each of them valued, and then show them how what she and her team were doing was bringing them exactly what they valued.

At the next board meeting, Joyce used all of Lilian’s coaching to do just that: She gave a demonstration that highlighted the innovative projects she and her team were putting into place. She then connected the dots for the board members, using both real stories and metrics, to show them what important things had already been done, and how their new activities had led to a material increase in the bottom line. The meeting was a great success for Joyce. Her next goal? To become CEO. With the skills Joyce has learned, Lilian is confident she’ll get there.


What’s the Problem?

A large part of what Lilian does is helping her clients see where they’re tripping up — and how to move past it. Karen had the top finance position on a leadership team, but she felt trapped by one aspect of her job. While she was an excellent performer in many respects, she was afraid to forecast strategically. This reluctance was impacting her current performance as well as her future rise as a leader.

For Karen, the issue didn’t concern her relationships with other people; it was about her relationship with herself. With Lilian as her coach, she realized that she only felt safe discussing facts from the present and past, rather than the uncertainty of the future.

“I don’t usually focus on past personal traumas: That’s not what a coach does. We tend to focus on the present and on how to move forward,” Lilian says. “But Karen shared with me that one of her parents taught her to feel bad for making mistakes.”

Once Karen realized that it wasn’t her own inability to make good predictions that was stopping her, but rather her fear of feeling bad if she got it wrong, she was able to shift her internal story and start to act in new ways, knowing that it was perfectly normal not to be completely certain, and that she had the knowledge and skills she needed to forecast strategically.

Sometimes, Lilian’s job is just to pinpoint the problem that the company’s own employees are too close to see. Lilian shares an example of how simple it is to overlook critical issues when no one is looking for them.

“For one early project I did for a large convenience store chain, I traveled around the US collecting focus group data, as well as surveying over 6,000 employees,” Lilian says. “One thing I learned was that senior management had intended to communicate a message via videocassette to all their employees, including the clerks on the front lines — but none of them were receiving the information.”

The mind-blowing answer she found? Neither the managers nor the clerks in the stores had access to a video player (this was over 20 years ago). With this information in hand, Lilian helped leadership figure out another way to get information to store managers and their staff.


Culture Matters

“Both because of my own background, and because I’m a frum person working in a secular environment, I realize how different people from different places can see the world very differently, and not always understand each other,” Lilian explains. She believes that good leadership involves being attentive to cultural differences. Therefore, helping others understand their differences fosters smoother relationships.

For example, when Lilian met a potential client, “Tim,” originally from Canada, she told him that she was aware that “Canada isn’t just the 51st state.” Despite its proximity, Canadian culture is different in subtle ways — Canadians may see Americans as brash, and they may have a lower-key approach to business.

“Tim liked that I understood this key aspect of his outlook,” Lilian says. “It showed that I could understand who he was and what was important to him. If you’re not aware of subtle cultural differences, you may not notice nuances that matter to people.”

Lilian didn’t just “get” Tim — she helped him see how he could work on “getting” others. While he was used to being more polite and restrained, he needed to learn to be more direct and self-confident with the Americans with whom he was working.

Cultural issues in the workplace are very common, Lilian found. She once worked with Sanjay, a senior leader originally from India. Sanjay believed that outcomes were all that mattered. He was a razor-sharp, strategic, driven leader who had the reputation of running roughshod over anyone who got in the way of his delivering the results he’d promised.

During preliminary conversations with others at his global financial services firm, Lilian learned that most of Sanjay’s colleagues were scared of him and his critical tongue. They either tiptoed around him or avoided him altogether. Yet due to his brilliance and track record of success, he was being given oversight of nearly 1,000 employees. Sanjay was told by his boss that he could no longer act as if he was leading a small, elite-performance SEAL team: He needed to learn to lead an army.

The first thing Lilian talked about with Sanjay was the well-established psychological literature on the importance of balancing a strong focus on task with an equally strong focus on people. Lilian helped him realize that softening his stance and learning to show value for other people would improve his own leadership. To his credit, Sanjay paused, and truly absorbed that message. Along with his strong drive, Sanjay has a deep urge to improve, and the humility and sincerity needed to learn.

Subsequently, Sanjay used his constant travel around the world as a way to meet his many employees, at all levels, on their home turf. He started to build relationships with them by doing a lot of listening about what was important to them. Likewise, he began sharing stories about himself and his family with them. Via his conversations with Lilian over several months, Sanjay shifted his behavior to the point where his boss said he could see him rising to be a top leader in the $50 billion company in the not-too-distant future.

Change is incremental. It can take time for behavior and results to change in long-lasting ways. However, all those who are willing and able to look beneath the surface and make consistent efforts over time, even in little ways, will become better leaders over time.


The Mommy Coach


When Lilian had her first child, she needed to make a decision about if and how her status as a mother would affect her career.

“A career coach advised me that it’s always easier to go from 30 miles per hour to 60 than it is from 0 to 60,” Lilian shares. “I wanted to be there for my kids, but I didn’t want to find myself completely out of sync with my work down the road, when they got older.”

For many years, while her three children were young, Lilian did her best to fit her work around their schedule. Today, her children are all teenagers, but, Lilian says, coaching and mommying aren’t exclusive ventures; they’re closely intertwined in her workday. Coaching, like parenting, takes understanding the client — or child — and helping him improve his unique situation.

“Many managers have told me that they feel like managing employees and raising children have some similarities,” Lilian says. “I agree.”

Both mothers and leaders have their every action scrutinized, Lilian says — which means they have to always be careful of their words and actions. They also need to avoid playing favorites. Additionally, it’s important to ensure that every employee’s talents and skills are developed, and that each is recognized and rewarded for good performance.

Good leaders, like good parents, also have a sense of responsibility for those they oversee. “One of my clients just gave a ‘town hall’ talk to about 100 of his division’s employees, to reassure them about some possible changes they were anxious about,” Lilian shares. “Similarly, as parents, we have to keep our eyes open for our children’s anxieties and help them work through their fears. Leaders and parents have to be in sync with those they’re leading and do their best to address their concerns.”



Top 5 Development Needs for Senior Executives

Dr. Lilian Abrams identifies five areas in which executives often need development as they climb the organizational ladder and acquire broader roles and responsibilities.


Stronger Leadership Presence While this varies by individual, it refers to how one comes across as a leader. Displaying confidence, speaking up on the right topics in high-visibility meetings, refraining from speaking at other times, and so on, all fall within this category.

Coaching and Developing Others As a leader, the executive’s job is to draw out and develop other people’s ideas and help them grow. This includes delegating effectively:  Rather than personally doing the work, the executive must lay out larger goals, as well as parameters, key milestones, and constraints. The executive must then follow up consistently, removing obstacles and rewarding as appropriate.

Strategic Communications Leaders need to read cues and think carefully about who needs to know what information, and then communicate it appropriately: Upward to senior leadership, sideways to peers, downward to staff, and outward to customers and clients.

Improving Political/Organizational Savvy Leaders must effectively identify, understand, and develop their most important relationships in the organization.

Building Cross-Organizational Relationships Ideally leaders of functions such as marketing, finance, and sales should help each other achieve success for the whole organization, not just their own function.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 599)


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