As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Yannis Niebelschüetz.
Yannis is managing director and co-founder of CoachHub, a digital turnkey solution in learning and development democratizing coaching for employees of all career levels worldwide. He is a serial entrepreneur and former senior sales manager at LinikedIn. Yannis has more than 15 years of experience in New Work, startups and digital business building.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you got started?
I started my career in marketing, completing internships at Coca-Cola and BMW. I soon turned to a sales-focused role as I began to notice the important symbiotic relationship between sales and marketing. This is where my passion lies in the world of business. It led me to set up my own video marketing company, which ignited another passion of mine — entrepreneurship. After founding several startups, I thought it was time for a change and decided to go back to a sales role at LinkedIn. When I was working for LinkedIn in Dublin, I received personal coaching. My coach, who had to travel from southern Ireland, either came too late or, in bad weather, not at all. In addition, it was always difficult to get a meeting room for coaching. At the same time, my brother Matti, who was working at McKinsey, was also experiencing the power of coaching but was too hindered by the logistics around it. We came to the conclusion that this just doesn’t fit into the 21st century. Both of us are entrepreneurs at heart, having founded several startups throughout our careers. We founded CoachHub in 2018.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
At the beginning, our office was actually too small and we were sometimes doing meetings on the stairs. This was before COVID-19 happened, and of course now we are all working remotely and taking meetings from the comfort of our own homes. I think at the beginning especially, you want to be around your team to get to know them, but we have learned that this is just as achievable in a virtual setting. Similar to digital coaching, the physical aspect is not so necessary anymore.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My coach has helped me a great deal. One of my biggest challenges, especially earlier in my career, was delegating responsibilities. My coach has helped me a lot with that. I am still being coached today. I don’t think you can end your coaching journey — there are always things to develop and learn, no matter your seniority.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Initially, CoachHub was inspired by the power of coaching from a talent development perspective. We were also inspired by Alphabet Chairman and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt who was of the opinion that everyone could benefit from a coach. So, not only did we want to make coaching more flexible and accessible, we wanted to democratize it for all employees at all career levels. We soon began to realize that coaching has so many more use cases outside of talent development — employee well-being, creating cultures of diversity and inclusion, supporting change management — this list goes on. CoachHub is the digital coaching provider that offers a holistic approach to personnel development. We help future-oriented companies that work globally to transform themselves in times of digitization and constant change.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you led your team during uncertain or difficult times?
At the start of COVID-19 when we didn’t know what was going to happen, the safety of our teams was priority. I know it sounds pretty simple, but a big part of this was making sure that everyone was as comfortable as possible. WIth HR, I organized getting proper office chairs, extra monitors, and laptops to everyone’s homes. And for those who didn’t have access to good internet, we set up a very rigorous process so that a certain number of people could safely check into the office and work from there. It is critical that leaders set clear guidelines and action plans when we encounter unexpected and difficult situations — to this end my brother and I knew it was important that our employees heard directly from us. Simple things like video messages and live meetings directly from us (the CEOs) were set up to keep up communication and ensure we were as clear as possible with our employees about how we were reacting to the situation.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have never considered giving up with CoachHub. I am very passionate about people development and I am driven by our vision to democratize coaching. Everyone deserves to have their full potential unlocked. Giving up isn’t really an option for me!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is a fitting saying that goes, “If you want to increase your success rate, you have to double your failure rate.” We have made many mistakes in the past years, but having to overcome them has taught us a lot, and if it weren’t for those difficult moments we wouldn’t have been able to make CoachHub what it is today. What we believe to be vital for a successful team is to be very honest with yourself and your team, confront the not-so-glamorous facts as a group, and transparently share mistakes with them. This is the only way to come to a solution together as an organization and prevent repeating the same mistakes.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Be honest with employees — There is no harm in admitting a situation is difficult. When COVID-19 happened, we didn’t try to look through rose-tinted glasses. We knew this was going to seriously affect us all. We told the employees that change was going to come and it was going to take time to get used to the situation. Fortunately, we provide free digital coaching for all employees, but to enhance this, we offered unlimited digital coaching to our employees, meaning instead of the usual biweekly calls, they could schedule meetings with their coach as regularly as they liked to help support them through this difficult period.
2. Communicate openly — We are consistently sharing company-wide results across all departments on a monthly basis — sharing the wins and the losses/learnings. It is important that we are completely transparent with what is going on, what is working, what isn’t working, and where we go from there.
3. Get feedback from your employees — Just as important as it is giving feedback as a leader, it is also super-important your team is giving you and other senior members feedback. Check on a regular basis and ask for feedback as a senior leader. As I mentioned earlier, improvement doesn’t stop, no matter your seniority. If feedback goes both ways, everyone is much happier and more productive.
4. Show empathy — We have to understand that everyone reacts differently to different situations. It is important that we take an interest in our individual team members, properly understand their situation, and offer support accordingly. This is arguably the most important one to keep your employees motivated in the current climate we are in. For example, many parents are still homeschooling, so we have advised that group and individual catch-up calls are avoided first thing in the morning and at lunchtime, to help combat clashes with school day preparation and lunchtimes.
5. Show that you are human — Even if you as a CEO are finding it difficult, there is no shame in saying that you are finding it difficult. This may be a controversial one, but I think there is an old-fashioned view of senior leadership being these “robot-type” beings where there is no room for real human emotion. If you are having a tough day, there is no harm in saying it. People tend to relate more to you if you are showing a more humanistic and vulnerable side rather than being a “plug and play” performance driver. Obviously, this requires a lot of balance. It is important to be a strong, motivating leader, but there is a certain strength in showing a certain level of vulnerability if, of course, that is what you are feeling. I recently got a little emotional in a company-wide meeting when we were talking about the difficult situation Germany is facing with the pandemic right now and I got lots of messages from employees showing their appreciation. I wasn’t planning on it, but it seemed to have boosted morale across the company.