In-Focus with Carl Schreiter

Carl Schreiter is an executive coach and advisor of great renown who has partnered with Atara to enrich our community. His client base covers the UK, Continental Europe and the Americas (USA, Canada and Mexico). Recent and current clients include high-value manufacturers, start-ups, entrepreneurs and professional services organisations. Carl is an experienced coach and adviser with more than 25 years in communications, leadership and business development coaching. His distinctive approach is transformational and ensures that management teams and key decision-makers communicate and perform consistently, ensuring the best possible outcomes are achieved.

Carl, you’ve been coaching executives for some time now, what led you to it in the first place and can you share a bit more about how you’ve developed your unique approach to your coaching and what impact you’ve seen it make on your clients?

I'm the lucky owner of a Master’s Degree in English, Drama and Criticism. What this meant when I emerged from the relative comfort of academia was that there was no obvious career path for me to pursue. 

Starting out, I became a freelancer of all trades: I wrote articles and reviews, I coached actors and opera singers and I offered my services as a lecturer and teacher. I soon realised that this wasn't sustainable so I approached companies in the training and coaching space and before I knew it, I was running courses in presentation, pitching, meeting skills and customer service. I also coached junior and senior managers whose executive presence left something to be desired. One day I received a call from a competitor and I decided to jump ships and before I knew it I was part of a team consisting of experienced salty dogs specialising in the areas of leadership and influence. And I've been on that journey ever since. 

When I speak about my approach I refrain from using the word 'unique' but I would go so far as to say that my approach is distinct and different. It's characterised as much by what I do as what I don't do. I don't tell my clients how they can live better lives, how to build organisations, or how to allocate resources and devise contingency plans. There are experts in this field who are more suited than I am to offer guidance and wisdom in the areas. My focus areas revolve around power and influence and persuasion and engagement. In all of my work, I use a combination of artistic and scientific tools, methodologies and teachings. I’m not a purist but rather a multidisciplinarian and I don't think twice about consulting the works of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Aristotle, Cicero and Quantalian. 

Some people view these as antiquated theories and dark forces used by leaders and key influencers who are only motivated by self-interest, personal agenda and an unbounded desire for power for power's sake. But nothing could be further from the truth; these are mere tools and they are neither good nor bad. Hand a knife to a surgeon and they will save someone's life; hand it to a killer and they will take someone's life. 

Based on your experiences, could you highlight a specific success story where your coaching led to a transformative change in a client's leadership or communication style? 

The way I conduct my work is guided by a simple principle: I strive to make my clients successful, with no ifs or buts. And I won't settle until they show clear signs of improvement and enjoy the accolades of their customers, partners, peers and even competitors. Their success is my reward. 

At the risk of sounding vain and conceited, every coaching intervention is a success story in its own right because I won't let go until I see improvement and progress. It might be small; it might be big. But more importantly, success has to be gauged by the value that it generates, for the individual, the team, the organisation as a whole and of course the business. 

I believe that Einstein once said: "Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value." Now, if you ask me to name success stories that carry weight because they are considered cool and glamorous or feature famous people, there are a few that stand out: I coached and advised a client who had an interview slot at Davos. Watching him on CNN was pretty amazing; he followed my advice and it worked. Another client strutted his stuff in front of celebrities at Milk Studios in New York. I sat in the audience and I felt as proud as a father watching his son or daughter performing in a school play. I was by far the least famous person in the room but I took great pride in having been able to contribute to the success and of the man onstage. 

Many years ago, I was asked by the Intelligence Agency in an unnamed European country to coach their lead agents; they needed to brush up on their leadership and interactive skills. Until I met them, command and control and speaking to junior agents in a loud and sometimes menacing voice summed up their leadership philosophy and approach. Thankfully, I managed to make them think afresh and embrace new skills. They were all incredibly bright and they didn't suffer fools gladly but they processed information with almost unlimited capacity and at great speed. The only real challenge was the constant interruptions; when a secret service agent tells you that he or she needs to leave, they mean it. All it takes is one call from high command and off they go. One client was picked up by helicopter; I looked through the window while the vibrations of the helicopter blades reverberated through the conference room. 

One client made it onto the top 100 performing CEOs in The Harvard Business Review. It’s quite humbling to deal with someone of that ranking but people with off-the-charts CVs and dazzling careers usually appreciate when you treat them the same way as you would any other human being, that is, with dignity and respect instead of fawning over them and acting obsequiously. And if truth be told, I can be irreverent, a trait that has stood me in good stead over the years, but has also put me in trouble from time to time. There’s a price to pay for being authentic but it’s a wise investment long term. 

Your client base has always been impressively global, how do you adapt your coaching style to cater to the diverse business cultures and practices across the regions? Are there any specific challenges or opportunities you've encountered in working with such a wide-ranging clientele?

Multiculturalism runs through my veins. I was born in Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle: My parents were Swedish but my dad was also of German origin. My surname gives it away. I have spent most of my life outside my native country and Britain is what I call home. My wife is French but her roots are in North Africa and Turkey. My son, who I occasionally and jokingly call a Long Island Iced Tea, is engaged to an English girl of Ghanaian descent. So for me, every day is a multicultural day, which I find challenging and rewarding in equal measure. And I wouldn’t have it any other way because there’s never a dull moment. 

My client base is indeed incredibly diverse in terms of cultures, and different cultures have different values, customs, taboos, principles etc. That said, all of my clients either own or run businesses and irrespective of where you’re based and operate, they’re still in charge of a commercial enterprise; they make a product or offer a service, they lead and manage people, they market and sell their stuff, they monitor P&Ls, they hire and fire people, they speak to auditors and solicitors etc. So this is what they all do, but the way they do things is in many ways dictated by culture. There’s a Swedish way; they like spending time in meetings and value consensus; there’s an American way where things and fast-paced and results-oriented; Italian companies operate like communities where trust, respect and loyalty are of great importance. And there’s a Dutch way, a German, a French way etc. 

What I find most fascinating is that you can do things in many different ways and still create similar and good results. But there are times when a certain way or approach proves superior and becomes the modus operandi and accepted norm within an industry. Japanese production methods like Kaizan are used all over the world; professional kitchens are organised and operated in line with French restaurateur Georges Auguste Escoffier’s philosophy etc. 

So in answer to your question; wherever I go either by plane, train or Microsoft Teams I adapt and the first thing I do is to listen and observe and then ask questions to improve my understanding. 

In your role, you focus on persuasion and influencing people. Can you share some key strategies or techniques you employ to achieve this, and how do you measure the effectiveness of these strategies?

To be influential you need to develop an influencing style which is in keeping with your temperament, your goals and your aspirations. You can choose to rationalise, that is, use reasoning to present your ideas and leverage facts, expertise and experience to win over others. 

Assertion is another way of influencing; you show confidence and stand your ground by challenging the ideas of others when they challenge yours. Some people choose to negotiate; they compromise and make concessions to meet their interests. Others strive to inspire their audiences by communicating a sense of shared purpose through stories, metaphors and other inspiring means. And some people attempt to influence by way of bridging. They rely on reciprocity by uniting and connecting with others. But, of course, nothing prevents anybody from developing their hybrid versions and different situations call for different measures. Influencers are also subject to the influence or influence of others so the abovementioned principles can also be used to assess and map out someone else’s style. 

Whilst influencing is either strategic or tactical; persuasion, which inevitably is part and parcel of influencing, is situational and takes place in the moment; you can persuade either by speaking to or showing people. 

 Those who master the art and science of persuasion ask themselves: On what grounds will my audience make their decision? And what will trigger and inspire them to make that decision? Skilled influencers have an impact; unskilled influencers are desperate to impress. Impression management is ineffective because it focuses on the wrong things. Persuasion is an art and a science; impression management is a deceptive act.

Could you provide insights into your process of ensuring that management teams and key decision-makers communicate and perform consistently? Do you see common stumbling blocks and what do you do to guide your clients through them?

We’ve all heard it before; culture eats strategy for breakfast. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the environment that leaders create and promote, the “way things are done around here” and the values and principles that guide people in their work and enable them to tell right from wrong, are all important for people to perform, deliver and gauge the quality and impact of their contributions against set criteria. But what is a culture of innovation, a culture of collaboration a sales culture or a high-performance culture? 

In essence, I believe that there are three foundational cultures upon which you can build a business and organisation. You can build a machine and a culture around the machine. Companies that operate like machines rely on processes and procedures, operational excellence, formal decision making and measuring input and output. This is the default culture in manufacturing and the airline industry. Other organisations view work through a contractual lens. Tasks are carried out and work is done by letting employees engage in constant negations, compromise and give and take. Working relationships are mostly transactional and transient. People operate in the here and now and often in silos. Quick results are achieved by constant wheeling and dealing. Contractual cultures are commonplace in the financial industry; like stock trading and brokering. Community practices operate differently. They are like ecosystems; roles and responsibilities are not set in stone; dialogue, exchange and learning keep the wheels turning. People come to work to solve problems and to innovate. This is how start-ups operate. Culture encompasses the norms, expectations, and unwritten rules that guide how work is approached, how employees communicate, and how decisions are made. But for any culture to truly work and deliver, it needs a foundation; a machine, a contract or a community.  

At Atara we’re proud to have you as part of the team and we’d love to know how you feel our parterning together will bring maximum impact to our communities?

By engaging with our communities in a meaningful way and allowing several conversations, discussions and debates to run in parallel. Purely transactional communities aren’t communities. Some people use them as in-person cold-calling opportunities and expect an immediate return on their investment. Ivan Misner’s philosophy of Givers Gain is simple and powerful; you give to other people first but without expecting an immediate return on your investment based on someone else’s gain. If that is the primary rule of engagement, people’s generosity will be returned many times over and in more ways the one.  

For our readers who are in leadership roles, what is a piece of universal advice you’d like to see them apply in their organisations? 

One piece of advice won't do, sorry (There's no such thing as a silver bullet) See dignity in every person. Stand your ground, if you know you're right; prove to people that you are. Be inclusive but avoid too much compromise. Always listen and listen to everybody. I'm not religious but this is what Jesus did. Don't count on clarity and facts to take people along with you; people need narratives to believe so you need to be the narrator. 

The In-Focus interview series is a collection of articles commissioned by Atara Partners with some of the world's fastest-moving technology businesses and their leaders.

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