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The Drop In CEO w/ Deb Coviello



Karen Mangia

Today on Success from Anywhere, we'll meet a CEO whisperer and modern Mary Poppins, who includes a compass in her bag of tricks. She's also an advisor, author, and podcast host. Please join me in welcoming Deb Coviello, founder of Illumination Partners.

Deb Coviello

Thank you so much for the opportunity. I can't wait to have this conversation and share with your audience.

Karen Mangia

One question I like to ask every guest, because this is a show about work, is: what was your first paid job and how did that job inform or inspire your career trajectory?

Deb Coviello

Are we going back to my very first job as a child or do we want to fast forward into my professional career?

Karen Mangia

You're the guest, you make the call!

Deb Coviello

I think I'll say the very first job I had was delivering papers. I was 12 years old. I wanted to be independent. I had to find creative ways to be able to make money and do what I want to, but I will say that I have always been industrious, creative, wanting to be independent, find my way, nothing can hold me back. And I would say then, fast forward, the first job I got a real grown up paycheck was with Raytheon Company. I was in their manufacturing management development program out of engineering school. I was absolutely thrilled because I had the distinct opportunity of not just picking a career yet, but sampling for different careers in the area of manufacturing. It was good money back then. Engineering was great. I'm really, really grateful for having those opportunities, and making good money in the process.

Karen Mangia

And along the way, you navigated your path to the C-suite, say more about that journey.

Deb Coviello

I don't think, when I got out of college and I started my engineering manufacturing career, I wanted to get into the C-suite. However, there is a theme that goes throughout all of this. I want to be able to say what I want, I've got thoughts—you should ask my mother. When I came home from high school, I would just download, regurgitate everything that's happening, because it was my way of processing the day and putting it in perspective. Ask my husband now—I do the exact same thing. I will download the good, the bad, the ugly, etc. But I think out of that comes just doing good work, being a high performer.

Over my journey, I was in a manufacturing environment. I fell in love with the area of quality auditing, engineering, quality engineering—how could we make this product better, faster, so that our customers really enjoyed it? I really love that area, compliance, etc. Then, I navigated into quality engineering: the customer calls, and they have a complaint, what do we need to do to get to the root cause? That started bringing out some of my critical thinking skills. I put that in my pocket when I was a child. Why, why why? Why are these things happening? And I think over time, by that curiosity, that outspokenness as a child, being also a good listener, I got good in the area of problem solving and root cause analysis. That is a great skill. Manufacturing leaders want that.

I got pulled along through various industries: the electronics manufacturing industry, the .com industry, and I ultimately landed in—and this is a transformation point for me—the flavors and fragrance industry or the chemical industry. And in there, I just had great, great advocates that saw my talents, my curiosity, and my bulldog kind of persona—let's get this thing done. I hate waste. Let's go. All of these were skills that belong in the C-suite.

But I will tell you that once I got to a particular point, I had honed my skills, got my certifications, my advocates were pulling me up—I hit a wall. My advocates went someplace else. I couldn't get ahead. Many people will have the persona of there's the wall, there's a ceiling, where I took the high road or I said I'm going to go around this and find the next opportunity. And that's where the journey starts coming to an end; I got that corporate role that leveraged my skills, my technical skills and allowed me to grow as a leader.

I became the head of operational excellence and then later promoted into the head of quality for North America for a flavor company. And it was at that time that I realized my technical skills didn't serve me anymore. I needed to learn leadership skills to remove barriers from the people around me. And that got me much farther.

Having been in the C suite and learned a lot of those skills, I decided to leave corporate and form my own business. I have a passion, not only to drop in and help C suite leaders with their business challenges in quality in operations, whatever they need me to be. The greatest thing that I do now is, as a leader—this is what C suite leaders do and what I teach—elevate people capability, because we can fix any business issue. But in that area, the C-suite leader also has to look at building the capability the people need to sustain the new level of performance, the new landscape, etc. So, that's how I arrived at building the brand, The Drop In CEO. And I do help a lot of C-suite leaders, as well as the C-suite leaders of tomorrow to get there.

Karen Mangia

I want to go back to something important you said. You were talking about what happens when your advocates and allies and sponsors shift. At every level and in every kind of organization, we can all relate to that. It could range from the internal sponsor that's helping you advance your career to an external stakeholder, customer, buyer, investor. Take us into some of the strategies that we can all use at any level when there's a significant shift in that base of influence.

Deb Coviello

This is the point where you got to put your big girl pants on and then try to advocate one for yourself, and find those new advocates. When we come up in our career, advocates find us and then we feel so lucky to have those advocates, and we welcome them bringing us along into the next project, the next promotion. But a couple things that I share with individuals is: one, at the end of the day, you need to learn how to be your own advocate; number two, you need to be able to feel confident enough to say without arrogance I've done this, I in the team have accomplished that. I believe this. You need to come into your own after your 10-15-25 years’ experience and be able to say, “This is what I need I stand for, and this is where we need to go. I would say that's the first strategy.”

But then the other thing I soon realized the hard way is that you need to build stakeholders; you need to learn the skills of stakeholder management. When you start a new role, it is about looking around the landscape, not just in your own ecosystem. Who are those decision makers—the finance, the commercial, the procurement, the legal team, who have the ear of the C-suite leader? You need to get to know them on a personal level, on a professional level, what keeps them up at night, and keep them close and regularly check in because then when you show up to push that initiative, you've already had these conversations with these people; they have your back. Then, it amplifies your influence when you have those stakeholders around you that can support you as you're trying to move things forward. So those are the two things, advocate for yourself, and build a bunch of advocates or stakeholders around you that know you and have your back.

Karen Mangia

There are a number of our readers who may not be CEOs. That might not be a goal and yet part of their role or responsibility, either as a sales leader or an internal influencer is to affect and engage with CEOs and other members of the C-suite. How can people prepare to be effective in a first conversation, and then earn an invite back into a conversation with a CEO or a member of the C-suite?

Deb Coviello

I really appreciate that question because I'm coaching somebody right now who is positioning themselves to potentially get a promotion and interface directly with the CEO. The first thing that I've advised them is that you've got to change your mindset—they are human, just like you. They might just have different or more experience than you. The first thing you need to do is put yourself in that position, see yourself at the same level. Perhaps you can steal a few techniques or behaviors you've seen in other C-suite leaders until you develop your own, but you have to already see yourself at the same level that will level the playing field. If you see a separation, it could impact your confidence when you want to say, “I believe this, we should, and we must.”

The next thing is, when I do meet somebody like that—because I do drop in and partner with C-suite leaders—they have more experience; they know their business. I do spend a lot of time listening to what is and is not said because we, as aspiring leaders, need to get as much data as we can very quickly. Look at when they look tense, when they look aside, when they look adrift. You start picking up on signals on things that are bothering them. Read all the data, read the body language, what is said, what is not said, and then build the art of reframing what you heard because as soon as they say, “I believe this, and the business is doing that and things are trending that way.” When you listen intently, and then reframe this opportunity or problem, you're building a human connection and people respect you.

This is about building relationships and respect, not even about the business. They will respect you. It's about that human connection. It's not necessarily about what you went in to talk about. They'll give you more, then you reframe; and then, maybe after a couple exchanges, then you say, “I was thinking, have we tried this?” or, “I believe that with this help you.” All of a sudden, you find yourself getting very, very comfortable with somebody that you perceive was above you, when actually you're collaborating with them as an equal.

Karen Mangia

How you see yourself going into a conversation affects how you show up in a conversation. That's so wise because, when you walk in, if you have the fear prevalent or feel unprepared, or are full of self-doubt—if you're seeing yourself that way, you will show up that way. I appreciate what you said about seeing yourself as an equal; you're a human being talking to another human being. How would you want someone to interface with you? You're calling out something important, which is to be a student of success—look at other people in those scenarios. Even if it's not totally your style, try something out and be a student of what you observe that's happening in the room.


Now, tell us more about what are the skills and tips that you have for people who are listening who do aspire to be CEOs? What are the skills they most need to focus on building, besides building a network of influence, sponsors, advocates, and allies and learning to speak the language of the C-suite?

Deb Coviello

There's a few things that I have seen missing, and one is having strategic vision. One might think that's for the high end consulting company that they hired, it's that thing that the CEO built, but we never teach C-suite leaders how to do strategic planning. It's so much more than just cascading down, like, “Here's the vision for the next five years, we're going to have these three initiatives. Here's how we're going to fund it. Here's our milestone; we think that we're not able to do that.” Sometimes it doesn't even exist. I tell those people that are trying to get into the C-suite, that if you don't already have a strategy laid out to take your business area, or the business as a whole from A to B, you need to develop that skill.

It starts with you seeing what the future looks like and seeing what the future of the business is. Where do you think the future of the business is going? If you see where you're going, then you back-engineer. What does it take to get there? You need to first be able to see the future, because only then can you articulate it to others and bounce it around. Then, identify those 2-4 things that will enable us to get there—more resources, more capital, what have you.

After that, think about what kind of talent and resources you need to round out in that organization. Then, paint a vision of phase one, phase two—a timeline and critical things that will ground you. If we get to this juncture and find we don't have enough money, what are those things that help you make key decisions? Because, when we get to those junctures, people are going to be looking at you and saying, “We planned this plan, we hit this barrier. What do we do?”

If you have core values, such as: we're not going to compromise service to our customers, we're going to do it at any cost, quality is paramount, we're not going to sacrifice safety. Those will help you, those stakes in the ground, to be a leader. I'm going to start with strategic thinking and being able to lay the future out because sometimes a company won't even have a plan. You could be the first to present it. So that's one. I could keep going, but I just wanted to pause there because it is really, really missing and it was missing for me.

Karen Mangia

What I'm hearing is: strategy and storytelling will differentiate on that path to the C-suite. When I think about telling a compelling story, when I think about strategy—especially in terms of the C-suite—part of what you highlighted there is being able to identify gaps in the existing plan or potential risks that exist in the environment.


What are some of the top challenges you're discovering that CEOs are facing now?

Deb Coviello

This is where the organic back and forth go. I am working with a few right now, and they’re alone—it's lonely—they might not have a board of advisors to talk to. You could be part of that board of advisors, because they have to make hard decisions to set the future. But to your strength, if you become a partner with them, listen to them, provide solutions, troubleshoot with them, you might be able to abate that loneliness that they have being in the C-suite and maybe become a valued partner.

What I also find about CEOs is that, if their specialties are in the area of strategy and sales, they are wound tight to be able to make a sale, be volatile, and react to every customer’s inquiry. It's a lot of action, and you have to be very active in order to fill the pipeline. The problem is some of them will then say, “Okay, where's my stuff?”


They will disrupt the operations, disrupt certain things, and you can't have that. CEOs need to know where their strengths are and be able to then let other competent people do the work in their area of expertise without disrupting them. Don't micromanage, collaborate with your C-suite leaders, and let them do their job.

Karen Mangia

That's a challenge at every level of leadership, we all tend to want to work on the work that we know how to do. One of the challenges of being a senior leader is that we don't know what the future holds with the highest degree of certainty. And yet, that's the job requirement: look far into the future and help us get ready for it.


When you think about what CEOs most need to know now, to be more effective, what is one thing you wish every CEO knew, based on the work you do as a drop in CEO?

Deb Coviello

I'm actually going to answer that with something a little bit personal, because I've also come across CEOs that are very humble; they like to focus inward on their organization and leave it to the marketing people to put out in the world what the company represents. Sometimes the CEO will be so humble to a fault—it's a family business, they just want to support their people—that they don't put their thought leadership out there.


At the end of the day, customers want to build trust with your company. They don't want to build trust with a social media post and your marketing people directly. They want to hear from you. What do you think? Why is your brand resonating with the customers? I want more CEOs putting their own thoughts out there into the world because, at the end of the day, people need to connect with you, build trust with you, and then your brand. It’s not just about having your marketing department push the brand forward. I think that's a big, big, missed opportunity. I wish more CEOs would share their thoughts and not only be an inspiration inside the company, but also outside because those are the future customers.

Karen Mangia

When you think about customers, do you believe that every CEO needs to be a salesperson or are there other models to be effective in those customer relationships in the C-suite?

Deb Coviello

It's interesting you say that because I have the great fortune of working with a company where I have been after the CEO to get them on my podcast. I want to give them a piece of content. I want to support them, put them out there. And crickets, crickets, crickets! I'm saying, “Here's a complimentary opportunity. Let's bring your voice out into the world!”


However, I soon learned one of their people in strategic business development is an agent, is an advocate, is a great speaker for the company. And you know what? At the end of the day, I'm trying to connect a human that I'm interviewing with potential clients. It doesn't have to be the CEO of the company, but somebody who you can trust, that has the values and the voice of the company and can positively project that to the community.

I love this question because, as a CEO myself, I don't have all the skills. There's a lot of things I don't like to do and I outsource them; you could outsource your brand messaging to somebody who could be a great advocate.

Karen Mangia

Speaking of content, I recall reading some of your content that focused on the importance of expectation setting between leaders and the people that they lead. When I think about the importance of expectations, I often say unstated expectations always go unmet. As leaders and people who lead, we hold these things, and we don't speak them out loud. But we somehow think the person on the other side will read our mind and do it. Speak to the importance of expectation setting and how to do it in a way that's effective for employers and employees.

Deb Coviello

This is crazy that you asked me this question because, again, what we say and what we think could be actually two different things. Sometimes we thought we told people what we wanted and then we forgot to tell that person. I will tell you, as an organization gets bigger and bigger and bigger, you lose the connectivity to the individuals, and then your message, your expectation, gets diluted. I will say, and it's even in my book, that one of the compass points in the CEO’s compass is performance.

Performance is not necessarily the results, the sales, or the market share. What a CEO should focus on in it is the performance of the individual in terms of their internal capabilities.

You start a job, the CEO tells you, “Here's your job description, do XY and Z tasks”, but they never ever go over the expected competencies. That, I'd say, is a big gap. You need to have agility, you need to be able to think ahead, you need to be able to face customers and handle difficult situations. When we don't articulate that in the job description or in the values, then all of a sudden, the CEOs get upset about the performance and a perception starts building; then, there's a complete breakdown.

I advocate and I've done this in job descriptions, and even when I have one-on-ones with people, to always start with: What can I do to help you from a development perspective? They know their technical job, they can tick off those tasks, but I make sure it's very clear, not only do you know the competencies you need—let's talk about how to close those gaps.

When leaders close those performance gaps, they ultimately get the results they're seeking and peace of mind. If they don't, the organization is going to be disruptive and crash and you're going to lose valuable, valuable people. It's a missed opportunity. I could go on and on about that, but it is huge. If you don't clearly generate those expectations—and if not you, a recording of you, your HR department, a second in command—make sure people are aligned with the expectations, the values, the purpose of the company; you'll be a stronger and sustainable company.

Karen Mangia

What are the other points on your CEO compass?

Deb Coviello

There are eight points on the compass. The northernmost point is peace of mind. Peace of mind is what leaders should be in pursuit of, versus simply the results. I've seen time and time again, when you only focus on the results, you can grind your people, work 24 hours a day, and get the results. High five, make those stakeholders happy. Then, what happens if you haven't dealt with the underlying performance of individuals, they're confident they have essential skills, then you start seeing things back slide again, and you're on this terrible cycle of trying to get results. What I find in order to get peace of mind is to certainly have a well-defined purpose, which is one of those compass points, as well as having focus on the performance of the people based on clear expectations.

Three other compass points that are tied closely together are people, process, and platforms. But let me caution you, it's investing in your people on building their confidence and how to communicate. As a leader we should be coaching the process of how people collaborate together through confrontation, or get through challenges together.

Even platforms, the tools that we give them to anchor these skills in place, have nothing to do with your ERP system. But what platforms and tools do we give people to be successful and accountable for not only the technical, etc.?

I'll quickly say there are two compass points, west and east, that I find a lot of CEOs miss. And I call them past and pride. When we go headfirst on an initiative, a merger or an acquisition, we just do the tactical work. What I find is they don't slow down and get to know the past of the people that maybe they're acquiring or bringing into their team or business unit. We bought the company; we brought the people on for a reason. There had to be a culture that was worth bringing along. We fail that, you lose an opportunity to connect with humanity.

The second one is pride, the pride of the people. It's their intellectual property that we need to celebrate. We think people are indispensable—you can just hire another resource. But when we bring people together, they have these gifts, and we should take the time to know what their gifts are as you might not need them now, but might need those talents later. By paying respect to the human, you've built some connection and that person will have your back whenever you go into a crisis. Past and pride are to the two compass points many leaders miss, and they need to add it back to be able to get back on track.

Karen Mangia

Bringing people together is important. That's why we have a segment in the show called the virtual water cooler. Because people say they miss spontaneous conversation in the office. These are five quick questions where you say the first thing that comes to your mind that helps listeners get to know you a little bit better on a personal level. Are you ready?

Deb Coviello

I am ready. Can't promise, but I'm ready.

Karen Mangia

What time of day do you do your best creative work?

Deb Coviello

Before the birds, 5AM!

Karen Mangia

That answer is trendy with this current set of guests. Now imagine every day has 25 hours rather than 24. What are you going to do with your extra hour?

Deb Coviello

Sleep. I need my sleep to keep this energy going. So, I will get nine hours of sleep versus eight.

Karen Mangia

If you had to eat one meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Deb Coviello

Oh my god, somebody else asked me this today at a staff meeting. I'm going to say pizza. I'll tell you, when I was pregnant, I ate an entire pizza in one sitting. Pizza.

Karen Mangia

There it is. You heard it here first—or maybe second if you were in the staff meeting. Now imagine the zombie apocalypse is coming. Who are the three people you want on your team?

Deb Coviello

Can I have four? My three kids, I got one who is in the military. My husband, who is a sniper in the military. My son Danny, who could talk himself out of anything. And my daughter—well, she dresses nice and she's good to hang with.

Karen Mangia

What I heard is: Don't mess with Deb. The word sniper was used more than once. So, every CEO listening, watch out for what's gone to happen when she drops in. Last question, how can folks find you and keep in touch with your thought leadership?

Deb Coviello

Dropinceo.com is my website and also the Drop in CEO on LinkedIn. Very active there! Reach out to me, I'd love to talk to you.

Karen Mangia

Awesome. Well, thanks to Deb Coviello, founder of Illumination Partners, for joining us today on Success from Anywhere because…


Success is not a destination.

Success is not a location.

Success is available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.


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