The No. 1 Habit Successful Leaders Share, According to Executive Coaches Who Have Worked With Apple and Twitter

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What is the secret to success? 

As the leaders of executive coaching firm Velocity, John Baird and Edward Sullivan have spent years searching for the answer to this question. Baird founded Velocity in 2015 and has helped mold top leaders at Fortune 500 companies including Apple, Nike and Twitter. Sullivan joined Velocity in 2016 as the firm's CEO and managing partner; his client list includes executives at Hinge, DoorDash and Geico. 

The duo works with start-ups around the world to help their leaders navigate the growing pains of being a new, fast-growing organization, including hiring, funding and business strategy. Each start-up has different ambitions and trajectories, however, Baird and Sullivan note that successful CEOs have one important habit in common.

"The most effective, transformative leaders we've worked with are exquisitely curious," Sullivan, 46, tells CNBC Make It. "They're always asking questions when something doesn't work out: they want to know why, and what could we be doing differently to solve the problem." 

Edward Sullivan and John Baird.
Photo: Edward Sullivan
Edward Sullivan and John Baird.

Asking questions allows leaders to "constantly learn and improve the way they approach work," Sullivan says. 

Working professionals at all levels can benefit from asking questions and soliciting feedback from their co-workers, Baird and Sullivan note. "Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it's been increasingly difficult for people to connect and find inspiration for their work," Baird, 77, says. "People are working longer hours, they're not confident about the career they chose or the future of their company … a lot of us have to revamp our approach to work, and feedback can help."

Often, when Baird is working with executives who are feeling lost in their career or doubting their capabilities, he challenges them to reflect on a series of questions: "What is your purpose?" and "Where do you find your inspiration?" 

"I'll ask people to go back to their 'why?' and consider how their work aligns with their purpose and values," he explains. "The answers to those questions always help people make difficult decisions, and prioritize work that fulfills them."

Managers should also think about how to better support their team through this transitional period of hybrid work, and make an effort to check in with employees every week about their physical and emotional needs. "Every manager should be asking themselves: 'What do my people need to be more creative and resourceful?' Sometimes those are newer computers, or ergonomic desks, but oftentimes, people also need praise or feedback," Sullivan says. "Employees need to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion to feel valued."

The Great Resignation, which has seen millions of Americans quit or switch jobs in the wake of the pandemic, has reminded companies that their employees' loyalty is never guaranteed — and to better retain talent, managers need to really connect with their employees. "One thing we've discovered is that people really thrive on feedback, but many managers find feedback difficult to give," Baird says. "But without those conversations, how do you know your employees are engaged? How do you know they want to stay on your team?"

Baird recommends three questions to guide such one-one-meetings: "What is working for you today?", "What is not working for you?" and finally "How, as your leader, can I better support you?" 

The discussions sparked by these questions, Baird adds, should improve empathy and awareness within the workplace. "We often assume that we know where people's heads are at," he says. "But underneath those assumptions are a lot of feelings." 

Baird and Sullivan's forthcoming book, "Leading With Heart," which details the pairs' coaching careers and best leadership advice, will be published in 2022. 

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