Coach Tales: Dane Hudson
Coaching the next cohort of CEOs
Coaches do incredible work everyday, however, a lot of this work happens behind closed doors. So we, at Medoo, have made it our mission to highlight and augment the extraordinary work of coaches. We are relishing the opportunity to get to know our early adopters deeply, as we build our product and community.
In this episode of our series of coaches’ profiles, we’re delighted to talk to Dane Hudson! Dane has had an incredible career as CEO of multiple ventures and is now taking all his knowledge to coach startup founders.
Hi Dane, it’s great to have you with us and hear about your thoughts on coaching, as well as your experience as a coach. To get us started, we noticed that you have a very interesting path that led you into coaching. Could you please tell us a bit about that?
I've been very fortunate to have had a fascinating and diverse career so far. Out of university I started in a graduate training role but within three months, found myself working directly with the CEO. I basically got a general manager role at 22, with no real experience myself, and so I learned a lot from him! After that I went back to school, got an MBA, moved into consulting and then onto leadership roles. I spent twelve years with YUM Brands, the global owner of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, five years running one of Australia’s largest wine companies and then spent 10 years in the facility services industry, leading the business in Australia first and then moved to Singapore to lead a team of 200,000 across Asia. In total I’ve been a CEO in 5 different industries, moved country 10 times and learnt a lot about being a leader. This journey has given me a spectacular view of diverse businesses, working with teams, crises, and change management.
A CEO is a lonely role, so I believe that having people around you who support you is very important. You need to have mentors, supporters, and cheerleaders even. I’m very fortunate to have had many mentors that supported and led me throughout my career. My wife of 34 years also gives me a lot of support, as well as my daughters.
When I knew I would be stepping down from the CEO role, I thought to myself, “Wow I’ve learned so much! How can I pass this on?” That’s when I decided to transition into coaching and mentoring.
That must have been such a wild ride! So many big moves! You mentioned that you moved into a management role early on. When people move from being an individual contributor to management, they often wonder what their role is, their contribution is, and if they get enough recognition. Do you have pointers for people moving into that role?
Well, there’s one thing I advise everyone to do. First, identify the role model leaders you have in your life –this could be anyone; from business, sports, family, anything– and then be very deliberate in observing how they lead. Try to dissect what they do, taking note of both the good and bad.
You can make this very practical. I had a spreadsheet with my different leaders and role models, keeping track of positive things, which I should try to replicate, and negative things, which I should try to avoid. Then, when I was stuck in a particular situation, I could ask myself, “What would so and so do here?”. I could then apply that, with my own spin put on it. This allowed me to execute in a way that I thought was best, as well as be authentic. Initially the behaviour may seem false or deliberate, but over time it becomes natural. You have to be authentic.
And you’re right, the role is different; especially for CEOs and senior leadership. There’s a good book on this, You're in Charge – Now What? The 8 Point Plan by Thomas Neff and James Citrin. It’s on CEOs moving into the role and how to navigate it. It tackles how you position yourself as a leader of your peers, or in a new company. Highly recommend reading it!
That’s an awesome pointer and book recommendation, thanks Dane!
Now, drawing on your experience, could you perhaps describe the value of coaching to individuals, and to organisations? Whom would you say coaching is for?
For individuals, I think the big thing is speed. A coach or mentor can increase the speed at which you learn things. A lot of founders are very creative people and they will figure out what to do over time. But until then, if they don’t know what to do, then they’ll be experimenting a lot to figure it out. Coaching and mentoring can short circuit that.
For teams and organisations, I believe the biggest thing is around giving them workshops and frameworks to set themselves up. For people in leadership, rather than facilitating themselves, if they can have a workshop facilitated by a coach then that frees them up to participate. This not only gets them more involved, but also their team gets to see them on a personal, human level.
A workshop that really resonates with people in my experience is around building trust. There’s two exercises that come to mind. The first is the ‘Classic life line’. Everyone in the team talks about 6 pivotal life moments, drawing from their experiences. This can make people very emotional. That vulnerability is what can bring people together. Another exercise is using the ‘DISC framework’. This exercise gives people more understanding of their predominant leadership style and that of their peers. People can use this in their day-to-day communication with each other, to better understand where the other person is coming from. Of course, I’ve also heard it used as a joke, “Oh, you said that because you’re a “D”!” Which isn’t quite how it’s meant to be used… Haha!
Given your experience, your coaching work is combined with mentoring and tools. It has a particular flavour to it. How would you describe your work?
When I knew I was stepping down as CEO, I decided to codify everything that I’d learned. I created a framework, Impactful Leadership, that centres on three pillars: disciplined leadership, driving change, and being a hands-on operator. I wrote individual modules within each of those pillars and so now each pillar is over 300 pages long.
As for my process, I try to find the gaps and opportunities together with the leader, using a 360 review from their peers to complement it. For the mentoring part, we talk about what business issues they may be having, and I may pull in a few pages from my modules as part of that. For the coaching part, it’s a conversation about their thoughts on the issues that they are dealing with and I endeavour to have a learning conversation through appropriate questioning.
Over the years of being a coach, are there any peak moments or challenges you would like to describe in more detail for us? What motivates you day to day?
Roughly 80-90% of my clients are in the startup space. I find that very exciting in itself! Some of the challenges I have run into in my transition are how I relate to my role and my clients. Transitioning from an active leadership role in which I was leading thousands of people, to running my coaching practice has been tricky. It’s small things like getting used to people not being as responsive as they used to be when I had the big roles. Those roles used to define me. I would say “Hi, I’m the CEO of X” instead of my name. So in many ways, being a coach has been a lesson in humility. Luckily, my wonderful wife and three daughters have also helped me stay humble.
Becoming a coach has made me realise that I don’t want to go back to my previous. There have been companies asking me to do another gig, and saying ‘No’ has been tough but cathartic. I am really happy with where I am today.
Thank you for sharing that with us, Dane. We feel that we are very lucky to have people like yourself to coach founders like us!
You mentioned that you coach mostly startup founders. What are the unique challenges for them, in your experience?
At the start, I feel their challenges across the board are quite similar. Not only do the businesses have similar challenges because they’re all just starting out, but there’s a huge homogeneity of the founders themselves, because they’re often the same age and have had similar experiences. This is good to start with but quite quickly they need to recruit diversity; different skills and perspectives for their businesses to leap forward.
One of the things that I notice they struggle with is letting go of people. Founders start hiring and then they can’t break out of that cycle to figure out if the hire is a good fit. They struggle to ultimately make the hard decision that that person is not the right fit. This is where I err on the side of mentoring, “Ok, we’ve spoken about this person 10 times now, you should probably consider letting them go.” Another thing they struggle with is working with a board for the first time. I think that you do have to manage your board and must be directive in what you want from them.
But by and large, the topics founders struggle with the most is defining the structure of their business, its organisation, and its growth. When you’re small you don’t need much structure, but as you grow there are many ways to organise yourself. By product or service? Or geography? Making wrong decisions here can have a big effect. However, it’s an easier conversation than what you might think. The organisation should be built around the customer. Define a strategy to deliver your product to the customer and then align your organisation to complement that strategy. The challenge is that for a startup the target customer, and strategy can change often, every 3 to 6 months. This means you must continually debate your organisation structure and the people in the key roles.
One last particular challenge that I see is when the business has grown faster than its people have. For instance, it gets tricky when the business has grown, but co-founders or leaders have not kept up. Most people can be trained to be good leaders, but their mindset and how much they work on it also matters. So sometimes it doesn’t work out. The first step here is to help the founder understand that they are not the right person for the leadership role. I try to help them understand that they’ll always be a founder, but they may not be an operating leader. At which point I’ve seen a few different outcomes. They can step into an individual contributor role, leave but keep some equity, or step away completely and start a new adventure. Mind you, this is not one conversation but more like a series of conversations. And it all has to be done with respect. So far I have no train crash stories. That’s ideally the value a coach and mentor can bring, having seen these things before.
Right! So lots of challenges! And to avoid train crashes, get a coach.
It’s clear why coaching and mentoring can help. What are your thoughts on how coaching might evolve in the future? What will influence it over time, and how do you think it might change?
Well, I’ve only been a full time coach for a couple of years, so it’s hard for me to say. One thing that I see is that coaching is becoming more normal. I can’t remember anyone ever proposing executive coaching to me 20 years ago, but now, it’s very normal for VC funds to propose a coach for their startup’s CEO, or leadership teams. I see it as that these groups are trying to accelerate the learning journey for their leaders, but also scaling the team and organisational structure in a healthy way, so as to get it right.
Another trend I see is that the amount of coaching options are growing. Do you want someone to help you specifically with business so an ex-CEO as a coach, or do you want someone who can help you with the more classic HR-style coaching or someone with deep experience in social sciences or psychology? I think these options will become more and more specific as time moves on.
Dane, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. We loved every moment of it! To close off, Are there any other thoughts you would like to add? And what is the best way for people to find and/or follow you online?
I find this an extremely enjoyable space to be in. I honestly didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I have, which is great! Intellectually, I find coaching is a significant challenge in many ways. You have to be present, and thoughtful. And my internal competitive drive really keeps me focussed. I’m always wondering how I can get the person to grow as much as possible. On top of that, the startup space is fascinating, and has so many amazing people. I’m actually experiencing a lot reverse mentoring, too. I’m learning a lot from other founders!
If you’d like to get in touch with me, there’s my official website for business, impactfulleadershipconsulting.com. But I also like to post articles on my LinkedIn profile. Feel free to reach out to me there. I’m always happy to chat to new people!
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