An Interview with the Renowned Executive Coach, Daniel Stover, who Leverages Evidence-Based
Practices of Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology, Mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence, and
Transformational Leadership to Create Meaningful Change for Managers and Leaders
By Vic Gerami
Like many other industries such as advertising, travel, and hospitality, the executive coaching, organizational consulting, and leadership training industries have evolved to become more integrated and comprehensive. These enhancements are not just due to technology such as videoconferencing and virtual reality, but breakthroughs in emotionally intelligent leadership.
One of the industry leaders is Ensight Partners (EP), a consulting firm that specializes in leadership effectiveness and team cohesion. They leverage the evidence-based practices of cognitive-behavioral psychology, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and transformational leadership to create meaningful change for managers and leaders. The company has become a reputable resource very quickly and continues to expand its base across industries through managed growth and acquisitions. It recently acquired Leone Consulting Group that had the same target market but operated on a smaller scale.
EP was founded by Daniel Stover, a renowned executive coach who has gained a reputation as one of the industry’s leading gurus and go-to experts. Over the last decade, Daniel built a foundation of knowledge and skills by working intimately with chief executives of businesses and world-renowned institutions to improve their culture and effectiveness. He spent seven years working as an understudy of the well-known clinical and consulting psychologist, Steven Anderson at Integrated Leadership Systems. In 2018, a life-altering event occurred for Daniel in a near-death motorcycle accident abroad, and Ensight Partners was then created out of Daniel’s mission to bring the compassion that saved his life, to executive leadership development.
Bringing compassion and results to leadership effectiveness is something Daniel has long been an advocate for. His career itself started out of his leadership at Suicide Prevention Services, immediately following his undergraduate psychology studies at The Ohio State University. Daniel recognized the need to bring vulnerability and humanity to professional conversations to help others change and inspire hope. In graduate school at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Daniel concentrated his focus to organizational psychology, and broadened his ability to make an impact on the consciousness of society.
Intrigued by the success of EP, I sat down with Daniel to find out why his methods and techniques are so effective, highly popular, and coveted by leaders of industry.
VG: From your perspective and vantage point, what is the state of industry, specifically medium and small businesses in this COVID-19 post and recovering period?
DS: Medium and small businesses have been through the most radical shift and disruption in the business landscape in modern history. Retailers, restaurants, and companies that only profit from in-person experiences have tragically suffered, many never to return. Owners are paying closer attention than ever to the influence of governmental policy on their businesses, and those that have been financially impacted had to make some of the hardest decisions of their lives. Between two of LA County’s safer-at-home restrictions that shut down restaurants, I was sitting on an outdoor dining patio within earshot of the husband-and-wife owners. She said to him: “we drained our retirement completely in ’08. I will not do it again, and if they shut down restaurants another time, we need to throw in the towel.” That restaurant no longer exists. On the other hand, many businesses in the professional services sector have maintained or grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to successfully pivoting to online teaming and client engagement. I had some clients that were impacted significantly by the trade relationship changes with China, both in manufacturing and logistics, some for the better and some for the worse. Consulting professionals had to quickly adapt to learning and advising simultaneously as they made their own transitions while guiding clients on new kinds of best practices. The recovery period is complicated for all the reasons above, and then consider the mental and emotional toll. It will take time to learn the fully implications of this pandemic to our local, state and national economy… given the variance between businesses surviving, thriving or ending. Recovery must also include the normalization of getting professional help for mental and emotional stress. The prolonged periods of isolation (even with family), watching chaos happen politically, social upheaval on race in America, and national infighting about the response to the virus is technically, qualifiedly traumatic on people’s nervous system. We can confuse our resilience with denial, not realizing the toll this has taken on our well-being over a sustained period. Had it only been a few months like everyone hoped, we may not have needed a national conversation about well-being, but this has been sustained and compounding over such an extended period, it is now an absolute must.
VG: How do you reflect on 2020?
DS: 2020 is the most complex period of life in the time that I have been on it. We’ve been exposed to ourselves, quite literally, in every way. We have a better grasp on the massive schisms in our country, our families and ourselves. In desirable and undesirable ways, lives have been permanently changed. Personally, I look back on it in this paradoxical way. Loved ones died, I was very isolated throughout the year, my business thrived, wildfires burned down some of my favorite places, I found new depths of friendship with some while other relationships fell away. This is life but amplified. I think the pandemic placed an existential problem in front of us that we don’t think about very often, which is our own mortality. As such, some people found new meaning and depth in just being alive, some felt and experienced things more deeply, and some acted or lashed out in an inability to manage what they were experiencing. On my own darkest days, I relied heavily on the philosophy of Viktor Frankl, that there’s meaning in the suffering. Easy for me to say when my business survived the pandemic, as there are devastating tragedies surrounding me. Nevertheless, I made my best effort to lean into the suffering I did experience so that I could learn more about how I think, how I feel, and how I relate to the world around me. When I look back on 2020, I will never forget the complex, often paradoxical, contentious time in history.
VG: Were there any opportunities that some businesses missed?
DS: I think the biggest misfire some businesses made was not tapping into compassion for the human beings that work for them. There are endless stories of the heartless nature in which some necessary business was carried out. Meaning, there are inevitabilities like layoffs, firings, reduction-of-force and changing people’s roles and responsibilities. Some businesses carried those out in the most compassionate, understanding way that they could… while other businesses carried on transactionally. Some of those businesses would read this and still not care, because it’s businesses. However, I am a strong believer and advocate for the reality that it is people that take care of a business, its customers and clients, and other people. Many employees of businesses just wanted to feel heard, understood, and responded to thoughtfully, independent of the outcome for themselves. There are arguments from thought leaders in organizational culture that we were already fully into the “empathy-economy” phase of organizational culture (moving out of the knowledge-economy phase). For the many people who would relate and subscribe to this idea in terms of their workplace experience, businesses who failed to act with empathy alienated those employees and customers.
VG: What are some of the things that businesses did well to survive and even thrive last year, not counting the obvious ones such as Amazon and Zoom?
DS: Businesses that survived or thrived during 2020 did a few things well. First, they took a hard look at whether they were doing business a certain way, simply because they’d always done them that way. I watched my clients challenge whether they should be serving entire market sectors, because other than legacy, they couldn’t find a strategic rationale. This was the beginning of more thoughtful conversation around business strategy that lends itself toward innovation. Another thing these businesses did was engage with their people on a more intimate level. By intimate, of course, I mean more vulnerably and transparently. Constant conversation was happening that allowed people to really get to know each other inside and outside of their roles at work, which increased a lot of affinity and respect for one another. Of course, increased affinity and respect reduces a substantial amount of friction in getting things done across departments or teams. Another thing these businesses did was they listened very deeply to their people. No one had been through anything like this before, and I doubt that it’s coincidental that the surviving and thriving businesses put themselves in the vulnerable position of telling their leadership teams that they did not know what they right answers were. They didn’t autocratically dictate what to do, unless necessary. Instead, they held meetings and simply said “we aren’t sure what is going to happen, or what our next move is, and all we want is for you to think out loud.” As a result, these teams united in a way that felt inspiring and motivating to give everything they had to this company and this moment. Something that the autocratic leaders never had the best of.
VG: At Ensight partners, you leverage evidence-based practices of cognitive-behavioral psychology, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and transformational leadership to create meaningful change for managers and leaders. What are some ways that struggling businesses can practice this during their recovery?
DS: This is a great question, and it’s admittedly very difficult to commit to these practices during a crisis, despite it being when we need them the most. Everything that brings about rational, helpful thinking begins with our own self-awareness. So, bringing this kind of calm to chaos, begins with bringing yourself closer to how your own mind works. We get very emotionally attached to the way things were and how we think they should be. This period has dislocated our false sense of control that we like to think we have over the world around us. So, each day, it’s critical that business owners and leaders get in touch with what they have control over, and what they do not have control over. Without this mindful reflection about our day to day lives, we become engulfed and emotionally reactive about things that we have no control over. Although natural to react this way, it’s a giant waste of precious time that could otherwise be spent on solving problems that are within our sphere of control. Another thing most people don’t do is budget time for self-reflection. Taking walks, journaling your thoughts and feelings, or sitting in undistracted quiet are quite critical to regulating our nervous system, especially when stress is high. However, when crisis strikes, we often do this the least and we need it the most. All this said, the practice always begins with you… the individual leader or business owner. It’s best to do it without attaching to some goal or end in mind, but it’s worth knowing that you can at least conduct yourself in a way that brings composure and rational thought at a time when it’s most needed.
VG: What are the three most common challenges that your clients face?
DS: The three most common struggles our clients face are 1) Developing people well, both for the good of the person, the culture and for succession planning. 2) Authentic communication that leads to productive conflict. Most of our clients struggle with the unproductive kind of conflict, where no one is taking any conversation risks or things get out of hand, or both. 3) Our clients struggle to define and embody what leadership really means to them. Leadership is a word that is thrown around and defined many different ways but knowing what your culture defines as leadership and embodying that with integrity can bring people a lot of fulfillment at work.
VG: Will you tell us a success story about a client that you recently worked with or currently coaching? You do NOT need to name the client, just the industry.
DS: The most diverse group of people I have ever worked with have become a national resource for a model in how COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites can work. I’ve never seen people stretch themselves, deal with their respective imperfections as consciously as possible, and give it all they have the way this group has. They team up, they fight, they set boundaries, they push each other, they remind each other of the patients they are serving, and they call each other forth to be a better version of themselves, all while being on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. Their commitment to doing the internal work on themselves not only hasn’t waned during the pandemic, but they also actually increased their time commitment to it.
VG: Who/what types of businesses benefit from your services most?
DS: The types of businesses and benefit the most from our work are those that are trying to be very intentional about the culture they are creating and recognize the value of the human experience of work. They have a curiosity about how to leverage psychology and emotional intelligence to create the best of both worlds: meaningful culture and profitability. This human side of things keeps us engaged in so many industries and sectors, because at the end of the day, if people are truly your greatest asset, there’s a lot of ways of creating a tremendous amount of trust that ensures people love working for you and love your customer.
VG: What is your message to companies, businesses, and entrepreneurs who might be having a hard time?
DS: Ask for help, advice, and ideas, and make some attempts to innovate. There’s no panacea or all-encompassing solution to problems, as we’ve all been disrupted in different ways so it’s important to listen with a balance of a discerning ear and willingness to experiment. Additionally, it’s crucial to accept what you do not have control over and work intelligently with what you do have control over. It’s one of the key aspects that brings rationality back to our minds, when we’re lost in a sea of “what ifs.” Lastly, don’t let the moment derail you from your most important values and integrity. Crisis can bring out the best or worst in people, especially when desperation sets in. It’s important to stay true to who you really are when times are tough.
VG: Would you like to add anything?
DS: One of my most remarkable experiences of employees during this pandemic is that they just want to be heard, understood, and spoken to with kindness and dignity, even if they have no say or control over what happens to them in respect to their job. It’s so clear that kindness and dignity is the invaluable currency of communication in hard times, and it costs the leader nothing. People will remember what you said much of the time, but they’ll never forget how you left them feeling. It’s a small world and we’re always sending a message about our values when we speak. Kindness, dignity and really caring about people in tough situations is the overarching legacy you leave.
For more information about Ensight Partners or Daniel Stover, please visit EnsightPartners.com.