Leonora Zilkha Williamson
EXECUTIVE COACH AND FACILITATOR
As a coach with a deep passion for people, Leonora empowers teams and individuals to access their best selves and navigate profound transformations. Her career includes leadership roles at J.P. Morgan, Boston Consulting Group, and Estée Lauder. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, she has lived in 8 countries, speaks 5 languages, and carries 2 passports. She was a founding partner of women’s angel investment group The JumpFund, and also sits on the board of family company Sabre Yachts. She lives in Nashville with her two daughters and a golden retriever named Scout.
Leonora works with leaders to bring out their best. Her approach combines ontological coach training with over twenty years experience in organizations ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. She believes that every person is resourceful, creative and whole, and works with clients to create new awarenesses and design practices to be their best selves.
Teams are profoundly generative. At their best, groups can create outcomes that no individual can achieve - yet often, they don’t. Leonora works with teams to bring out their best and identify the conversations needed to optimize collaboration.
We’ve all been in meetings that waste everyone’s time. Leonora works with leaders to identify needed outcomes and design sessions for teams to achieve them. Her approach to sessions is bespoke, creative and fast-paced.
Leonora combines her years as a corporate strategist with her passion for working with groups to offer complete strategic planning services. She has led dozens of strategy projects, and while each is different, she adheres rigorously to several principles: effective strategy requires broad-based input; top-down strategy initiatives generally fail; and strategic plans need to be specific and concise.
Creating a team culture from scratch
A business unit leader for a startup within a large, publicly traded company in a highly regulated industry formed a management team of 4 executives. The leader - let’s call him Jim - wanted to be intentional in creating the team dynamics. While the team’s mission and personality were entrepreneurial, it was working in a large, established company with policies and procedures. Jim anticipated that working in both cultures could present a challenge, and wanted to ensure that his team created its own culture. Moreover, this group had never worked together before and Jim recognized an opportunity to create habits and norms that would serve the team well in fulfilling its mission.
Over six 90 minute sessions held onsite during the workday, I worked with the 4 executives to achieve the following goals, which the group articulated in its first session:
Get to know one another
Create a culture to support the business unit’s mission
Over the six sessions, we used some of the basic precepts of ontological coaching to frame discussions about communication, group dynamics and the specific challenges this group faced. The executives had no homework between sessions, although I provided follow-up reading in case they were interested. We had some pretty serious discussions, with one in particular in which we abandoned the prepared agenda to work through one of the team member’s emotional crisis. We had fun, including creating a playlist of everyone on the team’s favorite song. Most importantly, the team reported that they communicated clearly, transparently and kindly. In other words, they fulfilled the goals they set.
By being intentional about culture, Jim has been able to create a team - now 8 people - that belly laughs daily, communicates clearly and does serious work. Senior management from the parent company are now paying attention wondering what Jim has done to create a culture with such trust and transparency.
This success is Jim’s, not mine. But it’s an honor and great fun to work behind the scenes with leaders like Jim to facilitate teams to success.
A 360 review
Remember Jim? Through our discussions during the team building engagement, Jim expressed a frustration common for leaders - how was he doing in his role? How did his team perceive him? How about his executive sponsor, the CFO of the large parent company (we can call him Matt)? It was that old truism - it’s lonely at the top.
Jim and I chatted and agreed that a 360 review process could provide Jim some insight on these questions. I created a review questionnaire specific to Jim’s business for all his colleagues to complete, including Matt. I compiled the feedback into a general report that broke out Jim’s staff feedback, Matt’s feedback, and Jim’s own review of himself. Jim and I did a readout of the feedback with Matt. During that discussion, Jim and Matt covered topics they had never addressed before.
Jim reports that he and Matt are relating on a whole new level, more comfortable with one another and more connected. In the presentation of Jim’s review to Matt, Matt surprised everyone by focusing a lot on how Jim had managed to build a culture of transparency. Jim never knew that Matt recognized this accomplishment, let alone admired it. This realization boosted Jim’s confidence and has allowed him to communicate better and take more risks for his business unit.
The relationship is between Jim and Matt, not me. But it’s an honor to be present for the kind of honest conversations that shift relationships forever.
A company finds its story
Sarah is a successful CEO/ entrepreneur who founded a financial services company that blossomed quickly to 12 employees and growing. With this growth, Sarah has lost the ability to be present at every meeting, and was concerned that the team didn’t have a consistent story to tell about the company. To add to this complexity, Sarah’s co-founder had recently left the company to pursue another opportunity and the industry is complex for people who don’t know it. Sarah asked me to lead a session for her team to tell her company’s story during a time of both rapid growth and transition.
Sarah’s team and I met for 90 minutes - a short time frame, but what the team had available. In that time, all 12 employees shared their initial introduction to the company, ending with Sarah, describing her vision for a proactive client experience and the early days of founding the company. In this exercise we planted many of the seeds that ended up being important descriptors in our finished product. Next, we identified our target audiences in our story-telling, and broke into small groups to craft messaging for each. We then came back as a big group and created specific messaging around the industry and this company in particular, with variations for their different audiences.
The output of this quick session was simple and straightforward - a one-page messaging document that everyone could look at and memorize. More importantly, however, the process of its design allowed all team members to have input into the story and feel a sense of ownership. Also, not everyone had heard Sarah tell the story of the company’s founding and her vision for the future in such detail. This session was the last of a busy day, and the team left feeling closer to one another.
D.G., Founder, CEO,
2 consumer products companies
“Leonora possesses the unique ability to assess a situation and the personalities in it, very quickly. She then will define all needs with clarity and encourage a thoughtful path to success. An executive’s secret weapon!”
T.W., Bank Executive and start-up founder
“Leonora took our newly formed management team - operating a newly formed business - and helped us learn more about ourselves and each other in startling speed. We’re a few months in and are already operating more cohesively than any team I’ve ever been a part of.”
A.B., Chief Product and Marketing Officer, fintech company
“Leonora's ability to facilitate productive conversation around challenging topics and big ideas has served our team well. She coached our leadership team to establish positive habits and helped our marketing team focus in on how to express our brand, and I greatly appreciate her insights and leadership.”
LS, Real Estate Agency Owner
“Leonora is a wonderful coach and has a unique ability to help others find or rediscover those little kernels of wisdom that so many of us smother with “stuff”. In asking those thought provoking questions and being an gifted active listener, she digs deep; she is an amazing woman!” - LS, Real Estate Agency Owner
LET’S START TALKING