Kusia Pell

Kusia Pell (1)

My next guest is Kusia Pell, executive coach for founders and scaleup leaders.

Today, Kusia is a founder and CCO of Elevayte, helping scaleups to build extraordinary teams that are primed to attract investment. Kusia’s management experience ranges from a humble team of one to cross-disciplinary teams of 20.

We spoke about her collaboration secret sauce, what the adoption of AI could mean for the future of work and how to get to the front of any concert.

Cecily Motley: Can you start by giving us an outline of your career so far?

Kusia Pell: I started my career in B2B events with CEOs, where people and talent were constantly being talked about. That led me to pivot - about ten years ago now - to the world of leadership development and train as an executive coach. I worked with founder-led businesses at various stages of the scaleup journey, so naturally found myself coaching a lot of leaders in that space. As of two and a bit years ago I'm a founder of Elevayte, bringing together all the things I love about working with leaders in scaleups.

Cecily Motley: If your career was a best-selling novel, what would the title be?

Kusia Pell: I'm gonna make a really 90s reference: it’s the people, stupid. It's what my life focuses on - I focus a lot on the people I love - and it's what my career has been about, too.

Cecily Motley: What is the startup or scaleup horror story that you whip out at dinner parties?

Kusia Pell: At one organisation I worked with we ran global leadership programmes in person all over the world. Someone in our team - the person who oversaw all the logistics and content for the programme - was struggling with substance abuse issues and I didn't report it because I thought I was being kind. It all came to a head in a way that I won't go into, but essentially this person was no longer going to be in the workforce.That week, myself and a couple of others had to be in the offices every day, all hours, trying to figure out everything about the programme and what we were going to tell the client. It was fairly dark.

Cecily Motley: What is your biggest success from a management perspective?

Kusia Pell: When disparate, cross-functional teams come together really well. Much of the management I’ve done has been about that project-based collaboration across teams. It’s like conducting an orchestra when you work in this way. It’s very satisfying when that's done well - especially if you can win over a cynical client along the way!

Two fundamental coaching skills, which are: the questions you ask and how deeply you listen

Cecily Motley: And what is your collaboration ‘secret sauce’?

Kusia Pell: Two fundamental coaching skills, which are: the questions you ask and how deeply you listen. People are most likely to work well together if they feel heard. And that’s not just about recognising people’s part in achieving a win - it’s about celebrating and acknowledging everyone’s involvement along the way, whether you win or lose. I think that makes a massive difference to whether people want to work with you on a project again.

Cecily Motley: What does really deep listening mean in a business context?

Kusia Pell: I think it's a skillset that great leaders and managers hone. It’s about being really present, almost like a mindfulness exercise. Any time you’re wanting to make a clever point that might make you look good, or fill the silence because it’s making you uncomfortable, it’s a conscious act of trying to push those thoughts out of your mind and really drop back into what someone else is saying. It’s what great interviewers do - stay attuned, pick up on words and themes, listen to what’s not being said as much as anything else. And people have different ways of doing that. I’m very extraverted, so for me, sometimes I have to literally push the palm of my hand to remind myself to stay present.

Any time you’re wanting to make a clever point that might make you look good, or fill the silence because it’s making you uncomfortable, it’s a conscious act of trying to push those thoughts out of your mind

Cecily Motley: That's really valuable. In my own journey as a leader I’ve been surprised by how many of the skills I used to think people just had actually came from training and practice. What are the biggest behavioural shifts in your field that you have observed from when you first started working, to today?

Kusia Pell: I geek out on behavioural science, and that is a field that has changed hugely in the last decade. It has applications for every part of our lives. It's the reason we have auto-enrolled pensions in the UK and it shaped the messaging we received about staying at home during COVID.

In my world, behavioural science has really debunked the idea that you can send everybody off on an executive course for a week, or that leadership training only happens in a classroom environment. We now know how poor the application of those learnings tends to be. You can’t just tell or even train people to do something; there are so many other things that influence someone. It’s fascinating to understand how we influence people to change their habits to improve their lives.

Cecily Motley: What should we be reading right now?

Kusia Pell: Atomic Habits. And if you want to get into this subject without being a reader, Adam Grant has a great podcast interview with the author, James Clear.

Cecily Motley: What’s your prediction for the biggest behavioural change of the next 10 years?

Kusia Pell: I think we'll see a huge rise in the adoption of AI. For one, more tools that will allow leaders - and everyone in an organisation - to stop doing menial tasks, and spend more time on innovation or relationship building. What could people do with that time? And where will we spend it? What happens at home vs in the office? I think most organisations still haven’t cracked this.

The second big shift will be around AI in coaching and leadership development. AI will democratise access to coaching that has historically been expensive or exclusive. Do I think having an AI coach is the same as having a human coach? No. But if the option is no coach versus an AI coach that prompts you with better questions or invites you to be more curious, that could be hugely impactful.

Cecily Motley: Is AI going to take your job?

Kusia Pell: It will take parts of my job, but in doing so it will give me more time to do the deeper, more transformative work with my clients. It will allow me to spend less time teaching how to run a one-to-one and more time on questions like who are you as a human? How do you show up? How do you lead? That’s the juicy stuff.

Cecily Motley: What is your cheat code that no one else uses?

Kusia Pell: I go to a lot of gigs and - assuming you’re someone who likes to get to the front like I do - I’ve found that if you head front left you will always find where you need to be.

Cecily Motley: If you are hiring someone into your team, what is the question that you like to ask and why?

Kusia Pell: “If I spoke to you in a year, and this role had exceeded all of your expectations, tell me what that would look like.” It’s a positive framing, because you're getting them to visualise being in the role. I’m interested in how long term they have thought about the role they’re applying to. Why would this actually be important to them? I find that people take that question very differently - do they focus on title, or career goals, or values, or learning? It’s interesting to see what they say.