Episode 7: Valia Glytsis – The Paradox of Leadership

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May 9, 2017

Our guest today is Valia Glytsis, who runs The Paradox of Leadership, a leadership education firm based in New York and San Francisco.

Valia works with leaders and organizations that yearn

for a more meaningful and impactful way of working, communicating, and leading.

She’s got a blue-chip list of clients that includes HBO, McKinsey & Company, Digitas, Kiehl’s, Soul Cycle, Edelman, New York City Economic Development Corporation, New York University (Stern), Georgetown University.

In our wide-ranging discussion, we talk about the ways Valia builds her firm’s visibility through writing, hosting events, and speaking engagements.

We talk about the three main revenue lines of her firm, namely executive coaching, training seminars, and keynote speeches.

She reveals her morning routine – and I’ve already adopted some of her practices myself.

She discusses her three core values, how she chose them, and what role they play.

On her website, theparadoxofleadership.com, Valia has some audio products for sale, and she was kind enough to offer listeners of Unleashed a promo code INSPIRE good for 20% off her audio program or her private coaching program.


Will Bachman: Tell me about your practice. 

Valia Glytsis: My business is called The Paradox of Leadership. It’s a progressive boutique leadership development company. We do leadership development, training, programming, seminars, coaching, but the philosophy that drives what we do is progressive, from the inside out. It’s very much rooted in who are the individuals, what matters to them, what’s meaningful.  

We work quite a bit from the top down. So, starting with executive offsites, retreats, seminars to shift behavior at that level, to then have a ripple effect down to different levels of management and eventually individual contributors. So from soup to nuts, bespoke training, coaching across industries. 

What are your major revenue lines? 

There are three major buckets: executive coaching, which ranges across all levels, but usually senior managers. The second is training and seminars. And the third bucket is speaking, events, experiences. This might be taking a group, a leadership team offsite for a week and having an immersive leadership experience where it’s content, strategy building, and team-building experiences.  

How do you raise awareness of your practice? 

It’s been very much a word of mouth business. I write. I send a bi-monthly reflection on leadership, where it’s not a sales pitch — it’s really adding value. I give leadership tools, techniques, thoughts, articles, for those who are ready to dive into this inside-out leadership work.  

The second thing I do is host private events where we bring together former clients, potential clients, industry partners, fellow coaches. That allows us to create warm relationships and to give people a taste of what we do. I also do a ton of speaking engagements. That’s been my primary mode of building a business. Lunch and learns, women’s leadership programs, speaking at conferences, going to alumni events at universities, always asking clients, “Hey, if you’re doing anything, and you need a speaker, let me know.” That’s been the core of how we build what we build because then they know us, they trust us, they like us. I find that it actually sells itself at that point.  

How do you capture people’s contact info after a speaking event? 

At first, I was lousy at it. It’s my happy place when I’m delivering a speech, so I would just thank them for coming. Then I I got smarter. I created an abridged audio product for those who can’t get executive coaching fully sponsored by their company. That allows a continuation of service. I’ll also say, “To become part of our trusted leadership network and get the newsletter, please sign this.” Very old fashioned, just send a signing sheet around the room and I end up getting well over 80% of people signing up. I think it’s just being warm and authentic rather than salesy and pushy. Once the content feels right, it’s actually quite an authentic ask.   

The other thing I do is at the end of a talk I say my mission is to work with as many human beings as possible and list the types of organizations that we really look to work with. I paint a very clear picture and then follow up the next day, setting up a coffee chat. My business development takes time, but I find it’s very effective, because once they want to have a coffee chat with me, we’re scheduling for a program a month or two later. 

What are your events like? 

Someone sponsors our space. I typically cap them at 25 people, because I find that’s enough to be warm and intimate and feel like a workshop but large enough that you get to network across industry. We always have wine and cheese. Part of my gene is hospitality. Branding really matters to me, so I’ll always have things printed on a nice card. I think those little touches matter. It feels like you’re coming and spending an evening in our home. 

I’ll usually run them for about two hours. Welcome, have a drink, network, about an hour and 15 of content, and then break up again with an exercise to make the networking more purposeful. The people who are invited are the best of the best of our clients because we want to have folks in the room who can speak powerfully to what we do; networkers, influencers, industry partners that we like and respect.  

How have you built your team?  

 I had to make a choice in the business, do I want to be a solopreneur or do I need to stay at this level of visibility? I made the choice to scale. There’s a bit of letting go, and a lot of mindset shifts that happen, but I really wanted to reach as many human beings as possible and I know that I can’t do that as a one-woman show. The model I’m using right now is subcontractors because I think you’re able to cherry pick and hone in on unique skill sets and unique offerings.. Across the 12 coaches I have right now we have depth and breadth. I’m able to pick and choose and make a pretty compelling offering to our clients. 

Tell me what paradox of leadership means. 

It’s based on my story, on me thinking that leadership was something out there, but then finding the heart and soul of what I was meant to do. I realized leadership is a state of mind, and it’s something that comes from within. Whether you’re a janitor, a waitress, a CEO, a lawyer, a doctor, it’s about how you show up in the world. 

The paradox to me is continuing to unfold and find contradictions and to see that all of those together is what makes someone’s leadership distinctive from someone else’s. That’s the work that we do behind closed doors – to help people discover that paradox within. 

Talk to me about the executive coaching work you do 

There are two types of coaching. There’s remedial coaching where something is broken or bad and then there’s more high potential development coaching. We specialize in the latter. We’re typically called when someone is asked to stretch and needs objective support. The six to nine months looks like a discovery period upfront where we are picking, prodding, really getting to understand their world, their pain points, what they think they need versus what HR thought they need versus what their manager thinks they need. Then we go into excavation. Excavation is the heart of the work, and what makes us distinct from any other coaching agency. It’s the digging, it’s the discomfort.  

From there we move to foundation. Foundation is all about setting a new rule. This is where we do work like values. What matters to you above anything else, and how you distill that? How do you actively use values to make decisions each day? We move to a 360, interviewing a circle of that client’s life: their manager, their direct reports, some peers, getting a whole bunch of data. We’re gathering external data and revealing it to the client and saying, “Where’s the divide? Where are the gaps? What do we need to bridge?” That molds itself into a personal leadership plan, which is essentially a development plan. Then we move to the second half of the engagement which could last anywhere from the remaining three, four months to years. 

How can an independent consult pick up best practices from the executive coaching world? 

I think coaching is a mindset. The first thing I would say is understanding the relationship between curiosity and judgment. The brain can’t handle curiosity and judgment at the same time — those energies end up diluting each other. Get yourself into deep curiosity to dispel judgment. Go in without an agenda. Ask good questions, beyond information-gathering questions.  

Challenge the person who is explaining the business so that you can observe their thought process, their motivations, what scares them. You get so much by what is not being said in the world of coaching, more so than what is being said.  

Finally, when you hear an answer, play it back to say, “All right, let me make sure I got this.” That allows the person to either correct you or to say, “Wow, this person actually listened,” which builds trust. Once you build trust, you’re able to loop back and ask amazing questions and go deeper into what’s going on for them. 

Can you name three coaching basics? 

Ask clearly open-ended questions. Do not allow them to answer yes or no, then allow the other person to give you an actual answer. Ask future-oriented questions. A lot of questions get stuck in the past. Allow them to think future because that’s going to reveal a lot more for you. I would also go strength-based. People are going to give you a lot more when they feel comfortable with a question. Acknowledging a strength will give you a lot more than you normally would have gotten if you just flat out asked the question. 

What do you think it takes to get courageous conversations happening in a company?  

We don’t change unless the current state is associated with so much pain or the future state is associated with so much pleasure. When I’m brought in to do these conversations, there’s been enough pain to make something break.  

We have them walk through the methodology we’re teaching them to use. They’re practicing several times. I also do a reverse role play, where they get to play the other person and one of their colleagues is playing them, so they can hear it from a whole different perspective. We get very creative in how we role play to elicit emotions, to shift some mindset around the fear, and just to practice so much that it feels like second nature by the time they actually have to do it. Even in a simulation, you’re eliciting the emotions of fear, or dread or anxiety. The brain doesn’t know if this is real or the pretend scenario. You’re able to emotionally engage, which is now creating a new pattern, so when you actually do it you’re going to remember your role play versus how scared you were of doing the role play. 

Can you talk about your morning routine, your mindfulness practices? 

How we manage our energy is extremely important. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of morning priming. I’m very clear on setting an intention of how I want to show up today? On my way to the bathroom or to make a cup of coffee I ask myself, “Who do I want to be today?” Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s creative, sometimes it’s grounded, sometimes is productive, focused.  

That’s a very helpful anchor. The other thing I do is from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I do artist pages. For those of you who haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Essentially she says to roll out of bed and handwrite three pages. No content, no flow, no grammar, just dump whatever has been living in your brain onto a piece of paper. I find that the most cathartic process. It allows me to refocus, recalibrate and remind myself why I do what I do. 

You’ve said you have three top values. How did you come up with those three, why did you pick them, and what does it means to pick three values? 

Values-based leadership is really the heart and soul of why I started this business. I work through the same processes that we teach our clients. I’ll have someone take a list of 100 values and start dividing them into several buckets. One is non-negotiable. One is really important. One is important, but less so.  

Don’t overthink it, just force them into categories, then keep distilling. The goal is to get to your top three to five. It’s a painful process because you’re choosing amongst really good things. To me, the art of choosing is the art of leadership. You can’t stand for 500 things, you need to stand for two or three things because then you also know what is noise in your life and what’s actually really important. 

What I stand for right now is freedom: time freedom, space freedom, where am I living freedom. Impact is my second one. Impact is all about how many human beings can I touch in a given day, in a given week, in a given month. And my last one is experience. I believe in extraordinary experiences.  

If I could have everyone do one exercise once a year this is the one. 

Any advice on how people can take their practices to the next level? 

I believe in the philosophy of no extra time. Rather than riding the subway and being on your phone and checking emails, use that as your journaling time. Rather than having your brain wander when you’re brushing your teeth, do your gratitude list and list five things that were particularly amazing that day. I am a big believer in getting these things up and running, where they’re actually serving you and energizing you. Start doing them in things that you are already doing. Then there’s no excuse, and you actually look forward to doing them.  

You’ve offered our audience a promo code, INSPIRE, good for 20% off of your audio program. How do people buy and pay for the audio product? 

I have it right on the website, theparadoxofleadership.com. Go to the product section, click on it and there’s an area for a promo code. Then it’s a simple download. My current audio product happens to be seven mini bite-size teachings with a downloadable workbook.