The Critical Mindset Differentiator for Leaders with Alisa Cohn, Global CEO Coach

“The first person you lead every day is yourself.”

– Alisa Cohn

On this episode of the On Work and Revolution Podcast, Debbie talks with Alisa Cohn – author, speaker, and a superstar executive coach named the #1 Global Guru for Startups two years in a row and the Top Startup Coach in the World at the Thinkers 50/Marshall Goldsmith Global Coaches Award, about leadership mindset. It’s a topic with a lot of range, but Alisa boils it down to 3 core components while flexing her coaching muscles as she coaches Debbie through a real-life scenario.

Debbie & Alisa discuss:

✓ What is the optimal mindset for a high-functioning leader
✓ How to think about mindset in 3 practical categories
✓ The 1 key element all leaders need to embrace to better cope with fluctuating markets and uncertainty.
Advice for leaders who may be feeling the squeeze of a pending recession
Why leaders need to invest in the one-on-one in 2023!

About our guest, Alisa Cohn: 

Alisa Cohn is an Executive Coach who has worked with C-suite executives at prominent startups (such as Venmo, Etsy, Draft Kings, The Wirecutter, Mack Weldon, and Tory Burch) and Fortune 500 companies (including Dell, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Pfizer, Calvin Klein and The New York Times.) She is the author of From Start-up to Grown-up, which won the 2022 Independent Press Award, and the creator and host of a podcast of the same name. 

Inc. Magazine named Alisa one of the top 100 leadership speakers, and she was named the Top Startup Coach in the World at the Thinkers50/Marshall Goldsmith Global Coaches Awards and the #1 Global Guru for Startups.

She is the executive coach for Cornell’s New York City tech incubator, and she has coached leaders from around the world, including the first female minister of the transition state of Afghanistan and the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. She has guest lectured at Harvard, Cornell, The Naval War College and Henley Business School. Her articles have appeared in HBR, Inc, and Forbes, and she’s been featured as an expert on BBC World News, Bloomberg TV, and in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal.

Helpful Links:

Grab her book: From Start-up to Grown-up
Follow Alisa on LinkedIn
Follow Alisa on Twitter & Instagram @AlisaCohn
Learn more about Alisa and her work with startups here:

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  0:05  

Welcome to On Work and Revolution where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work right now and how we can make work life suck less. For people who know me, they know that I’m always aiming for amazing work life, but on some days, suck less can just feel kind of fine. I’m your host Debbie Goodman and today we have Alisa Cohn as our guest. 

Alisa’s bio starts like this… Alisa is an executive coach, which indeed she is. But she is not just any executive coach. Alisa was named the number one global guru for start-ups for two years in a row. That’s like winning an Oscar two years back to back, and she was also named the top start-up coach in the world at the Thinker’s 50 Marshall Goldsmith Global Coaches Award, which is like winning the Emmys two years in a row. So we have like the superstar executive coach in the house. Alisa has worked with C-suite executives at some very prominent start-ups such as Venmo, Etsy, DraftKings, Mack Weldon, Tory Burch, as well as with Fortune 500 companies. There’s a very long list of blue-chip companies there. She is bestselling author of an amazing book, From Start-up to Grown-up. And she is host to the podcast with the same name From Start-up to Grown-up, which provides insights and tools for founders, and actually all leaders – all leaders, all founders, should be buying this book and downloading this podcast. You will find links to all of this in our show notes in case you want to check that out right away. Inc. named Alisa one of the top 100 leadership speakers. She is executive coach for Runway, which is the incubator at Cornell’s New York City campus. And she’s a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Inc. There is actually a lot more I could say about Alisa, but you can find it all on And we actually have to get started on the conversation, so I’m going to end the intro now. Welcome, Alisa.


Alisa Cohn  2:13  

Thank you so much, Debbie, for that wonderful introduction. I really appreciate it. It’s great to see you.


Debbie Goodman  2:19  

So today because we have the guru, Executive Coach of the Year in the house, we’re going to use this opportunity to talk about mindset and what makes high functioning leaders and teams particularly in the current post pandemic, market downturn, messy climate. I mean, it feels like it’s always like that, but particularly now. So first question, what do you actually mean by mindset?


Alisa Cohn  2:48  

Well, good question. No one ever asks me the hard questions. I guess it’s a good question. It really is about the way you view the world. It’s about kind of the lens through which you view things and also your internal experience of how you see them. I try and define it without actually using the word mind. But the point about the mind is the idea that actually you’re more in control than you realize – of your thoughts, of your feelings, of your perspective and the way you view the world. And having the ability to kind of recognize and then take control of your mindsets, helps you be successful because it helps you move forward faster.


Debbie Goodman  3:36  

Okay, so if we relate mindset to high functioning, what then, is an optimal mindset for a high functioning leader?


Alisa Cohn  3:47  

Well, there’s a lot, right, there’s a lot. There’s first, you know my book From Start-up to Grown-up is divided into three sections: managing you, managing them, and managing the business. And you can have mindsets. And you should have mindsets in all three of those domains. So the first mindset is, I have control, right, or I should put it this way, rather than control, maybe leadership. The first person you lead every day is yourself. And so taking control of yourself from the point of view of having a strong morning routine, of having ways to regenerate yourself throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year, of finding ways to reframe your situation to continue to keep yourself motivated. Those are a mindset of resilience. Those are the mindsets that help nourish you as a leader. And then I would say, mindsets that relate to the team have to do with your understanding what you’re accountable for in terms of the team, doing what you need to do to learn the skills to manage your team and recognize that you have a certain framework as a leader that everyone’s looking to and then in terms of managing the business, I would say the mindset for you to think about is, how do you organize? How do you think about the business as a business and not just individuals pulling together, but actually kind of the overall systems and processes that you implement to make things work at scale?


Debbie Goodman  5:19  

Right, I actually love that phrase – the first person that you manage or that you lead, is you. That’s a really great idea. The amount of energy and focus and grit, and I’ll use the word mindset, because it really does feel like that, that I sometimes feel I need to draw on day after day right now, is kind of exhausting. I start my day super early, because I live in LA and I work in Central Africa time zone. And so like at 4am I’m waking up. And the first thing I do is probably the wrong thing. I start reading the news, both from what’s happening in, you know, various countries in Africa and then I swap to what’s happening in the US, and it’s always bad. So I feel like I’m not priming myself really well for a great start to the day, that’s before I even get out of bed. And it does feel right now that things are really gruelling. And so if you had to say, well, the first job of leadership is to lead yourself, what are the one or two things that I or every other leader who’s maybe facing something similar, could be doing right now?


Alisa Cohn  6:28  

Yeah, so first, you know I’m a coach. So I’m going to ask you, what would a more nourishing routine look like at 4am, rather than reading the news, and by the way, I recognize you have to maybe be up to speed on the news overall. But what would a more nourishing, regenerative thing, seriously be for you when you wake up at 4am?


Debbie Goodman  6:52  

Well nourishing would be to do a meditation or to listen to some nice music, or to do something a little more soothing as a gentle wake up. I know these things, I just never do them.


Alisa Cohn  7:05  

Well, what would help you do them?


Debbie Goodman  7:06  

Maybe some accountability, or maybe a goal, if maybe I could try it out for a week and see if there’s a different outcome to my day.


Alisa Cohn  7:13  

Great. Love it. I think that’s, you know, and this is, of course, where I work with my clients, because there’s not like, ‘here’s what you should do’. It’s more like, ‘Hey, let’s co-create what you should do, because what you’re gonna do’ By the way, I work with many, many clients, men and women. And some of them would give the answers that you gave, like meditation, or music, and others would give different answers. So it’s not for me to say what you should do. It’s for me to help you step back, reflect and ask the question, ‘what would that look like?’ And I’ll tell you what it looks like for me, because we’re all the same, right? So I have a terrible habit of checking social media in the morning, which is in some ways worse than regular media, like what am I doing? So I started getting in the habit of listening to things that inspire me. And things that inspire me are, you know, the sort of high energy Tony Robbins-esques, or Tony Robbin’s mentor, Jim Rohn, who’s super old fashioned, but I love him. So I’ll like watch a little video as I’m getting ready, and then go downstairs into my living room and, you know, watch a little video or listen to a podcast like that. Or, because I’m a fitness fanatic, I will listen to a podcast about fitness in some way. And that’s so much better for me than reading the New York Times or looking at Instagram. And it just changes my state in the morning. And it literally does not matter if I slept well last night or didn’t. So I would give that to you, too. And to everybody listening to recognize that that’s one of the mindsets that you can take on. I have control over my moment, my time, my morning, whatever you want to say. And then if that were actually true and if I acted like that were true, what would I do that I’m not doing now? Or where I stopped doing that I am doing now?


Debbie Goodman  9:07  

Okay, well, now I’m motivated and inspired. Plus, I’m competitive. So I’m going to try out some different things for a whole week and then I’m going to report back to you, but that is it. I mean, you know, we sometimes think that we talk about mindset, and it’s such a complicated thing, but actually it’s boils down to some basics. And the way we start our day, the way we nourish ourselves from just like the general stuff we all know about – eating well, sleeping well, exercising moderately, surrounding ourselves with good people, that kind of thing. I mean, it’s, I know there’s a lot of science to it, but it’s also pretty, pretty darn basic as well.


Alisa Cohn  9:47  

It’s pretty darn basic and then I just want to go back to the notion of really like the mind. Who you surround yourself with helps you with your state, helps you in actually a lot of different ways in terms of upgrading your own habits. And, you know, eating right and exercising helps you nourish your body and that in turn nourishes your mind. But I would say just like our mindset just by itself is your frame. Do I have control over these things or don’t I, and if I don’t, there’s nothing to do. And then they have passivity and learned helplessness. And if I do have control, great, then if I don’t like what’s going on, I can make a change. That’s a mindset, I can make a change. So those are frames and lenses through which you can view the world.


Debbie Goodman  10:29  

I have also realized that the people we surround ourselves with is such a huge part of mindset. And it seems to be like an energy exchange, because the first thing that I’m doing actually, is I’m engaging with people – online granted, virtually. And I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by a team who are positive, who are energized, who are very self sufficient. They have a lot of autonomy and they’re very self determined and I find that I might have been in a little bit of a dip mood wise to start my day, but the moment I’m engaging with people who are so, I just feed off that energy. Which leads me to the question in your work, what are you seeing as the key determinants, the key variables around that mindset, and that leads to high functioning? If you have to say these are the common variables beyond oneself, like we go from self into the other things that we might not have as much control over what is part of this recipe.


Alisa Cohn  11:32  

Part of this recipe for everybody who wants to be successful is grit and persistence and resilience, the ability to bounce back from setbacks, and the ability to kind of, I always say, like, find a way or make away. And that’s about determination. So I mean, all high-performing people become high performing in different ways. But it starts with the ability to take steps forward, even when the going gets hard.


Debbie Goodman  12:03  

And right now, it feels like this is, you know, fertile ground to be practicing that, because we’ve just emerged from a pandemic. And we’re now in the midst of either current or pending recession, and lots of change variables, particularly in the world that both you and I work in, which is the startup venture-backed environments where market conditions have changed pretty radically in a relatively short period of time. And that’s putting a lot of pressure on leaders, entrepreneurs, and founders. People in organizations are finding that they’re facing relatively new challenges, particularly if you haven’t been through the former global financial crisis, which is the last time we were really with our feet to the fire in this way. And I’m encountering many people who, for the very first time, are heading into a potential recessionary, or I’m still hopeful that maybe we’ll be able to avert the storm. But look, there’s a likelihood that that’s where we are. And what are you seeing as the trends around those who seem to nevertheless be coping or thriving? What are they doing? What are they doing well?


Alisa Cohn  13:19  

Well, I think what they’re doing well, is the story they’re telling themselves. So the founders that I work with, almost without exception, the story they’re telling themselves is I’m building a great business, and I’m building a great business in good times and in bad times, in recession and in boom times. And if this is a recession, so be it, it’s a time to build. And if this is not a recession, we’re gonna keep getting customers. So be it, it’s time to grow. And I would say that the founders again, almost without exception, I really almost can’t even think of any exceptions that I work with, are seeing it that way. And then narrating that story to their team. They’re also being fiscally prudent, they’re just being fiscally responsible, which is just, you know, normal survival right now. And they are being sober in the decisions that they make.


Debbie Goodman  14:08  

So, um, you know, we’ve all heard about people who like, talk up their book, so to speak, who tell themselves the story just in order to make them feel better about the day when things are just like collapsing and feeling totally shit all around them. What’s the difference between somebody who’s just pretending and knowing they need to do the self-talk, versus somebody who like truly is doing the, how shall I say, more intrinsic work of building their business and telling themselves the story around how this is a growth story? Is there any difference? Can you just keep telling yourself, like doing the positive self-talk and it’ll work?


Alisa Cohn  14:43  

Well, I think that positive self-talk helps you balance your mood in your mind and your spirit. But what really matters in everything in the real world is action. If you’re giving yourself positive self-talk, and it is leading to good decisions, forward motion, your ability to cheer up your team, even though when you yourself don’t know what’s going on, that is very positive, and that is functional behaviour no matter what, if you’re sort of paralyzed, if you’re terrified beyond the ability to continue to kind of keep going, then you probably need to upgrade your self-talk. Or you need to realize this is not the business for you.


Debbie Goodman  15:25  

Yeah, we spoke about the fact that any person who is starting up, or in the founding stages, or has been a founder or entrepreneur – you’re kind of setting yourself up for a baseline of hard. There’s almost nobody who gets an easy ride. And nevertheless, for some, things like for example, expecting that they would be able to raise a next round of funding that was part of the expectation, that you get through your, you know, you’d burn through whatever cash you have and then there would be another opportunity to raise and you’d just be able to sustain that. And now that is not necessarily a certainty. And so what about those individuals who are facing the wall? What is the kind of advice or recommendations that your help that you’re giving people like that who need to somehow trench their way through this next phase?


Alisa Cohn  16:24  

Well, one thing I would say is that the clients I work with, and the founders that I deal with, are mostly, I feel like the tale you just described as kind of a Silicon Valley, you know, more lore or a myth or something about the founders who are just sort of continuing to get high on VC money, and then suddenly, the spigot was cut off. My clients have been trying to build a sustainable business. And they’ve been very, very judicious in the money that they’ve taken from VCs, because it does not come without cost. Obviously, it comes with dilution, it comes with complexity. It comes with high expectations. So I am not positive that again, that’s a little bit of a meme that the Wall Street Journal likes to, you know, sort of throw around or that the information likes to throw around. That said, of course, of course, the shift, the sort of hard pivot in the economy, and certainly in VC funding was very dramatic, and was very quick. I do know, one of the companies I work with, it was like their investors, you know, were saying, ‘No, we’re all good, nothing’s changing’. And then like a month later, were like ‘Ahhh, stop, you know, stop the presses, stop hiring!’ Very, very dramatic and quite a significant change. And if you were the one who was thinking you are going to be able to, you know, just quickly and easily land funding during this sudden period of darkness, that is jarring. But if you’re a real founder, and you’re building a real business, a sustainable business, then you have no choice but to carry forward. So what do you do? You obviously cut cash, like if you’re running out of cash, you’ve got to cut burn. But also, I’ve had a number of companies, my clients, who have raised money during this difficult time. And was it the easiest thing they’ve ever done? No. Was there more maybe cycles? Yes. But because they were building a real business, a sustainable business they were able to raise during this period. So it comes back to basics, to fundamentals. Build a sustainable business, be smart and judicious in the way you’re spending. And that’s where, you know, a part of my book, where I talk about managing the business, you’ve got to think about systems and processes and tools and getting more effective and efficient with the people that you hire and how you actually scale the business. And not just hire a lot of people to throw at a problem. You’ve got to be more creative than that.


Debbie Goodman  18:55  

That is amazing. Great advice. And kind of business fundamentals, we do know that. I want to do a little sidestep and talk about innovations in ways of leading that maybe you’ve seen with some of the leaders that you coach, during and post-pandemic. There have been so many changes. Some people were working remotely, or you know, since before the pandemic, me included. Some have had to do radical shifts, some are really liking the new way of working. Who is doing cool stuff? You don’t even have to share names. I just want to know what cool stuff is happening out there that you like, wow, this is so great. This is such a great, better way of working now.


Alisa Cohn  19:46  

I think being intentional, is, to me, the most innovative thing you can do in management. I think everyone’s been on automatic pilot for a long time about management and leadership and like the things that we say we’re supposed to do like give feedback or do coaching or delegate in the way you do that, and I think that the world of remote work, and now hybrid work has forced people to be a lot more intentional and communicate a lot more clearly. So to me, what’s old is new again.


Debbie Goodman  20:13  

And actually, that is. I was listening to a chapter in your book, the other day. I have been progressively working through this chapter by chapter, and to listeners, if this is actually you, yes, of course, you can listen to it, but much better to actually get a hardcopy book if you’re the kind of person that wants to underline things and highlight things and dog ear the page like me. Because I have been listening on Audible and I walk the dog at the same time. And every so often, I’ve got to like, stop and do the bookmark thing, because there’s somebody or something that I want to refer back to. And my dog is not loving this, okay? Stevie is not happy with this, the style of walking where we’ve got to stop, and then I’ve got to hold the leash under my armpits. And anyway, so you can imagine! We have to hold on a second that was so great, and now I need to bookmark it. Anyway, so, one of the things that you were talking about was about meetings that an organization had that were cross-functional; it was in the chapter around culture. And it was an organization and what they were doing is they would have somebody from marketing and somebody from finance and somebody from a different team have lunch together once a week or once a month. And so they would build relationships with people outside of their teams. And I thought to myself, that should have been happening throughout the pandemic, when people were even remote, so that they could start engaging with people beyond their own little silo team. And that is such a great idea. Because one of the key issues or shortfalls around remote work that we know now, is that people are not being able to build social capital and professional capital beyond their insular small team. They are not seeing people in person, they don’t pass people, they don’t know who they are. And so, this intentional cross-functional collaboration is not there. And I thought to myself, Wow, this is like such a simple thing. It doesn’t take any particular extra time or new technology to do it. But any organization should be building this into the way that they believe that they create culture and create connection, cross-functionally. Are there any other sort of stories like that, that we could talk about now.


Alisa Cohn  22:36  

You know, on my podcast, From Start-up to Grown-up, I had Padma Warrior, it hasn’t been released yet but it will be soon – so she is the former CTO of Motorola. And also is at Intel, no, Cisco, confusing all these Silicon Valley companies. Cisco – she’s a big deal. She suddenly was like, I’m gonna become an entrepreneur. And so she is starting a company called Fable. And Fable is a book club. So what she told me is that they have this ritual that they have, where they do an hour-a-week meeting, which is just about your personal life, like someone picks a topic. Now you first select a topic, which is not worked related, and they discuss whatever it is like the topic, like what’s in your purse right now? Or those kinds of topics. Or what was the last movie you saw or podcasts you consumed? And what do you like about it? And people talk about that and they build culture and connection through that kind of discussion and rapport. So they get to know each other in a structured way, as human beings and I have to say, like, I am not the kind of person who necessarily agrees with… so people will sort of conflate culture with camaraderie. And they are not the same thing. And should we like each other at work? Sure. If I pick ‘should we like each other at work, yes or no?’,  I’m going to say yes, but actually, there’s a business reason to like each other. And here’s what it is. If you are a junior engineer, and you don’t understand what’s going on somewhere in the company, you may not ever be able to have a great relationship with your manager, you may not be able to ask your manager and you certainly may not be able to ask the CEO, but there’s this person in marketing that you have a regular Friday lunch with. Or there’s this person in like product, who you’ve done one of these little you know, go around the room sessions and what’s in your purse, and you feel comfortable now reaching out to that person asking them questions that you might not otherwise have asked. And if you think about that, times 100, right, if you blow that out and what that means in terms of the value of informal relationships throughout your company, you will understand why it’s so important to invest in that social capital.


Debbie Goodman  25:01  

I mean, essentially, these are minute microcosms of the storytelling, we have that we need to do and have been doing as humans, in order to build connection. Since the beginning of time, since we were cavemen around the fire, we have been telling stories and we know all the literature and science, in fact, around the value of storytelling in order to build connection, which builds trust, which builds relationship which builds, yes, camaraderie could be another side effect of that. But essentially, the storytelling in order to build connection and what that then leads to in terms of effective work, high functioning relationships, high functioning teams. So you know, I think the intentionality for leaders who are trying to figure out new ways, you know, there’s been the, I think, incorrect view that we can’t build culture remotely. And I disagree with that. I think, yes, it is easier to build culture when we’re in person, because it’s much easier to, you know, thrive off other people’s energy. And it’s like, you need to be less intentional about it. So it’s easier. But it is perfectly possible to build both culture and connection through rituals like these, that enable us to get to know one another and build, build the relationships that lead to effective work. Alisa, we are running out of time, unfortunately, we could certainly spend loads of time talking about all manner of things. I want to ask you as a last question, what guidelines would you give or what would you be saying to leaders, to founders, and possibly to their HR colleagues who are possibly in the organization sidelining, as some key things to think about as we sort of drive our way through the next three to six months of this next layer of uncertainty? What could we be holding on to as guiding lights?


Alisa Cohn  27:07  

Well, that’s a good question. I mean, first of all, I think uncertainty is exactly the right term. And maybe everybody needs to accept that there’s going to be a lot more uncertainty coming down the pike. So as a leader, recognize that your people are clamouring for certainty. And so when you can express confidently, that yes, there is uncertainty – and then here’s what we’re doing to mitigate our risks. Or yes, there is uncertainty – and here’s what we’re doing to care for our people and also make sure that we march forward and building this company. I think that is the right communication strategy. And you need to triple down on that communication. Because you have to accept that we’re going, we’re in this murky time and we’re not gonna come out of it anytime soon. The second thing, and that’s sort of big picture and I would say that’s sort of a communication and about, quote unquote, ‘leadership’. The second thing I would say, is super tactical. I know for a fact that people’s experience of management in their companies has to do with their direct manager. Invest in manager training, the time is now to make great managers out of the people that you have right now, leading your employees in the inside of your company. So invest in management skills, and specifically invest in the one-on-one. People are so concerned about burnout. And people are equally concerned about work shrinkage and lack of accountability. All of it gets solved with the one-on-one, because the one-on-one is a way for the manager to communicate to the employee, I care about you, you matter to me, I want to talk about things besides work, I want to focus on your career. I want to help you get your work done. I want to know what you’re struggling with. I care about you. Also. Hmm, I’m checking in on you. I’m not absent; I’m actually really present. And if you’re not getting any work done, I’m kind of going to find out about it. And I’m going to ask you about it. So between burnout and sort of squirming with responsibility, the one solution is a fabulous one-on-one. Please, everyone take that into account.


Debbie Goodman  29:05  

That is such a fantastic way to end this conversation. So we need to expect that there will be ongoing uncertainty, figure out how to deal with it and communicate well with your teams and help them manage their ways through this ongoing uncertainty. That’s you know, day to day. That’s what we need to deal with. And then the one on one, the answer to everything. You heard it right here from the guru of executive coaching Alisa Cohn. Thank you, listeners. And thank you, Alisa. 


Alisa Cohn  29:38  

Thank you for having me, Debbie. 



Leadership mindset, great leaders, executive coach, uncertainty, start-up, VC, high-functioning leader


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