Leadership Interview: Cynthia Li ‘My Coaching Journey’

We follow the fortunes of a senior leader in the shipping industry in China over a five year period as she learns and applies her coaching skills in progressively more senior job roles. She changes companies and ends up Head of Commercial for mainland China and Hong Kong.

Cynthia Li, Shanghai

I started working with the Top Team at Maersk Line East China Cluster (PRE) in Shanghai when I visited them in April 2011 to kick off the Coaching Master Class program. Cynthia Li was Customer Service General Manager and starting out on her coaching journey.

Here she reflects on that five year journey. In 2013 Cynthia was promoted and moved from Customer Service to sales as Key Client General Sales Manager. In 2016 Cynthia jumped ship (pun intended) and joined Swire Shipping in Shanghai as Head of Commercial for mainland China and Hong Kong. What has Cynthia learned from her broad experience as a senior leader in the shipping industry? What can we learn from her coaching journey?


Trevor: How, when and why did you get started as a leadership coach?

Cynthia: When I was the customer service general manager to manage a big team with 128 people and a virtual team by remote management and matrix reports, I had some confusion on how to effectively manage the team and how to motivate the people to keep passionate, innovative, develop potential and as a result, achieve the best result. I got the chance to enrol the great training course called Coaching Master in 2011 to be enlighten and inspired to build up my own theory and way to lead the team.

Trevor: What was your mind-set and attitude towards coaching as a business tool at that time?

Cynthia: I had my own methodology to conduct talk in terms of performance management, personal development plan with my direct reports by my past working and learning experience, which I didn’t get strong theoretical support. So, it came at the right time. It provided me a good technique to prove my thought and enable me to do both informal and formal coaching by a systematic way. I was happy to have coaching mind-set and culture in the organization, especially from top management. With their full support, we could practice and explore more.

Trevor: What were your personal goals as you set out on your coaching journey?

Cynthia: My personal goal set out on my coaching journey is to help people identify any possibilities to develop full potential, not only staff, but also friends and families. It will be absolutely beneficial to both people themselves and the company.

Trevor: What were your coaching priorities for your direct reports at that time – performance, development or both?

Cynthia: Definitely both. To conduct a true effective and efficient coaching, normally, we should combine both as they have strong co-relation in between. No matter you try to coaching for performance or development, you by this chance drive for better self. When you develop people’s potential, it finally benefits the final performance. When you try to chase for better result from subordinates, they practice more and explore deeper their potential.

Trevor: How were you held accountable by your manager for coaching success (or how you held yourself accountable)?

Cynthia: We have established coaching culture in the whole organization. A monthly coaching session has been set up with my previous boss. Mutual agreement has been reached for a productive talk. It also has been one of KPI to be measured on quantity of coaching session.

To ensure a successful coaching, we should be clear about the differences between coach and manage. Under what kind of circumstance, we use coach or manage.

I am accountable for setting up stretch target, working out solution and action plan, measuring the progress, giving feedback to the coach so that we could have more effective coaching.

Trevor: How did you integrate coaching into other programs and initiatives?

Cynthia: It is mixture when I manage/lead the team. Coaching should be something that all managers do with their teams. It helps me understand how people think about their work, careers, and relationships with the organization. It can also help me to improve a person’s performance, and deal with any issues before there become major problems. However, for some specific cases, emergencies, new comers, we might use ordering to fix the issue as the 1st priority. While, after it is solved, I try to establish a coaching session with the staff to review the case and identify opportunities for him/her to deal with the issue next time and work out plan to prevent it from happening again by himself. So we can make use of coaching toolkits together with other managerial tools for better outcome.


Trevor: What was your experience of the coaching training you received (for example, Coaching Master Class)?

Cynthia: It was a great journey. It created a coaching culture in the organization. It helps management think about developing people who could boost performance instead of simply focusing on tasks handling. It can be further broadcasted for mind-set change from only completing KPIs with quantity of coaching, but also dreaming for true value of coaching.

Trevor: What were the success factors for you and the colleagues who started out on their coaching journey with you?

Cynthia: There are some success criteria for me to measure my coaching journey. We have established a work frame to conduct the monthly coaching session. First, definitely the business result, numbers of actions and initiatives brought up by staffs which link with performance improvement; the follow up/measures of individual action/initiatives; trust and rapport in the team. A good coaching absolutely helps to build up trust and rapport for a more productive and energetic team; turnover ratio in the team due to culture, management styles based on the resignation survey report. Last but not least, feedback from coachee about coaching process

Trevor: What did you discover were the core skills, factors and processes for coaching success?

Cynthia: The capability of building up trust is the foundation for a success coaching. Active listening is key to encourage coachee to think deeper, share more and discover more possibilities. But it is not easy to be an active listener, especially when you are the expert for the process, issues, projects and etc. Ask right questions instead of trying to offer solution is the way to inspire people and develop people’s capability, skills and potential. GROW model is a useful tool for me to reminder myself of coaching purpose/nature and practice makes it perfect.

Trevor: What were your early achievements from your coaching – what are you particularly proud of?

Cynthia: As a leader of leaders, my achievements were that my direct reports start to ask right questions to their subordinates and encourage them to make decision or work out solutions rather than solving problems by themselves. For the front line individual contributors, they start to think instead of asking for resolutions from managers without 2nd thought.

Trevor: What did you discover about your strengths as a coach?

Cynthia: My advantages could be building up trust and rapport, showing empathy, celebrating success in the team and asking feedback from coachees. Those all encourage staff to enjoy and be accountable for their coaching.

Trevor: What were your early challenges as a coach?

Cynthia: The belief from people about the effectiveness of coaching. Someone may think it wastes time. You can simply tell me how to do it. In addition, remember constantly that I am a coach rather than manager, consultant during the coaching session. Too much coaching is required by KPI from quantity point of view, which caused invalid coaching due to lack of time.


Trevor: How do you prepare yourself now for coaching (clarifying the need, creating opportunities and contracting with your direct report coachees)?

Cynthia: Coaching is founded on confidentiality and trust. Be discipline to be a coach rather than jumping into the issue itself. Create a right circumstance for the coaching. Set up goal for the coaching outcome and ensure a follow up. Time management is also crucial, control the whole conversation within 15 minutes.

Trevor: How did you use the GROW model as a template when you started out coaching?

Cynthia: It is powerful tool to kick off a coaching, especially at early stage of coaching practice. Follow the steps to test, learn, summarize and reflection.

Trevor: How did you use the core tools (purposeful questions, active listening, challenging perceptions & feedback) when you started out coaching?

Cynthia: I try to use every type of question in my coaching, I feel active listening and feedback are most effective and useful for me.

Challenging perception is also something I try to test to clear misunderstanding, break ice-burg, realize the fact and find out right way to go.

I pay much attention to ask for feedback to do reflection. It is also an effective way to enhance and strengthen the trust.

Trevor: How do you support and follow up with your direct report coachees after/between coaching sessions?

Cynthia: In addition to coaching, we have day-to-day communication and customer discussion. I participate in team meetings, join customer visits. It gives me a lot of opportunities to observe and initiate informal quick talk if possible.

Trevor: How do you ensure you are using your coaching time wisely?

Cynthia: Time management is very important. The over-time happened in the coaching which I sometimes mixed topics together. So I make a plan concentrating on only coach without mixing other issues/topics to control time. The result is quite optimistic. The feedback from coaches are positive.

Trevor: How do you use feedback in coaching?

Cynthia: Definitely. In addition to giving feedback to coaches, I normally ask for feedback from them for continuous improvement.


Trevor: How have you extended the use of a coaching approach in other areas of your leadership role?

Cynthia: I extended the coaching in my daily job. For the joint sales visit, I intensively use coaching for meeting preparation and conduct post call coach after observing behaviour during the sales call from sales. It applies for project management/meeting as well.

Trevor: How do you evaluate the success of your coaching (return on investment, business impact, other)?

Cynthia: The business result is one of the factor I measure to evaluate the success of my coaching. Also the employee engagement survey is the tool to show the team spirit, staff engagement under working environment, leader’s effectiveness and etc. Moreover, the staff career development/path could be a factor to test the effectiveness of coaching.

Trevor: How have you embedded coaching into your daily leadership business rhythms, and if applicable, into those of your team of direct report leaders?

Cynthia: It is well prepared according to schedule. It is also measured on weekly basis (joint sales call coaching, operational level) and monthly basis (development, potential purpose)

Trevor: What metrics are you working to yourself, and/or applying to your team of direct report leaders, for coaching success?


  • Purpose of coaching and desired outcome
  • Mutual trust between coach and coachee to ensure a smooth and comprehensive communication
  • Be open minded to share, listen to and accept differences
  • Ask right questions to raise awareness
  • Encourage and inspire new ideas without judgement
  • Follow up the progress
  • Ask for feedback

Trevor: How would you describe the correlation between performance (yours and your direct reports) and your coaching success?

Cynthia: It is useful. In short term, it may not get upfront effect. But if we look at long term development, it surely has positive effective and it has direct linkage with performance by upgrading people’s capability and skills as well as developing potential through coaching.

Trevor: What are you aiming for in terms of future personal development as a leadership coach?

Cynthia: I hope more people engage in the great coaching journey. All the newly promoted leaders/managers should attend the training and be equipped with coaching mind-set. It also applies in daily life, communication with staff, clients, friends, families. It eventually benefits both company and people self. As a coaching ambassador and trainer, I live with coaching concept as role model. Meanwhile, I try to promote the coaching everywhere.


Trevor: In 2011 you were one of the Facilitators who rolled out the Coaching Master Class (CMC) training to the next level of leadership. How did this experience help you with your own coaching at that time?

Cynthia: The experience of being the facilitator to roll out the Coaching Master Class was amazing. It gave me a brilliant chance to re-inforce the concept in my mind with deeper understanding and translate into my words with good business examples. In the meantime, I got inspiration from participants with new ideas. It was another learning curve to build up my own coaching way by continuous practice in the training session. I need to demonstrate what I should do and how I should behave as a coach. Practice makes perfect.

Trevor: What did you learn from coaching-the-coaches after their initial CMC training?

Cynthia: It was another reflection. Different people has different styles to deliver the training. You could definitely learn from their delivery. You could also test their understanding and offer help by using coaching, asking open questions, challenging perception and giving feedback. I felt proud when the participants deemed it useful and put it into actions after the training. Furthermore, we also had open discussions on how to improve the training next time. Asking for feedback about how I could be better as a coaching ambassador and facilitator?

Trevor: What do you believe is the key to coaching others to become better coaches?

Cynthia: Mutual trust and shared goal to be a great coach

Consistency: I don’t think coaching can make a big difference if you only do it once. You have to be consistent and on-going process.

Demonstration: Be a role model in daily work. Create a coaching environments and demonstrate the coaching from time to time to reinforce the knowledge and skills. Role play to be a coachee for them and give feedback.

Observe the real coaching session at work. Offer feedback from each other and share the improvement actions.

Celebrate success: Don’t be shy to celebrate success. It could strengthen their advantages by practice

Don’t try to solve all problems by one coaching. Every time, we need to focus on only one issue for more effective coaching.

Trevor: You also sat in and observed colleagues facilitating a CMC training session. What did you learn from this?

Cynthia: It was a refreshment for me about coaching. The good parts could be re-emphasized in my mind and the improving areas could be prevented by observing the coaching from others. In the meantime, it was a good chance to practice the capability of giving constructive feedback, active listening and share appreciation. Don’t try to solve all problems by one coaching.

Cynthia Li LinkedIn Profile

Cynthia Li, LinkedIn


Author: Trevor Sherman

Trevor Sherman: Author, Blogger and Coach. What do I do? I develop leadership training material and personal learning modules. I am the owner and operator of this Blog. I coach senior executives for their development and role transition. I am based in Northamptonshire UK and operate globally - in person and through technology.

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