📣 Founder Feature: Christine Tao
Co-founder and CEO at Sounding Board | Bridging the leadership gap through technology & coaching at scale
In This Interview
🧰 Skills needed to succeed as an impactful leader
💬 Ways internal communications partners with coaching
📩 Advice for women leaders and founders
Christine Tao is the co-founder and CEO at Sounding Board, the first leadership coaching platform designed to bridge the leadership gap. Before founding Sounding Board, she enjoyed several roles in Silicon Valley at Google, YouTube, TapJoy, and other startups.
She holds an MBA in Marketing and Operations from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and a BA in Business Administration from the University of California-Berkeley. In addition to advising several startups, Christine is an angel investor and a fellow at the Tory Burch Foundation. She was named to the EY Winning Women Class of 2021, and won the 2021 Stevie Awards for Women in Business.
An in-demand speaker, some of her recent engagements include the 2021 Haas Women in Leadership Summit, Xoogler Women’s Network, Leanin, Tory Burch Fellows #EmbraceAmbition and AllRaise.
Sounding Board is backed by leading investors like: Jazz Ventures, Canaan, Bloomberg Beta, Precursor Ventures, Correlation Ventures, Engage VC, and Gaingels. The company is one of less than three percent of female-founded organizations to raise venture capital.
What sparked your interest in leadership and coaching?
I had a profound personal experience with a coach. After working at Google and YouTube, I joined a venture-backed startup as employee no. 30. We scaled the business to more than $100 million in revenue in a very short time, and I was promoted to executive management. As a first-time executive, the Board and the CEO gave me a coach to help me through the transition.
It was my first opportunity having that level of personalized learning and development support. I had an amazing experience, and ultimately I brought in coaching for all of the managers on my team. I saw the impact it had on not only our individual leadership skills, but on the company as well. I was able to promote from within, retain talent longer, and engage them longer. It was proof that if you can invest in learning and development early, it's good for the person and for the business.
What inspired you to launch Sounding Board?
More than a decade ago, I worked with a coach. At the time, it wasn’t that common. Executives usually had coaches when there was a problem, not to facilitate their transition from one organizational level to another.
When I told people what role my coach had in my development, I described her as a sounding board — someone who was a thought partner for me. I could bounce ideas off of her, but she also helped me to see different perspectives, and reflect on things that I wasn’t aware of. It really helped me deepen my understanding and my effectiveness as a leader.
My Co-Founder, Lori Mazan, was my coach. It’s been a really fun journey building our relationship and a company together, and our vision is to create the world’s most impactful leaders.
When you think about the workplace, leaders can have a huge impact on their team and on the organization. So much of your growth has to do with your manager or team leader. We’ve developed technology that allows us to offer that same level of consistent impact at scale for other companies.
During the pandemic, we really noticed the change in social connections. Your manager becomes a really large percentage of what drives your experience at work! We see that companies are now really paying attention to how skilled their managers are and trying to focus on developing them to lead effectively.
What is one accomplishment you are particularly proud of?
As Sounding Board has grown, I’ve been fortunate to connect friends and family with coaching opportunities. We even worked with a company where my sister worked, and she had the ability to have a coach. It was her first time having that type of personalized professional development, and she transformed as a result of it. She went on to get promoted and took on leadership roles. The experience really shifted the way that she operates, her leadership of others, and how she manages herself during stressful times.
We offer leadership coaching at scale every day, but it was profound to see firsthand how it changed my sister, enabling her to lead more effectively, and create sustainable career practices. It was also really fun to see this unfold in someone I’m so close with.
What skills are most important for someone to succeed as an impactful leader?
The skills you’ll find in an effective leader haven’t really changed much over time. It's really about ensuring that you have a firm grounding in the fundamentals: Be a strong and clear communicator, know how to strategically set the right priorities and communicate them, and know how to effectively lead and motivate others.
Our coaching approach is rooted in a leadership capabilities model that we’ve developed featuring 16 capabilities culled from the top business schools, adult learning theory, and prominent field research. Some of these capabilities might be weighted more or less heavily in certain business environments or times. For instance, the disruption we’re currently dealing with has made adaptability critically important.
In general, talent leaders are realizing how urgent it is to equip people with these leadership capabilities, and they can be developed. We believe they are both learnable and coachable. Whether you’re managing a team or a project, these are the skills you need to make a positive impact on your organization. Even if you don’t have people reporting to you, you need to be able to influence people. Sounding Board’s Leader Development Platform can help organizations build a deeper leadership bench and individuals and groups create consistent, positive outcomes and measurable business impact.
How is your work making an impact on internal and executive communications?
I work closely with my coach on internal communications to my team. The work of leadership today is part and parcel of internal communications because your employees expect to hear from you, probably 10x more than you actually communicate. They want to hear from leaders on a variety of topics, which may not even necessarily be relevant to their day-to-day work.
Companies are realizing that they have to equip all of their leaders to become strong internal communicators. Investing in learning and development attracts talent. The employee engagement surveys give us the data points to back this up.
We coordinate with the HR team and internal communications to share the story of enrolling people in coaching and sharing success stories. It’s seen as a benefit that employees are excited about the employers investing in them.
How do you continue learning about your field?
Harvard Business Review has been a great resource in the leadership development space. I listen to a few different podcasts like Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us, Guy Raz’s How I Built This and Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman. I also regularly absorb LinkedIn content. Leadership coaching is a new and emerging space, so it’s important to stay dialed into the latest research and adult learning models and best practices.
We just hired a Head of Behavioral Science. Iyad Uakoub has a Ph.D. and is a practitioner, having scaled programs at three different startups with thousands of employees. So, we’re actively investing to deepen the strength of our products and offerings using field research and new data that we now help to create, and then share in white papers, surveys, and custom reports.
Our formal learning arm Sounding Board University, which is how we continuously upskill our managed network of certified coaches, is constantly evolving. We learn along with our coaches in true group coaching style, and we pass that learning on to our clients and partners.
That kind of storytelling is an important component of the leadership development process. Alongside the science, I like hearing stories about skills development and the benefits it can bring someone on the job and in their career. One of our advisors, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, recently released a book titled “Choose Possibility.” It shares a lot of her career stories and ways to grow your career.
What advice do you have for other women leaders and founders?
Sounding Board is a solely-founded female company. So, I understand intimately the challenges that women face when building a business. I constantly work to raise awareness and broadcast the need for more funding because it can be a lifeline when helping a great idea or company come to life.
Currently, less than 3% of venture-backed funding goes to female companies. Only 5% that raise funds in the early stages go on to raise the growth fund level that we raised. It’s unfortunate and represents a significant well of missed opportunity because I personally know so many amazing companies founded by women.
Now, having raised almost $50 million for Sounding Board, I spend time advising women how they can raise funds. I’m always happy to help elevate others. So, I encourage other female founders who need help to please reach out!
Thank you for reading The Switchboard. If you enjoyed this edition, consider sharing it or commenting below.
☎️ Every edition of The Switchboard is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This post is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write.
Very interesting. Several times I have looked at investment for Another Door and backed away. This has made me rethink!
Thanks so much for the great conversation Julia!