Rachel Barrett Cooke is the Founder of Lead Above Noise, a team, leadership, and organization development consultancy that unlocks business results by building thriving teams. She designs and delivers interactive experiences for leadership teams that unleash insight, immediate behavior change, and accountability. Rachel is also the host of The Modern Mentor Podcast, a guide to leadership and communication, helping listeners craft a workplace environment that they can feel good about.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a small town in a suburb of NYC.
Small towns, in my experience, don’t always offer an expansive view of how one “should” be. I didn’t find my voice until years later. But in hindsight, I spent those formative years quietly observing.
I believe one of my superpowers as a designer and facilitator of experiences is my ability to perceive when to add my voice to the conversation – offer insight, a question, or a suggested path forward – and when to sit back and observe the dynamic unfolding organically.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
That there is no one right way to measure success.
My education and my early professional years taught me that success was defined largely by money, title, and prestige.
I was good at that game. But it was deeply unfulfilling.
I think having kids made me realize that I both wanted to be more present for them, and also I wanted to set a more empowered example for them.
Today I define my success by the impact I’m making, the fun I’m having, the intellectual challenge of the work, and the diversity of opportunity presented.
It won’t be everyone’s definition, but that’s fundamentally my dashboard.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
My area of expertise, broadly, is in amplifying what teams can deliver. I focus largely on leading through change and creating impactful employee experiences.
The worst recommendations I hear time and again is this:
Change and employee experience must always begin at the top of an organization.
I think this is damaging because it’s so disempowering at all the other levels of an organization. Every leader – and even every individual contributor – can have some degree of influence over their experience and that’s what I love teaching organization.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
When my first daughter was born 14 years ago, I quit my job and spent a year at home.
Every day I spent with her was a blessing, and I never lost sight of that for a second. And yet I was desperately unhappy. I was lonely and under-stimulated and spinning in self-doubt.
After a year I returned to work, and doing so may literally have saved my life.
I did a lot of reflecting on that period. And the insight for me wasn’t around the right or wrong choice to make about working when you become a parent (because there is no right or wrong choice). The insight was around the importance of paying attention to yourself – your interior experience – and giving yourself permission to feel gratitude but also to make a change.
At the moment I felt like such a failure. But in the years since, I’ve taught my girls they are without a doubt the most important thing in my life – they’re just not the only thing. And I hope I’m role modeling self-awareness and self-care for them.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Listening well. It’s one of the most underrated skills out there – especially in the the realm of knowledge work and professional services. Yes, clients hire me for my expertise. But my expertise isn’t in knowing what the right answer is, but rather how to ask the right questions and listen for the insights.
My work is grounded in the philosophy that it’s not my expertise or your expertise that will deliver the impact. It’s the blending of mine (asking, listening, synthesizing) with yours (answering, reflecting, experimenting) that delivers the magic.
What is your morning routine?
I am such a creature of habit. I wake up at 6 am which gives me generally an hour before the kids are up.
My morning has three non-negotiable elements:
Bulletproof coffee. It’s rocket fuel for the brain. Coffee, grass-fed butter, MCT oil – and a splash of cinnamon for good measure!
Morning pages, which is an exercise developed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. It’s essentially an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing which is supposed to get the cobwebs out (putting all the noise from your head onto the page) so you have space for the actual creative and regenerative thinking you need in your day.
My Bullet Journal which I use to identify my 3 priorities for that day, track my exercise plan, my writing plan, my meetings, etc. It keeps me totally structured and aligned to whatever priorities are most critical in moving me toward my goals.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Hands down it’s exercise. It was my New Year’s Resolution in 2000…I know, they are never supposed to stick. But this one did! I committed to living healthier and I swear that every benefit I ever assumed to be just lip service has actually come to fruition for me.
Energy, confidence, empowerment, stamina – it’s all there now and it wasn’t before. There’s no turning back for me.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I’ve let go of productivity as a key thing to measure. I learned the hard way that doing the maximum number of things was exhausting but not really serving me – or my clients.
As far as managing my time efficiently, it’s all about planning and intention.
I’m constantly asking myself two questions:
What do I want to achieve this week/month/quarter? (intention)
What actions and tactics and areas of focus will get me there? (planning)
It can be hard, as a business owner, to step out of the doing/executing/revenue-generating things, and step instead into the reflecting/planning/non-revenue-generating realm.
But having regular planning sessions with myself has really helped me to better understand how to structure my days more strategically so that I’m working both in the business (i.e., delivering client programs, writing, researching, etc.) and on the business (i.e., doing business development, networking, developing new products, etc.)
So that’s the mindset. And my Bullet Journal is the simple and totally analog tool that keeps me honest!
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It is the most perfect illustration of unconditional love and generosity of spirit. Not sure if I’m more tree or more boy – but it absolutely shaped the adult I’ve grown into. Giving and taking should always be a balance. I hope I strike it right.
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Because her particular brand of strength and power and femininity and vulnerability – the way she blends the bold with the badass – is inspiring. She helped me – and many women I know – define what it means to be a strong woman – not strong AND a woman (as if they are mutually exclusive) but simply both of those things.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all of the time.” – Clayton M. Christensen
“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” – Henry Ford