Christine Tao, CEO of Sounding Board, on Leadership at All Levels
September 14, 2023
Christine Tao is the co-founder and CEO of Sounding Board, the first Dynamic Leader Development Suite designed to bridge the leadership gap at all levels. Before founding Sounding Board in 2016, she enjoyed several roles in Silicon Valley, including Google, YouTube, TapJoy, and other startups.

How did you decide to step into the role of CEO?

My first entry into the C-suite was a true wake-up call. Although I had been a high performer in my previous roles, I was unprepared as a leader. Thankfully, I was assigned a leadership coach — my future co-founder Lori Mazan — to help ease the transition. Coaching was transformational for me, and I wished that I had had the opportunity earlier on in my career. 

It was this thought that really sparked the creation of Sounding Board. With Lori’s background as a coach for Fortune 500 executives and my experience in scaling startups, we knew we could democratize access to coaching without commoditizing it.

Why did you think now was the right time for SoundingBoard?

Honestly, I believe the solutions Sounding Board offers are long overdue. Even before the sweeping changes brought on by COVID-19, companies and their leaders struggled to keep pace with exponential change. Yet, leadership development remained largely stagnant. Too few leaders received any development opportunities, and if they did, it was well into their careers and usually based on outdated cookie-cutter methods. Individualized leadership development at scale was unthinkable for many organizations because of the cost and logistics.

Sounding Board’s Dynamic Leader Development Suite tailors itself to the needs of both the company and its individual leaders. We leverage technology to allow organizations to increase access to personalized leadership development in a way that was impossible before.

What challenge have you experienced as a CEO that surprised you and how did you overcome it?

As a founder not a lot surprises me anymore. One of the things you learn pretty quickly is to expect change and the “unexpected”. I will say that the pace of change surprised me though - it feels like I am learning to navigate a new phase of the company every 6 months now. In the past, I used to get overwhelmed and worry about the fact that I had to learn a new skill yet again. One of the biggest shifts I had to make was to how to navigate change and “learning” on a job where the stakes are high as the CEO. 

Working with my coach has been one strategy for me to navigate change - at Sounding Board everyone gets access to a coach, myself included. I leveraged our sessions to get more proactive at thinking through and planning for what the next stage of growth was for the company, and what was needed in order for us to make that transition more successfully. This would include reviewing from an organizational level, a staffing level, strategic milestones, and what outcomes were critical. Then we would map that to areas of development for myself, as well as areas of focus and development for my team. It was really helpful to be able to have a thought partner to work through these constantly changing scenarios.

What advice do you have for women who are looking to become founders?

It’s no secret that women have been taught that to succeed, we have to fit into this box of what a leader should be, but both Lori and I would argue against this. Less than 3% of sole female-founded companies get access to and raise venture capital. Sounding Board is a part of that 3%, but when you look at who has invested in us, our leads are other women and non-traditional entrepreneurs. Instead of trying to fit inside the box to meet the biases of investors, we were fortunate enough to find investors with track records of supporting entrepreneurs like ourselves.

That doesn’t mean our growth has been without challenges. In the early days of fundraising we heard a lot of no’s. We had to learn how to tell our story in a compelling way while advocating why Sounding Board was the one to break through and solve the leadership development problem.


How has mentorship played a role in your career?

Mentorship has played a big role in my career, as well as sponsorship. I’ve been very fortunate to assemble a strong set of advisors around me, including founder/CEOs in my space such as David Blake (founder of Degreed), and other female founders who have navigated the same waters before me. Mentorship is especially helpful when it’s not just someone who you aspire to be, but also someone invested in your success. Finding and cultivating these relationships can be challenging. We are actually trying to solve this issue at scale at Sounding Board - by examining how to best match someone with a mentor so that the relationship can be a deeper one. Another additional approach I’ve taken is to build a broader bench of mentors. This puts less pressure on expecting one individual to do it all and also broadens the perspectives I get exposed to. 

Who are women you admire right now?

My cofounder Lori Mazan! She was my coach and is a superwoman at Sounding Board. We really focus on partnering to build the business and I don’t know how I could do this without her. On top of running the company together, she is releasing her first book in October! The book, Leadership Revolution, really lays out Sounding Board’s philosophy around leadership development and outlines how companies, managers, and HR professionals can shape the dynamic leaders needed in today’s uncertain world. I can’t imagine writing a book on top of everything else she did this last year. 

What’s one thing you cannot live without?

Competitive sports! I play volleyball and pickleball to keep active and as a stress reliever. I love that I get to combine my love for competing and also fitness and staying active. 

What’s one trend that is coming that you can’t stop thinking about?

AI is already here, but we’re just starting to test its limits. While Sounding Board will never replace human coaches with AI — we unequivocally believe in people-to-people development — we are thinking of meaningful ways to take advantage of AI, from marketing to product development, while critically evaluating its potential pitfalls. While AI cannot replace the value of human interactions, it can augment and enhance them, helping to create dynamic leaders more efficiently. We’re using AI to streamline and improve coach matching, tracking coach capacity, and scheduling. And we’re working on ways to utilize AI for greater personalization for goal and leadership style recommendations, as well as ROI predictions for stakeholders.


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