Life at Sonder: Alita Watson on coaching through the trials of startup life

Alita Watson | Sonder

Alita Watson is the Director of Leadership and Development at Sonder headquarters in San Francisco. As the company’s official embedded coach, Alita helps empower Sonder employees to speak up, challenge ideas, and collaborate effectively. Before joining Sonder, she worked as an executive coach and founded an NGO in Ghana that helped underprivileged young women gain access to education. In this edition of “Life at Sonder,” Alita talks about how her role came to be and how principles and feedback can make culture a driving force at successful companies.

Photo courtesy: Lewis Jacobs

Tell us about your work at Sonder.

In August of 2017, I  accepted a position as Sonder’s first-ever “embedded coach.” Although I had served as a professional leadership coach for some time and worked with budding entrepreneurs at several early-stage startups, I had no way of anticipating the impact this role would have on the company or the effect it would have on me as an individual.

Before Sonder had a formal HR department I began doing spot coaching sessions for young managers who needed support in navigating the many challenges inherent to startup culture. In a matter of weeks, I became known across the company as a trusted resource to support people in framing difficult conversations, giving feedback, clearing resentments, as well as setting and resetting expectations as the roadmap continued to change.

Since joining Sonder, I’ve led over 2200 coaching sessions and have customized five types of coaching designed to support individual contributors, managers, teams, and expanding markets. We’ve already hired an additional coach at Sonder, holding the belief that we are pioneering an entirely new way to foster authentic leadership and a feedback-driven culture.  

How did your role come to be?

Sonder was founded by two young entrepreneurs, Francis and Lucas, who had received leadership coaching from Neuberg, Gore, and Associates — a firm that specializes in working with young CEOs in the early stages of growth and where I had worked and trained. Through this process, they realized how awesome it would be to have an “in-house coach,” who could empower people to speak up, challenge ideas, and collaborate effectively. It’s incredibly rare for a company at this stage of growth to invest in a role like this, but they took a risk and I believe the impact has far surpassed what we could have imagined.

It’s awesome to witness what happens when my colleagues feel empowered to consciously communicate, to see and understand their blind spots, and to access compassion and empathy when confronted by situations that have the capacity to either divide or unite us. 

How did you end up in this line of work? 

I was in the nonprofit space for 12 years, working in developing countries to provide surgery to children with facial deformities for Smile Network. I worked with a lot of powerful leaders who were often unable to consider alternative approaches or perspectives. Because of this, a lot of medical missions wouldn’t come to fruition and kids wouldn’t get the surgery. After doing this work for years, I realized I could make more of an impact by teaching leaders how to communicate and build relationships. It’s been an incredible journey and every part of these experiences has shaped the way I coach and see the world in general.

What are some of the challenges you face as the company coach?

In any given week, I can hear 12 different perspectives on a given topic. The challenge is to act as an advocate for what is right and fair, also while remaining unbiased. My goal is always to ensure that people feel heard, understood, and valued in their experience. I do so by creating a safe space for exploratory discussions where people can listen and hear each other with openness and curiosity. 

What excites you most about your work?

I feel like I’m making a greater impact at Sonder than I did after all my time in the nonprofit space. It’s an honor to come to work at a place where I’m surrounded by some of the most receptive, kind, and brilliant minds of our time. It’s awesome to witness what happens when my colleagues feel empowered to consciously communicate, to see and understand their blind spots, and to access compassion and empathy when confronted by situations that have the capacity to either divide or unite us. 

How does your role support the company’s growth?

Over the past two and a half years, Sonder has achieved unicorn status and grown from 122 to 1200 employees. This is one of the many reasons why we took our culture several steps further this year by establishing a company-wide set of principles. They include  “Communicate Directly with Compassion” and  “Improve Continuously.” Another principle, “Obligation to Speak Up,” emphasizes that employees aren’t just encouraged to voice their concerns or deliver feedback, but are obligated to. By reinforcing this, we ensure that feedback isn’t delivered behind anyone’s back so that once a decision is made, we have a shared commitment to seeing it through to success.

Alita Watson | Sonder
Photo courtesy: Lewis Jacobs

And finally, you recently had a baby. Can you tell us how that has changed your work life and how Sonder supports you as a mother?

When I left for maternity leave last April, we didn’t have much of a parental leave policy in place. I also wasn’t 100% clear on what benefits I would receive or when they would be paid out. My situation was particularly unique because I chose to have my daughter, Ruby, in Costa Rica, so managing the paperwork and extensive red-tape was overwhelming. Sidenote: I highly recommend having a baby in a foreign country, it ups your adaptability like nothing on the planet. 

Our Payroll Manager, Maryam, was my savior. Although it wasn’t in her scope of work or area of expertise, she went above and beyond to educate and support me throughout the entire process. The best part was that while I was on leave we instilled an interim policy that afforded me two additional weeks. This turned out to be a crucial recovery time after having the C-section. My manager also encouraged me to truly disconnect and cherish the precious bonding time with Ruby and my partner, Will. My transition back to work couldn’t have been more seamless. I returned to a new, beautifully-designed Mothers Room which made it possible for me to breastfeed my girl for 8.5 months. I’m now watching others go through this amazing journey and love comparing notes, photos, and hysterical moments.

Rapid-fire questions

Leisure or adventure travel?

A healthy mix of both! I love to rough it and then get spoiled. Contrast is key.

What’s the best travel advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t over plan, pick a destination, and let destiny guide your adventure.

Favorite travel companion?

My partner, Will. We would kill it on the show ‘Amazing Race.’

Podcast or book; got a favorite?

I love anything by Brene Brown (researcher on courage and vulnerability), I’m also currently digging the podcast ‘Personality Hackers.’

What’s the last trip you took?

Will and I spent 4 months in Costa Rica, where we had our baby girl, Ruby, last April. She’s the greatest adventure of all! 

The best meal you’ve ever eaten on a trip?

In Darjeeling, India after a 14-day trek on the border of Nepal. It was an epic trip that ended with the most incredible indigenous ceremony and meal.

What do you most look forward to while traveling?

Coming home with a new perspective and appreciation for everything that we can take for granted.

Interested in learning more about our teams and opportunities? Check out our careers page.

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  • Thank you Sonder for creating this content and featuring your in-house coach (and thank you Alita for sharing your journey!)

  • Dear sister, I feel so inspired from reading this short biography. Your passion to connect and share the “human experience” is like none I’ve ever seen. You are a true healer, in every sense of the word. Your intuitive sense of the human desire to connect is what enables you to do what you do best; reach into the child that lives in all of us and help us remember how easy it is to connect, love, and truly enjoy each precious moment we have here on earth. It is SO exciting that you are able to share your talent in such a progressive work environment; having a voice, and being ‘seen’ and making a transparent platform for a healthy work environment. You are the making the blueprint for the next generation of today’s workforce. I adore you!
    Your loving sister,
    Maria Maya