By Ellen McGirt
September 22, 2016

I recently spent the better part of a day with Ann-Marie Campbell, the new head of stores for Home Depot. She’s number 20 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s list. She is also one of the few women of color on the list.

Being around Campbell is an energizing exercise, and she is clearly a highly capable executive. But she is also rare among upper echelon leaders in that she spends so much time working with, and subsequently coaching, the company’s rank-and-file employees. It suits her job, for one. As she rose up through the leadership ranks from part-time cashier, she’d become responsible for an increasingly large number of the company’s stores. But it also suits her nature. “I grew up in the stores and people feel connected to me,” she says.

I was able to observe her during an hour-long coaching session that came together during my interview. Of the dozen associates around the table who had asked to meet with her, four were women and nearly half were people of color. And two, like, Campbell, were immigrants. After a warm preamble, she went around the table and asked the participants to share their goals. What was holding them back?

“Honestly, being a store manager was the best job I ever had,” she tells one associate who confessed that his goal was to become one by age 30. She asks him some questions about his life – he worked as a truck driver until his wife threw up her hands at his marital absenteeism – then ticked through a list of must-dos. “Tell your manager you want to spend some time getting to know other departments,” she says, casting an eye at his manager, who is listening. “Ask people who have the job you want how they got it.” She tells him to be persistent, stay curious and keep in touch with the people he meets. “Drop them emails asking what you should do to learn,” if you stick with it, “this is totally doable for you,” she says. “But you have to ask people for help. I wasn’t good at that.”

If I had boil down her coaching style to three key elements, it would be these:

  • She asks questions that are specific to the story each person has told and listens carefully to the answers;
  • She offers tailored advice – including what skills they’ll need, and where they need to fill in their networks;
  • Then she tells a story, either about herself or someone in a similar position, that helps her root the coaching in real world success.

It’s the story that really clicks with people. They’re always candid, personal, relevant, often funny or bittersweet. And they’re rarely the same. They cast Campbell as a person on the same journey, albeit a few chapters ahead of the class. And that her journey included being an immigrant – whose CEO couldn’t decipher her accent for years – or that of an overloaded working mother, was lost on nobody.

Ironically, it’s this candor, and the ability to tell these types of stories, that are one of the things that senior leaders tend to lose when they move closer to the C-Suite. (They also tend to lose their ability to empathize.) Campbell’s practice of meeting with and coaching employees at every level has allowed her to hone an authentic, empathetic and personal leadership style that works for everyone.

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