Archive for Coaching

It’s the Little Things that Matter….

A typical weekend for us might look like this:

There’s a lawn to mow, naturally, and some laundry that needs doing. Perhaps a blazer and a couple of sweaters need dropping off at the dry cleaners. Food shopping, without a doubt, hopefully at some non-peak hour when we won’t find ourselves in a checkout line that resembles the wait for a ride at Disneyland. We might also go to a movie, or perhaps a hike with our dog, Zoe, who manages off-leash commands quite well and loves to play with any other dogs rambling along the trail. We’ll also most likely need to gas up the car and, oh yes, run either a dust cloth or vacuum over our home’s horizontal surfaces.

When Monday arrives invariably someone will ask, “How was your weekend?” to which we’ll likely reply, “Pretty good. The weather was perfect so we took Zoe and headed up to Riddle Brook Park.”

Nary a mention of anything else, and why would there be? All those other things we did (which probably took up most of that “pretty good” weekend) are the kinds of things that everyone does all the time. No one needs to talk about them; they’re assumed.

The time at Riddle Brook Park was wonderful, of course, but was it more important than everything else we did? Not really. All those other things—the routine, run-of-the-mill, gotta-get-done maintenance tasks of life—are the true engines that keeps things moving. Imagine if all we ever did was go hiking, or to the movies, or to concerts. Our lives would suffer rapidly and seriously. All those other things are critical activities, even if we don’t pay them much attention.

Our lives as leaders, it turns out, aren’t that different. Oh, sure: we work hard to have those great events for our employees—the development programs, the holiday parties, the summer picnics. Those are valuable and remembered. But equally valuable (perhaps even more so) are those smaller repeated tasks that keep things running smoothly every single day. The good mornings, the smiles, the one-on-one conversations, the mentoring and coaching sessions, the problem solving meetings…. the time spent, each day, with those who work for us, those who make us, as leaders, successful.

When we maintain our employee relationships we encourage a better life for ourselves and those around us.  It may not be what we remember, it may not be shiny and glossy, and it may not have the same cache as a big celebration or big event, but it’s what makes everything work for us, each and every day.

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We are all so many things…

Sometimes ideas for this blog come from the strangest places. It might be a lightning-struck tree that sparks thoughts of fragility, or time spent weeding flower beds that germinates reflections on care and mindfulness. Wherever we look, something always emerges.

Today, it’s a photograph. This one:

The flying fish is an odd, odd creature, and not just because of the way it lives in two worlds. Each of the more than sixty species are structured precisely to their purpose, able to propel themselves out of the water for brief periods before returning. They are attracted to light—a trait easily anthropomorphized as spiritual—and exhibit behaviors both regal (as in the broad and noble “wingspan”) and frivolous (as in the curlicued trailing wake).  Too, they are excellent swimmers, gaining speeds of nearly forty miles per hour on their way to breaking the surface.

This living in two worlds—and adapting perfectly to each one—reminds me that each of us also lives in multiple worlds. We have home lives and work lives, family lives and friendship lives. We wear personas for each, shifting easily (most of the time), moving from metaphorical water to air and back to water.

What does this mean for us as leaders?

It’s easy to develop a profile of those with whom you work, to cast them in bas relief as employee, or team member, or contributor. Such roles are important, providing a sense of definition and the accompanying responsibilities and expectations that come with it. However, it is often too easy to forget that the people we work with are so much more than just that one definition, that each of them, like the flying fish, can leap and dive among roles, can be more than employee, or team member, or contributor.

Each person we manage arrives to work each day, quickly shifting from sea to sky. We lead them through the air, guiding them through eight hours before they slowly shift back to the sea. It’s also worth remembering that each lives a life of more than just one role, and that they bring with them each day the cares, concerns, emotions, and upheavals of all the worlds they inhabit. As leaders, we do well to remember the complexity of each person, noting how they shift, how they participate, and how they live.

And how they fly.

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Changing Thoughts

Change is hard.

I know that all of us in the Leadership and HR fields write about it endlessly, offering sometimes facile reminders like “The only constant in life is that everything changes,” or “To improve is to change.” And those clichés—well-worn because they’re true—are certainly worth remembering.

But we know, deep down, that it’s not quite that simple.

We often write about change as it happens to others: our employees, our teammates, our family members and friends. It’s easy, then, to offer simple advice because, after all, it’s happening to someone else. But when it happens to you, then you remember the truth of just what change really is.

Change is hard.

Try to remember the last time a big change occurred in your life. Perhaps it was a relocation from a place you had lived for many years to a place much less familiar. Or maybe it was a job change, and the trepidation that came from walking in that first day, not knowing anyone at all and suddenly realizing that you were now surrounded by relative strangers with whom you were about to spend eight or more hours a day, every day. Or maybe it was a sadder, more personal event, like the occasion when your first-born left for college and you realized that a voice, a pattern of footsteps, which had become part of you had now wrenched free.

If you’re like the rest of us, then it didn’t much matter whether someone offered you a timeless homily, didn’t matter if someone suggested you plan out what you would do next. If you’re like the rest of us then a big change hit you in the gut, sparked a viscerally emotional response. That was what needed to be dealt with before you could move forward—the feelings sparked by a major change in your life.

I sometimes wonder whether we, as consultants, as professionals, as experts, take the few needed moments to recall that when we help our organizations deal with change, there are very real people dealing with those changes, and most of those people are not thinking about denial and bartering, or Bridges’ famous model, or the precise ways in which communications are flowing from one group to the other. What most of them are probably thinking about—and quite justifiably—are What does this mean to me? and Will anyone listen to me? and What comes next?

We’ve all immersed ourselves in the how of helping organizations cope with change. We need, equally, to remember the how of helping people cope with change. In fact the latter, I would argue, is far more important, for it’s the people that create our organizations. It is always crucial—in any “change project”—that we take the time to talk to people, to find out what they are feeling, to let them know that it’s okay, and to help them through it. Only then can organizations effectively manage change.

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Leading Leaders Can be Harder Than it Looks

At some point in the not-to-distant future, Renee and I will likely have the honor of becoming grandparents. (Children heading to the altar, after all, anticipates a certain inevitability!) Thinking about it brings up some interesting questions: What kind of grandparents will we be? Are we supposed to have any role in discipline—in managing our grandchild’s development?  And how will we manage the delicate balancing act of being both loving and firm, yet still make sure that we don’t interfere with role of the child’s parents? After all, don’t we know best? Haven’t we’ve had a lot of practice raising our own kids?

Put another way, the question is this: How do we learn to let others take over for things we’ve done ourselves for so many years?

In our coaching and consulting we run across all types of changing situations—everything from departmental or organizational restructurings, to acquisitions, to shifts in senior leadership. One of the situations that has some very unique and important challenges, however, is the situation in which someone is managing managers for the first time.

Managing direct reports can be difficult (though nearly always rewarding!), but someone with that responsibility is directly involved in nearly every facet of subordinate work. At the other end of the spectrum, members of senior leadership teams predominately immerse themselves in strategy, finance, and higher-level operations, often having very little “touch” with the kind of day-to-day working activities that make up the majority of most employees’ work. The second tier manager (often carrying the title of Senior Manager or Director), however, exists in a strange amalgamation of the two. On the one hand accountability for a group’s or department’s success is very clearly part of the job; yet on the other hand, a Senior Manager or Director is expected to see things from a higher, more holistic view, to take into account not only the workaday tasks, but the bigger picture.

Invariably what we find in such situations is an individual challenged to take a step back and to let his or her direct reports manage their employees as they see fit, while still insuring that those people two tiers below (i.e., “skip-level” reports) still feel part of the larger mission. They must fight the urge to micromanage but still recognize that they have a responsibility to lead and provide direction while maintaining employee engagement, morale, and productivity.

So how is a second-level manager supposed to work with the rest of the group? In our estimation there are three key points to remember:

  1. The second-level manager should focus on his or her direct reports, and on the development of skills that make those people better managers of their own staff members.
  2. The second-level manager should craft clear and measurable goals for his or her direct reports, insuring that they are outcome-based rather than task-based, and then review the goals of others to make sure they are aligned with the group’s overall responsibilities.
  3. The second-level manager should strive to have strong relationships with everyone at skip-level, but should always refer important conversations back to an individual’s direct manager. In other words, second-level managers should never undercut the authority of the managers working for them.

In much the same way that a grandparent needs to be there for the grandkids without undercutting the authority of the child’s parents, so, too, must a second-tier manager learn the skills necessary to empower their own direct reports to manage, while still maintaining a strong sense of mission and group energy. With the proper guidance, coaching, and development, a person’s first experience as a second-level manager can be the kind of success that promises further management growth in the coming years.

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Is “Conventional Wisdom” Wrong About Millennials?

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. We find our comfort zones and are wont to stay there.

One of the elements of any comfort zone is our reliance, to some degree, on the concept of “conventional wisdom,” sets of tried-and-true beliefs and aphorisms that help guide the way we make decisions and manage risks. One example is the saying that working hard is the path to success. It may not always be true, of course, but it certainly makes success more likely, and so is useful. Another is that education leads to a higher standard of living, an equally useful tidbit, as are many others.

Such conventional wisdom often serves us well, but not always.

Sometimes conventional wisdom can be annoyingly, devastatingly wrong. One has only to remember that there was a time when the conventional wisdom had most people believing that the earth was flat. As Mark from marksdailyapple.com writes, conventional wisdom can be “a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn.” And often that’s true.

Why all this preface? It’s because we came across an article recently that challenges a very specific conventional wisdom—this one about millennials.

We’ve all gotten quite comfortable with the generational nomenclature by now. We recognize our GenXers and our Boomers and our Millennials. Theories have been written about generational differences, and we’ve incorporated a lot of that thinking into the way we hire, develop, and lead. In many ways we’ve internalized “conventional wisdom” about these generational classifications.

Now, a new study is asking that we take a hard look at what we think we know.

The study, conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value (and reported in this month’s HR Magazine) reports that Millennials are much more like the rest of us than conventional wisdom suggests:

  • Millennials’ career goals are nearly the same as those reported by GenXers and Boomers, focusing on financial security and seniority to the same degrees as these other categories.
  • Millennials do not live in a world where “everyone gets a trophy,” nor do they expect it. What they want is transparency and a chance to be heard.
  • Millennials are much more interested in face-to-face interactions than supposed; though they are more versatile in virtual situations than older workers, they don’t always prefer it.

There are a few other example in the article as well, but the point is less about the specifics and more about this point: As leaders and HR experts, we must challenge our pre-conceived notions, challenge the “conventional wisdom” in order to create the best environment for our employees. This study brings home the importance of that message. All is not always as it seems.

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Why We Should Invest in Employee Development

As I sit here this morning it is once again snowing outside, and—even though I live in New Hampshire—I’m surprised and just a little bit frustrated by it. It’s been such a hard, hard winter, and with everyone I know anticipating the coming season with a fervor I’ve rarely seen, it feels almost like a step backward, one that’s pushing spring even further away. Still, this latest snowfall rapidly melts, and I know that it’s just another slow step in the move toward the greens and yellows that mark the first forsythia buds, now only just around the corner.

It may not look like it, but change is coming.

Thinking about the slowness of nature’s seasonal shifts reminded me that we, our co-workers, our leaders, and our organizations also change slowly. We invest in them through training and development, through coaching, through workshops and team-building experiences, and yet the next day—when everyone returns to their “real work,” nothing seems all that different. People still seem to talk to each other the same way while they perform the same tasks in support of the same objectives that drive the same strategies.

So if that’s true, why invest at all?

Because change is slow, sometimes too slow even to see.

While the snow falls my placid dog Zoe lies nearby, curled on one of the several beds we’ve scattered around the house for her. (Yes, I know: she’s spoiled!) She’s a wonderful dog, and the day we rescued her was one of our happiest. I’m trying now to picture her as she was when we first got her (as an eight-week old pup, newly weaned), and I find that the image easily leaps to mind. What doesn’t leap to mind, though, is seeing her grow day by day. Oh, I remember what she looked like when she was about six or seven months old, and I certainly know her as an adult, but I can’t recall ever seeing her change.

Yet she did. She does.

The same is true of ourselves and those we work with. Each event, each investment, each opportunity for learning creates a situation in which the tiniest of changes can occur. And while each tiny change may be unnoticeable, over time those changes accrue until, just like with my dog, (or your child, or that oak tree that you never realized was quite so tall) something shifts, leaving a person stronger and bolder and more confident than before.

People change and improve. Cultures change and improve. Leaders change and improve.

So keep providing those opportunities, encouraging people to go through that training and development, that coaching, those workshops and team-building experiences.

The investment is worth it.

P.S. I’d like to offer a shout out to Robin Eichert at PeopleSense Consulting, whose blogs about her own wonderful Grace inspired today’s post.

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3 Ways that Coaching Supports Strong Mutual Relationships

We firmly believe that the key to effective “mutual relationships” is to “map” your organization’s customer/supplier commitments. Once built, however, keeping those mutual relationships alive and thriving takes personal discipline, a willingness to remain open to the needs and concerns of others, and a true desire to remain aligned with the goals the organization.

This is where coaching comes in.

Leadership coaching vastly improves the success of transformational and impactful change—exactly the kind of change organizations undergo when beginning to center on relationships.  How, exactly, does this happen?

  1. Coaching encourages the development of deep listening, the ability to truly hear what others are saying without defensiveness and without judgment.
  2. Coaching provides the means to explore and unlock potential, and to deepen confidence and capability, exactly the kinds of skills needed to develop the kinds of trust inherently part of strong mutual relationships.
  3. Coaching deepens new ways to be curious, to open oneself up to the kinds of questions designed to explore rather than to make a point, to create rather than to block, and to relate rather than to defend.

Coaching supports stronger relationships with customers and colleagues (who are also “customers,” as we know) by renewing energy, increasing awareness both of self and others, and describing new ways of being in relationships. All of this offers a way to influence and to sustain over time the important mutual relationships developed with our approach.

Organizations are complex systems that are challenged with monumental and accelerated change.  Results can be achieved through leaders who value the natural diversity of leadership styles and the talents of the teams they lead.  All leaders can benefit from learning how their own styles impact those they lead and the results desired, and nowhere is this more of a vital component than within the emerging world of newly formed mutual relationships.

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A New View of Working Relationships: Part Three—Knowledge Sharing

Last week we introduced the idea of customer—supplier relationships at work, relationships based on the idea that everyone both gets and gives important things to others.

This idea of customer—supplier relationships is a fundamental foundation for taking a new view of working relationships, one of five such foundations we have identified. We introduce the second one today, and it is this:

We must relearn how to share.

We don’t much share at work, really share. Our knowledge is valuable to us: it protects our job, makes us feel important, and creates respect in others. But for companies to work really well, knowledge sharing is critical. And we’ve forgotten how to do it. Why? Because it’s been trained out of us.

Even before you reached kindergarten, it’s likely that you had some exposure to the “rightness” of sharing. Perhaps you had a sibling or a cousin close in age that you played with frequently. If so, your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles probably all told you more than a few times that you needed to “play nice” with someone or to let “your little sister take a turn.” Sharing is what we were taught to do, what we were expected to do and what we needed to do. Sharing, we were told in many different ways, is a cultural norm.

But then we graduated from kindergarten into the mainstream environments of our elementary grades, and slowly the ideas of sharing and independence slip into competition, as if you can’t really do one and also the other. And it’s this dichotomy that continues into our adult lives and into the workplace. But how does it happen?

It begins very early, during the time we transition from a sharing-based play/learn environment to a more learning-centric environment in school. As we move through the grades, each progressive world we are led to relies more on individual measurement, usually in the form of grades. We are tested on what we learn, study, and know for ourselves. And slowly, as we move through our school years, what used to be sharing is given a new name: cheating.

For those of us who go on to college, that training becomes even more intense. Despite the study groups and the joint projects, despite the way students may take notes for each other in order to skip a class or two, there is now an even stronger emphasis on independence, on that individualized grade. Now, in college, you’re not just going to be graded on what you know, you’re also going to be graded on what other people don’t know. It’s called the curve, and it means, simply, this: To score well, to get a good grade, you must be better than the average within your class. Inherently that means that you must know more than other people around you in order to truly succeed.

And so there we all stood at one time or another: on the threshold of our working lives, degree in hand, gladdened (or not) by how we’ve scored throughout twelve or sixteen or twenty classroom-filled years, and ready to move forward into hopefully fulfilling and interesting careers. Eventually we find that door and begin, bringing with us all the training and learning worked into us over the entirety of our educated lives. And one of those things we’ve learned, that is now practically bred into us, is how not to share.

But sharing our knowledge with others (and having them share theirs with us) is a critical component for creating the customer—supplier environment we want and need for our organizations. As leaders we must learn to recognize the importance of encouraging and enabling sharing whenever and wherever we can.

Photo courtesy of: otnaydur / 123RF Stock Photo

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A Few Thoughts on Coaching Meetings

When we discuss coaching engagements with potential clients, one inevitable question that comes up is “How do you coach and what are your methods?” We encourage this question, and have a thorough response that covers our approach, beginning with the confidentiality and ethical responsibilities outlined by the International Coach Federation, and then continuing on to describe our five-step process: assessment, goal setting, design of an action plan, coaching to plan, and evaluation for continuous improvement.  However, it’s important to remember that the question also has a different meaning, one that clients also care about, and that is “When and how do our meetings occur?”

Many clients not surprisingly prefer face-to-face sessions, and we believe there is an important place for those meetings. (Generally, all of our engagements include some face-to-face time, particularly at the beginning, middle, and closing sessions.)

Face-to-face coaching has obvious benefits. There are advantages, for example, in seeing a person’s body language in order to “read” a mood or attitude. Also, there’s something about just sitting in a room with someone that makes it easier to discuss changes, goals, and commitments.  Face-to-face can also have some downsides, though. Some coaching clients may find it more difficult to answer questions when sitting across from someone and feeling exposed. (This is true even when solid trust between the coach and client has developed.) Similarly, some clients may feel more pressure to respond in the moment (rather than taking some time to reflect) simply because the face-to-face environment often feels more like a “meeting,” and meetings tend to be structured environments where “answers” are expected in the moment.

Face-to-face is only one of several methods we use, however, and it’s worth exploring the others in order to understand why and when different methods might be useful.

Virtual/Visual methods are rapidly becoming a common way to conduct coaching sessions. We routinely work over Skype or Google for one-on-one sessions, sometimes augmented by a shared document that we can co-edit in real time with a client. This environment does a reasonable job of emulating the face-to-face meeting in many respects. While there are some limitations around reading whole body language, along with the occasional delay in response time (you need a good connection for these sessions), the advantage of time savings can often outweigh these minor limitations.

Phone conversations still remain a major tool for coaches, too, particularly once face-to-face sessions have occurred. Those initial sessions give a sense of comfort, friendliness, and trust, all of which can make phone conversations very productive; often these sessions are akin to having a long, comfortable conversation with a friend (albeit a friend with a coaching certification!). Phone conversations also have a subtle but very real advantage over other methods because clients will sometimes say something very important when they feel they have a feeling of removal or anonymity. Phone conversations—with their lack of visual connection—actually provide clients with a thin level of perceived distance, something that can be important for a breakthrough.

Email and texting also have their place, though we use them only for specific, targeted, and brief needs. Because they’re not necessarily in real time (particularly emails), they should only be used for non-urgent requests or follow-up items, and both coaches and clients should recognized that these methods support communications to and from, but do nothing to foster true conversation (which, as we all know, is at the heart of a successful coaching relationship).

The bottom line is that most coaches use a combination of methods, and that clients care what those methods are. So it is very important to ask the question: What kind of method does the client want, and how will it help the engagement to succeed? Given that answer, and given the various advantages of the different methods, the coach can design the right approach for a particular engagement.

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4 Reasons to Choose a CERTIFIED Leadership Coach

I just did a search for “Leadership Coaching” on Google and admit to feeling a tad irritated on seeing the number of results: 1,740,000.

Granted, a lot of those are articles covering the topic itself, and a number of other promote coaching programs. But that still leaves a lot of hits, tons of which are links to people who call themselves “executive coaches” or “leadership coaches” or “business coaches.”  No matter how you slice that results list, you’re going to end up with a pretty large number of people co-opting the title.

Why so many? Opportunity, of course. A Forbes article from 2011 noted that the market for business coaching in the U.S. alone had topped $1 billion—and that was in a down economy.  Meanwhile, a 2013 Stanford/Miles Group study found that “[n]early two-thirds of CEOs do not receive outside leadership advice—but nearly all want it.” In addition, the study found that nearly 100% of CEOs who had received coaching had enjoyed the process.

But care should be taken in selecting a coach. Turns out that just about anyone can hang out the proverbial shingle and call themselves an executive coach if they want to. There’s no licensing or certification required. At all. (In fact, it’s possible that your hair stylist has more formal training than some coaches out there.) Yet these are people routinely invited through your doors and asked to shepherd some of the most powerful and important leaders in your organization. Sounds like that could be risky….unless you look for some kind of certification.

The International Coach Federation (ICF), a certifying organization that “supports members through continual professional development and growth opportunities, both locally and internationally,” argues strongly that education and certification for leadership coaching are what separate the few from the many: ICF currently has just north of 20,000 members worldwide, all of whom carry the “Certified Coach” designation (making them far and away the leader in coach certification).  Other organizations (such as the International Association of Coaching) add a bit more to that total. That’s a large enough number, but still only a small percentage of the total sum of those who today call themselves “business coaches,” “executive coaches,” or “leadership coaches.”

What are the reasons for wanting a certified leadership coach?

  1. Certified coaches have been taught a set of common core competencies
  2. Certified coaches follow a code of ethics which they have signed as part of their certification process
  3. You can use multiple coaches for multiple clients, and know that there is consistency in skills and techniques
  4. You can be assured that the coach continually enhances his or her knowledge and skill by taking a required amount of continuing education courses

Coaching is—and will continue to be—an important part of leadership development. Certified coaches are the best way to make sure that you are entrusting the future of your company to the best qualified ones.

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