Archive for Leadership

SHRM: Is it Worth it?

As leadership development professionals, we constantly find ourselves inundated with invitations to join various organizations.  Here is just a partial list of some of the ones we regularly run across:

  • The Association for Talent Development (formerly the American Society for Training and Development)
  • International Coach Federation
  • International Association of Coaching
  • College and University Professional Association for Human Resources
  • American Coaching Association
  • National Human Resources Association
  • New England Human Resources Association
  • HR Certification Institute
  • Talent Acquisition and Management Industry Association

And, of course, the granddaddy of them all…

  • SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management

SHRM, with more than a quarter of a million members worldwide, dwarfs all the others. It is the “go-to” for most HR and leadership professionals; joining is an obvious no-brainer—or so it would seem. But do people actually use SHRM, and is it worth it?

In a word: Yes.

We’re not just talking about the perk that is the annual conference, a well-rehearsed affair with an array of wonderful keynotes (Condi Rice in one of the years we went), numerous topical sessions, decent food, and fantastic networking opportunities. We’re talking about the actual resources they provide, principally through their website, various education offerings, and nearly 600 local chapters. (The jury will be out for a while on their new certification venture, so we’re setting that aside for now.)

And people truly use these resources: according to Alexa, a website ranking tool, the SHRM website is one of the top 25,000 most-visited websites in the entire world. (Lest that number not impress you, keep in mind that there are over 1 billion websites out there right now.) That translates to about 250,000 visitors (and 1.1 million pageviews) per month—pretty impressive for a special-interest site.

So why go there? Well, here is our Top Five List of reasons to join (and use) SHRM:

  1. The Trends—An incredible number of questions in the HR world boil down to the “What’s happening out there?” variety. SHRM offers consistently useful trends to tell you how you compare with others. See, for example, their 2015 Salary Trends Report.
  2. Samples and Templates—Need some guidance on how to write a policy or handbook entry? Interested in sample job descriptions? Just about anything you can imagine is available at SHRM and, unlike what you may find with a random web search, you’ll know it’s been used by others in the HR community.
  3. Research and Metrics—Validating what we do (and turning it into numbers for the rest of the management team) is often a challenging exercise. SHRM provides a ton of current and historical research findings and surveys on just about any HR topic you can think of.
  4. The Legal Angle—It’s amazing how quickly the legal and public policy arenas shift when it comes to HR.  Having a “one-stop shop” for these issues is invaluable, and we’ve used this SHRM area to help numerous clients.
  5. Community—Whether it’s about finding a local group or attending the national conference, no organization provides the level of community for HR professionals the way SHRM does.

All in all, we have to say that the resources SHRM provides are unmatched in the HR world. We visit, and often. Visiting, of course, means joining, and the annual membership fee (which costs about $15 a month) is well, well worth it.


What are YOU Reading this Summer?

Summer reading lists are something of an American tradition. The New York Times Book Review, for example, just released its fattened summer book edition, a habit that goes back scores of years and now includes such institutions as the Los Angeles Times, Barnes and Noble, the American Library Association, and even TED (of the famous “Talks”). The latter’s list includes such non-standard summer reading material as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Renee and I have decided to give you our own summer reading list, one that covers the topics important to all of you, but at the same time meets the criteria expected this time of year: somewhat light and breezy, quickly read, and suitable for the beach (or some similar vacation spot).  So here are five leadership-relevant books (presented in no particular order) that will enlighten and amuse you in various ways…

Quiet, Susan Cain—Both Renee and I are introverts, and so we rapidly embraced this book as a passionate and well-researched case for how and why society tends to undervalue the more quiet among us. Being an introvert, it turns out, is a bit like being left-handed—the world is subtly designed for others and you almost don’t realize it.  Importantly though, introverts not only can become great leaders, but they actually lead in unique ways.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith—There’s a long history of “climbing the ladder” books, popularized most famously by The Peter Principle (which introduced the idea that most people will sooner or later rise to their level of incompetency). In this book Goldsmith argues that you can climb and climb the ladder, but as you climb the skills you need to keep climbing will change. The book introduces the “20 workplace habits you’ll need to break,” if you want to maximize your success. (We particularly like Habit #12, “Making Excuses.”)

The OZ Principle, Robert Connors, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman—And speaking of making excuses, this book’s authors stress that one of the biggest barriers to trust and teamwork in organizations is what they call “the blame game.” Instead, they say, draw a line between being a victim, and being empowered and accountable, then go “above the line” to “see it, own it, solve it, and do it!” Using the Wizard of OZ as an effective metaphor, the book breezes through its key concepts, and will give you new language that reinforces the book’s central ideas. (Also, I love that Glinda the Good Witch represents “above-the-line leadership!”)

The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni—Lencioni may not have pioneered the readable business book, but he’s certainly made it work. He has the five of this and the three of that, uses sexy words like “dysfunction,” and packages it all up into meaningful bites that are both tasty and nutritious. In this book he covers “organizational health” and, true to his motif, give us his “Four Disciplines” model. It may not seem complex, but underneath it all are some pretty heady principles, ones that can actually make a difference.

Archimedes’ Bathtub, David Perkins—This is without a doubt our favorite book on the list. Not strictly a business book per se, Perkins well-written and always interesting book is about breakthrough thinking, and uses as it’s jumping-off point the apocryphal story of how Archimedes figured out the principle of water displacement by soaking himself in a public bath. Filled with stories, games, puzzles—and eye-opening insights, this is a book we go back to again and again. To give you an idea of how much fun this book is, try to figure out the following puzzle, in which you are asked to add one straight line to this inaccurate equation in order to make it a true statement:

(Bonus points: The puzzle actually has THREE answers! Can you find them all? If not, email me at and I’ll send you the answers…)

So there you have it: For those of us who just never get away from business books, a few “beach reads” to dive into between dives into the water!

What books are you reading? And how does your summer list compare to ours?


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.


Do You Remember Your Very First Team?

Mrs. Garris was my favorite teacher.

Oh, she could be brutally difficult at times, and more than once, as she stood before the group of twenty-five or so sixth graders to which I belonged, we collectively withered under a glare of practiced anger. But if that were all I remembered she would never have achieved such status.

Hancock Park Elementary School, nestled in a generally middle-class section of Los Angeles, was a conventional and non-descript school back in 1969. We learned our reading, our writing, and our ‘rithmetic just like every other kid.  Teachers had their own personalities—Mr. Guest acted like his name and Mrs. Hawkman had an almost fetishistic interest in perfect penmanship—but for the most part they were largely interchangeable. What you learned in one sixth-grade class you’d learn in another, unless you were lucky enough, as I was, to end up with Mrs. Garris.

I remember things about her class that were different than the others, how, for example, the desks were not always in neat rows but were often grouped together so that kids could interact. This was highly novel at the time, and it must have caused our teacher a bit of consternation now and then, what with the extra chatting and teasing that went on.

I also remember art projects, big ones, ones that seemed silly at the time yet somehow have stuck with me, resonating meaningfully. I remember, for example, studying countries of the world, places that we barely knew existed: Ethiopia, Paraguay, Mongolia, Burma, Western Sahara, Mozambique, Bulgaria. But we didn’t just study them in conventional ways, didn’t just catalog the acres of farmland and industry, or the population caught within each border. Instead we made flags. Great big flags. And we didn’t just draw them, either. We penciled in a huge piece of cardboard, perhaps two feet by three feet, giving it the kind of outline often seen in a paint-by-numbers set: a stripe of green to go here, a star of yellow headed there. And then we took small rips from long sheets of tissue paper, twisted the shred around the eraser-end of a pencil, dipped it in glue, and stuck it where it belonged until, twist by twist, a nation’s flag, almost full-sized, emerged.

I remember thinking then (or think I remember thinking) that this wasn’t really learning. How wrong I was. The reason, you see, was simple: five or six kids, together, working as a team, built each flag, and kept building until the room’s perimeter became a colorful and endless tribute to teamwork, national flag butting national flag around and around.

And the way we made friends, the way we worked together…. I’ve gone back through every class photo I’ve ever been in, looked up and down and across at the faces in them. I remember few, except for those in that one class, Mrs. Garris’s 6th grade at Hancock Park Elementary School: Diane Rice, Karen Gibstein, Jodi Landers, Amy Gelber, Lynn Fleischer, Gary Sloate, David Goldstein, Jeff Bluen. Richard Angelini, Steve Silken, Ruth Rogow, Bari Tisherman, Sherri Spector, Roland Greene. I see the faces and the names are there. These were (and some still are) my friends, and I’m convinced it was because Mrs. Garris insisted that we be part of a team, and then led those teams to success.

Remember that? Remember when it was that much pure fun being part of a team? And when the memories just lasted and lasted?


The Power of Small Change

“The only thing that never changes is that everything changes.”
–Louis L’Amour

They’re everywhere, so ubiquitous we barely notice them. In every grocery store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, butcher, and ice cream shop. At the Hallmark store. At the Dunkin’ Donuts. And every time you need a penny, you take one. Or if you have an extra penny, you leave one. Right there in that little plastic tray.

Small change.

The pennies just sit there, irrelevant most of the time. But once in a while you need one or two and you notice the tray just there, before you, and that little bit of small change makes things a bit easier, a bit smoother. What if leadership could be like that?


I remember interviewing for a leadership position a number of years ago, an interview filled with questions that required a great deal of thought, questions I couldn’t provide pat answers to. Conducted by Sigal Srur, one of the finest HR executives I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, the interview was one of the very few that had me honestly nervous.

One of the questions she asked has stuck with me all these years, and it’s one I’ve used myself many times since: “If we hire you, what’s the first change you would make?” On the face of it the question seems ludicrous. Who, after all, starts a new job with the intention of making changes? Isn’t that flatly presumptuous? And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know that we will make changes. There will be something we see that can be improved, or some way of doing things that we prefer. So Sigal asked a truly insightful question. She knew that if she was hiring someone into a leadership position, change would surely follow. And she wanted to get a sense of my approach.

I gave the obligatory preface, something about how I would spend one solid week observing, conversing and learning, but that after that I would look to quickly make one small change. “It needs to be small and significant,” I remember telling her. “Something that will be remarkably easy to implement, and will make people’s work just a tiny bit easier, but noticeably so.” I gave her a couple of examples from previous jobs. It could be streamlining a process by removing one or two steps, I told her. Or it could be creating a shared drive for project documents. Maybe even something as simple as making sure I say good morning to everyone, every day. Just as long as it was small and significant.


There are tons of books out there on the topic of Change: how to implement it, what to fear about it, when to do it, what to notice when you’re immune to it. What these books often have in common is that they focus on Capital-C Change, change as an event. Our argument is that small-c change is every bit as important, requiring focus to implement and manage. Small changes are going to happen anyway and, like ripples in a pond, will constantly eddy the waters. So why not treat them as a business function in and of themselves?

We’re not alone in our thinking: Patricia Mathieson and Elizabeth Jones, Principals at the British consulting firm Bardwyck, suggest that a “one small change” approach can “find small changes that make significant improvement to the business’s efficiency and effectiveness – allowing it to become more successful more quickly.” Such small changes can build up quickly, yet each one, when treated independently, is far less likely to encounter resistance than any one major program change. Processes, methods, task assignments are all things that change over time, so why not treat them as changes, however small, to manage?

And the beauty of this approach is that it is very low risk. Nearly every leader we know already has the capacity to make a few, small changes. So why not try it out?

And let us know: What small and important change do you plan to make?


Frank Zappa, Bicycles, and the Most Important Organizational Rule You’ll Ever Need to Know

In 1968, a time of turbulence and craziness, a very young Frank Zappa went on The Steve Allen Show and played what appeared to be a Concerto for Bicycle and Orchestra. The experiment (for these were experimental times) failed miserably.

It failed for a number of reasons, including the fact that those of us, in 2014, watching it for the first time, expected brilliance. Zappa, after all, is an acknowledged musical genius who died too young, a composer of rare talent who not only enjoyed pushing the envelope, but at times would intentionally shred that same envelope into a million tiny musical pieces, daring listeners to try and assemble meaning out of chaos, rhythm out of cacophony. And it was always there. So when a short-haired, clean-shaven Zappa ignores the obvious mockery Allen throws at him, we find ourselves thinking that we’re about to see genius shine, and expect, also, that Steve-O might just need to eat a healthy serving of humble pie.

It didn’t happen. Go ahead and check out the clip for yourself. It’s truly awful, and sounds rather like my Aunt Elsie screaming and crying at Easter dinner when she found out that she wasn’t eating roast beef, but had been lied to and it was—Oh, Dear!—lamb!

You can’t, it turns out, just throw seemingly disparate pieces together and expect them to sound good unless they are, somehow, aligned and in tune. The bicycle sounds themselves were rather interesting, as were the various horn sounds and string sounds and drum sounds and piano sounds. But without a proper composition and alignment across the instruments, nothing productive, nothing musical emerged.

The same is true in organizations, and here comes that Most Important Organizational Rule You’ll Ever Need to Know: If the various parts of your organization are not in tune and playing the same composition, all you’ll get is noise.

So how do you make sure things will sound melodic and perfectly in tune?

  1. It starts with the composition: These are your organizational goals, 5-7 clear SMART statements created by leadership. Without these, how will anyone know what melody to play?
  2. It continues with providing the right instruments: These are the people, processes, knowledge, and technology needed to play the parts. Having that beautiful Gibson Les Paul means nothing unless someone knows how to play it, after all.
  3. Then people need to become aware about their relationships with each other: Each person’s part meshes with everyone else’s; no one person can play the entire composition. A symphony is more than everyone playing their individual role, it’s also about everyone knowing what other parts people are playing. Only then do the full rhythm and beauty of the sounds emerge to achieve everyone’s goal—beautiful, melodic music.

That’s what it takes: Composition. Instrumentation. Relationship. That’s how you create an organizational symphony.

And one more thought: Now and then, it’s not a bad idea to throw a Zappa into the mix. They’re the players who keep us pushing the envelope. Let’s remember that the so-called Bicycle Concerto may not have worked, but it made us all think about new ways to compose and new instruments to play. Throwing that into the mix—and turning it, when possible, into new compositions—can keep our organizations fresh, creative, and growing.


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.


Just One Thing

On Monday of this week I attended the annual conference sponsored by the New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility (NHBSR) — and what a fantastic day it was! The attendees spanned small, medium, and large businesses across northern New England that are focused on, and dedicated to, providing the means for their employees to develop practices in sustainability and social responsibility. Interests ranged from environmental and people engagement, to energy efficiency and volunteerism. Everyone came to hear sessions on a variety of relevant topics (including a keynote by Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman).

There was also a series of exhibitions offering services that support sustainability and social responsibility, and an energizing power-panel of leaders who provided their view of the trends we can expect with regard to sustainability and social responsibility in our communities and organizations.

I was fortunate enough to participate as a facilitator for one of the breakout session topics (we called them Huddle Ups). These were seeded by gathering interest from conference registrants during the registration process; the Huddle Ups were truly their sessions, conversations that struck to the heart of their challenges and hopes for their organizations.

The day was fulfilling and rich with learning.

The conference theme was “Just One Thing” – a simple message – conveying the notion that individuals or organizations do not need to implement a large, complex initiative to gain a commitment to sustainability; it takes just one thing (a small step) to begin the journey.

The most important aspect of the conference was this message – Just One Thing – that everyone understood to mean this: that the efforts of each and every one of us can help to sustain our environment, employees, and communities, and that these efforts can be simple and inexpensive, yet still impactful. One brilliant and simple suggestion that I heard from a participant in my session was about reducing the size of the trash cans in each office, a simple way to develop an overall awareness (and habit) of generating less waste. Another idea was to offer volunteer days with pay so that employees could offer their services to a needs-based organization of their choice, a way known to deepen the meaning that workplaces have for employees. Another was to have the employees create a “12 Steps to Sustainability” campaign and to dedicate a step (or initiative) for each month of the year. By year’s end, they could then celebrate seeing the fruits of their efforts.

The NHBSR message of Just One Thing is both powerful and simple; it doesn’t take much to make an impact. In fact, the smallest steps can sometimes be the most impactful overall; those small steps can make a difference to a few or to many—it matters overall. What matters is that we have a chance to connect our whole lives through our work, family, and community. When we have the opportunity to do that, our lives make so much more sense overall.

What is just one thing that you can do?


Letting Yourself Lead

I recently had a coaching conversation with a newly promoted leader who was feeling frustrated. Her team was not performing to the degree that she thought needed, and she constantly felt like she had to step in and take the reins in order to keep project meetings on track and the projects themselves headed for success. By the end of each day, it seemed she had little time to work at her own job, often finding she had to stay late to answer emails and follow up on her commitments. Her energy was spent and the frustration with her team depleted much of the joy she had for her job.

I asked her a question that encouraged her to step back and reflect a bit:  “What do you want?” She thought about it for a minute and then answered: “I want my team to do what I want them to do!”

Now we really had something to explore.

Many times new leaders (and, at times, seasoned leaders, as well) get securely attached to their own ways of performing a job; their way is the right way because, as their personal experience demonstrates, it’s those very skills and techniques that got them into the position they now hold; it’s because they did a great job.

But here’s where leaders might get derailed. If they hold fast to what they know best, their expertise, they squander the opportunity to truly lead.

Rooke and Torbert (2005) suggest that great leaders are not differentiated by their personality or management style, but rather their “action logics”—how they react (or act) when they step (or are pulled) out of their comfort zone. People, according to the model, fall into one of seven of these action logics, which include such groupings as achievers, experts, diplomats, strategists, and individualists. When we allow ourselves to step back, reflect, consider others’ perspectives or ways of doing a task, we ourselves grow to be more inclusive and relational in our leadership capacity. And, by doing so, we can also transform how our organization develops across teams by modeling the same behaviors and, by extension, enriching the environment for others to also develop.

Rooke and Torbert (2005) further suggest that most of our working population rests within the action logic stage of “expert”—actually 38% of the working population—someone who may be well-suited as an individual contributor due to his or her technical expertise and, possibly, less suited to be the developmental leader needed to grow others.

Here’s the opportunity.

When leaders are willing to practice new habits of letting go, and allow their team members to try new things (and, perhaps, perform tasks that might not map directly to what they would have done), amazing and wonderful things happen – for both the leader and the team.  In Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) “action logic” language, this behavior demonstrates a later stage of development called the “achiever” stage (30% of the population), which occurs when a leader expands her capacity to focus on team development and team goals, rather than on personal expertise and personal goals. As you might imagine, as adults expand their capacity to let go, step back, and enable others to take more responsibility, make more independent decisions, and deepen their capacity to “lead in place” (Wergin, 2007), this leadership growing pattern becomes more challenging; leaders must be able to enter into the unknown and trust others’ capacity to lead. This leadership development process enables teams the opportunity to step up and take the lead on projects, and to learn from both their successes and mistakes. The leader, in turn, gets to learn new ways of doing tasks and, by extension of the willingness to let go, deepens the loyalty and trust across the team.

My client decided to give it a go to let go and see what would happen. She decided to let herself lead. What she noticed was enlightening!  Her relationships with her team members became richer, their creativity soared, and they began to make decisions independently. She then gained more time to work on her own tasks, thinking and planning strategically (and was able to answer her emails in time to get home to her family at a reasonable hour). She grew as a leader and gained the respect of upper management as her team achieved results that exceeded expectations.

A simple shift of thinking can make all the difference as we commit to growing ourselves as leaders and growing our teams. Letting go of what we know and letting ourselves lead can be that simple shift.


Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). 7 transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76.

Wergin, J. F. (2007). Leadership in place: How academic professionals can find their leadership voice. Bolton, Mass: Anker Pub. Co.


Planting When the Time is Right

A good friend of mine grew up on a family farm in Minnesota and, over the years, I have enjoyed hearing stories of a childhood that included planting and harvesting crops, and caring for livestock. I’ve enjoyed a bit of planting myself in year’s past—garden vegetables, and herbs now and then, but growing up in a suburban/light-industrial neighborhood pales against the stories of tractors and baling that my friend relates. There is one similarity, however, that spans both my world and hers: readiness.

Just a few days ago the morning’s news showered us once again with images of falling snow–eighteen inches in places like Minnesota. It’s April and most farmers are preparing for their spring planting which, by all accounts, should be right around the corner. But not this year. The ground isn’t ready. Wet fields and low ground temperatures will likely keep seeds out of the soil for another several weeks. This is frustrating, of course (or, as I like to think of it, an “opportunity for patience”). There is other work to do on the farm, after all: repairing and preparing equipment, for example. Still, planting is the most anticipated spring ritual; it sets the stage for the upcoming growing and harvesting season and controls the economic cycles of our family farmers. But you can’t help it if things just aren’t ready.

Farming and planting are good metaphors for coaching. We, as coaches, oftentimes plan a process that will guide the engagement. The process I typically follow covers these steps:

  1. Assessing the client’s situation
  2. Setting specific goals based on the assessment
  3. Designing an action plan for practicing new behaviors or skills
  4. Implementing the action plan
  5. Evaluating the results

These steps set into play a cyclical routine of assessing to be sure that we are on track with what is working, and to see what we might want to change. This sounds all well and fine on paper, but as I’ve mentioned before, humans and organizations can be messy; we don’t always fall into a neat and process-happy routine.

Coaching calls for a partnership in observation, care, listening, and noticing, along with the capacity to meet the client “where they are.” This, like the soil that awaits the seeds for planting, is not always timed just perfectly; where they are might call for us to stop, explore different options, and prepare for an alternate plan. Coaching often unveils inner struggles that may need to be addressed before moving into action.  Just like when the farmer takes a step in another direction during what would be her planting season, needing to refocus on different activities for a while, a coach and a client sometimes take a step in another direction to focus on what’s most important in the moment. The coaching client’s soil may not be ready for planting, just yet, and such adjustments improve the readiness for future work.

Meeting the coaching client “where they are” is, in my opinion, the most important value that a coach can bring to the relationship. The thought-partnership that is the coaching engagement is one of readiness—for the coach as well as the client. The client’s growth will happen in due time, when he or she is ready and able to see what’s true for them. It is then and only then, that their insights will break through and take root.


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