Category Archives: Coaching Skills

Elements of the Accountability Conversation

“When you talked to Taylor, what did you tell him?” I asked. Dana had just completed her first accountability conversation. It had not gone so well.

“I told him that I really liked the work that he was doing, but that he needed to come to work on time. And that I really appreciated the effort he was making,” Dana replied.

“I can see why he thought he might be in line for a raise. Dana, the first part of his behavior that you want him to change is coming to work on time. What impact does it have on the rest of the team when he shows up late?”

Dana stuttered for a second, then organized her thoughts. “Well, no one else can get started on their work, until Taylor is there. It’s not just him. In the fifteen minutes that he is late, he costs the team about 90 minutes of production.”

“And what are the consequences to Taylor if he doesn’t start coming to work on time?”

Again, Dana had some trouble. She had not thought this through to the next step. “Well, I guess he could get fired,” she finally realized.

“You guess? Dana, you are the manager. What are the consequences?”

“You’re right,” she concluded. “If I have to speak to him twice about coming in late, I have to write him up. Three written warnings are grounds for termination. So, yes, he could lose his job.”

“And, when do you want this behavior corrected?”

“Well, tomorrow would be nice.”

“Dana, if you want this behavior changed by tomorrow, you need to call Taylor back in here and have another go at this accountability conversation. What two things do you need to cover?”

“I need to talk about the impact he is having and the consequences.”

The Team You Deserve

“Ted, your team is functioning exactly as it was designed to function,” I started.

“What do you mean? You make it sound like it’s my fault,” he defended.

“Exactly, as the manager, the team you have is the team you deserve.”

I could tell Ted was getting agitated. It is easy to look at someone else to blame. It is tough when the responsibility is ours.

“The team you have is the team you deserve,” I repeated. “As time goes by, you will find that your team will be no better than you are. The speed of the pack is the speed of the leader.

“If you find that your team is not what you want it to be, if you find that you are not able to bring out the best in that team, to bring them to higher levels of performance, then, as the manager, you are not the leader who deserves better. At least not yet.”

Ted was quiet.

After a minute, I broke the silence. “So, what do you think we need to work on? Where should we start?”

Ted took a breath. “I guess we have to start with me.”

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week and suddenly realized why I feel frustrated in my position. In the course of a project, I solve problems and make decisions, submit them to my manager for review, and then, he sits on them. People who depend on those decisions, one way or the other, ask me, “what gives?” The decision sits on my manager’s desk in a black hole while the project gets delayed. In the end, my decision survives, but the project is late, time and again.

Is it possible my manager is in over his head? He gets credit for my decisions, even though the project is late. I am worried that I will be stuck here under my manager for the rest of my career.

Response:
There is always more to the story and I cannot speculate on the capability of your manager. I do know that your manager’s goals and objectives set the context for your work. Keep your head down. Keep making decisions and solving problems on your assigned projects. Continue to give your manager “best advice.” That’s your role.

Your biggest fear is that your career may be in a dead-end under your current manager. It likely appears that your manager is, indeed, not focused on your professional development. Not his job.

Look to your manager’s manager, your manager-once-removed. Your manager is specifically focused on a shorter term set of goals and objectives. Your manager-once-removed is focused on a longer term set of goals and objectives. Some of that longer term focus is the professional development of team members two levels of work below.

Manager-once-removed
———————————-
Manager
———————————-
Team member

The working relationship with your manager is different than the working relationship with your manager-once-removed. The relationship with your manager is an accountability relationship filled with task assignments, checkpoints and coaching. The relationship with your manager-once-removed is a mentoring relationship filled with discussions about professional development, career path, working environment, challenge in your role.

It is likely that your company does not recognize the importance of the manager-once-removed relationship. It is possible your manager-once-removed has no awareness of this necessary managerial relationship. You do. You are now aware.

What to do
Pick two or three professional development programs that you find interesting and that could help you bring more value to the company in your role. Don’t pick something that pulls you away from your current role or something with an unreasonable budget. It could be something as simple as three different books you would like to read that will bump up your skill level.

Ask your manager-once-removed to schedule a short fifteen minute conference to ask advice. Don’t ask for advice, ask for a short fifteen minute conference. This is not a casual conversation in the hallway. You want undivided attention across a desk or a table.

This fifteen minute conversation is your first of several meetings with your manager-once-removed to talk about longer time span issues related to your professional development. This is not a time to talk about the accountabilities in your current role, those discussions should be with your manager. This is the time to talk about your long term development and contribution to the company over time.

Take baby steps and build from there. A reasonable routine to meet with your manager-once-removed would be for 30-45-60 minutes every three months. Keep in touch. -Tom

Classic Pairing Behavior

“But, what if I am being overly dramatic?” Miriam continued to question. “What if the team’s inability to work together is just my own projection of insecurity, and that when the going gets tough, they will put their differences aside and cooperate with each other? What if I am just afraid of a little water cooler talk?”

“What do you mean, water cooler talk?” I wanted to know.

“You know, two people at the water cooler, complaining about the third person,” Miriam replied.

“Always the same two people, ganging up on the other?” I asked.

“Heavens, no,” Miriam chuckled. “There is equal opportunity pairing at the water cooler. Depends on the issue to determine who is at the water cooler and who is thrown under the bus. Scapegoat of the week.”

“And, how do you know what is discussed at the water cooler?”

“Oh, I hear. The rumor mill is much more effective at communication than the company newsletter.”

“So, you have your own little birdies who pair off with you?”

“Yes,” Miriam nodded. “And, that’s what has me worried. These are the issues that could blow up the team in the middle of a high pressure project.”

“Miriam, the reason I wanted to hear the details of the water cooler talk, is that this is classic pairing behavior. A group, faced with an unspoken issue will splinter into pairs, often at the water cooler, to avoid confronting the issue in the group. It is a collusion, between two people to find allies in a struggle to avoid the issue.”

“Is that what they are doing?”

“Not just them, you have your own little birdies. You have engaged in pairing​ behavior yourself,” I described.

“My goodness, I didn’t​ even realize. I was doing it, too.”

“Not to worry,” I smiled. “Pairing is an unconscious behavior. You didn’t know it was happening, neither did your team.”

The Killing Fields of the Project

“I know you are right, that I should challenge my team to solve its own problem with its inability to work together in support of each other, but it is a very uncomfortable conversation,” Miriam wondered out loud. “Everyone’s stomach will be upside down, so, in your words, the threat of a real issue exists. I am just afraid that the whole thing will blow up in my face and I will be the one left to pick up the pieces.”

“It is a risk,” I replied, “and, not​ greater than the risk that mid-project, the team will reach the same impasse for this same reason. And, the higher the pressure of the project, the more likely the impasse. Do you want the team to confront the issue now, while things are calm, or meet the problem in the killing fields of the project?” -Tom

A Manager’s Stomach

“Every time you, as the manager, take a team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem,” I said.

“What do you mean collusion?” Miriam asked.

“Faced with a problem the team doesn’t want to deal with, they panic and engage in non-work behaviors, so they don’t have to deal with the problem themselves. Remember your team of independent technical contributors, all very competent on their own, but they butt heads when they are required to work together?”

Miriam nodded.

“You give them a difficult project where they have to work together,” I continued. “What is the first problem they have to solve? And here is a hint. It has nothing to do with the project.”

Miriam was quiet for a moment, then, “You are right. The first problem they have to solve is how to work together. But are you suggesting that, as the manager, I put them in the same room and talk about their inability to work together?”

“Yes. And what is the reaction when you say, ‘Gentlemen, I called this meeting today to discuss how difficult it is for the three of you to work together. We are going to talk about your behaviors that derail projects and what behaviors need to change.’ Then you stop talking. How is your stomach feeling right about now? How are the stomachs of each of your team members?”

“Are you kidding? It makes me feel queasy just to think about saying that to the group,” Miriam admitted.

“Then, you know you are talking about a real issue. When everyone in the room has their stomach upside down, you know the team is dealing with a real issue. High performance teams get comfortable with discomfort. Low performance teams go into non-work and want you, as the manager, to solve the problem for them.” -Tom

Weasel Wisdom

“This is a team problem, not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic,” I repeated.

“I don’t know if I have the courage,” Miriam replied. “Besides, I always heard that you should praise in public and scold in private.”

“Weasel wisdom,” I nodded.

“I heard you say, there are weasel words, but now you say there is weasel wisdom?”

I continued to nod. “Yes, weasel wisdom. If it is an individual’s issue, you speak directly to the individual, and if it is a team issue, you speak to the team, in front of the team. Yes, you are right, it takes courage.”

“And if I don’t have the courage?” Miriam questioned her own confidence.

“What does that say about your belief? Remember, what we believe drives behavior. What is your belief?”

Miriam struggled. “If I don’t confront the whole team with the team problem, it says we don’t believe the team can solve the problem. It says the team cannot talk about the problem. It says the team can only deal with the problem behind closed doors.”

“And every time you, as the manager, take the team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem.” -Tom

Outlast the Panic

“So, let’s say the team struggles. You, as the manager, are accountable for the output of the team. You control all the levers. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Instead of jumping in to fix the problem, which is what I really want to do, I have to get the team to solve the problem,” Miriam replied.

“First, let’s talk about time. As the manager, when will you first know that the team is struggling with a problem?”

“That’s easy,” Miriam chuckled. “I know they are going to struggle before I even assign the project.”

“So, if you know the team will struggle, even before the project starts, when do you, as manager, intervene? How long will you let them twist in the wind? Remember, twisting in the wind costs money and you are accountable for output.”

“Are you suggesting I jump in before the project even starts? I thought I was supposed to let the team struggle with the problem?” Miriam countered.

“When the team encounters its first problem, and begins to struggle, how long does it take the team to start solving the problem?”

“Again, that’s easy. Forever. Faced with a problem, the team will avoid the problem, look to blame someone (else) for the problem, knock off early, work on easier stuff, dump the problem on my desk, complain about the problem, argue about the problem, go into panic mode, go into paralysis, you name it, they have tried it,” she explained.

“Fight, flight, freeze or appease. These are all classic behaviors of a team, faced with a problem, engaged in non-work.”

“So, I am the manager, what do I do?”

“Simple, outlast the panic. Put the struggle on the table and outlast the panic.” -Tom

How to Get People to Use CRM

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Tom, I remember a few years ago you talked about the effectiveness of negative vs positive reinforcement to affect changes in employee behavior. Here’s my problem: I am responsible for implementing a CRM sales management system affecting over 100 sales reps and 15 regional sales managers. For 30 years, we’ve allowed our sales reps to act without much direction or accountability. Our market was robust so a salesperson’s day was spent taking care of customers, entertaining them, and knocking off early on Fridays.

Then, our market soured, so did our sales.

Over the years, we became a service oriented company with little focus on sales management. As you would guess, there is strong resentment and resistance to the accountability that a CRM requires–assigning prospects, setting tasks and goals, and required reporting to management.

Here is the feedback so far. “Do you want me to sell or fill out these stupid reports?” OR “I’m no good with computers.” OR “I don’t have time.” OR “This is Big Brother micro-managing me.”

I’m experimenting with gamification of the process, creating competition among territories and recognizing successes. The CEO of the corporation is reviewing weekly scorecards and sending email comments to the sales managers on performance.

Here’s the question. What will have the greatest effect on participation, negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement? Should we tie pay to usage of the system?

Response:
This is not an unusual dilemma. Your idea of gamification takes me back to a post I wrote in Sep 2007 (yes, ten years ago), where we looked at how a young teenager learned to play a complex video game without a training course, instruction materials or a tutor. In fact, despite discouragement from his manager (mom), he still managed to achieve a high level of competence at playing the game, would actually go without food or sleep to play.

So, how could you get a group of veteran, grisly sales people to spend time with a CRM system?

First, to the subject of positive vs negative reinforcement. At best, negative reinforcement only gets you compliance. And compliance only works in the presence of the manager and the constant pressure of the negative reinforcement. If the manager is not present or the probability of enforcement is low, the desired behavior disappears. Most negative reinforcement resides outside the individual with only temporary effect.

To achieve commitment (vs compliance) to the behavior, you have to go inside. You have to look for an intrinsic reinforcement. You have to examine the belief. It is not your rules, not your suggestions, not your tracking tools that drive behavior. It is the belief inside the individual.

And your individuals have spoken their beliefs.
Do you want me to sell or fill out these stupid reports?

  • The belief is that only selling creates sales, not filling out reports. Filling out reports is a waste of time.

I’m no good with computers.

  • The belief is that I am good at sales and that I am not good at computers. The belief is that using a computer will not bring in more sales.

I don’t have time.

  • The belief is that filling out reports in a computer is not as high a priority as anything else.

This is Big Brother micro-managing me.

  • The belief is that a good salesperson does NOT need coaching. The belief is that tracking activity may surface accountability to a standard defined by someone else.

Ultimately, this is a culture problem. You don’t get the behavior you want (interaction with a CRM system) because you, as the manager, have not connected success (sales) with activity in the CRM system. They don’t believe you.

Culture Cycle

  • Beliefs.
  • Connected behaviors.
  • Connected behaviors tested against the consequences of reality.
  • Behaviors that survive are repeated in customs and rituals.

You started with a CRM system rather than starting with the team. Your team knows how to make sales, they are experts at it. In a meeting, get them to document the processes and behaviors that create sales. Big flip chart. Here is my prediction – they will create a system similar to most sales systems.

  • Prospecting
  • Qualification
  • Needs assessment (preventing objections)
  • Connection of needs to your product or service
  • Customer willing to solve their problem (pay)
  • Closing
  • After closing support

These are activities in a sequence that creates customers and orders. These are likely the same activities you are attempting to document in the CRM system. But, now, it is the team that identified the behaviors, not some stupid CRM system.

Next, ask them to coach each other. They may not trust you, but they trust each other. Ask them to document what a coaching process might look like. Ask them what collected data might be helpful to make the coaching more effective.

Teaching is not nearly as effective as learning. Turn this into a learning process, not a teaching process. -Tom

How Is The Morale?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am the direct manager of a team of four supervisors. I am working on the agenda for 1-1 discussions with each individual. Based on your suggestion, I structured the agenda using the Key Result Areas in the role description. While it seems to make sense, I feel there is a missing piece to the agenda. I know we are talking about the work in the role of the supervisor, but where many of them struggle is in the soft skills, the interpersonal working relationships between each supervisor and their team members. We often talk about those issues, but I am not sure how to organize my notes from those discussions. What we talk about doesn’t fit any of the Key Result Areas, but I feel like they are dramatically important. Is it possible that there are things we should talk about outside the Key Result Areas defined for the role?

Response:
Welcome to management. You have just discovered that the work of the supervisor is different than the work of the team member. It is not that there are issues outside of defined Key Result Areas, but, there are Key Result Areas that escaped the role description.

A military commander was once asked in all of his experience, what was his biggest mistake, his biggest regret. His reply was “not taking vacation before going into battle.” It was a curious response, but he explained that the most important element to consider before going into battle was morale. What is the morale of the troops?

Is it possible that a Key Result Area missed in the definition of the role description was team morale?

Key Result Area – Team Morale

Context – the most critical work product in our company requires high levels of cooperation and support between team members in collateral working relationships. It is incumbent on the supervisor to create positive working relationships that promote teamwork and high levels of trust among team members.

Tasks and Activities – the supervisor will clearly assign tasks in such a way that each team member understands not only their own task assignment, but the task assignments of those people they work around. Where work product is handed off from one team member to another, or one work cell to another, the team members will discuss the quality standards that each team member needs from other team members. The supervisor will create circumstances where team members provide feedback to each other, in a respectful way related to quality standards, pace of work and safety practices. Specifically, the supervisor will require positive feedback practice during times of low stress using project debriefs, brainstorming best practices, team teaching and cross training, so that during periods of high stress, the team can operate at high levels of cooperation, support and trust.

Accountability – The supervisor is accountable for evaluating the morale of the team, identifying team behavior that promotes teamwork and identifying team behavior that is destructive to teamwork. The supervisor will review this team assessment each month in a 1-1 discussion with the supervisor’s manager, to identify steps the supervisor may take to promote teamwork and discourage behavior that is destructive to teamwork.