Category Archives: Coaching Skills

It’s the Job of a Manager

“What kind of questions?” asked Ted.

“Look, in your position, as Manager, you often don’t have the technical details necessary to make a decision. As a Manager, that’s not your job. Your job is to bring value to the thinking and work of your team.” I waited for Ted to catch up.

“By asking questions?”

“Most Managers think their team will see them weak if they have difficulty making a decision, even if the Manager doesn’t have the technical details. So, sometimes Managers make a decision because they think it’s their job.

“If you have two engineers, each with a different method of solving a problem, you may not know which method is technically the best way.”

“So, how do you make the decision?”

“You don’t bring value by telling them what to do. You bring value by asking questions.

  • What were the top three criteria on which you based your recommendation?
  • What impact will your recommendation have on the time frame of the project?
  • What two things could go wrong with your recommendation?

“Your job, as Manager, is not telling people what to do. Your job is to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.”

It’s Just a Start

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I have completed my MBA and I am now working in an office with a limited territory for our company here in India. I want to know what other things I need to do, like a course, to create better prospects for me to become a manager?

Response:

More learning, taking a course is always a plus, but not sufficient.

You need two things. First, you need to speak with your manager and ask for clear feedback on how you can improve in your current position. Whatever you are currently doing, be the best. Your manager is the best coach to give you that feedback.

Second, you need to find a mentor. Your mentor may or may not work inside your company, but should be in a position to speak with you long term about your career. This is usually not your direct manager, but one more level up. Your conversations should not be centered around your day-to-day accountabilities, but on longer one and two year goals.

Be the best where you are today and keep looking forward one to two years in the future. Congratulations on your MBA. You are now at the start of the game, a wonderful game.

Measuring Output or Effectiveness?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
You describe an evaluation process called the Personal Effectiveness Appraisal. How is that different from a Performance Review?

Response:
The Performance Review, or Annual Performance Appraisal judges the output of the person in the role related to goals or objectives. How close did the team member’s output come to the target? The problem with the Performance Appraisal, it places accountability in the wrong place.

The goal, or the target published in the Performance Appraisal is generally set by the manager. Team members may agree (enthusiastically or reluctantly), but it is the manager that signs off on the target. That target is the manager’s best judgement of what is reasonable based on the manager’s expectation of circumstances. These goals or targets are typically organized into Key Areas, so the role has an array of indicators (KPIs) on which to examine output. Because this method incorporates a series of comparative numbers, it is thought that this Performance Appraisal is “objective” in that the numbers don’t lie. The problem is, the basis for those numbers is still a manager’s judgement. Further, it is the manager that controls all the variables around those numbers, access to resources, number of people committed to the goal, budget allocated, tools, maintenance schedules, overtime permitted, supply chain interruption. It is the manager Elliott holds accountable for output.

The Personal Effectiveness Appraisal is different. Please understand it is still a manager’s judgement, but now the manager is looking at additional criteria. It is not that we put the manager’s targets aside, but the manager must now consider the team member’s effectiveness in the context of the circumstances during the appraisal period. A salesperson, in a fertile market might achieve the target output numbers by simply taking orders. A Performance Appraisal might judge the output as “exceeded expectations,” while an Effectiveness Appraisal might judge the behavior as mediocre.

A salesperson in a difficult market might fall short of the target in spite of extraordinary skill and effort. The Performance Appraisal might judge the output with a failing grade, while an Effectiveness Appraisal might yield a high five, perhaps a hug (if we are still allowed to hug in the workplace).

Something HR Cannot Do

“As you describe training vs coaching, I get this sinking feeling,” Marie shook her head. “Coaching is time consuming, tedious. I have important things that I have to get done. I simply don’t have the time. Isn’t this something HR could handle?”

I waited. Marie knew the answer to her last question.

“Marie, you are a manager,” my turn to nod. “What more important task, project, responsibility do you have than to build the infrastructure of your team. The reason you have all of these other important things to do, is because you did a lousy job of coaching, building your team in the first place. You do this job well, your life, as a manager will be wonderful. You do this job (coaching) poorly, your life as a manager, will be miserable, and for a very long time.”

But, Training is the Easiest Option

“But, training is my easiest and fastest way to get James some help,” Marie protested. “I told you I don’t have time to coach.”

“There is a short story about someone, at midnight, looking for the keys they dropped in the parking lot,” I started. “Where did you drop your keys was the question. Over there, by my car, was the response. Then, why are you looking over here? Because there is more light over here.”

“You are saying I am looking in the wrong place?” Marie asked.

“Training is the easiest and fastest. You can shove James off to someone else, but that may not be what James needs. Training only gets you so far. Did you know I was a champion ice skater?”

Marie was surprised at this turn in the conversation.

“Little known fact,” I said. “At least I will be a champion ice skater if you will agree to be my coach. Two things you know about my ice skating behavior – I have a strong right push off the skate, and my bootlaces are untied. As a habit, I am sloppy about my equipment. The knots in my laces are loose and within minutes, they come apart, the laces drag the ice. As my coach, you want to be positive, but my laces are untied. Do you ignore this weakness, or is it part of your obligation, as a coach, to deliver some negative feedback?”

“Well, yes, I have to tell you to tie your bootlaces,” Marie was hesitant.

“So, I tie my laces, secure. Am I now a champion ice skater?”

“No,” Marie was more sure of her response.

“Training only gets my bootlaces tied. Champions only come through coaching. You have to get my bootlaces tied, but if you want me to be a champion, you have to work with my strong right push. James may understand, through training, about schedules, workloads and capacity, but if you want James to become a champion, it requires coaching.”

No Time to Coach

“But, I don’t have the time to coach James,” Marie complained. “He should be able to figure this out on his own. I’m a manager, not a mentor, we have work to do. I don’t have time to be a counselor to everyone on the team. Can’t I just send him to training?”

“Interesting use of mixed metaphors,” I replied. “Let’s look carefully at the four managerial processes you used in the same sentence.”

  • Coaching – is a process where you work with the team member to fully understand the role, the scope of the role, required behaviors, supportive habits to get the work done.
  • Mentoring – is a process, usually performed, not by the manager, but the manager-once-removed (MOR) to help the team member discover their own potential, and seek opportunities to apply that potential in training, stretch projects and career ladder progress over time.
  • Training – is a process, usually prior to an expected behavior to learn, step by step, the mechanics of that behavior and the skill required to competently engage in that behavior.
  • Counseling – is a process where a manager only has a limited scope. Usually centered around a personal, issue, the manager may seek to clarify, share a similar experience and then, if appropriate, refer to a professional skilled and experienced at assisting people with those types of issues. Don’t play amateur psychologist.

“All of these processes are valuable, but the application will depend on the context.”

Moving From a Level of Competence

“If James sees the world in a whole new way, not as a set of unbending rules, but rules in the context of reality, how competent is James at this new approach?” I asked.

Marie was quick to answer, “He’s terrible at it. He appears unsure, he questions, so the people around him question. I agree that it is a better idea to check the project status before we show up, but now what? His crew becomes disorganized, they don’t know what to do.”

“Do you think, with more experience, that James will get better at anticipating project delays and get better at deploying his crew in a different direction?”

“Of course,” Marie replied. “It’s just, that it’s a mess now.”

“When James showed up on schedule without regard for the project status, how far did he have to think in the future?” I asked.

“Not very far,” Marie observed. “It was easy, plan for the project schedule, whatever the schedule says, is what he planned for. He didn’t have to think that far into the future.”

“And, now that James checks project status before he shows up, how far does he have to think into the future?”

“It’s much different,” Marie replied. “He has to think ahead and create contingency plans so his team knows what to do in the event of a schedule change.”

“So, he is getting better at detecting a schedule change, AND, he is in learning mode in creating contingency plans. You’re his coach, you now have some direction on where he needs your help. What questions can you ask James, where he focuses a few more days in the future and confidently directs his team in a different direction? What you are observing in James is a maturation in timespan. Maturation doesn’t move from one level of competence to another level of competence. It moves from a level of competence (always abiding by the rules) to a level of awareness (the rules don’t always fit reality) that creates confusion and a bit of struggle. Help James through that struggle, he will become more competent, in due time.”

A Shift in Coaching Strategy

“When you talk to James about his new way of checking project status the day before his crew is supposed to work, what does he say?” I asked.

Marie had to think back to her last conversation. “James is right. There is no sense showing up if the project isn’t ready, even if our contract says we are supposed to show up according to the project schedule. He still documents the delay, but says he looks for a more productive use for his crew, rather than having them stand idle waiting for the project to catch up to us. He used to look only at the project schedule, but now, he says, he looks for buffers in the schedule where another team might take longer than expected. He used to be a stickler with the schedule, now he says, why get so upset, go with the flow, plan for the schedule, but execute for reality.”

“And?”

“I guess I do the same thing,” Marie said. “It’s just such a change for James.”

“Are our projects different, now? Are the other project teams different? Are we using different materials? Are we using different equipment? Are our project schedules any different? What has changed?”

“You’re right,” Marie concluded. “The thing that is different is James.”

“My guess, as James’ manager, you didn’t have to coach James very much because he was always predictable, by the book. But, James woke up one morning and saw, sometimes, the book was wrong. The schedule was not right. He began to see the schedule, not as black and white, but something variable, you used the word buffers. And, you admit, you do the same thing in your role.”

Marie nodded, so I continued. “James is maturing. It’s not just that he is gaining more experience, he is maturing in the way that he sees the world. He used to see the world as a set of unbending rules. He now sees the rules as a set of intentions embedded in reality. You observed this new way has created some problems with his crew, not knowing, for sure, what they are supposed to do. Your job, as James’ coach is also shifting.”

Subtle Pushback

“He resists everything,” Ruben explained. “We cover the same solutions to the same problems. At the time, Edmund finally agrees, but I sense, he agrees only because he can’t argue the logic. He goes along with the solution, but two weeks later, the same problem pops up and we start all over again.”

“So, you have to step in and it takes up your time?” I asked.

“Worse than that. It’s almost underhanded. Behind the scenes, it’s like he wants the solution to fail. He doesn’t openly sabotage the new method, and I haven’t caught him bad-mouthing the process. Sometimes, it’s just the way he rolls his eyes in the meeting.”

The Mentoring Conversation

“So, what does the mentoring session sound like?” Brendon wanted to know. “If it is different from the direct manager coaching session, what does the manager-once-removed talk about with the team member?”

“First, this is NOT a coaching session, so the mentoring session does not happen as often, perhaps once every three months,” I replied. “This is a longer timespan discussion, so more reflective than action oriented. They talk about the role, the role’s contribution to company, where that fits. They talk about the decisions the team member makes, the problems the team member solves and their capacity to do so. The purpose of this conversation is to create a clearer picture of the team member’s current contribution and their potential contribution. When the team member has a clearer picture of their potential contribution, their current contribution improves.

“In this conversation, the MOR also asks about the aspirations of the team member. Some team members have no idea of their own aspirations, never thought about it. The MOR is looking for intersection between the team member’s aspirations and the company’s aspirations.

“Most of all, this is not a psychotherapy session. The focus is on the work, challenge in the work, learning opportunities, advancement opportunities, to create a vivid picture of where the team member stands and steps forward.

“People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”