Category Archives: Coaching Skills

Conscious Thought

“But most of the time, I don’t think about what I am thinking about,” Nathan defended.

“You are right,” I responded. “Most people are not aware of their thoughts. Most people are unconscious.” Nathan was with me so far.

“Nathan, have you ever noticed people talking around the water cooler?”

“Well, yeah. It’s a popular gathering place.”

“And what do they talk about, around the water cooler?”

Nathan was quick to reply, “Oh, boy, usually it’s the juicy stuff. Fastest grapevine in the west.”

“Positive stuff, or negative stuff?” I asked.

Nathan chuckled, “Oh, negative, for sure.”

“It’s negative and it’s unconscious,” I explained. “People don’t do it on purpose, negative talk is unconscious. That is why it is so important to become conscious about your thoughts. Positive thoughts require conscious thought.

“It’s time for you to start thinking on purpose.”

Impact of Thoughts

“You’re serious,” said Nathan.

“As serious as a heart attack,” I replied.

“You want me to actually try to think about Mr. Johnston watching me whenever I have a big decision to make?”

“It’s better than allowing your worst boss into your head.”

“It’s funny,” said Nathan. “It kind of makes sense. I just don’t know why. It’s weird.”

“Here’s the thing, Nathan. You are what you think about. Only you have control over what you think about. You can think positive thoughts or you can think negative thoughts. But whichever thoughts you think will be the thoughts that influence your decisions, your problem solving. Those thoughts will ultimately define who you are.”

Face of the Boss

“So, when things get tough, in your new role as a manager, the face of your old boss appears.” I repeated, confirming what Nathan had described. Nathan nodded, so I continued.

“Management skills are often passed down that way, for better or worse. Experience teaches, our parents teach, old bosses teach. It’s just that sometimes the lessons learned are not the right lessons. A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three times before lying down. (Credit to humorist Robert Benchley).

“So, what are the right lessons?” Nathan inquired.

“Well, we have the example of your worst boss. So, who was your best boss?”

Nathan had to think for quite a bit. I could see he was struggling. “Yes, I remember. I don’t know why I didn’t think of him. Mr. Johnston, that was his name.”

“And what were the qualities that made him such a good boss?”

“It’s funny, he never yelled, he never got upset, he was always calm. If I made a mistake, he helped me correct it. When I was about to do something stupid, he would stop me and make me think it over.”

“So, here is where we start,” I said. “We start by replacing your worst boss with Mr. Johnston. When you are faced with a management issue, and you begin to hear your worst boss in your mind, I want you to turn your head and think about Mr. Johnston watching you.”

Nathan smiled and nodded. “You mean, I need to kind of fake myself out.”

“Not at all. You already fake yourself out when you listen to your worst boss. I want you to listen to Mr. Johnston.”

Who Sits on Your Shoulder?

My mood was upbeat, but this conversation with Nathan was not lifting his spirits. His team was not on a mutiny, but they weren’t paying much attention to him.

“So, you have had a bit of difficulty getting out of the gate with your team. As you think about yourself, as a manager, who comes to mind, from your past? Who is that person sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, giving you advice?”

Nathan looked stunned. “That’s weird,” he said. “As I go through my day, I have this silent conversation in my head with an old boss of mine. Whenever I have a decision to make, he pops into my head. It’s like he is watching me and I still have to do it his way. That was years ago, but he still influences me.”

“Was he a good boss?” I asked.

“No, everybody hated him. That is why it’s so weird. I think he was the worst boss I ever had and I am acting just like he did.”

“So, why do you think he has such an influence on you, today?”

“I don’t know,” Nathan said slowly.

“Would you like to be a different manager than your old boss?”

Finally, Nathan smiled. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied.

“Well, that is where we start.”

The Big Difference Between Training and Coaching

Tyler finally had a question. “So, have we been wasting out time training our people?”

“Training is not a waste of time, it is how you train that determines its effectiveness.” Tyler squirmed. His company spent thousands of dollars on management training the prior year.

“Tyler, let’s take a fun example. Ever play video games?” Tyler nodded and flashed a huge grin. “How did you learn to play that game? Did it come with an instruction manual? Did you go to the bookstore and buy the Insider’s Guide to the game?”

“No way, I just sat down and started playing it.”

“And what is your competence level?”

“Well, I am at a level 40, now, but over the weekend, I think I can get my character to level 50. That’s as high as I can go with the character in this clan.”

“So, you are telling me that you became an expert. Did you become an expert because their instruction manual was so well written? Did the quality of the Insider’s Guide (that you never bought at the bookstore) have a significant impact on your learning this new behavior?”

“No, I just played the game. My character got killed a few times, but I learned how to navigate around the danger zones. I learned how to engage other characters in battle. I learned out to accumulate powers. Every time I did something right, I got points. Every time I did something stupid, I lost points. My points accumulated, my character got stronger, I leveled up. All around the screen are status panels that give me constant real time feedback on where I am in the game and how I am doing.”

“And you did all this without reading the instructions or attending a training class?” I asked. Tyler nodded yes again. “Tyler, you learned to play the game at an expert level because the game was designed to positively reinforce desired behavior. This positive reinforcement was meticulous and frequent. There were established goals and measurement systems to track progress and status.

“Next week, we will get back together and talk more about training.”

Before or After?

Tyler’s curiosity had moved to intrigue.

“What gets reinforced gets repeated,” I said. We had been talking about positive reinforcement and its impact on behavior. “That’s why measurement and feedback loops are so important.

“Here is the insight,” I continued. “Most managers focus their time before the behavior. Most managers provide training and give lectures on the way things should be done and then wonder why they don’t get the desired behavior. Most managers think their biggest influence on behavior occurs before the behavior.

Let’s meet, let’s plan, let’s discuss, let’s show.

“All of this occurs before the behavior and has minimal impact.

“The payoff, the big influence is after the desired behavior occurs. That’s when to pay the most attention. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

It’s Personal

Carly met me in the conference room that overlooked the plant floor. She was a new supervisor running a parallel line to another crew. On the job for three weeks, she had been having difficulty with her crew’s productivity next to the other crew.

“It’s amazing to me,” she said. “We start ten minutes earlier than the other line. In fact, they just stand around talking for the first ten minutes of their shift. But, within half an hour, they catch up and then hammer us the rest of the day.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Let’s get Jarrod up here and find out what he is doing differently.”

As Jarrod joined us, he talked about a number of things, but he saved the best for last. “One thing, I know you have overlooked, is our team huddle at the beginning of the shift. It is our team check-in. I have found the most important obstacle to productivity on a line like this is the personal stuff that’s going on. It has nothing to do with work, but has a bigger impact than anything else. It makes a difference in hustle, covering someone’s back, taking an extra measure for safety. That daily check-in helps my team to work together. It’s only five minutes, but makes all the difference.”

Effective Or Not?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I was fortunate enough to attend one of your in-person sessions. I have a specific supervisor not able to effectively complete some parts in her role description, so we followed your assessment exercise. She and I had pretty similar views and she saw that the higher levels of work was where she was struggling. She has asked for 60 days to make some improvements. In your experience have you found that improvements are possible, and that people are able to stretch to perform higher level functions?

First, I congratulate you on taking the time to have this difficult conversation with your team member. A sixty day period is certainly a reasonable request, however, it’s not hands-off. I would recommend a weekly thirty-minute coaching session between the two of you. You have already identified the areas of struggle, that’s your agenda (written agenda). Pick a Friday or a Monday.

Specifically, your discussion should revolve around the work. I define work as problem solving and decision making. Your questions should be “what decisions were a challenge this week?” and “what problems were a challenge this week?” Pay close attention to how your team member responds.

Your question is centered around the issue of capability. Is your team member capable of making the decisions and solving the problems embedded in the work? Your discussions about the struggle will give you clarity. Over a six-week period, you should have six clear data points that will reveal a pattern. Then the decision is pretty simple – effective? or not?


“I’ve tried everything I know to get Perry to improve,” Susan lamented.

“Everything?” I asked.

“I really like Perry, I just wish he could be more effective,” she said, ignoring my question. “In fact, everybody likes Perry. But, at the same time, he constantly disappoints.”

“When he disappoints, what is the impact that has on the project? What is the impact it has on the team?”

Susan nodded. “Yep, everyone takes a beat, they sigh, they cover up. The project comes in late, but nobody wants to complain about Perry.”

“And, what if you do nothing to intervene. What will happen in a week, another month, a year?”

“People will put up with him for a while longer, but in a month, it might impact morale. In a year, I could lose someone else on the team, someone tired of covering for Perry.”

“What’s stopping you from doing something now?”

“Hope,” Susan explained, thinking I would agree that there was some hope for Perry.

“Susan. What are you pretending not to know?”

Value of Advice

Rory would not be deterred. “But, I am young, and, you are experienced. I have listened to you before and your advice has been helpful.”

“I am flattered,” I replied. “But, better to clarify your own understanding of the problem than to take my word for it. My advice is worth no more than you are able to make of it.”