Category Archives: Coaching Skills

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.”

In the Open

“But won’t James feel uncomfortable, maybe distressed if he knows I am talking directly with his team members,” Brendon shifted in his chair.

“You and James are part of a team. As the manager-once-removed to James’ team, you expect James to talk to you about each team member and their career progress. James will notice things about his team that you won’t see. By the same token, James and the team have work to get done, so James, by design will focus on shorter term issues, while you focus on longer term issues. And, just as James is the coach for his team in their current roles, you are James’ coach for his current role. No one is talking behind anybody’s back. It’s all out in the open.”

“Shouldn’t HR do this instead?”

“Some companies think that,” I replied. “The problem is that HR is not in the accountability loop. As James is accountable for the output of his team, you, as James’ manager are accountable for James’ output. This chain of accountability puts you in the best position to have individual mentoring discussions with James’ team, and individual coaching discussions with James.”

Fulfillment or Frustration

“But, if I have discussions about career path with James’ team members, wouldn’t that undercut James’ authority with his team. Won’t it appear that I am going around his back?” Brendon was concerned.

“You might think that,” I replied. “On the other hand, if you set the context properly for the conversation, it is a reasonable explanation, that you are curious, and interested in them, as a person. While there is a well defined working relationship between the team member and James, there is an appropriate conversation, an appropriate relationship between the team member and you, as the manager-once-removed. It is not your purpose to coach them on productivity in their current role, but you want to talk about the future, their aspirations, their interests, their curiosities, their future role in the company. It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion that demonstrates the care of the company in the career paths of their team members. People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

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.”