Category Archives: Coaching Skills

A Level of Competence

“We all have habits that support our success,” I started. “We may have some habits that detract. It is those routine, grooved behaviors that chip away at the world. It is our discipline.

“Emily, why does a star quarterback throw more touchdown passes than others? Why does a singer perform so well on stage? Why does an Olympic swimmer break a record?”

Emily knew there was a very specific answer to this question, so she waited.

“They all do those things because they can. They spend great periods of their life creating the habits to support the skills that drive them to the top. They reach high levels of competence because they practiced, tried and failed, got better and practiced some more, with a discipline to master those skills. They perform at a high level because they can. The great numbers who have not mastered those skills, who are not competent, were eliminated in the first round.

“Those who achieve mastery are a select few. And that includes effective managers.

“It takes a discipline of habits to achieve competency. For a manager, these habits support the leadership skills necessary to be effective. And that is where we will start.”

Commitment or Compliance?

“I am not satisfied with things,” Emily said. “I know there is more to being a manager than management.”

“You have been a manager for a couple of years, now. What exactly, are you dissatisfied with?” I asked.

“There are times, when it seems, I am only able to get people to do what I want by forcing them to do it. By being a bully, or threatening. Not directly threatening, but, you know, do it or else.”

“And how does that work?”

“Not well,” she replied. “I may get some short term compliance, but as soon as I leave the room, it’s over.”

“Emily, the pressure that people are not willing to bring on themselves is the same pressure you are trying to tap into. If they are not willing to bring it on themselves, what makes you think you have the ability to overcome that?”

“But that’s my job, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.”

The Heart Attack Cycle

People don’t fear change, they fear loss (that might be caused by the change). Five stages of every change initiative –

  • Denial – there is no change, any suggestion of a change must be fake news.
  • Anger – Denial turns to anger, to steel the subject, emotionally, against some negative outcome. Anger is almost always rooted in fear of something. Fear of loss.
  • Negotiation – The realization or awareness of the change begins to set in. Resistance to the change takes the form of bargaining. Negotiation, compromise to stop the changes, or at least mitigate the loss the change may bring.
  • Depression – Through negotiation, the emotion of anger turns to depression, resistance is futile, powerlessness sets in.
  • Acceptance – As the reality of the change emerges, in all the shifts that take place, acceptance finally replaces depression and forward movement can finally begin.

This sequence was originally coined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to describe the emotional cycle of terminally ill patients facing their disease. She adapted the cycle to describe a similar cycle of grief. I call it the heart attack cycle.

First, there is denial you are having a heart attack. Anger replaces denial, what an inconvenient time to have a heart attack. Negotiation sets in, attempting to trade the reality of a heart attack for future church-going, swearing off drink or pasta. Depression sets in as the heart attack drains the power of the individual. Finally, acceptance. Yes, a heart attack is happening. The time it takes to make it through all five stages determines the amount of time it takes to call 911.

And, so it is with management, to assist our teams through change, to cope with the fear of loss. It’s not a heart attack, but we have to move through all five stages before we can move forward.

Instead of a Confrontation

Cheryl emerged from her team meeting, eyes wide in partial disbelief.

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I expected a big confrontation, didn’t sleep last night worrying, but I think we solved the quality problem with the incoming plastic parts,” she replied.

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first they were going off a cliff, so I asked the question in a different way. It was like magic. They gave me the solution I was looking for. Before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the burrs on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do the rest of the day?”

“I was thinking about taking a nap,” Cheryl said with a smile.

My Favorite Subject

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I am a Regional Manager, responsible for seven locations across the Midwest. I feel I have the ability to manage effectively without talking to my team on a daily basis. But, at times, I feel as if I am not in touch with their issues, challenges or daily routines. In fact, some are not even “available” for lunch or dinner when I am in town. Have I lost touch? Can you recommend a book to read, symposium to attend to improve my management skills? What has been your experience in managing people in multiple locations?

Response:

Thank you for your question. Reading a book will not solve your problem. Staying in touch with your location managers is tough when face-to-face meetings are not frequent. It’s tough, but not impossible.

First, create a master schedule of all the touches for the next six months. This includes face-to-face meetings, conference calls, 1-1 coaching calls, birthday cards and handwritten notes that are snail-mailed.

Ask your location managers what interaction is the most helpful, how you can provide the best support for them. Each person is different and may require a different frequency and kind of touch.

Next, my question. When you do meet with your managers are you bringing real value to the conversation, or would they just as soon skip it? If you are bringing real value to their thinking and their work, your managers will look forward to these meetings. They will not miss these meetings for all the tea in China.

So, what does that conversation sound like? How do you, as their manager, bring value to their thinking and their work?

Most managers think they bring value by providing direction and advice. Of course, there are times when direction and advice are helpful, but please, don’t ask me to dinner so you can tell me what to do.

Instead, ask me questions. Ask me how I am doing. Really doing. Ask about my challenges or difficulties. Ask how I am solving problems. Ask how I feel about my job. Ask how I feel about my life. No advice, just ask and listen. I would love to tell you how I am doing. I would love to tell you how I feel about my life, the things that are important to me. I will not miss the opportunity to talk about myself. It’s my favorite subject.

Whose Problem is It?

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I said. “Rachel has an 8-hour shift. For the past two weeks, she left early, with work undone. The first Saturday, you were furious. The second Saturday, you were calm, but she still left early. What will be different tomorrow?”

“Lots will be different,” Karyn replied. “I took what you said about seeing Rachel as a person, instead of as an employee. As long as I saw Rachel as an employee, her leaving early was my problem. Only when I saw Rachel as a person, did I realize it was her problem. I also realized, if I saw Rachel as a person, why would I wait until Saturday to help her, when I know that is the day of something going on, in conflict with her schedule at work. So, I asked her to lunch on Friday.”

“And?”

“At first, she thought it was a trap, but she agreed to show up. And, we just talked about her. She is in a custody battle with her ex, and she is losing. Three weeks ago, she was late to soccer practice because we made her stay over 15 minutes. So, her ex took the child and she missed the one night a week she has with her kid. She vowed to herself never to let that happen again. She was embarrassed to ask for the time off, but the tension on Saturday, knowing if she was late, that she would not see her kid for another week, it just came out.”

“And?”

“I am the manager. I control resources and scheduling. I asked Rachel, if I could schedule her to leave a half-hour early, if that would help? Turns out, Rachel’s behavior had nothing to do with me, or respect, or authority.”

“I know this conversation seems to be about Rachel and what we learned about her, but what did you learn about yourself?”

Do You Think the Race is Over?

“I changed,” Karyn replied. “But the outcome was still the same. Rachel left early and the work was still undone.”

“Do you think the race is over?” I asked. “What will you do this Saturday?”

“Yelling didn’t work, being nice didn’t work. I don’t know.” Karyn was stumped.

“Were you just being nice, or was there a more subtle shift in you? During all the yelling and Rachel leaving in a huff, how did you see Rachel? Was she a vehicle for you to get stuff done, or an obstacle in the way of getting stuff done?”

“Both,” Karyn flatly stated. “She was supposed to get stuff done, and left it all in my lap when she left.”

“And, last Saturday, you had an early conversation during her shift, when things were calm. Who was Rachel to you then?”

“Well, I treated her more like a person, then.”

“She was no longer something you were driving or an obstacle in the way? She was a person?”

Karyn did not respond to the question.

“You changed,” I said. “You made a shift in the way you saw Rachel. Who are you going to be this Saturday?”

Who Will Solve the Problem?

Karyn was in the conference room when I arrived. We only had ten minutes to talk, so right to the point.

“What have you decided that you would say?” I asked. Last Saturday, there was a shouting match that ended poorly. Karyn did not want a repeat performance. At the same time, she wanted the team member to live up to her schedule and complete the work assigned. I suggested that Karyn prepare a conversation that was both sensitive and straight.

“First, the conversation will be early in the shift. I will ask to see her in the conference room, because it is both private and neutral. I am going to start with a twenty second speech and then I plan to listen and ask questions.” Karyn stopped.

“So, what does it sound like?” I prompted.

“First I will apologize.

I am sorry the conversation got out of hand last Saturday. We are both adults and I know better. When I got angry, I should have just called a time-out so we could talk with clearer heads.

It’s obvious to me that something is going on outside of work that is very important to you. It is important enough for you to break the schedule even if your work is not completed. If we could talk about this priority, perhaps we could arrive at some solution. I might be able to help if you could talk me through it.

“Then, I plan to shut up and listen,” Karyn explained.

“So, after you listen, are you going to solve her problem?” I was curious.

“Absolutely not, if there is one thing I have learned, is that I can listen, but she will have to solve her own problem. In fact, she will have to do the hard work of thinking it through. All I can do is give her a platform to solve the problem rather than fight it.”

Getting Your Juice

“What is the hardest part about delegation?” I asked. Matthew winced. The more we talked about delegation, the more he hated it.

“Giving it up,” he said. “I was the best technician in the field. I could handle two more stops than any of the other service trucks. At the end of the day, I put my numbers on the wall, and they were almost always at the top.”

After a moment, he continued, “Now, I have to wait. It is really tough to know whether or not what I do, as a Manager, is really having an impact. Numbers will be down for a service tech and I wonder if it is my fault or is he just having a bad day.”

“You are pretty results-oriented, aren’t you?” I asked.

“I guess so,” Matthew replied.

“It’s more than a guess, Matthew. That is why you really liked being a technician. You got results (your juice) on a daily basis. You could stick your results on the wall and look at them. If you wanted, you could even pull your results off the wall, take them home to show your wife. You are in a different game now. The results are not so tangible. You don’t get your juice every day. The results have to do with growth and development of your team. Welcome to management.”

Never Run a Press Before

Cindy’s assignment was simple. As a successful supervisor in another division, she was transferred to a line unit that was having trouble keeping up. After her first meeting, she wasn’t so sure she was up to the task.

From the back of the room, “So, tell us about your background. Have you ever run one of these presses before?”

She admitted that she had not. “So, how do you expect to be our supervisor when you don’t know the first thing about how we do the job?” She had never been challenged so directly. Worse, it was a perfectly valid question.

Now Cindy was in my office. “Here is the central issue,” I asked, “how can you bring value to their problem solving and decision making?”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know how to run the press, but does that really matter? How do you bring value to their problem solving and decision making? How do they know when they are doing a good job? How do they know when they are doing a poor job?”

“Funny, I know the ops manager was complaining that they did not meet the production quota last month. But those numbers were never broken down on a daily basis so the line never had a clue whether they were ahead or behind. The last two days of the month, somebody came out and yelled at them to pick up the pace, but it was too little, too late.”

“So, you can bring value to the work by giving the floor feedback on daily production runs, perhaps accelerating things a bit, but avoiding a hysterical crunch at the end of the month.”

One month later, Cindy’s crew was ahead by 150 units, yet had worked no overtime, even taken the press down for a half day of preventive maintenance. Every morning, Cindy had a two minute huddle meeting and posted the day’s production goal. At ten and two she posted updates with a final count at 3:30 when the line shut down. Though she had never touched the press, she was bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of her production crew. The skills to be a successful supervisor are quite different than the technical skills of the crew.