Tag Archives: coaching

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.”

Best Position for Mentoring

“I am still having difficulty with this,” Brendon pushed back. “It’s all up-front, the manager knows the MOR is having career-ladder discussions with individual team members, but why is the manager-once-removed (MOR) the best person to have these discussions?”

“I know you still think the manager, being closest to the team member, would be the most likely person to have these discussions,” I replied, “but the manager is largely focused on productivity, workplace safety and output. It is the manager-once-removed who has accountability for creating and maintaining an effective talent pool.

“It is the manager-once-removed whose scope covers more than the immediate team, who sees opportunity in other areas of the organization. Simultaneously, the MOR has an accurate judgement from the immediate manager on each team member’s current capability and potential capability gleaned from 1-1 meetings with the team’s immediate manager.

“It is the MOR who is the perfect position to conduct these mentoring conversations.”

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.”

Who Has the Larger Picture?

“I think we may have a problem with James,” Brendon started. “Turnover in his department.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, he says team members are quitting the company because of pay. We’ve had a competitive pay program that has worked for several years, with reasonable increases, but some of the numbers James is claiming don’t seem reasonable for the people he is losing.”

“So, you think the problem is with James?”

“It’s his department,” Brendon shrugged.

“Does James have the authority to offer pay increases beyond the thresholds in your comp program?”

“Well, no. But, whenever I hear it’s about the money, money is only part of it. I think it’s that some of our project managers just don’t see the longer term picture here that they are promised somewhere else. Pay may be part of it, but it’s their longer term career path.”

“And, you think James should be talking to his team about their longer term career path?” I prodded.

“Look, I know James has a lot on his plate. He’s in charge of all of our projects, they’re complicated with lots of moving parts, but he also has to pay attention to his team,” Brendon shook his head.

“So, James is in charge of complicated projects, coaching his team for faster throughput, maintaining quality standards, AND you want him to be a mentor?” I smiled. “What if you went to James’ team members, occasionally, and you talked to them about their career, challenge in the work, and what their professional life might look like in the future? With James’ full knowledge about that conversation?”

“Isn’t that James’ job?” Brendon questioned.

“Sounds like James has plenty on his plate dealing with what’s going on today, this week and this month. Besides you have a better perspective on the larger picture of the company, the larger picture of role opportunities, where lateral moves make sense, where promotion makes sense. On these longer timespan issues, I think you are in a better position to have that discussion. In a very real sense, as James’ manager, for James’ team, you are the manager-once-removed.”

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.”

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.”

Effective Or Not?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
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?

Response:
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?

Pretending

“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?”