Coaching as a Leadership Style

Many organizations today have identified “coaching” as a preferred leadership style for their management workforce. Coaching is a powerful organizational and leadership strategy to systemically improve business performance. One survey from the Institute of Personnel and Development confirms that 9 out of ten U.S. companies expect their managers and supervisors to deliver coaching to their direct reports and teams. Employee surveys support the need for managers to develop coaching skills as “best bosses” are those identified as having a coaching style.

So what is coaching? Coaching is a collaborative partnership centered on achieving goals. The primary objective of coaching is to develop the person being coached. In a nutshell, it is a way of leading that supports, champions, guides and challenges an individual to maximize their potential and performance. Coaching can be applied to a wide variety of management situations—identifying strengths and challenges, motivating, delegating, relationship/team building, providing feedback, resolving every day workplace challenges, helping employees become more self aware and change problematic behaviors or seize opportunities to grow and improve.

There are key differences between the old style autocratic or “boss” way of managing people and coaching. Whereas the old school boss tended to get things done by lecturing, directing and telling, today’s boss who acts as a “coach” asks powerful questions, makes effective requests, listens/observes well, is perceptive and offers constructive effective feedback to help someone learn and develop.

The best leaders in workplaces have learned how to empower and motivate their people vs. try to control them. One reason– today’s younger workforce (comprised of Gen Y/Millenials) is quite different than past generations (vets and baby boomers). They have different expectations of their leaders and workplaces. Generally, to motivate today’s younger worker requires more personal attention, recognition and tolerance on the part of management.

The great challenge for many organizations is how to train their managers to utilize coaching skills. People aren’t born with innate coaching skills and frankly few business schools are focused on teaching the skills required to be an effective coach.

Coaching techniques and competencies are very different than those required of more “old style” management and supervision. As a result, many of today’s older managers are challenged having to “unlearn” past lessons and techniques that are no longer effective in today’s workplace.

Simply asking your managers to “coach” employees won’t equate to success. Learning how to coach is akin to learning a new language. There is an art to coaching. To develop someone’s ability to coach requires an investment in training/coaching to master new behaviors. Developing expertise (as with most skills) will almost always require ongoing feedback and modeling by someone with more advanced skills. One of the best ways to develop coaches is to have the up-and-coming coach be coached by a professional coach with exemplary coaching skills.

Coaching is a relationship centered on helping the “coachee” realize their aspirations and goals. Trust, respect and rapport are critical foundations to a solid coaching relationship. Frankly, some managers have great challenges in the interpersonal and emotional intelligence arena. Though it is possible to learn behaviors that lead to increased trust—this endeavor isn’t easy (the best results typically come when a professional coach who specializes in this arena is brought in).

When leaders are trusted and respected, employees under them will respond to their feedback more effectively. The best coaches are patient, perceptive, self aware, reflective, open, supportive, keen observers and good listeners. They are adept at giving valuable feedback that doesn’t generate defensiveness and are interpersonally effective. They help their employees by uncovering their blind spots and challenging limiting beliefs. Most of effective coaching this takes place through observation, assessment, dialogue, inquiry and conversations.

Tips to develop a coaching style:

  • Listen and observe well. Note how someone learns best (see previous column on learning styles) and what their strengths are.
  • Delegate more and direct less (once you have assessed the employee has the skills required to do the task and has the necessary commitment). Always make clear what the parameters are when delegating (i.e. time, budget and other resources).
  • Use errors as learning opportunities.
  • Help your people learn to solve problems themselves vs. doing it for them.

Lastly, bring in coaching training for your employees.  My own coach training modules is one of my most popular trainings.  Invest in your managers today by calling me:  360 682 5807.


Tips for Project Managers

Project Management Tips“Project Management” can mean many different things. In simplistic terms it can be defined as meeting the goals/deliverables of a project within budget and on time. This column addresses some of the common challenges I encounter when coaching project managers.

Effective project management equates to many factors.  The basics are good planning, risk management, organizing and managing resources. Being able to establish and manage realistic expectations for actionable follow through, clear communications and end results often equate to “best practice.” The most effective project managers (PMs) are skilled not only in making the complex simple but being able to communicate the complex in a way that is both understandable and actionable. The best can anticipate the unforeseen including potential roadblocks and obstacles. Project managers that are worth their weight in gold are those with strong problem solving, negotiation, attention to detail, adaptability and interpersonal skills that equate to successful projects and positive customer relations.

To believe every item in a complex project will flow flawlessly isn’t realistic.  Given that, here are my coaching tips to help when the unexpected happens (and it will!):

  • Learn from mistakes (vs. assigning blame elsewhere).  A natural reaction of many project managers is to simply point a finger at either a team member or customer when things go wrong.  This often negatively impacts the relationship (and future business). Instead, “debrief” the problem or situation and “mine” the learnings so you (and your team) can apply them in the future.  Making mistakes the first time is one thing – what drives customers crazy (and away) is allowing the same mistakes to be made again and again.
  • Expect the unexpected. Set reasonable expectations (allow time for problems). Contingency plans are important! Plan for problems and challenges. Identify “go to” resource partners for complex concerns or critical project elements. Having a good relationship with those who can help you in a jam or direct you to the right resource is important.
  • Have checks and balances prior to project execution.   Increase the potential for accuracy, particularly for critical information on projects.  Establish a process to ensure another set of eyes (or multiple sets) that will provide review and authorization on detail items that have big consequences (this will also help you sleep better at night!) Examples of critical items include calculations, IP configurations, published contact information and security reviews/approvals.
  • Be willing to negotiate with customers and vendor partners when things go wrong.  Keep your customers out of trouble if you want future business- there is frequently shared responsibility for mistakes that do happen. Being flexible, admitting fault and “splitting the difference” can often mean saving an important customer or future partner relationships.
  • Identify and have access to key sponsors in the customer system.  If you are having trouble getting response, compliance or action required for the project to be successful, make sure the communication is coming from the right person in the system with the necessary authority and power to get action. Consultants and change agents take note– communications to resolve these issues ideally should come from the sponsors directly, particularly if getting action becomes problematic.
  • Stay positive and cool.  You losing your head when things go awry won’t help. In times of crisis people will gravitate and likely respond positively to those who display confidence and competence.  Focus on finding opportunities and thinking creatively while keeping calm.
  • Keep the end goal, and the relationship, in mind.  Yes, achieving the end result is important but so is how you got there. It’s the people end of the project management equation that often trip up project managers.  How you respond in times of crisis and dealt with others will be remembered long after the project is finished.

Why Workers Resist Change

Resistance to ChangeA client and I were recently discussing the natural resistance that accompanies most organizational change efforts when he quipped, “the only people who like change are wet babies!”  Well said.

Change is a part of our every day lives.  The pace of change is rapidly accelerating in workplaces.  Companies simply must keep up with the constant marketplace demands of change if they are to survive, much less thrive in this economy.

The ability to manage change effectively is a complex requirement of most managers and leaders in today’s workplaces.  Understanding how human’s process change is an important part of learning how to manage workplace change. The most challenging part of this equation is the “people” component.

Some of us are more receptive to change than others.  I’ve witnessed a worker revolt because of the need to move their desk by a foot! Others embrace almost any change as an exciting new opportunity or a deterrent to boredom.  Picture a typical bell curve when it comes to change.  About 20% of workers will be on the far end of the continuum of “Like change, bring it on!” while another 20% is on the other far end, “Not only no but —- no!”  The other 60% is in the middle and on the fence about the change; these are the folks you want to target your change management efforts towards.

Understanding the nature of change is important if you are going to succeed in your attempts at managing change in the workplace.  Humans seek control.  We tend to fear, dislike and avoid ambiguity.  We “react” negatively when our expectations for the way things should be aren’t met.  One rule of thumb–the more surprised we are by the change, the greater resistance you can expect.

It takes time for us to process and accept change.  Most initially respond to a change we didn’t create with disbelief and denial, “I can’t believe this is happening!”  This is usually the first stop on the change journey followed by resistance– picture arms crossed in defiance!  The next step is exploration, “OK, I guess we can try it anyway, do you have more information?” Exploration however is dependent on whether or not change is consistently well sponsored and communicated from leaders.  Once we have dipped our big toe into the change water and find it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, most of us will finally move to commitment (“I can support the change in this way”).

A few coaching tips to increase the likelihood of your change effort sticking:

  • Most humans are tuned into their own personal radio station-WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?)  Leaders trying to manage change should broadcast on this station to answers their typical questions like:  What will get better as a result of the change?  Worse? How much control do we have over what happens?  Can we assimilate this change at a reasonable pace?  Do we understand the micro/macro implications of the change?
  • People are more likely to support and commit to change they have helped create or design.  Involve your people (particularly the front line or “end users” of the change) early in the creation of the change.  Consult with them about their opinions.  What obstacles do they foresee?  How would they like to see the change rolled out?  What will work (or not) for them regarding the change?
  • Communicate often and consistently about the change.  Yes this will mean you have to repeat yourself—in my experience, most leaders greatly under communicate about change.  Use all available forums of communication available—intranet, email, phone, meetings and of course face-to-face conversations reinforcing the need and requirements for the change.  Wise sponsors of change know that what will dictate whether or not the change is adopted is their commitment and time spent shepherding it through the organization.
  • Allow people an opportunity to talk about and “vent” their frustrations about the change.  Yes, this may turn into a gripe session but better to get it out in the open and aired than for resistance to go underground.  Truly listening to understand what how your people feel about the change is important.    Once we feel “heard” we are more likely to move on.  Your people want to know that you care about them and how they will be impacted by the change. If you don’t respect them enough to at least hear them out about it—expect ongoing and potentially damaging resistance.

Workplace Gossip

Workplace GossipThe root of many workplace problems can be traced to a lack of communication or misperceptions that result from ineffective communication. In my coaching practice, workers often tell me they are reluctant to speak up candidly with one another about their concerns or what’s up for them. They fear office politics, losing a job, angering someone or retribution. Many also simply lack the skills to address difficult conversations directly. Unfortunately what many do instead is gossip and “triangle” in a third person (thereby avoiding talking to the offending person directly).

It’s easy to get sucked unconsciously into negative workplace energy. A colleague vents about someone else and pretty soon you find yourself nodding your head in agreement about how “so and so” is lousy at something. Bad feelings get shared, absorbed and co-workers develop negative perceptions about those they need to count on.

To a degree, it is human nature to complain. Yet, gossiping about others when they aren’t present damages trust, respect, morale and relationships. We pay a high price for the gossip or “triangle” approach. Most importantly, the issues don’t get resolved, particularly if the offending party is left in the dark. Additionally, gossip is toxic to workplace morale, camaraderie and team. It often spirals out of control leaving a wake of negativity, suspicion, resentment and broken communication. Team collaboration, creativity and productivity suffer because a lack of trust impedes healthy debate and open dialogue.

My mission is to get people talking to each other and not about each other. Here are my coach’s tips:

  • Notice your energy the next time you are engaged in a negative complaining or gossip conversation about someone else. Odds are you will notice a drop in your energy and enthusiasm. You may even note a weight on your shoulders that now burdens your body, emotions and mind. How is this serving you?
  • Are you unconsciously or automatically looking at situations and people with a “critical” eye? Challenge yourself to use an “appreciative” eye and look for what’s right about others vs. looking for what’s wrong on auto pilot.
  • If you are feeling angry, identify and own your “judgments” and then identify what you are needing/wanting that you aren’t getting. Do you have a need for more information, inclusion, equality or respect? Express your feelings and unmet needs to the other.
  • Be authentic. Say what is true for you while being conscious of respectful delivery of the information. Ask for what you need to be successful with a workplace task or role.
  • Hold interpersonal judgments lightly and consider that you may have the information wrong. Test your perceptions.
  • Discourage coworkers from gossiping. Either change the subject or refuse to take part in a conversation about someone when they aren’t present.
  • Take stock of the facts before you automatically become the judge and jury of a coworker. We humans are remarkably adept at making up stories and meaning to situations we don’t fully understand. We frequently leap to conclusions often with little or no data. Check and verify your perceptions before taking action that might result in harmful consequences.
  • Be intentional about how you speak about others when they aren’t present. Ask yourself how what you will say may serve either you or others?
  • If something is bothering you or there has been a missed expectation, take it up with the person directly. This takes courage and as long as the delivery of the message is handled with care and intention, most often the relationship will be improved.
  • Prepare for difficult workplace conversations. Begin with the end in mind—where do you want to end up as a result of this conversation? How can you deliver the message in a way that the other person can hear?

Boundary Setting at Work

Workplace BoundariesBoundaries are the focus of many of my client coaching conversations. For many individuals, establishing and maintaining appropriate workplace boundaries are a big challenge. Some lack confidence or assertiveness skills to successfully negotiate boundaries while others take on too much responsibility (enabling others to under function) resulting in overwhelm, resentment and stress. Others lack the appropriate interpersonal understanding of courteous and professional standards.

I think of boundaries as limits (or fences)—being able to know where I end (or where my work ends) and the other begins. Being able to set limits, having autonomy, decision making control and determining acceptable and non-acceptable behavior from others involves setting boundaries.

There are two categories of boundaries that matter in the workplace, personal (tied to interpersonal appropriateness) and professional. Professional boundaries determine the limits and responsibilities of those that you interact with in the workplace.

Workplace and team success are intricately tied to boundaries. Team members feel safe and operate more efficiently with each other when roles, tasks, standards of behavior and responsibilities are clearly defined, understood and agreed to by all. I find as an organizational consultant that the fairer and clearer the boundaries are—the better interpersonal relationships and teams operate. There are boundaries to consider whenever you are interacting with someone else or another department. When there is confusion about who has responsibility for what—finger pointing, conflict, accountability and performance issues arise.

When professional boundaries are well established and maintained—tasks and responsibilities are clear and understood thus alleviating redundancy and/or confusion about “whose on first and whose on second?” or “not my job”.

Job descriptions are one form of professional boundary setting but the problem is most are far too general. Few job descriptions clearly define specific tasks, duties and responsibilities (particularly with work being handed off and passed back and forth between departments). Most bosses and team leaders need to spend more time and attention on clarifying acceptable performance standards and task responsibilities.

Here are my coach’s tips around boundary setting:

  • First you need to know your own limits. What can you do well given the amount of time and resources you have been given?
  • Work through your fear of addressing the issue. Being able to work through tough issues successfully generally fosters improved trust in teams and relationships. Don’t be afraid to negotiate boundaries with the boss or coworkers. Start by communicating your intention/desire to produce quality work while identifying what constraints you face given available resources and/or available time. Identify and communicate what you need to be successful. What do you need from others? You likely have information and/or insight they lack. Clue them in on what reality looks like from your vantage. Boundary negotiations often revolve around establishing priorities, “reasonable” expectations and agreed to definition of performance standards.
  • Communicate your abilities respectfully and honestly. Don’t try to pretend you can do something you cannot nor try to be superman/ superwoman! You burning out or feeling resentful isn’t healthy for you or the business. Speak up if you know you have been given an impossible or improbable task with limited odds of success. On the flip side, in this tough economic environment if you are just trying to protect your Internet surfing or slack off time—beware because these days dead wood is being cut!
  • Listen and verify your understanding of the others needs, interests, concerns and feelings. Emotions are often “up” when negotiating boundaries—people often react with fear or anger when they believe their interests are threatened. If you dismiss the other’s emotions you will be fueling them. Instead, try to convey that you “get” them (by the way this doesn’t mean agreeing with them).
  • If you are the boss—it’s your responsibility to define acceptable and non-acceptable behavior for the good of the business and the people in it. There is middle ground in the continuum between having no boundaries (a bad thing) or having boundaries that are so rigid they stifle creativity, morale or a worker’s ability to do their best. There are of course some that should be rigid—stealing, verbal/physical abuse etc.
  • Who else needs to know? Much of workplace confusion and conflict is a result of someone failing to clue others in the organization in on changes in roles, task handoffs or performance criteria/expectations.