Archive for May, 2009

A manager is not necessarily a coach. Yet it seems we think they automatically are once they become a boss. Just like being promoted to a management position does not mean someone is necessarily a good manager, expecting a manager to effectively coach their people does not mean they will be successful at it. It also does not mean the people who report to them want to be coached by them.

Of course a manager CAN be a coach to someone who reports to them. But the assumption that once I am your manager I am also your coach is seriously flawed.

I continue to see this assumption at play in organizations of all sizes. It can cause a lot of mischief in the relationships between managers and the people who report to them.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an advocate of managers developing strong coaching skills. Yet when we fail to establish the foundation for a successful coaching relationship, we end up with far more failures than successes and a whole lot of unnecessary frustration and disappointment.

Many years ago I consulted with a Fortune 50 organization that wanted to establish a coaching relationship between managers and their people as the new status quo. They even changed the title of managers to coach. While well intended it was the equivalent of waving a magic wand expecting a new context for relationships and new competencies to manifest. Needless to say it backfired.

Expectations were set without the necessary context setting and skill building to ensure they could be met. Essentially managers were set up to fail as coaches and the people who reported to them were set up to be disappointed. Whether we have officially changed titles today, the advent of coaching as a profession seems to have fueled an unwritten expectation that managers should be coaches, too.

A successful coaching relationship requires mutual trust, respect, and distinct competencies. It also requires that both parties choose to have a coaching relationship. It cannot be created based on expectations resulting from the positioning of boxes on an org chart or without the support necessary for a manager to learn do it competently.

Here are 3 things you can do to increase your chances of being a successful coach as a manager.

1. Choose

As a coach you can only be successful if you are actually committed to the person you are coaching, including the commitments of that person for their future. You may not like everyone who reports to you. You may not truly be committed to their future or believe that they are even capable of achieving the future they want. Consider the possibility that the most productive and honest context for your relationship may be purely about getting the work done. That is not bad and it is not wrong. As a manager you are responsible for the development of your people so the best thing for both of you may be to find someone else to provide coaching in the domains you cannot.

However, that does not mean it is ok to sell out on someone because it is easier to pass them off to someone else. My point is that if you do not authentically choose, you will not serve anyone. Consider that you may need some coaching yourself in this regard. It could be a even be a great opportunity for your own growth.

2. Ask for Permission

Being deemed someone’s boss does not equal permission. Effective coaching requires choice on the part of the person being coached. When I report to someone I am accountable to them. That does not mean I trust them enough or even want them to coach me. In the absence of permission to coach you cannot make a difference as a coach. Permission cannot be assumed, it must be granted consciously.

This does not mean you should not provide guidance and advice, but realize that your ability to affect fundamental change and growth will be limited. A good clue that someone has not given you permission is when they do not listen or take your advice despite how well you think you delivered the message or how hard you tried.

3. Be Responsible for Your Power

The context of the boss-subordinate relationship goes counter to an effective coaching relationship because the boss has the power. One of your roles as a manager is to assess performance. For some people that means they only want to talk to their managers about what they are doing well. A performance gap is not a good thing on a performance review in most companies. This makes it even harder to coach someone who reports to you.

Professional development plans are created separately for this reason. Yet unless there is sufficient trust between the two of you, the development plan may be more of a check the box exercise for you both than a bold stand for realizing potential. In fact, the boldness of their plan may say more about the level of trust in your relationship than it does about their appetite for growth or their awareness of their gaps.

We also need to be conscious of the tendency to assume that someone’s manager and coach should be the same person.

Managers are responsible for developing their people, not for doing all of the development themselves. So a great place to start is to consider if you are the right coach for what is required and/or desired. You may even be the right coach for some things and not others. Determining the right fit requires a conversation and an honest assessment of the relationship, as well as the skills of the manager to provide what is needed.

One final thought…becoming a great coach takes commitment, hard work and time. It is no different than any other skill of management in that regard. Not everyone is committed to doing that work and that is really ok. You can still be a competent manager. I do believe, however, the best managers are also the ones who are great coaches.

What do you think?


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The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question. –Peter Drucker

Tim Hurson tells a story in his book Think Better that got my attention. He shares that NASA invested millions of dollars developing a zero gravity pen because the pens we had did not work in space. The Soviets, of course, had the same problem. Except their solution was far simpler and much cheaper – use a pencil.

How could such smart people miss something so obvious?

The simple answer is that they asked a different question, hence they solved a different problem. NASA asked “how can we get a pen to write in space?”. The Soviet’s asked “how can we write in space?”. Both questions and the problems they were trying to solve were valid. And both could declare success. After all, they solved their problem.

Yet it is the thinking behind the questions we ask and the problems we choose to solve that I believe merits a closer look.

Consider that this is a clear demonstration of what happens when we focus on solving a problem without first getting clear about what we want and need to accomplish.

NASA asked a questions that led to solving the problem of the pen not writing in space. The Soviets asked a question that essentially focused them on the desired outcome based on the need at hand – to be able to write in space.

Unfortunately at the time it seems like we know exactly what we are trying to accomplish. In fact, it is often so clear in our own minds that we don’t even stop to consider that perhaps we are not asking the question that will put us on the most productive path to accomplish what we need to accomplish in the first place.

Consider that our propensity to focus on problems rather than desired outcomes is a potentially very costly blind spot.

In coaching thousands of people in producing breakthrough results, this is one of the most common blind spots I have encountered. Attempts to intervene are more often than not met with resistance because it feels like it is unnecessarily slowing people down. It seems inefficient. Unfortunately we all too often choose what seems to be efficient in the moment at the expense of our ultimate productivity.

The costs of solving the wrong problem can be enormous as demonstrated in this example. It is neither efficient nor productive.

Why do we fall into this trap?

Tim points out that “Your mind consistently chooses to follow well worn patterns, rather than generate new thoughts, new interpretations or new ways of doing things.” In this example he points out that NASA was grounded in looking for solutions based in high technology so that is the pattern of thinking they automatically defaulted to. This is certainly part of the thinking behind the question they asked.

I also think there is another well worn pattern of thinking at play here: focusing on problems rather outcomes.

We have been trained and rewarded for being great problem solvers. It is a highly useful skill and can be incredibly satisfying. We love to solve problems. We also like to get into action as quickly as possible so we are inherently motivated to identify the problem quickly so we can get right to work.

For the most part we have not been trained in the discipline of outcome based thinking.

For many people, taking the time to step back from a problem and think about what we really want to accomplish can occur as a waste of time, especially when the problem, and even the solution, seem so obvious.

Problem solving usually feels like the right thing to do in the moment which is why there is little motivation to challenge our thinking. Yet without the discipline of what Tim Hurson calls productive or Tenkaizen thinking we limit what is possible. What else might NASA have invented with those same resources if they just used a pencil?

In Think Better, Tim Hurson makes the case for the value of investing in the discipline of productive thinking. He also offers a very effective and accessible model for how to engage in productive thinking. I highly recommend the book.

What I offer here is one simple thing you can do to intervene in the drift of what I call our addiction to problem solving:

Next time you find yourself solving a problem, stop and ask yourself (and your team) these questions:

1. What are we ultimately trying to accomplish in solving this problem?
2. How will we know we have accomplished it?
3. Will solving this problem accomplish that objective or are there other things we need to consider or problems we also need to solve?

You will likely still end up solving a problem, although it may not be the one you originally thought you had. However, you will also increase your chances of asking and answering more productive questions.

What techniques do you use for making sure you are asking and answering the best possible questions?

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There is a practice on Twitter called #followfriday. The point is to share about who you are following that you think others might be interested in following as well. It is also an opportunity to appreciate people for their contribution to you. And it was a really great thing. At least it was for a while.

Unfortunately good ideas can be executed badly and/or misused to the point where their purpose gets lost and their value gets diminished. Seth Simonds suggests this is exactly what has happened to #followfriday in his post Out with #FollowFriday and In with Connected Communities.

I agree with him, although I am not ready to abandon it quite yet.

I think if those of us who believe in its original purpose provide some leadership it could once again be a valuable practice that can deliver on its promise to the twitter community. In fact I think some people have continued to operate true to the original intent.

Yet what is most compelling to me is that this is not just a twitter story.

We can learn a lot about leadership and organizational behavior from observing what has been happening here. In fact, I’ll suggest that what has happened with #followfriday is a common phenomenon in communities of all kinds.

All too often programs are initiated in the spirit of doing something meaningful and aspirational, yet degrade to the point of becoming meaningless and even fueling resignation and cynicism. And yes I would call #followfriday a program because, while it is not formally administered in any way, it is a structured approach to accomplishing a goal. The goal here, as I understand it, is to connect and appreciate people.

Programs for acknowledgment and appreciation are particularly common in formally organized communities. Employee of the Month, Sports Awards Events, and Character Counts Certificate Programs are examples. Some work well, even leading to desired and lasting changes in behavior, and some do not.

Just like #followfriday, programs usually start out with noble intentions.

Yet we have all seen at least some of them fail to live up to their initial promise: awards are given that end up being meaningless to the recipients, distrust can be fueled when people believe the “panel” chose their favorites over the people who were really deserving, we have to pinch ourselves just to stay awake at a supposed celebratory event, etc.

Here are three signs a program is failing to deliver on its promise, followed by 3 things we can do about it.


1. We lose sight of why we started the program to begin with.

Our mood when engaging in anything to do with the program does not match the spirit of the program’s intent. Resignation replaces enthusiasm and a sense of doing something that really matters. As a result we go through the motions with little sense of satisfaction.

2. Expectations take the place of authenticity.

We start feeling obligated rather than motivated to participate. And we start making our choices based on our considerations (e.g. will someone feel left out) rather than our commitments (e.g., wanting to acknowledge someone who you really believe stands out).

3. Individuals figure out how to work the system for their own personal gain AND we let them take over.

People start trying out new ways to manipulate the system so they win. We start to behave in ways and/or see behavior that is inconsistent with the original intent. And more often than not we do not say a word. We wait and hope someone else will intervene, or people will see the error of their ways, or we start complaining about “them”. We may just abandon the program altogether or sit on the sidelines hoping it just goes away.


1. We can wake people up. That includes ourselves! Until I read Seth’s post I continued to go along even though something did not seem quite right. I thank him for holding up the mirror so I could wake up to what this was really all about once again.

Waking people up to their commitments is an act of leadership. However, be forewarned that it can initially make them angry because it can feel like you just got hit with a cold bucket of water. But if they are truly committed they will thank you for it later!

2. We can take personal responsibility. That starts with owning our part in the breakdown. I clearly played a part in the degradation of a once fabulous practice called #followfriday. One example is that I got lazy by posting lists of names instead of taking the time to share why I though someone was worth following.

Responsibility is not about beating yourself up though. If you are human you will at least occasionally get caught in the drift. It is what you do once you are awake that really matters because that is when you can choose to do something different (or not).

3 questions to help you get back on track when you have list your way are: 1 – what am I committed to here?, 2 – what could I do?, and 3 – what will I do?

3. We can take action. Do something to put things back on track OR choose to stop. If it is worthwhile take the point of view that success or failure is up to you and take action accordingly. On the other hand, letting something that isn’t working continue on because no one wants to admit it is not working is exhausting for the people involved and potentially damaging to the organization. Choosing to end something or offering an alternative way to accomplish the same goal can be very empowering.

Our willingness to provide leadership to any program can make the difference in whether or not it will succeed. It does not matter whether we are “in charge” or not. Our leadership still matters.


Look around you. Are you part of a program that is not living up to its promise? If so, what are you going to do now?

As for me, I have not given up on #followfriday. As a start I am going to stop just listing names and start making meaningful recommendations once again.

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