Good business coaches know that uncomfortable conversations are the harbinger of professional growth; the greater the squirm factor, the larger the developmental opportunity. My all-time favourite peer coach, Fiona, had a way of zeroing in like nobody else I’ve ever met. We wrote a contract that we called our Coaching Bedrock, in which we promised to doggedly hold each other accountable to achieve our stated goals. This included calling BS anytime our language even vaguely smacked of avoidance or excuses. I did some of my best thinking with Fiona. She passed away almost 5 years ago and I miss her.
So why would two people intentionally set out to challenge each other’s thinking by homing in on the very things we’d rather avoid? It was our way of living the Stockdale Paradox. Jim Collins defines it this way in Good To Great:
You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end AND you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.
The Stockdale Paradox pairs optimistic determination with the courage to proactively search out and face difficult facts. It’s not dissimilar to Andrew S. Grove’s business philosophy described in Only The Paranoid Survive, written while he was CEO of Intel. Instead of celebrating Intel’s phenomenal success, he insisted his leadership team work on predicting where the next business pressures would show up and then prepare for those possibilities. One of his main points is that only those who try to anticipate change will survive when change happens. He also provides honest insight with this line:
Looking back over my own career, I have never made a tough change, whether it involved resource shifts or personnel moves, that I haven’t wished I had made a year or so earlier.
What should you question right now?
Trying something new means trading the security of a routine path for the exhilaration — and terror — of the unknown.
It’s not just our own terror that requires facing down. No one is an island. Any change you undertake will ripple through those closest to you. Here are three things to bear in mind that may help you temper your enthusiasm with a little empathy.
- While you are feeling empowered and glorious in having just made the decision to shift something in your life, those around you are having your change thrust upon them. They weren’t with you as you moved through the stages of dissatisfaction, curiosity about what could be different, investigating options, and then making the final decision.
- Your announced change could seem like a statement of condemnation about something others value or enjoy. Decisions around losing weight or giving up alcohol may not be embraced by your friends if overeating and drinking are a big part of your social life. At work, deciding to out-perform yourself or striving to win a productivity contest could put you in bad stead with those who see your new behaviours as threatening to their own standing – especially if your improved output raises the bar for the rest of the team.
- Finally, there are those for whom any kind of change is traumatic. They may view your announcement with the same trepidation as a news bulletin stating the Earth will stop turning and your part of the planet will be thrown into a perpetual winter. For them, change is a big bad C word, second only to cancer in its negativity and guaranteed devastation.
While it’s important to be mindful of others’ feelings and help them adjust to your new goal or behaviour, this is not where your greatest resistance will come from. The hardest person to keep on the right track will be you. Old habits will begin poking at you as soon as your initial momentum flags or when you hit your first real obstacle. Negative self talk is a marvelous sabatoge method to get yourself off the hook. Watch what you tell yourself and be quick to substitute doubt-inducing thoughts with strong statements about what you want and what you are willing to do to make it real.
Managing change is not all doom and gloom and difficulty. The rewards are huge.
- There is nothing like knocking down a few barriers and powering through obstacles to give one a feeling of accomplishment.
- Exerting control over something in life is a great stress buster.
- Each time you undertake and achieve a new goal, you increase your chances of success with the next.
So what do you want to make happen? Here are some of my favourite coaching questions to get you started.
What would you like to accomplish that looks impossible, but if it could be achieved, would change everything?
If you knew you could not fail, what would you do differently today?
What should you stop doing that is no longer working for you?
Even superstars need a lift every now and then. And sometimes they need a push to get out their comfort zone to reach for that next level of achievement.
I’ve heard managers say they hire great people and then stay out of their way. It amazes me each time I hear that. Maybe that’s why so many companies have double-digit turnover rates.
~Great leaders challenge and stretch their people.~
Nothing merits a leader’s attention more than a motivated achiever. Here are some tried and true coaching questions designed to edge the conversation out of the mainstream and into the margins where you can play.
What’s working well for you right now?
What’s not working so well?
What are you committed to accomplishing in the next 90 days?
If you had no time restrictions, what would you do?
What are you hoping we won’t get to talk about?
Which goal are you most excited about?
Which goal leaves you cold and unmotivated?
The biggest and possibly most costly myth surrounding the management of contractors and temporary workers is that client companies should not engage in one-on-one coaching with these people.
This is wrong.
If you are a manager, your first job is to ensure that everyone on your team is fully engaged and working effectively toward the pursuit of your company’s objectives. Excluding some workers from coaching will reduce overall performance and may introduce the belief that there is a hierarchy of worthiness among workers.
Here are my top 3 reasons for conducting one-on-ones with temporary workers:
1) Relationships improve performance. What better way to build understanding and alignment than by giving individual attention.
2) A manager’s most important job is to lead people toward greater results than they could achieve without you. I don’t know how you can bring value to your team without talking to them.
3) By meeting with every member of your team you are sending the message that all workers matter, regardless of employment status. This sets the tone for respect – something that temporary workers truly appreciate and should be able to expect on the job site.
One proviso: Make sure there is clarity around which conversations the staffing agency takes care of (pay, assignment status, benefits) and which the client company is directly responsible for (site-specific performance coaching, on-site safety, department objectives and measurements). This should remove co-employment concerns when coaching temporary workers.
I recommend two podcasts on this topic. They can be found on the Manager Tools web site. If you haven’t sampled Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne before now, you are in for a treat. Enjoy part 1 here. The link to part 2 is on the same page.
Last month I had a conversation with someone who counseled me to ensure that I was keeping a healthy balance of tactical versus strategic goals. I love that we had that conversation and have given quite a bit of thought to it in the days and weeks following our telephone meeting. In my mind, that’s the mark of a great coaching conversation — the words return over and over and bring one to new places or new ideas.
What made this conversation so special? I’ll give myself some small credit for being open to coaching — but that’s not unique [smugly pats self on back]. What was different is I was speaking to someone who had already invested significant time toward clarifying and distilling the essence of “what needs to happen” into intentional action and a teachable point of view. This person’s communication style was once described to me as “masterful” by a client. People who really know their stuff are able to convey complex ideas simply and clearly. They help us see what’s possible and get us excited about going there.
This made me think of another colleague who provided leadership insight that I use on a regular basis. I sent questions in advance of our conversation as I was seeking solid, meaningful feedback. In the space of a 45-minute conversation she was able to help me find the one thing I could work on that would bring the most value and the greatest results.
In both these situations I received valuable coaching from people who were a step or two removed from the results of my actions. Maybe that’s the key. We were able to lift ourselves out of the day-to-day expectations and instead fly into the future and examine what’s possible and what needs to be different.
Where are your mentors? Are there people you admire that you would like to reach out to? I’m challenging myself to interact with individuals I don’t know well – perhaps some of my LinkedIn connections – where there could be a valuable interchange of thoughts and ideas. I’m also reaching out to people who have had a positive mentoring impact on me to say thank you and continue the conversation.
Would you be brave enough to publish your devastating failures to the world? When Jack Welch wrote Straight From The Gut he was determined to openly share his business experience – everything from successful long-term strategies to his worst mistakes. Jack’s unselfish sharing is his attempt to save the rest of us from taking the same painful paths. In my estimation this is a stunning example of transparent leadership. This is recommended reading for leaders in any industry.
There is beauty in admitting mistakes. It sets the tone for honest relationships. A leader who can create an environment in which people feel free to be wrong will take his/her organization to higher levels of innovation, productivity and results.
Another element of transparent leadership comes from identifying our own hidden agendas and making intentional decisions about their usefulness. Are we truly present with others or are we silently reinforcing an unexpressed belief that is rolling around in the back of our mind? One way to test these sideline thoughts is to employ perception checking by asking: “Would you like to hear something I’m thinking right now?” Sharing these insights in a respectful way gives both parties a chance to examine alternate paths of thought. It also serves to bring your internal musings out into the light where they can be further developed or quashed.
If you are intrigued by perception checking as a leadership tool, I recommend Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations. Don’t be put off by the title – according to the author a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.