Around the time I entered the workforce, business was becoming very touchy-feely. This was well past the Mad Men era. The omnipotent, never-wrong boss was still around but he (yes inevitably a “he”) was a dying breed. Hippies were now starting to enter the management roles. New age management practices were adopted by the stodgiest companies. Staff was becoming more “empowered” and managers were expected to be more like coaches and less like bosses.
This contrasts with today’s management practices in which most companies are trying to remake themselves as the next Google or Apple or fleet-footed Silicon Valley start-up. There are plenty of studies about these companies and how they become and stay successful. None of them talk about management’s coaching skills. Of all the accolades Steve Jobs gets for his genius, the word “coach” never crosses anybody’s lips.
I work in a company that aspires to be synonymous with your Googles and your Apples. We hire experienced and accomplished staff because we don’t have much opportunity to coach. For me that means, while at my v1.0 job, I have to put away my Health Coach costume in exchange for a mild-mannered businessman costume. There is no time for coaching.
Or do we have it wrong? What if I let that costume show a little?
More Reflective and Quiescent Than a Still Pond
A few weeks back I received a call from a colleague who was having an existential crisis at work. This colleague called me to get advice on some challenges with the new boss. This person and I worked together in my start-up and transitioned to the company that bought us. The acquisition was good for this person because a larger company with more resources could be more supportive where this person needed it most. The colleague was doing well but now was feeling unappreciated.
We spent an hour on the phone. I mostly just listening and occasionally played back what I heard. Sometimes when my colleague was down in the weeds, I asked some open-ended questions that returned the focus to what he or she wanted in the long-term. At the end of the call, my colleague had a good feeling of what to do and when I checked in later, took the actions that we discussed in the call. Things were moving in the right direction.
And all I needed to do was listen and ask the occasional open-ended question. I could have given advice. I could have discussed what I had done in the same situation. I could have turned into a joint bitch session. The call probably still would have ended on a positive note. But, this call was about my colleague; not me. I was being other-focused. And because the next steps were really things that my colleague came up with on his or her own, there was full accountability.
Some people think that only the inexperienced need coaching. They’re wrong. Experienced people get stuck and unmotivated too. The coaching tools may be different depending on how experienced and knowledgeable your “client” is, but it’s still coaching.
More Mindful than a Buddhist Monk
Some of the characteristics of mindful awareness include being:
- Focused on the present moment. Not fretting about what already happened. Not worrying about what may be.
- Non-judgmental, accepting, and compassionate.
- Of a beginners mind. Treating the present experience as if it was something you’ve never experienced before.
- Patient and non-striving
Mindful awareness is usually something I can get away with whether I’m in coach costume or not. Mindful awareness is like Superman’s x-ray vision. He can use it when he is Superman and when he is Clark Kent and no one can tell.
In general, I’m a pretty mindful person. But we all have our own kryptonite. My kryptonite is any conference call where the automated greeting says “you are caller number 40”. My ability to be mindful is inversely related to the number of people on a conference call.
On one hand, I feel that my participation in a call so widely attended is of limited value. On the other hand, any situation is what I make of it. One thing’s for sure, if I prejudge the call is of no value, it almost certainly will be of no value. Furthermore, just about any business situation will benefit from the characteristics of mindfulness.
For example, most business people have to learn from the past (lessons learned) and plan for the future (strategize). On the surface this is counter to “focusing on the present”. Not so. There is a time for reflecting on what you should have done and a time for mapping out what you should be doing. If you don’t allocate time for reflection or planning, you need to. Otherwise you’re going to be doing it in the background (e.g. planning for your next meeting with a customer) when you should be paying attention to what’s happening (listening to a concern of an employee). And you won’t be doing either well.
How about being non-judgmental and of a beginner’s mind? The movie Office Space didn’t come up with the Jump to Conclusion Mat meme for nothing.
Don’t assume intent. We often have a tendency to try to read between the lines. A good example is when some colleague’s email rubs us the wrong way. We start hearing what they typed in a certain tone of voice that gets on our nerves. Our immediate reaction is to escalate.
Don’t! Seek clarification instead. Be curious. Because once you escalate tension, you can never take it back.
Able to Self-Manage Through Some Bad@$$ Motherf*cking $hit
Last summer our executives asked me to take on a highly disruptive new project. I agreed it was a good initiative to pursue but I also knew that the people in the company who need to live with it day-to-day would not like the idea. Change is uncomfortable. I knew that the 2 or 3 really great reasons for doing this new thing would be countered with 100 or so bad reasons of minor significance.
So I started working through the change process and every day my staff would push back with the new potential obstacle of the day. I would breathe it in, let it sit there a while, and respond “if you’re right, and this is really as big an issue as you think, then we’ll decide not to move forward but we have to get to that point first”. I didn’t push back. I didn’t argue. I just gave it the old “que sera sera”.
Often, in pursuit of this initiative, I had to ask the team to do things they didn’t have the skills for. If they tried and missed the mark, I’d take what they did, mold it into something closer to the target, hand it back, and let them try again. There were no repercussions for failed attempts. But I didn’t treat it like a pee wee soccer, everyone-gets-a-trophy moments either. The staff learned new skills and took pride in them.
Little by little, as we worked through the process, they started to see the wisdom of the change. They became vested in it. They too wanted it to succeed. As we were approaching the end of the project, I went on a trip to HQ to do some final financial and contract work with someone on my team.
It was a wasted trip. Why? First of all, the person on my team, who all along was the biggest resister, had done all the work flawlessly without any support from me. This was someone who six months earlier did not have the skills or experience for financial or contract work. So I didn’t need to be there to help
But I did need to be there to present the final package to the executives who asked us to do this work in the first place. After the presentation, they told my staff and me they would take it under advisement. Hmmmm, not a good sign. I was asked to stay after class while the rest of my staff was dismissed. This is when they told me that this new initiative; this initiative that they’d asked for; the one that I had invested most of the year turning a resistant staff into a supportive one; was not something they were sure they wanted to pursue. They explicitly said that we executed this change process without a hitch. We exceeded their expectations. They just thought maybe they wanted to go in a different direction now.
That night, on the evening news, there was no report about a mushroom cloud looming over some suburban office park in the north-east. That is called self management. It would not do any good to react with a lizard brain at that moment. Instead the best option at this point is to use the same coaching skills that worked so well with my staff and apply them to our executives. Meanwhile, my staff and I have to find and celebrate the small win.
A superhero’s job is never done.