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Coaching Leadership

Everything Old is New Again

In a large enough organisation, it is easy to lose the thread of where we are now. Great practices and processes can be lost as people move on to different roles or focus on new things. As you grow, people joining the company will bring their own experiences forwards, without necessarily understanding the history of what has gone before.

This is another classic communication conundrum, having people tread the same ground multiple times, solve problems that have already been solved or go chasing off in multiple different directions is incredibly wasteful. What can you do to reduce the likelihood of this happening?

Document the good stuff! People are unreliable over time, so write it down if it’s good. Give access to people who are interested in the specific topic, and make sure it’s easy to edit and keep up to date. This is great for repeatable processes like hiring, and it’s super good for recording decisions, especially when you choose not to do something.

Next, make sure there’s someone who has responsibility for the thing, and time to manage it. For small stuff, that might be part of a role, but again, as you grow you might find it’s important enough to hire someone, or build entire teams around it. I’ve taken onboarding practices from an ad-hoc group of volunteers, to a defined part of people’s roles, to the entire job of a small team. This gives amazing continuity and saved us from re-inventing the wheel multiple times.

Then you need to communicate it. Remind people where things are stored. Ask them if they have seen the docs, or talked to the people who are already doing the thing. Connect them up. If someone is keen to improve a recruitment practice, hook them into the groups already working in that space.

If people are new and want to investigate a product area that’s previously been discounted, then accelerate them by giving them the state of the art. Get them to answer the question “What’s changed?”, and they’ll save massive effort on getting to where you have already been, and be well prepared for any long-serving nay-sayers they meet on the path.

Also, make sure the people who are already doing a thing are easy to find and noisy about what they do. This is when you broadcast, that’s where you share your wins on the public channels. That’s an excellent use of the wiki, intranet or company Slack. Help people find you early, and you don’t crush their dreams when you tell them that you’ve already solved that problem.

It’s poisonous to leave people solving problems you’ve already solved, it’s the quickest way to waste massive sums of money and great tracts of time. Build that organisational memory, and propel people to the novel and new.

Innovate in fresh areas to drive on to great success.

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Coaching Leadership

Delegation

Effective delegation is a vital skill to scale your efforts as a leader.

As with any skill, it takes practice to get right, and it’s certainly something you can get wrong. Bad delegation is an abrogation of responsibility, it leaves people confused and uncertain, and it’s a super quick way to confirm any rumours that management is ‘out of touch’.

Good delegation is a powerful way to develop people in your organisation, and to get them ready to take on aspects of your role, so you can step up to the next level yourself.

Look out for opportunities that align to the development needs of the person you wish to delegate to. That could be their strengths to take to the next level, or it could be a gap where they need to show stronger competencies on a wider stage.

Early on, it can be hard to let go. Use the 70% rule. If you think the person is going to be at least 70% as effective as you, then they are ready to take on the delegation. Don’t wait until they are 100% ready, especially if you lean towards perfectionism. This is because your judgement is going to be somewhat off, if you think 70%, it’s more likely they are just about there, and if you think they are 100%, then it’s likely they were really ready a long time ago.

Also, start small. Don’t delegate a year long project, start with something that runs for a few weeks at most. It’ll be easier to track progress, and failure here is likely to be less than catastrophic.

To ensure a good delegation experience, you need to set solid expectations, you need to show trust and you need to verify what’s going on. It’ll be rocky the first few times, so check-in on these as you go, and don’t be afraid to reflect and correct.

  • Expectation – This sets clear boundaries, you explain what the goals are, what the parameter are and especially what success and failure looks like.
  • Trust – You then need to give space to the person to achieve the outcome. They won’t do it like you would, so don’t micromanage
  • Verify – Trust the process, check-in on the progress. Agree when you’ll do this as part of the expectation setting, and scale it based on the importance and duration of the task. Daily check-ins on a yearlong project are probably too often, but might not be for a week long effort. Make sure it’s close enough together to enable easy course correction, but far enough apart to avoid constraining creativity.

Use these techniques, and you are much more likely to turn delegation into a great development opportunity rather than an abrogation of responsibility.

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Coaching Leadership

Point to Point

Different messages need different types of communication. Big broadcasts will not always cut it, sometimes you need to think about when it’s right to use methods when there are only a couple of people in the conversation.

Going point-to-point is great when the conversation is nuanced, any time that you need to discuss something in a back and forth way. That might be having a difficult conversation about development, or when you need to discover more information before making a decision.

It’s also great if the topic only affects a few people, or if there’s an outsized impact of a change on a small group of people. For example, if you are going to make a change to how a process is run, it’s almost certainly going to be a broadcast message. However, if there are a few people who will be negatively impacted, you should communicate that directly and personally in an individual setting. This is especially relevant for times when the changes are impacting people slightly differently, you use the capacity for back and forth to understand the impact on them, and make sure you are acknowledging that impact.

You might go point-to-point to build up support for an idea or change before sharing the big broadcast. Similarly to the way you look at people who are negatively impacted, here you look for people who will have an outsized positive change. These will be big supporters, so get them onside before you go public.

Not every communication in your working life will be best served with a Slack message, an email blast or a shout out in the all hands. Look out for times when you need the personal touch, and go point-to-point when the time is right

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Coaching Leadership

We are Rational

In any organisation, there are people doing different roles. We’ve looked at how you can understand the complexity in these roles by putting yourself in the position of others.

When you get into a large enough organisation, there will be lots of people working in similar roles to you, some of whom you might never have met!

This brings a different problem to understanding a different role. Sometimes you’ll be thrown together on a project, and you’ll have to adjust your own frame of reference to get what’s going on with people in different teams or departments.

As you are intimately familiar with your own problems, then it’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking all your solutions are right, and they are the rational approach. This is even more common for Engineers and those that work in various analytical fields.

Working with people who have the same role, you can then quite easily transfer this thinking, and project it onto colleagues unfairly. If they take approaches that are not the ones you would have chosen, or value different things, then you risk thinking that these approaches are irrational, purely because you are sure your solution is the rational one.

Watch out for this! It’s a quick way to conflict, and the fastest way to make sure you don’t make any real progress.

Instead, deploy some empathy. Use your expertise to understand the problems of your colleagues. What’s different about their solution? Is it cultural, is there a misunderstanding, or maybe something that they know and you don’t?

Be open and ready to learn, steer away from the accusing Why? and instead build your understanding with questions that start with “What …”

Spend some time just digging in to these concerns, and you’ll reap the rewards of closer working as you get the rationality of others, where you may have missed it before.

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Book Review Coaching Leadership

The Advice Trap

Michael Bungay Stanier gives us The Advice Trap, a guide to understanding your default advice giving behaviours, and a range of techniques to tame them. Instead, he suggests you stay curious for longer, and Michael shows you why that’s important.

It’s another short and punchy book, very much in the mould of The Coaching Habit. It’s not quite a sequel, but it certainly builds on the ideas of the previous book and you might take more from The Advice Trap if it’s not the first MBS book you pick-up.

It’s very much positioned towards leaders rather than pure coaches, and it encourages you towards behaviours that allow your leadership to become more coach-like.

We start with a whistle-stop tour of why giving advice is not a great default position, and how it kills off the Drive of the people you are giving advice to. Next up, we learn a bit about Easy vs Hard change, and how giving less advice is certainly in the “Hard change” bucket.

You get to explore whether you are a Tell-It, Save-It or Control-It type person, although you will probably recognise a bit of all of them in you. I certainly did!

We look at a ways to deflect each of these behaviours to become more coach-like, and also get to see the pain of each type of advice monster. Tell-It means you jump in too early and give answers to the first problem, not the biggest one, Control-It means you avoid risk, so don’t explore new and different ideas, and so on.

You get a whirlwind summary of the Coaching Habit, either as a great summary or enough context to catch-up up if you’ve not read it.

The practical advice continues, digging into a lot of Foggifiers, the tactics and pitfalls that people deploy to get away from the hard work of coaching and bringing about change. You’ll recognise all these behaviours, whether it’s deflecting to other people rather than working on what you can control, or going so big picture you can’t find something that’s actually available to be changed.

We also bring in the TERA quotient, Tribe, Expectation, Rank and Autonomy. By lifting these up, you gain more engagement, and are more likely to then get to great outcomes and big change.

The rest of the book is really about practising and cementing these skills, everything from being generous to finding ways to drop in even more of the coach-like behaviours.

There’s also a bonus chapter of advice on when it’s good to use advice! As leaders we need to know when it’s right to use a range of techniques, and whilst advice is likely to be an overused tool, it’s no good going so far the other way that you never use it.

This is another great book for leaders who want to strengthen their coaching muscles. It’s a quick read that you can dip back into whenever you need to, and the exercises and self-reflection tasks are really powerful ways to take even more from it!

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Coaching Leadership

Exponential Starts Slow

When you are looking for any sort of compounding growth, it’s really important to remember that it starts off really slowly. If you look at any curve, you see that most of the growth occurs at the end of the interval.

That’s why you need to take the motivational posts about small efforts with a big pinch of salt. Growing by 1% every day for year does indeed get you to 37x from where you started, but getting to double will take you 70 days, rather than the 10 you’d expect if it was growing in a straight line.

So, you start off slow. It feels hard, and it doesn’t feel like you are making much progress. That’s why I like to think about the Flywheel in this early phase.

When you know the early efforts will be hard, it’s easier to keep pushing. Build up that momentum with an early shove, then you can maintain and grow over time with the same push.

If you don’t immediately see 10x growth, then don’t be disheartened. Look for the positive progress and hold on to the those incremental gains. See it getting easier, and the process of change becoming a habit. Do that, and you’ll get over the slow start, and the growth will come.

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Coaching Leadership

You Don’t Have One Problem Anymore

When you only have one problem, it’s almost certainly got an approachable solution. It might not be easy, and it might take a while to get there, but you will likely be able to see a path to get to where you need to be.

This can often be the state of play when you are working at the level of a single team. You have one big overriding problem to deal with at a time, you figure it out, then you solve it.

As you take on more responsibility, the chances that you are dealing with just a single problem become vanishingly small. Working across a group of teams, you quickly find that each team has their own problems, whether that’s product, project or people issues. There’s also things going on in the wider world, across the organisation and even inside your own department.

Now you need to work with different strategies. These problems are going to be linked to one another, so working on one could make another worse. You won’t be able to solve them all, so you need to figure out where to put your focus. Things will change, so you need to be ready to adapt to what’s coming.

  • Understand – Look at everything that’s a problem right now. Figure out the Important or Urgent ones, delegate or ignore the rest.
  • Relate – Put together problems that are related. If working on one impacts another then you need to understand that relationship.
  • Communicate – If people feel their problems are being ignored, then they will feel that those problems are unsurmountable. Let them know where the focus is, and why.

Keep going through this process on a regular basis. You’ll solve a few problems, some will get more important and need more focus. Some might just go away!

There’s a lot more that you need to do when working at the higher level. You don’t just have a single big problem any more, and you need to recognise that to succeed.

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Coaching Leadership

Impact!

There are a number of times in your life where it’s really important to get across the impact of what you have done, in a way that’s really easy for others to understand.

In the corporate world, there’s a few key points where you want to get this right. It’s on your CV, it’s during annual reviews and it’s when you are preparing a promotion pack or for an internal move.

Many people will make one of two key mistakes. They’ll either focus too heavily on what they did, going too deep into their responsibilities. Other times they will make their impact really opaque, something that makes sense to them, but is really dense to any external reader.

You need to fight both of these, and really highlight the Impact!

There’s a really simple trick to beat these problems, and make sure that you stand out from the crowd. You just need to look over any statement you make, pretend you are someone who doesn’t have great context over your work, and ask “So What?”.

“I upgraded all our systems from v1 to v2”. – So What?

“By upgrading all of our systems, I reduced page loading times by 50%, increasing conversion by 5% and driving an additional £1 million in annual revenue”. – Wow!

It can be tough to get into this habit, so there’s a couple of tips you can use to help:

  1. Read your statements out loud. It helps you to see that they flow, and if they feel simple to understand
  2. Pretend to be someone else. Read the statements as if it was your CEO. If it doesn’t make sense, get rid of some jargon and go again
  3. Actually get someone else to read the docs. If they don’t understand the impact, edit until they do.

This technique will get you noticed. Practicing this skill will make it easier.

Show off your Impact, and people will understand why you are the right person for the opportunity.

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Coaching Leadership

Refinement

The desire for perfection often stops us taking that first step. Once we accept that nothing is perfect, that’s it’s valuable to learn from an initial effort, and that “better than before” is so much better than nothing, then we are able to get moving and start making positive change.

The next phase is to return to that effort and to refine what you’ve done. In technology, it’s a key way that we identify we’ve moved away from a project focus and into the more powerful product mindset. Things are never done, we can always refine them to make them better.

This is true whether it’s a product feature, a technical solution, a series of meetings, or even something like a blog post!

When you think about your refinement approach, you can try to explicitly carve out some chunks of time for improvements. This can be a tough sell, especially if your improvements aren’t as immediately visible as the next bright and shiny thing. When I sit down to write, I certainly find it easier to work on a new article than go back to an old piece to freshen it up.

Instead, you can build your refinement in to your process. Whenever you are working in an area, if you spot something out of place then take a few minutes to leave it in a better place than it was before. Cleaning as you go gives you lots of quick improvements, without big investments in tracking, remembering what you were going to do, or continually fighting to carve out this time.

For example, I’ll write and edit in a couple of passes. I schedule posting a few weeks in advance. When a post goes live I’ll check it out with fresher eyes, and use that as a chance to clean up any rogue words or phrases that aren’t as clear as I’d thought they were. If I share links, or link back to an old article, then I’ll scan through and check for updates then. It’ a much easier process than sitting down for an hour to just do edits!

So, once you’ve gotten started, and put your initial efforts out into the world, look out for opportunities to slot in improvements whenever you are back in the area. Make it routine, it’ll be easy, and you’ll quickly see the compounding benefits of these small refinements

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Action Triggers

When you want to start taking steps towards change, but you are finding it hard to get going, then set yourself an action trigger to help kickstart the effort.

This is a simple mental plan to execute an action when you encounter a particular situation. It’s a great technique to help you build up or change a habit, by preloading some decisions in our mind.

It’s a simple technique. First of all, pick what you want to change. For example, you might want to show more gratitude when someone does a great job.

Next up, get specific. Exactly when and how are you going to do this? If it’s too loose, it won’t be effective in changing your behaviour. When we’re praising people, it has greatest impact close to the good activity, so you might set an trigger of “When I see someone asking a great question in a meeting, I will actively thank them for that input”.

This is good because it’s a specific situation (great question), and a specific action (thanking them). As you’ve already made this decision, you take away the concern of what “a great job” looks like, and how you’ll “show more gratitude.

When you make it easy, you are more likely to take these actions and change your behaviour. The complex processing that exhausts your Type 2 brain is dealt with ahead of time, letting you shift these changes to the quick and lazy Type 1.

If you want to be even more likely to be successful, then either say your trigger out loud, or write it down. Make the commitment public and it give you even more impetus to succeed.

This technique is not a panacea. It will only work if you want to make a change, and it will only help move you towards good behaviours. It’s not going to change your direction 180 degrees, and it’s not going to shift you fundamentally.

To make some positive change and build energy in your flywheel, setup a couple of action triggers to preload some complex decisions and make it simple when the situation occurs.