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Coaching Leadership

Technology is a Creative Endeavour

I work with a large number of technologists, I build a lead teams working at significant global scale, solving problems with technology.

If you are outside of this world, it’s easy to get lost. Why is it so hard? What’s going on? Why does it take so long?

The exciting thing about technologists, and about software, is that they are constantly involved in a creative endeavour. It’s a cross between science and art, with a whole load of emotional and personal considerations thrown into the mix.

Think about how hard it can be to build a house. A dozen trades, maybe more. They follow a plan, but flex from it when difficulties arise. It’s creating something from nothing, but you’re probably following a pretty standard path. You know houses, you can see them. They’ll be used by a well known number of people, in a standard way. It’s pretty predictable, but there are still difficulties, overruns and variations from the plan.

When we’re building software, we have some of that certainty, but not the majority. We may not be sure what the problem is we’re solving. Will it be used by ten people or ten million? Who’s going to try and break it, and what if we get half-way done and decide to do something else?

If you are leading a tech team for the first team, part of a digital transformation or an agile experiment, it can be bewildering. Engineers, computers and logic suggest predictability, certainty and rigid planning.

Instead, stop and reflect. If it’s worth creating a new technologic solution, then it’s novel, unique and new. You can’t plan to the day, but you must let the creative process occur. Set goals, go after outcomes. Figure out ways to launch early to learn, then course correct.

Don’t look for perfect. No art is perfect. It’s done, and it’s out in the world, changing people and bringing joy.

Set expectations like this, and you’ll be an exceptional technical leader. You’ll empower people, bring real change to the world and never waste time search for misplaced certainty.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

It’s Never Just Business

What you do defines who you are. The actions you take and the options you choose are the things that define your shape in the world.

If you are ever in a situation where you are considering saying “It’s Just Business”, then take a moment and think about why you are about to do this.

When you remove yourself from the discussion in this way, then you are often attempting to shift responsibility for something away from yourself. You are suggesting that this third party, the impartial arbiter, this other, “business” is responsible, where you are not.

This is probably an emotional or difficult moment, so you may not be able to course correct in the flow the first time you notice it. If not, you can pick-up after the conversation and reflect later.

There is an emotional, personal connection in all relationships, no matter how professional they may be. If you can recognise this then you can empathise with the other person in the conversation and build a more meaningful relationship, even if the news you are delivering is hard to hear or likely to disappoint them.

Don’t let it be Just Business, own your actions and you’ll be a better leader, and a better person.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Coaching Spectrum

The spectrum of coaching approaches is presented by Miles Downey, and is an excellent way to recognise when we are being more or less directive in our approach as coaches. It is a powerful way to recognise how your interactions will shape the outcomes and determine your future effectiveness.

Non-Directive / Following Interest
Listening to Understand
Reflecting
Paraphrasing
Summarising
Asking questions that raise awareness
Making Suggestions
Giving Feedback
Offering Guidance
Giving Advice
Instructing
Telling
Directive

As coaches, we are pushing towards the top of the spectrum, the further up we are then the more likely we are helping a coachee find their own solutions.

As a leader, you will flex up and down the spectrum as appropriate for the situation. If something is on fire, you might ‘tell’ or ‘instruct’. It’s a situation that requires the directive approach. Afterwards, you might give feedback on how the situation was handled, and then return to a coaching posture by letting your direct report consider ways to prevent the fire happening again, while you summarise or reflect to cement their understanding and commitment to the solution.

We aim to move up the spectrum as high levels build stronger commitment and ownership of solutions from a coachee, and empowers them to solve future similar problems with their own resources.

Each step up you can take will make your coaching more effective in the long term, so look out for opportunities to jump up to the higher levels wherever you are able.

 

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Don’t let facts get in the way of coaching

It’s impossible to coach someone to discovers facts that they just don’t know. As a coach, you can guide a coachee through the tools and techniques they have available to discover answers, but you can’t unpick those answers themselves.

This situation most often occurs in an organisational context, or when you are applying coaching methods in a management role. The example I tend to use is a manager who’s working with a direct report and is discussing some recent annual leave. In this scenario, if the coachee does not know what the holiday policy is, then no amount of coaching will bring them to enlightenment.

In this situation, there are a couple of options. If it’s urgent, then you can choose to break out of coaching and share some information. This isn’t the ideal solution, but it can drive you past a sticky point and allow you to switch back to the coaching mode.

You can also choose to step through the coachee’s thinking, and seek to find appropriate options to empower them to discover the relevant information. In the case of policies, that may involve things like contacting HR, research on the corporate intranet or reaching out to other colleagues. Selecting one of these options and reporting back the findings might be an excellent small outcome for the coachee, which also gives them more autonomy in the future.

As a coach, watch out for the times when there is definitely a right answer. That’s the time you should pause, review the conversation and find a way forwards without getting stuck in the mud trying to bring a coachee to a factual solution they are not equipped to discover.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Dedication to Goals

I’ve worked with a number of junior leaders, and there’s often a theme that comes through in our conversations. The people that they are coaching are not dedicated to achieving their goals.

When we probe into the idea of dedication, there’s usually one of a small number of issues at hand. I’m going to talk about a couple of them today, and share a few techniques for overcoming them if you recognise them in your own endeavours.

Externally imposed – A person will tend to own their goals if they have created them and stated them for themselves, rather than had goals imposed on them from an external source. When you’re coaching, the coachee will bring their full understanding and potential for growth to the conversation, so let them set the goals. As a leader, share examples of times when people have been successful. Build that understanding, and then when you are coaching, let the coaching take it on to form their own goals.

Saying what you want to hear – Sometimes a coachee will try to guess what the coach wants to hear, and set that as their goal. You might recognise this when the coachee is actively seeking approval from you for their suggestions, latching on to any you view favourably. It’s challenging to overcome this behaviour. You need to build more trust with the coachee, maybe by considering other topics before returning to this goal setting. Expand the conversation. This encourages the coachee to dig deep, and find what’s really relevant to them. Don’t accept the first answer they give, but do let it be their area of focus if that really interests them.

Too big and scary – If a goal is overwhelming, then it can cause a coachee to lose heart, showing in this lack of dedication. A leader could recognise that the goal is not well formed, or it’s stated in very simplistic terms. “Get promoted” or “Be excellent” are examples of goals that might be too big for some coachees to progress with. Here we can probe on the details, strengthening the stated goal by allowing the coachee to make it more specific. We can encourage the coachee to break the goal into smaller steps, maybe by focusing on core skills to improve to position them well to succeed. Finally, we can use scaling to understand and highlight the gap that they’ll need to cross, whilst also showing the stages of progress towards achieving the goal.

These various scenarios and techniques can help you understand where the lack of dedication to achieving a goal is coming from, and give you tools to find the right goal for the coachee, and to empower them towards success.

 

Categories
Book Review Leadership

Drive

Daniel Pink’s Drive is a short and punchy introduction to the truth of motivation. It cuts through the traditional ideas of ‘carrot and stick’, to look at the intrinsic factors that encourage us to do a great job.

If we’re leading or coaching people, then the thoughts outlined in Drive are a really strong way to open them up to the best chances to grow, achieve and succeed in their endeavours.

This is most especially important with the changing nature of work. As we move away from the algorithmic world of the 20th century, where output and effort were easy to measure, and into the heuristic world of the creative modern workplace, then we must change our approach. When the outcomes you strive for are not easily linked to the outputs, then rewarding people becomes a more complex problem.

Firstly, we must provide the environment for the intrinsic drive to come to the fore. So long as people have their basic needs met, and can see that they are compensated fairly when compared to others, then we can unlock their true potential.

The three strands that form this motivation are Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.

Autonomy is the power to choose your own goals, to determine how you will achieve them and to make commitments on your own terms. In a commercial context, they must of course be aligned to the needs and goals of the organisation, but beyond that the more power of choice you can give, the better the outcomes will be.

Mastery is the recognition that the journey is often the valuable thing, rather than the final reward. It’s the idea that the goal medal is recognition for great achievement, rather than the goal itself. In seeking mastery you are always looking to learn and improve, and to get better at your craft.

Purpose is the knowledge that your efforts are building towards something greater, whether that’s an endeavour to build something great, or to create a positive change for the future.

If you can give these three things to a group, then they will become engaged, effective and solve problems far beyond their apparent capacity. As leaders, it’s our role to find ways to extend access to these opportunities. As coaches, we might encourage our coachee to find these opportunities themselves.

In the book, we are given a range of techniques to try for ourselves and our organisations, and some tools to check-in on how we are doing. You can pickup the ideas of Drive in a very short period of time, and then return to the resources again and again as you develop your own approach. It gives you a list of over a dozen books for further reading, with brief summaries of each. This is a great springboard for continued learning.

Very much recommended, a great read and an excellent investment of your time.

Categories
Harvard Business Review Leadership

Innovation is Tough

Building a culture of innovation is tough. It’s pretty easy to learn the ‘fail fast’ or ‘build-measure-learn’ mantras, but to really pull it together requires a deep understanding of these paradigms. You have to recognise a good failure as opposed to a bad. You need to be strong in defining experiments and how you react if you don’t get hoped for results. You really must have strong leadership at all levels.

The benefits of innovation are immense. You solve the right problems, you do it effectively and efficiently and you empower people to bring about massive positive change.

HBR’s recent article, The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, really drills down into the detail of this. It shows you what good and bad is, and how to recognise them. It’s an excellent read, well worth your time and the time of anyone attempting to embed this culture in their organisation.

Categories
Book Review Leadership

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have just released their latest book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. It’s a collection of micro essays on covering the authors’ thoughts of damaging or short term working practices.

It’s an incredibly quick read, each thought is presented over at most three pages, so it’s easy to rattle through them at speed. Most of them have examples of the described approach and benefits from Basecamp, the company they founded in 1999.

The basic premise is that you can find time to do important work by shutting out distractions, rather than pushing to be the most reactive, always on and always struggling to grow.

Not every piece of advice will be relevant to you, or possible for you to enact (some of the bigger benefits like a four day week can be hard to implement). However, some of them likely will be useful. Cutting down on chat software, setting sensible boundaries and other simple changes can make big differences to what you are able to accomplish, without it feeling crazy.

People rarely do great work while under unreasonable pressure or whilst constantly distracted. This is worth recognising, and this book is certainly a good quick intro to some of these thoughts.


I’m available for coaching opportunities in Central London. Leadership development, especially in a technical organisation or with anyone leading a digital or agile transformation. Connect on LinkedIn to kick-off a discussion.

Categories
Book Review Coaching Leadership

Crucial Conversations

Vital Smarts’ Crucial Conversations is a classic book on the subject of communication. Its core message is that some conversations are far more important than others, that they may suddenly occur without warning and that if you aren’t prepared for this, it’ll often go badly.

It’s set out much as you may expect, opening up with the basic premise, running through how to recognise what a Crucial Conversation is and when you might be about to enter one. It runs through techniques to succeed, methods to deal with complex situations and finally works through how to secure actions and commitments at the end of a conversation.

The newer edition also covers a series of particularly difficult cases or types of behaviour, dealing with a large number of the possible objections along the lines of “Great ideas, but my specific case doesn’t fit because …”.

Altogether, it’s well written and simple to follow. If you’ve read a lot in this area, then you’ll find the ideas and approaches familiar, but that’s probably because newer books build on them or take them as a starting point.

If all you take away from the book is that some conversations are vital, and that if you can be aware of that then you’ll improve your overall communication and effectiveness. If you can go to the next level, and seek to improve how you build dialogue during those conversations, then you’ll really be taking the value from this writing.


I’m available for coaching opportunities in Central London. Leadership development, especially in a technical organisation or with anyone leading a digital or agile transformation. Connect on LinkedIn to kick-off a discussion.

 

Categories
Book Review Coaching Leadership

Radical Candor

Radical Candor is Kim Scott’s approach to becoming a great leader by empowering your team.

It’s a simple exhortation, encourage people to greatness by Caring Personally and Challenging Directly. As with most simple things, it’s not necessarily easy to achieve.

The book is generally well structured, covering the philosophy first, breaking it down into what ‘Caring Personally’ and ‘Challenging Directly’ mean, and what happens when you miss on one or both of the axes (Ruinous Empathy, Manipulative Insincerity and Obnoxious Aggression).

It’s only a hundred or so pages for this first section, but that is pretty small print, so do beware when pacing your reading!

The second section is built around techniques, from how to elicit feedback and build that culture of sharing, to how to host and structure great meetings. It covers building trust, working in teams and how to inspire growth in all types of team members.

There will be sections that resonate more or less deeply with you, depending on what the culture of your organisation is, where your experience and preferences lie, and the current realm of influence you have available to you.

For me, some of the ideas about the purposes of meetings, how to structure them and where they fall on the Listen / Decide / Execute cycle were very useful, especially around being explicit when you are moving between the Debate and Decision phases.

Even if all you take from this book is that it’s important to think about what motivates your people, how you can help them grow and how you can make them happier and more engaged, then it will have been worth reading.

If you can open yourself up to understanding and valuing the difference in others, then that truly gives you a chance to be a great and motivational leader.