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Coaching Leadership

Slow is Smooth

We often fall into the urgent trap, thinking that something that’s just come up is the most important thing in the world, and we need to drop everything to pick it up.

That means we end up stacking up lots of suddenly urgent things. Slicing our time between many of them and not actually really making major progress on any. Small amounts of progress on lots of different things is totally worthless.

In contrast, when we are smoothly working through things, we get fast. There are fewer distractions or interruptions, product increments are done and we move on to the next.

We get smooth by going more slowly. Take the time to look at the requests that come in or the issues that are raised. What’s the true impact? Is it really worth dropping everything to pick it up. How much does it cost to stop doing what we were doing, and what’s the cost of delaying the activities we had going on.

Urgent is easy, it’s cheap calories and high fives all round when whatever it is it gets solved.

To balance it, you have to recognise the cost of doing that urgent thing, not just enjoy the sugar rush of jumping on it straight away.

You need to broadcast the costs and impacts of going urgent, managing the expectations of the stakeholder who wants this “Right Now!” and not forgetting the stakeholder who was promised major changes on a longer timeline.

If it’s really urgent and important, then you need to suck up the costs and distractions. If it’s not, then use your usual prioritisation methods to slot this new request in, and keep smoothly delivering valuable outcomes.

If you can stay slow rather than rushing from urgent fire to fire, then you stay smooth and you get more big things done. That’s when real change happens.

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Coaching Leadership

What’s the Problem?

There are a wide ranging set of power-move questions that can be asked during a meeting. “What’s the Problem?” is a classic example of the type.

As with all powerful things, it can be used for good, or for ill. If you bring it into play, then try to always be the first and be prepared to defend against the second.

When you use it for good, then you reset a conversation that has dived into detail or solution mode too quickly. It’s really powerful when people are pitching a particular feature or asking for something specific, but they haven’t shown why doing it that way is important.

So you can pull back, understand the problem and confirm if the proposed action is really the best solution to the question on the table. It lets you check the foundations of the argument are sound, and that the work done to get to the solution is solid. If it’s not a sound request, then you are able to a put a pause in place to get to the right final outcome.

The flip side is when someone tries to use this move to derail a fruitful conversation. Maybe they feel like their voice hasn’t been heard and they don’t like the direction that’s been agreed on. Possibly they are only just now paying attention and have missed the discussion up to this point. Sometimes, they just want to feel clever at having made a serious sounding contribution.

To reduce the incidence of the question, lay the groundwork ahead of time. Give out pre-reading as part of the agenda that sets the scene and discusses the problem space. Cover what’s been tried, what’s discarded and what’s on the table now. Next, prep the 90 second summary for the start of the meeting. Outline the problem, share the constraints and set the scene, “This is a meeting to solve this problem”.

Now anyone asking what the problem is can be pointed back to the opening statements, keeping the meeting focused on the solution.

If they disagree it’s the problem to be solved, that’s a different conversation to have. This might be raised early in the session, or they might wait to ask “What’s the real problem here?”. In either case, you can pause quickly and ask what they meant by the question. At attempt to obstruct or bring a new agenda is likely at this point, so ask if there’s any fresh information to consider, and if not, you can thank them for their question, point back to the opening statements and then move on.

If there is fresh information, then it might be an ambush. Something critical to the decision making has been left off the table until the last minute. This is a difficult area to navigate, as whilst the person bringing the info may not be acting collaboratively, the information itself might still be vital.

You’ll need to think carefully about how to handle the conversation, but don’t lose your cool. Thank the person for their contribution, then consider if it’s significant enough to change the parameters of the meeting. If it is, then it’s better to postpone the decision until we’ve included the new info into our parameters. If this happens once it’s something you can handle with private feedback. If it’s a pattern of behaviour, then that’s a time you need to share the impact with the person’s manager, to bring them back to collaborative decision making and proactive information sharing.

Asking “What’s the problem?” can defend you against moving to solutions too quickly, meaning you get to a better final outcome. Use it with care, and understand how to protect yourself from those that ask it with bad intent.

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Coaching Leadership

Don’t Burn Your Bridges

As you go on your leadership journey, you will ever more be called upon to use your influence to get things done. You have to convince people, win them round to your way of thinking and show them why what you want to do is important.

That means you have to negotiate. Understand what you want, what you can give and what outcome you are after. You might try to Get to Yes, or you might prefer to Never Split the Difference, but you’ll need to get better at these skills as you’ll need to use them more.

An important thing to realise when you are part of an organisation, is that you’ll be going round the loop multiple times. It’s no good “winning” once if that sours the relationship for the future.

That’s short term thinking, when you need to be in for the long term. You need to think about how to make it better for everyone, so you enhance your reputation as someone great to work with, rather than someone to be avoided at all costs.

Your basic outcomes should always including building the relationship, as you know you’ll be back, whether it’s next week, next quarter or at the start of the next year.

So, don’t burn your bridges, build them up instead and make your future path smoother.

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Coaching Leadership

Spend the Money

In the world of tech, it’s really easy to fall for the fallacy that it’ll be cheaper to build it yourself. We’re creative people, we like building stuff, so we can lean towards that approach.

Sometimes it’s the right call, but really often it’s not. Luckily, there’s a few simple questions you can ask to help make the right decision about when it’s right to spend the money.

Is it a key differentiator? – If it’s an important part of the value proposition for you, then it’s much more likely to worth building yourself. If it’s something you just need to do to keep up, then there’s probably something you can just buy.

What’s the true cost of building? – Challenge the assumption that it’ll be easy. Exactly what needs to be done, how many people need to work on it and how long will it take. push back on the “Just a couple of weeks”, and dig in so you are shown the working.

What do you already have? – It might be expensive to put a whole new solution in place, but if you’ve got something that you can extend, that’s often a lot cheaper. Unlocking features in SaaS solutions is often immediate as soon as you choose to spend the money.

Are you willing to compromise? – If you buy something, you can’t full customise it to your every need. You need to accept that you’ll have to work within some limitations, and if you do, then you’ll get the value for what you buy. Bashing into the perfect shape is often more expensive than building fresh, so be really honest here.

So if the problem is:

  1. Not core to your business
  2. Really expensive to actually build out
  3. Solvable by extending existing solutions
  4. Something you can compromise on

Then it’s probably right to spend the money

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Coaching Leadership

Make your choice

I recently joined a webinar discussing Effective Engineering Leadership. One of the questions was around remaining current as an Engineer when making the change to a management role.

My advice here is to think about the job that you want to do, and focus on that. You need to make a choice between the Individual Contributor role and the People Management role, as they are different jobs with different skillsets.

You can trial one or the other for a period of time, but if you try to do this for a long time, you’ll just end up doing two jobs badly, which is not a great outcome.

On either path you can still be a leader, and in fact that’s expected as you progress and grow your career. Good organisations will support this and have development paths for both tracks. Bad ones will force their best ICs to management. Choose where you want to focus your efforts!

Nothing is also a choice, but in your career doing nothing and just drifting along is likely not a good one.

So pick a role, understand it, learn the skills you need to be successful and deploy them. Don’t do two things badly.

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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.

Categories
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!