Take another look at struggle

It can feel like we spend a lot of time trying to make things happen. At work, most of the forces already in motion will mobilize against that. 

People don’t resist doing what we want them to do because they’re opposed to us. It’s not about me. At least not unless there’s some history. No, there is the momentum of what’s familiar, what I know how to do, the established process. I’m feeling productive. I’m working on the goals set out for me.

So we can spend a lot of our time pushing a rope. We’ll pay for it in stress, a lot of effort for little return, and often having an impact on others that creates that history and distrust that I mentioned. We also become convinced that people who cooperate with me are allies. Everyone else is an opponent. More history.

One way to cut down on struggling is to ask questions. This takes us out of a fascinating hobby: attributing motives to people based on our assessment of what we see and what it means to me. It brings us back into now. It brings us back to a more objective, and shared, understanding of the stituation.

We could spend time with the people who need to be engaged in our thing – the project, the implementation, the change, the new initiative. Really get to know what they do, the constraints they experience day by day, and the cost of change for them.

Beware of your own temptation to ask questions that box people into making a commitment. That’s cross-examination, not inquiry. 

Watch how the urge to push others to change comes up from inside you. What might be driving that?

You could even ask, “If you were trying to achieve this objective, starting from your function, what would you recommend?” Oh, and then listen. But you knew that.

The Coaching Leader cultivates resilience

We all have tough weeks. The weekend comes and we’re tired. For many leaders every day is tough. The pace, complexity, and responsibility is relentless. (It’s not just leaders. Family, work, interests, community commitments. It’s you, too, I bet.) But you signed up for it, and you keep at it. However, it takes a toll on our ability to perform. And if you want to have impact as a leader (or a mom or a manager, or [you]), you need to be able to perform. We need to bounce back, as quickly as possible.

Where does bounce-back come from?

Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating a set of abilities that make up resilience. They make it possible for people to “adapt to stress and adversity.” And when it’s in play, it not only helps people make it through, but come out the other side “strengthened and more resourceful.”

I have a friend that I admire who faces difficulty head on. She can become wrought up in the midst of adversity. It takes a toll on her. Still, she comes back to an optimistic point of view afterward. Every time. She seems to be naturally resilient.

Some research suggests that aspects of resilience are inherited. But it is not a fixed trait available to extraordinary people. It’s normal and can be developed. When we feel “stressed” what we want most is a break. But the resilience I’m talking about can be cultivated so that we feel a little less stressed tomorrow and in following days. And it’s effect is cumulative.

The result of developing resilience is not an unconditional positive attitude. Pollyannas are just ignoring the facts. But cultivating resilience – the process – does help us recognize our response to adversity, offer alternatives, and help ensure that we are strengthened and more resourceful afterward.

The Coaching Leader mindset steadies you for adversity

Leaders who think they control things are asking for a lot of adversity. The Coaching Leader is learning that most of the time she can’t control circumstances or people. Instead, we’re sizing things up, finding opportunity, making smart moves, shaping the conditions to our advantage. The time to use the hammer of power is when nothing else works. And watch carefully for the indirect and unintended consequences. The Coaching Leader is working with markets, opportunity, change, and people to channel them where they can do the most good. This mindset also changes the way they look at obstacles and adversity.

The Coaching Leader Mindset

There’s a very old saying that comes from the earliest Christian ascetics who lived alone in the desert: “If you always bend the bow, it will break.” Even they knew how to take a breather.

Reflect on the beliefs and assumptions you hold about resilience and the resources that help you bounce back from challenges.

  • To have resources for the work and for those who depend on me, I regularly refresh and restore myself.
  • I know what activities, people, and ways of spending time energize me. I’m not looking for a just break or relief. I’m recharging.
  • I regularly remind myself that “now” and “yesterday” are not the only way to answer the question When should I do this? (or When do you want this done?)
  • I know that I’m not just the outcomes I produce. I’m in a process, part of a process, and I help others see the value of the process we’re part of.
  • I recognize others’ need to refresh themselves.

How do leaders motivate their people

The Coaching Leader is a crucial and under-appreciated leadership role. Take motivating team members. Today’s coaching leaders have mostly quit using carrots and sticks. They’ve already noticed that they don’t always work. Nearly fifty years of research says the same.

Net-Net: This post is about…

CoachinngLeader -Net net on motivation

21st century leaders look to three intrinsic sources of motivation to build up and challenge team members. The first is autonomy.

But to balance building up team members with challenging them takes individual attention and regular tuning. Coaching is the best way to tap inner motivation and sustain it over time.

Rewards are not the best motivator

Remember your pal Abraham Maslow from Psychology 101. He proposed that we are driven by a hierarchy of needs. After our most basic needs are met, we aspire to address higher needs. Self actualizion is the highest.

Here’s how this is relevant in rewarding people at work. If they feel that they’re not being rewarded fairly, their attention will be stuck on the unfairness. The need is for basic equity. This issue calls into question whether needs for safety and security and self esteem are being met and respected.

Basic need? Autonomy

So what is a source of greater satisfaction than basic needs? Research shows that we consistently and naturally want to carry out work with as much autonomy as possible. It seems to cut across all our other needs.

A mounting pile of studies confirms that we’re inherently self-directed to seek out a meaningful challenge. It doesn’t feel like work. We derive a lot of pleasure from it. It’s basic to our day-to-day experience. Think of a time when you didn’t feel confident or secure at work. Now think about the moment when you felt you took charge of your work. If you’re like a lot of people, you also felt more secure and confident. This drive is a force for good. And it is surprisingly easy to thwart it in complex organizations.

Leaders usually have good intentions when they want to cut the risk of potential project failures. Some leaders, exercising a natural desire to help, support, and even coach the team can have a controlling effect on the essential elements of autonomy: what people do, how they do it, when they do it, and the people they do it with.

Preventing failure can crowd out great autonomy

Autonomy is the antidote. Imagine the mental terrain produced by a goals. Somewhere in the future a well-defined accomplishment stands waiting. The more completely it’s quantified, the more the route from here to there looks like a straight line. These kind of goals can help achieve efficient results when the work is linear and decisions are binary. But less and less of it is.

Now imagine laying out a different kind of playing field. Where the goal was, there’s an objective. The difference is that it’s defined by outcomes or qualities rather than time and distance. The boundaries of the playing field are fairly broad. It’s shaped like the widest funnel you can imagine – wide at one end and only a bit narrower at the end where the objective stands.

Many ways to the finish line could be twisty. Backtracking might be good for the final result. Cross the finish line on the right or the left. It doesn’t matter. “Success” is much more variable than finding the square peg that fits in a predetermined square hole. Your team might surprise you. Notice your reaction as you read that. Excited? Uncomfortable?

People are energized by the chance to exercise their innate desire to stretch, grow, and deliver using all of their best qualities. Offer them autonomy and coach them to keep that desire alive. More on that to come.

  •  How have you tried carrots and sticks? How are they working?
  •  How have you protected team members’ autonomy?
  •  What effect has autonomy had on their work, or mindest at work?

Three Leadership Lessons from the Spotlight Team

You already know parts of the story of the movie Spotlight. It’s also a story how the reporters got the story with important observations about leadership, teams, and the limits of what we can know. In the telling, perspective, attention, and reflection move center stage as the failures of the team stare back at them on the threshold of their greatest success.

Fresh perspective can change everything

The scene that transformed Spotlight from a newspaper muckraking story into a leadership story takes place just before the Boston Globe publishes the extend of priest sexual abuse and its cover-up that continues to reverberate in Boston.

The team sits in the office of editor Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber) and the Spotlight Editor Robbie Robinson (Michael Keaton) wonders why they didn’t pick up on the story earlier. Now, they know the extent of the abuse. They’ve talked to dozens of victimes. They’ve uncovered overlooked clues that are five years old. And Robinson realizes that he hadn’t followed up on stories that could have uncovered much more when he was the Metro section editor. If they’d found the story then, they’d have prevented dozens or even hundreds of cases of abuse.

Attention changes data into meaningful information

It would be easy to blame the reporters for this failure. The remorse they felt is real and justified. But they faced a moment when, through no malice or intent, they did not see what they could see in that moment.

Maybe it was a failure of attention. Maybe they were focused too narrowly on daily deadlines, or on their own careers. That happens to the best of us. Maybe it was the strength of the prevailing Boston Catholic culture that made it difficult to consider priest sexual abuse as anything but exceptional. No single cause made it impossible for editors to recognize the story. It may be fairer to say that together they could see what none of them could see by themselves.

This is the terrible truth of living in a complex and sometimes corrupt world. As leaders, we cannot do what is needed sooner than now. If we could have, we would have. Consistently doing the right thing at the right time is a nice  idea, but an unrealistic goal. Instead, we can aim to act without hurry and without delay. To do that well, we need to pay attention where attention is needed.

Reflection can produce resolution to improve, but…

But aiming to prevent past missteps creates a new bias. It holds us hostage. By narrowing our sense of the present to be sure we prevent that from happening again, the past becomes a new blind spot.

In the same scene, the team argues, accuses, and absolves themselves until the editor steps in. He turns their attention to the future. “If you need to, take a moment for yourselves. You’ve earned it,” he says. “But on Monday, I need you here fresh and ready to work.” The past isn’t irrelevant, but it is past.

You can use their story

If you want to take a leadership page from the incredible impact of a team like the one in the story, and from its blindspots, you might reflect on these questions:

 What signals have I been screening out because I’m so damn busy?

What else is going on around here – in my company, community, industry, global market?

 How am I framing my view of the situation I’m in and we’re in?

Where is my view narrow and does that serve a larger purpose now?

 Where have I been listening to the distress in my organization?

Where have I noticed weak signals but treated them as noise?

Three ways to lead with thought and action today

Inside out, outside in

One of the great frustrations of people with vision, energy, and insight – the way we like to see ourselves – is why others don’t see the world as we do. Once we notice this, and all of its obvious obstacles, we take a step.

The easiest step to take is to infer that others are against us for some very poor reasons. They’re not very smart or have no imagination. They’re afraid of change. They just don’t get it. They’re invested in the status quo. It’s personal.

Even if there’s some truth in those conclusions, rehearsing the ways others are opposed to us builds a wall. It gets stronger as we hang onto the notion that “the old guard are protecting their bonuses,” for example. That wall will be there when we look for it. We can count on it. That’s not real, not a fact, not “reality.” But it becomes more real to us the more we rehearse it. It becomes a part of us.

We can take the wall apart by by what we do and what we think. But if we do not take it apart, we will experience work as a maze of walls and alleys.

Instead of drawing taking the very human step that reinforce]s us vs, them, we can take a step into the Learning Leader Lab. Here are three ideas to help you move from certain to curious.

Open up “data collection”

Whatever you infer about others, you’re selecting a small set of data. It’s probably skewed toward what you believe. That’s a human habit; no harm, no foul.

Pay attention to other inputs, information, contributions people are making to the issue you think they oppose. If this feels a bit like being a Pollyanna when you suspect other intentions, keep it up. You’re on the right track. That suspiciousness is also a common human habit.

Try thought experiments

What other legitimate interests might this person be attempting to serve? What’s the good thing, principle, or value they’re trying to bring about?

Stretch yourself. You may find it hard to see the good interests of others if you’ve already decided they’re set against yours.


Ask for more information about others’ perspectives and conclusions. Like you, they’re synthesizing a collection of values, assumptions, experience, and popping out with “what we should do.” You may find common ground in the things that haven’t been said yet.

Watch your questioning, though. With practice, we learn to tell when closed-end questions are set as traps, when leading questions are really statements, and when even open-ended questions are designed to make us look smart rather than to learn something new.

How did you learn to let in other points of view this week?

Have a great day in the Learning Leader Lab!

Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup that almost launches. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

If you hate what you do, get out now!

Get out now!

Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist at Cornell University who’s spent years interviewing thousands of people age 65 and over about, well, about all sorts of things. On the topic of work, Pillemer’s senior sages were clear: If you hate what you do, get out now.

“Spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake,” Pillemer writes in his book 30 Lessons for Living. “There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful.”

From Wired by Dan Pink

 What led you to say, “I’m out,” rather that suffer through a job that others may have envied?

Three ways simple gratitude can change your leadership

Here comes that gift again

Gratitude isn’t easy for me. I can’t help but notice how similar the word is to “platitude.” I have thought of it as thin, perfunctory, forced. I am changing my mind. And that’s changing the way I lead. It can change the way you lead, too.

What is it? Gratitude is acknowledging that something has been given.

Even before you go on reading, what do you notice when you read that sentence? This is not a rhetorical question. Keep the question fresh in mind and notice: what’s given?

Let’s assume for a moment that some things are given: they just happen. That’s no reason to be grateful in itself. Some of those things are problems, tragedies, or idiotic annoyances.

Whatever the causes, things that just happen are happening uniquely to you. When something happens to me, everything that went before contributes. That’s why it may feel familiar.Here comes that gift again

Yet, the sheer complexity of things means that no two moments are the same. Right now, we’re handed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. You could say that complexity conspires to give it to us. I didn’t make it happen. I can be grateful for that. It wasn’t a sure thing. But here it is.

Every one of these moments carries an opportunity to do something with it. It’s fresh and different from the one before. Sure, that’s subtle. But here comes another. And if I don’t act now, I can still act. Now. Or even now.

The three ways

Practicing gratitude turns our attention to opportunities. It helps us become more aware. “Here’s a moment that I can do something with, right now.” As a leader, I have choices.

It helps is develop faith in opportunity even if we feel have few or no options. We do have options. In this moment, or the next one. As a leader, I stay hopeful. Circumstances aren’t conspiring against me. They’re just circumstances.

Gratitude can also help us be a little more forgiving when we or others let a crucial moment pass. There’s another moment coming with its opportunity inside. So as leaders, we use that awareness of opportunity to encourage folks to act now. Or now. As a leader, I build up people to ensure they use their opportunities well.

I’m learning to worry less about leading skillfully. This moment is unfolding an opportunity. Developing awareness helps me recognize the slight differences that create them. It’s not just about what I should do, and not at all about what I can do perfectly. It is a new habit – or practice – that involves recognizing that a moment is unfolding an opportunity, which is the chance to take an action that will fit it.

And if I don’t get it just right, here comes another one for me to open.

“I don’t want to be a leader”

No thanks

Good. There are probably too many people who want to be in charge, tell people what to do, control events, and bend circumstances to their way of thinking. But that’s not leadership. That’s authority. That’s the exercise of power. It has a bad reputation and it’s well-deserved.

Maybe you haven’t always been a leader, but you’ve met people who were. Did you do your part, play your role eagerly? Did you notice that being the person that everyone looked to sometimes got in the way of good judgment? Or maybe you saw that acclaim for those in charge also bent them to do questionable things as that tried to manage their reputation.

Still, after developing our own expertise, we come to recognize that we want to make a difference. We want to be recognized for it, too. Especially early on, we need the encouragement and feedback, which is sometimes critical. That impulse to matter and be recognized for it is a growing plant fed on good intentions, hopefulness, willingness to learn, and some ego, both healthy and otherwise.

You don’t need lead a big corporation. Just stick with the impulse to make a contribution. Keep working to do that today. You don’t have to do anything else. But as a thought experiment, extend that same impulse to your team or your church or club. What might making a contribution full of good intentions look like? Move beyond that to the next circle. Maybe people who see what you’ve accomplished invite to give similar help in another sphere. What could you contribute? Or maybe your commitment to a good goal keeps leading you into organizations where you can make your contribution. No thanks

You may find yourself leading. You don’t have to. But you might. Don’t throw the idea aside because you haven’t seen good examples of it up close. No matter what the scope or scale, you could be the person notice by another discouraged expert, inspiring them to do what you do. That might lead him to change his mind. It might inspire her to resolve to make her own contribution.

On the one hand, leading is nothing special. On the other, in the complex, dynamic world of work of this decade, it’s not natural. But you don’t need to be every kind of great leader at once. You simply need to follow the impulse to make a contribution. You’ll need to answer new challenges. You’ll learn a lot about your ego. But the cumulative effect is that you become one of the people whose impact is as nearly as good as their intentions.

I don’t feel strongly about what you call it. But for all our sakes, do it.

Coaching Manager: How to keep the conversation on track

Coaching Manager conversation map

“It’s not my fault,” she explains. Is he crying a little? She won’t take a next step. When these, and other situations pop up, the coaching manager can feel like he’s in the weeds.

When managers start making a concerted effort to add developmental coaching to their repertoire, they can worry about getting off track into issues they’re not equipped to address. That’s reasonable. Coaching manager basics are easy enough. But people are complicated, which can lead to surprises. That’s why everyone who coaches needs a map.

A Coaching Manager conversation map

Here’s a secret. If you know someone who’s good at coaching team members, they use a map, even if they say they don’t. They may use it unconsciously. That map helps the most experienced coaching managers on track. We can rely on it when we’re starting. And it should be sturdy enough to hang new, more refined skills on it as practice makes us more adept coaching managers.Coaching Manager conversation map

When people are ready to learn, there are three things the coaching manager does with them during the coaching conversation:

  1. Discover priorities
  2. Narrow the focus
  3. Take action to learn

From 10,000 feet, these three phases describe the territory. The closer we get, the more important the details of the terrain become. I’ll share more of them in future posts.

Uncover people’s real priorities

Discovering priorities will test our ability to be a good listener. Yeah, I know. You’ve heard this before. Hang in with me. This advice can have positive effect on every relationship.

At work, we’re valued for our ideas, action, and judgment. We may leap to good ideas. But the coaching manager assumes that she doesn’t know much. She listens for what the other person believes and is interested in. Your team members live in their own world (of course, so do you). You are listening for what’s distinctive about their world.

That’s why listening calls on you to put aside distractions, inferences, conclusions, and judgments as much as you can. While you’re “just” listening, the other person might hear herself say something she didn’t know she believed. That’s great. But at the least, you are sure to begin to agree on what’s important to her. That gives you both a solid footing.

Two listening tips

Practice being curious. What stands out when the other person describes what she is after? When people are enthused and drawn to stretch themselves, try “Say more about that.” Inquire about the things they have chosen not to investigate, consider, try. Through practice, you’ll find a natural way to express curiosity.

Shear the shaggy dog story. Some people find real meaning in the (many) details of their story. Help them back onto the path with a respectful nudge. “What do you make of all that?” may work. For others, “What’s the bottom line for you?” Then practice curiosity again.

You may notice that practice is the common element in listening. Practice also the core commitment in coaching managers make. That’s how we become comfortable and confident using this style of managing and leading.

It can be helpful to get some outside input on what you may be missing. Look for opportunities to compare with other coaching managers. You can find focused training programs that will give you a big boost. Of course, you can learn one-on-one from someone whose primary job is coaching. Regardless how you learn, the more management and leadership responsibility you have, the more important it is to practice becoming a coaching manager.

In the next post…

What it means to narrow the focus of the coaching conversation and tips about how to do it.