How not to be drawn into that. Again.

This is a season of happy obligations. Some of us feel the happiness more, some the obligation.

I am uneasy about any advice I might give. Anticipating the holidays, I can already see that I’ve said yes to some things that I might have said no to. And last minute events come up. There are gifts to find and make. Thoughtful gifts. 

Here are two things I’ll be trying out again this holiday season. As I always say, practice builds capacity and practice takes time. The first is about intention. The second is about letting go. These are simple to say. They are not hard to understand. They are not easy to do. 

This word “intention” isn’t magic, though I’ve heard people use it as though it were. If it helps, you could think of it as a commitment. 

I’m making a commitment not to take anything away from others’ joy. When we’re stressed or find ourselves where we don’t want to be, we may unload our emotions on others. Would you steal their wallet, or even that bottle of wine the company gave them? No. My intention is not to steal their joy. If that’s the not-doing, then the doing might be to fan the flame of others’ happiness, even a little. 

Letting go is just as simple and even harder. When we face family, old friends, colleagues at this time of year, we tell a story. There’s an idea of me, of you, embedded in this story. Could I let it go? It’s worth giving some thought to this story of me and what it means. Do I tend to tell the story, “I’m doing well and succeeding.” Or, “I’m distressed by circumstances and I don’t know what to do.” Or “Everything’s fine,” when it’s not fine at all. Or maybe you don’t say much. Not telling a story is a way of communicating something, too. 

A lot of our trouble results from wanting to appear to be something – successful, independent, deep (even “mindful and soulful”), kind and loving. Some stories aim to elicit something in others. They are questions like, Do they really care? Will they do something for me? Do they really see me and hear me? 

These stories can be hard to recognize in ourselves. We live inside them. When others don’t appreciate the way we know ourselves, challenge our story, question the premise, doubt the happy ending, we may get angry, withdraw, and call on past hurts to arm us for counterattack.

Instead, we could let go. I am not what they think, nor am I what I think of myself. If you look closely, you’re not the person that you think you are either. You’re not as important as you think. You are also more important than you think. We are complex and changing all the time. So whatever you’re protecting in there, it’s already moving away. That way you want to be seen? That’s normal. Let it go. You will feel how hard you hold onto it when you try to let it go. But you can’t control others perceptions. And as a rule, people are thinking of us less than we imagine. They’re thinking about their own experience. They’re wondering whether we care about them, see them, love them.

So I’ll try to let go of some of those definitions: successful, good, energetic, kind, generous. And If I’m less of a stick in the mud because of it, then I may have helped everyone be a little happier and come and go in peace.

Attention reveals the “urge to action”

One common experience that comes from practicing attention is that we can notice the urge to action. We are used to living in patterns. Because we’ve been watching where our attention goes, we may become increasingly aware of the urges to action that activate those patterns. When I sit down to write, I usually feel the urge to snack, run errands, make phone calls, and empty the dishwasher. When I’m with clients, I am familiar with an urge to speak up and give them “better” vocabulary for the experience they’re describing. We could ask “why?” But a better question is “what?”

We could get to know this existence by asking, What is this urge that I notice? When we ask “why?” we may understand. We look to familiar sources and past experiences. That can put the question to rest: “Oh, yeah. That’s why.” But we find that we don’t behave differently.  The more I write, the more I find the Goldfish crackers disappearing from the pantry. So, what is this experience? Note that the question is not, What should I do to change this?

We can look into facets of experience using this attention we’re developing. When I feel compelled to tell clients that they should do X or Y, or I feel the urge to teach something, I try to turn attention to body, emotion, and thinking. I do the same thing when I notice my attention is elsewhere in practice. I try to open up to the experience, the what.

Want to learn more about how to practice attention and how to observe the urge to action? I’d love to talk with you.

How many times have I done this?

How many times have you done this?

Think about your job. How many times have you tried to get something done and had a similar experience of getting there? The obstacles were familiar. The questions you needed to answer? Similar. The allies and opponents. Some of them were in familiar camps, too. Or if the process was easier and you learned to bring people on board, did you feel that you’d compromised some values along the way? Did some of the satisfaction drain out of you because the cost of achievement felt higher than you’d imagined?

What if the way we go about getting what we want is an entrenched pattern? 

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.

Coaching Manager: What kind of coaching are you doing?

You’re already a coaching manager. You’re using your best instinct, experience, and training and that means you maybe sending mixed signals.

What’s this Coaching Manager doing?

For each of the questions below, get a read on whether you rely more on performance coaching or developmental coaching by deciding whether each is typically true or false for you.

My first objective is to communicate my faith in their abilities.
I’m interested in discovering the limits of their talent.
My goal is to get them to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.
We may have more than one conversation before my team members identifies a goal.
I have a clear idea of the outcome they need to produce.
My experience is a necessary ingredient in helping them become more skilled.
I sometimes feel that I’m not doing much. I ask a lot of questions.

Check your answers below.

Be clear

All coaching is founded on a relationship between at least two people: the coach and the person being coached. (Sometimes an interested, mostly-supportive third party sponsors the relationship.) And both people know who’s doing what. The coach can also coach a team. It’s true in sports and it’s true of executive coaches and leadership teams.

You will find many similar definitions of coaching in the wide world. Because performance coaching is so common and familiar, here are the definitions I’m using.

Performance coaching

Performance coaching is expert, often real-time support about how to do the right thing in the right way at the the right time. The focus is ability.

What that means is that the skill, the outcome, and the manner of doing it right are well known. If you’re performance coaching, folks need your expertise to recognize how their performance can be improved, including how it’s falling short. And everyone can tell when the person is doing it right because it’s having the intended effect. It involves telling people how to improve.

Pause here for a moment. You may be thinking, “That’s what I do. That’s my job. That’s my role. And that is what I should be doing.” You may be right. But seriously. Pause for a moment. When do you use it? When does it not work? What do you do instead?

Managers rely heavily on expertise. It’s what got us where we are. As you and your career develop, expertise is not the most important part of your role. Developing others and making sure that they develop themselves grows in importance as “managing” matures.

Developmental coaching

Developmental coaching broadens and deepens people’s repertoire of abilities. The focus is capability. The person is developing capability for doing something new in practically unique situations using resources and skills in new combinations. It involves raising the person’s awareness of their abilities, resources, and tendencies so that they can practice having a positive impact in ambiguous and uncertain conditions. It’s about learning at the edge of our comfort zone.

The person being coached is responsible for the pace and outcomes. With help, she identifies objectives that inspire her. Developmental coaching makes work a learning lab and company goals the context for individual goals. The coach’s role is companion, ally, and supportive observer. The results include greater self awareness, responsibility, perspective-taking ability, and capacity for reflection.

There are real challenges built into coaching team members and direct reports. But they’re worth it. Next time, I’ll review those issues and suggest tactics for addressing them.

Now you know

If you found that you’re using performance coaching more than developmental coaching, that’s not a failing grade. It may be the right way to support some or all of your people. Choosing between those two will be influenced by timing and context. Now you know that expanding your repertoire to include developmental coaching skills may be part of your learning plan as a manager and leader.

Using a model to guide the conversation will help you stay oriented when it feels like you’re not doing much. I’ll describe a conversation model for Becoming the Coaching Manager in an upcoming post.

Watch for still more on Becoming the Coaching Manager at, and on Twitter at @johndroberts and #coachingmanager.

Keep up the good work. Incorporating coaching into your repertoire, helps you practice coaching skills, helps create new expectations in your people, and moves the team toward superior results.

Coaching quiz: Best answers

My first objective is to communicate my faith in their abilities.

Best answer: True

If true, you may be performance coaching OR developmental coaching. Genuine faith in your people’s ability, and expressing it, helps them muster motivation for the learning ahead.

I’m interested in discovering the limits of their talent.

Best answer: False

If you’re evaluating the person, you may be engaged in performance management. Or you may believe that “talent” is a fixed commodity in people. If you do, pause here and consider whether you believe others can change, grow, or develop? Do you believe that you can develop and grow?

My goal is to get them to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re doing performance coaching. If the route from unskilled to skilled is direct and can be accelerated, you are performance coaching. Developmental coaching almost always includes some uncertainty about what the person will learn when she tries new behaviors on the job.

We may have more than one conversation before my team members identifies a goal.

Best answer: True

If true, you’re doing developmental coaching. If you and they are committed to identifying clear and motivating goals, it may take a while to home in on them.

I have a clear idea of the outcome they need to produce.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re performance coaching. When the outcome is clear and the aim is to help the other person produce it, you are performance coaching. Or you may be doing training. So, if you’re development coaching, the opportunties for learning will become clearer through discussion and the outcomes will emerge through realistic experiments in which team members try new approaches.

My experience is a necessary ingredient in helping them become more skilled.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re performance coaching. When you’re recommending that the person do what you did and expecting them to use your mental model of what works, you’re performance coaching. Developmental coaching may lead to experiments in new behavior that you have not completely mastered.

I sometimes feel that I’m not doing much. I ask a lot of questions.

Best answer: True

If true, you’re probably developmental coaching. Most managers are in the habit of answering questions and solving problems. Initially, developmental coaching feels as though you’re not doing much. But you’re doing just fine.

Becoming the Coaching Manager: The Hard Way

Are you a Coaching Manager?

Research points to managers (and leaders) being the cause of up to 30 percent difference in financial results. (Hay Group). Let me emphasize the point. Managers can influence results by up to 30 percent – increase or decrease – using the right leadership style at the right time.

Personal experience tells me that’s not easy. At one organization, my efforts to develop a high performing team were messy. I’m sure that the people on that team have even more colorful descriptions of it, and of me. I meant well. Still…

Managers imitate their models

It’s normal to try to become a manager like inspiring managers we have worked for. I believed in my vision, strove to set an example, and coached my people, just like my favorite boss. But I was not her. I would have to learn how to do it my own way using my own inner resources and learn new skills. I thought that coaching could set me apart from managers around me. That seemed important at the time.

By coaching, though, I mean that I talked with team members about what we, and they, needed to do. I taught, trained, supported, challenged, and encouraged them. How does that sound? It seems like a rough and ready definition of how to coach our people, right. I can see now that I expected them to do what I wanted. Often, I expected them to do it my way.

Cause and effect: Oops

The effect was that they had a shrinking definition of their success. They were right to resist and challenge me. Eventually I got help, thanks to my manager. But it required me to admit reluctantly that my efforts to be a certain kind of manager had created a stalemate with team members. It was the opposite of my intention.It took some figuring

I can see now that I was so not coaching. I would have said that I saw untapped potential in my people. But in fact, I had a hard time valuing what they brought to the team. It was different and didn’t look like my own abilities. I could not see the narrowness of my expectations. They saw what I did as an encroachment on their role and responsibilities as qualified professionals and adults at work. It would be great if they read this: I apologize.

As a starting point, I was muddled about what I was doing. No matter how talented you are, you can’t do everything and you can’t do it all at once.

What about you?

Are you doing performance coaching or developmental coaching? Or maybe it’s not coaching at all?

What effect is your coaching having on your people? Are you noticing whether it’s having an impact?

In my next post, I’ll describe the difference between performance coaching and developmental coaching. You’ll also learn how to set expectations about the two kinds of coaching so that you and they are clear about your roles.

Leaders listen to feedback from all sources

“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson

When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.

When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.

Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.zlata_contortionist_8

A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.

It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.

Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

Executive coaching is about situational awareness

Where are you now and what does it mean? That’s the simplest way to describe situational awareness. What’s going on around me that might be relevant: what’s changing, who’s in and out, are things getting better or worse, what was the impact of the last change? You’ve got it.

What about your situation? Yes, the objective parts, but also you, in your mind and thoughts, and among your most important goals?

  • Are the unproductive meetings I have with the team a problem, or a symptom of a problem?
  • Is it possible that my assumptions about what’s right and best are holding me back?
  • Does my sense of accomplishment make me confident or complacent?
  • Am I using problem-solving approaches that aren’t sophisticated enough for our complex problems?

In the world of people, places, and things, situational awareness can be difficult to achieve. But it can be learned. How much more challenging is it to assess your situation in terms of assumptions, beliefs, biases, hopes, and dynamics with other people? Many people struggle through on their own. And many make real progress.

What is now ≠ What is possible

But some make the mistake of thinking that their limits are insurmountable obstacles. They’ve tried to get better or do things differently, only to learn the same lessons again. This can be especially hard for leaders and managers. Performing – getting better – is important to their careers. It’s also important to satisfaction that we all take from work.Climbing obstacle

If leaders can be honest, they’ll also admit that leading or managing well is important to the way they think of themselves. Obstacles that they can’t vault raise obvious questions: How can I fix this? But the hard question is, “If I can’t meet this leadership challenge, who am I now?”

Develop situational awareness faster

Leadership situational awareness can also be learned. If change – planned or otherwise – has made performance in a new situation critical, choosing an executive coach can help you see a wider perspective, interpret it’s meaning (and threats and opportunities), and experiment with targeted, meaningful action.

You may already have wise support among colleagues. But if not, the process can save the time of trial and error. You’ll learn a few things you might not have thought of. It can also help you make more of the lessons to be learned from new behavior. The coach you choose should be equipped with methods to raise your awareness and help you plan to take action using those new approaches.

The first question is still “Where am I now?” Armed with new insight, leaders can investigate “What does it mean?” which is the first step deeper into awareness of their situation.



Executive coaching is about effectiveness

What’s going to make you more effective? Learning, planning, process, new ideas? The efforts that matter are the ones that fit you: your work, your colleagues, your company, the market you’re in. You don’t want to be more effective in the abstract. You want to be more effective in a unique situation: yours. Coaching can address learning, planning, process, new ideas and more.  But unlike other ways to get them, it’s tailored to the context that matters: yours.

And we want to be effective when it’s most difficult. When the situation is complex, ambiguous, when the stakes are high, that’s when we really need to be at our best. And that is also when we recognize our limits. If the next challenge is a new kind of problem, the familiar solutions may invite more problems.

It can be challenging to recognize that we don’t know. It may raise questions in our minds about our ability for the role. That challenge, and the inner question about whether we are able to meet it, is almost universally normal. However, we only tend to hear about leaders’ doubts and fears when they are part of their success story much later. They are part of every story. That’s why leadership coaching is never really remedial.

Welcome to new territory

One of the ideas conspiring against us is “leadership.”  We may have already outgrown the Terra-Incognitalessons we took from role models. The ideas that helped us get here may not be sturdy enough for today’s challenges. And there’s a possibility that the leaders we admire are exercising capabilities we can’t see. Let’s face it. All leadership approaches have limits.

If you have a sense that you need to be more effective and can’t quite imagine how, you don’t need to be fixed. You’re in new territory. You haven’t been here before. You are in a position to discover a frontier and reshape what “leadership” means to you. Sure, it may call for learning and change. But you’ve been doing that along the road that led you to this meaningful new vantage point. And you’ve had plenty of help. In my experience, people who learn to ask for help are more effective and more satisfied than the so-called heroes who go it alone.