Sunday, August 21, 2011

Do You Open Doors in Your Coaching Conversations?

Use open-ended, non-leading questions to get the most information

Nine times out of ten, open-ended, non-leading questions will be the best question type to use in your coaching conversations. They will get you information quickly, without unduly influencing the direction of the conversation. You will notice that these questions often begin with “how” or “what”.

— “What options are you considering?”

— “What are the consequences if you do nothing here?”

— “How would the other person involved describe this situation?”

— “What would you really like to see happen here?”

— “What alternatives could you pursue to reach your ideal state?”

Often, in our attempts to be helpful and to help our associates solve problems, we begin asking leading questions, which are often closed-ended. If you look at the sample questions below, you will see that these are really “advice disguised as questions.”

— “Have you talked to Bill about that?”

— “Have you thought about doing X?”

— “Did you try Y?”

Imbedded in each of these leading questions is the coach’s own opinion or ideas on how best to solve the problem. When any of us are asked a series of closed-ended questions, we may begin to feel interrogated.

A unique exception:

Questions that begin with “why” may be open-ended, and non-leading. However, these questions will often put the receiver on the defensive. Consider how you would feel if someone asked you, “Why did you do that?” or “Why would you go that route?” We immediately feel like we need to “defend” our position. Therefore, try rewording your “why’s” into “what’s” or “how’s” instead, e.g. “What led you to that decision?”


  • Prior to your next coaching conversation, prepare a list of questions that you would like to ask your coachee. Scan the questions and determine how many are truly open-ended, non-leading questions.
  • During your coaching conversations, try to “catch yourself” asking closed-ended, leading questions. These will often begin with the words “do you” or “have you”. Try to reword these questions so that they are non-leading and open-ended, using words like “what” and “how” instead.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Does Performance Data Get in the Way of Coaching Conversations?

In my work in training sales leaders to coach their sales representatives, I often find that having all of the performance data can sometimes be an impediment to great coaching conversations. Sales leaders have an abundance of data at their fingertips, which highlight performance strengths and weaknesses:
— How is the sales rep doing compared to plan?
— Compared to others in the team?
— Compared to everyone across the country?
— On each product and service line?
— Each day, week or month?

I recently shadowed a high-performing sales leader working with his team members. He worked for a financial services organization that had established very clear goals for each rep regarding the specific products and services s/he was expected to sell each month. Reps received training, shadowing and coaching so that they understood the product lines and how to position them with clients. This sales leader met with each direct report one time each week for “coaching.” Here was a typical conversation:

  • Leader: “Let’s review your progress and see how you are doing and where we can help you improve in your numbers.”
  • Rep: “OK.” (The rep got the same reports on a daily basis so the rep knew exactly where s/he stood on any given day.)
  • Leader: “It looks like you are doing great on product lines X and Y, but not doing so well on A and B.”
  • Rep: “Right. I know that I need to get A and B up.”
  • Leader: “You know, if you just did (a few more calls each day) where you (said a few more of the right things), you will get your numbers to goal.”
  • Rep: “Yeah, I know I need to be doing that.”
  • Leader: “And if you keep that up, you have a chance on going on the Achievement Trip at the end of the year. I know how important that is. Anything else on your mind?”
  • Rep: “Well, I was wondering…” (The rep never got to finish his sentence, as the leader interrupted and took control again.)
  • Leader: “Oh, one other thing: I noticed that we probably also need to…”

While this might sound hard to believe, I am only slightly exaggerating the nature of most of the conversations I observed that day. Because performance data is so available and abundant, focusing on results seems like an obvious place to start in a coaching conversation. However, imagine how the rep must feel during and after conversations like these.

Instead of focusing on the numbers and the results, I suggest that a more powerful coaching conversation would involve the following elements:

  1. Frame the conversation: Ask the sales rep what he/she wants to focus on. Where would s/he like help or support?
  2. Understand the current state from the rep’s point of view: What is working well that can be leveraged? What is s/he struggling with? What are the consequences of not changing? What’s at stake if performance doesn’t improve?
  3. Explore the desired state, again from the rep’s point of view: What would the rep like to see happen? What does success look like? What are multiple ways to get there? (Research shows that if you identify at least three paths to reach the desired outcome, you will ultimately have a better solution to get there.) If the rep cannot identify any paths to achieve success, the leader can certainly add his/her thoughts; however, the rep will typically know what s/he needs to do.
  4. Lay out action steps and follow-up milestones. Ask the rep to identify the next best steps to take, along with timeframes. The timeframes can then drive the next checkpoint for the leader and rep and provide a path for accountability.

The acronym for these elements gives sales leaders FUEL for effective coaching conversations. Representatives will be able to identify what they really need help with, have a forum for discussing their true challenges and be part of the solution moving forward.

Do you think all of the performance data can sometimes be an impediment to great coaching conversations?

For more information, read The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, where my colleague and I share practical tools and tips for turning the typical manager/employee discussion into effective coaching conversations.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Do you have the right assessments in your coaching toolkit?

One of the questions that fellow coaches often ask me is “What kind of assessment tools do I need?” There are hundreds, if not thousands, of coaching tools in the marketplace. Choosing among them can be daunting or confusing.

I usually tell coaches the following:

  1. If you plan on doing any leadership coaching, then it is essential to have a Leadership 360 tool in your toolkit.
  2. It is very useful to have a “style” or “preference” tool in the toolkit, too. Most individuals will run into challenges dealing with different individuals, and if they have a sense of their own style/preferences, as well as the other person’s, they will be well-served. The top three that come to mind are Social Styles, Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), or the DiSC tool. They are different, but share certain aspects of trying to identify style. My personal preference is Social Styles. It is behaviorally-based and grounded in great research.
  3. Emotional Intelligence is such an important aspect of overall effectiveness, that the coach might consider an EQ tool. There are several good tools out there, and many coaches I know use the “EQ in Action” profile.
  4. Another great tool for helping guide individuals through significant transition is the Personal Directions tool by MRG.

If I were only going to pick one tool, however, I would choose a leadership 360 tool, if my primary audience is mid- to senior-level leaders working in organizations. While many exist in the marketplace, my personal favorite is the Zenger Folkman 360. Zenger Folkman has built a proven process around debriefing 360s, focusing on strengths, and helping leaders know how to leverage what they are best at to make a difference. I am certainly biased, but I believe that this tool is the best 360: it is simple to administer, easy to understand, and is well-grounded in a large body of research. People I know have compared the Zenger Folkman 360 to other 360s available in the marketplace. They typically say that the differentiators include:

  • a strengths-based approach
  • well-grounded in research, with a large database supporting the findings
  • easy to use and interpret, from both the coach’s and user’s perspective
  • a comprehensive toolkit to support a leader in building a development plan
  • a foundational “textbook” which supports the overall philosophy and implementation: The Extraordinary Leader book, authored by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman
  • comparison to the “best” leaders versus an average or 50th percentile norm

Zenger Folkman has recently made this unique 360 available to independent coaches, who wish to add a 360 to their toolkit. Please join us for the Coaching the Extraordinary Leader certification training on July 7 – 8 in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. All participants will not only receive their own 360 feedback, but they will also be able to register a client and receive/interpret their client’s feedback report in session. For more information on this event, contact me or visit the Zenger Folkman website.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Make Loud Mistakes

When I was growing up, I took weekly piano lessons. My piano teacher seemed somewhat intimidating and fairly strict with her weekly goals and homework assignments (or so it seemed from the innocent eyes of this grade-school student).

Each week, I would show up at my lesson and play the song that had been assigned to me as homework from the week before. If I had practiced well, I could usually play the assigned song with success (and earn my appropriate stickers, which my piano teacher would place on my sheet music).

If I hadn’t prepared well, I would invariably play more tentatively, hesitating just a bit. I would play softer and slower; it seemed as if I would naturally take myself into a slow motion rendition of my own performance. My piano teacher would always say “play louder! I want to hear loud mistakes!” If I followed her guidance and played with more confidence, two things would happen:

  • If I did make mistakes, she could hear them more easily and help me correct them.
  • I could simulate the more appropriate behavior I would need in order to effectively perform in a recital situation, where I had a “real” audience.

I found myself recently saying this saying phrase “make loud mistakes!” to a group of talented leaders who were practicing a new skill set. What I found is that they would rehearse more softly, slowly, and tentatively than what an effective performance would require. By acting with more confidence, they would likely perform better, and if they did make mistakes, I could more easily hear them and help them correct.

While it is natural to want to move more tentatively through a new or difficult passage, perhaps moving with more confidence and vigor would produce greater results. “Fake it until you make it” is a phrase that seems to be a powerful corollary here. If you don’t feel confident, try to imagine as if you did feel confident. The results will likely be palpable to those around you.

So my encouragement for you, especially as you try new or uncomfortable new skills or practices, is make loud mistakes!

Monday, November 29, 2010


Do you know SARA like I know SARA? Chances are the answer is no, especially if we are of a different gender.

SARA is an acronym that we often use to portray the relatively predictable pattern of emotional responses that people feel when an event happens to them that they are not expecting, or when they receive disconfirming feedback. What does it stand for?

  • S: shock or surprise
  • A: anger or anxiety
  • R: rejection or rationalization
  • A: acceptance

Think about the last time that you experienced a situation or received information that did not fit your view of what you thought would/should happen. Chances are that you progressed through SARA in some form or fashion.

  • Shock/surprise: Perhaps you felt surprise or some level of amazement/shock that what happened just happened.
  • Anger/anxiety: Because you were caught off-guard, you might have experienced some level of frustration, discomfort or worry regarding what the event or information might mean.
  • Rejection/rationalization: In an effort to try to reconcile the information with what you believed should have happened, you might have tried to “explain away” the disconfirming information. This is where we often look for excuses or “reasons why” things happened the way they did. We will often try to find information that casts us in the best light (which usually aligns with our self-perceptions).
  • Acceptance: After some time—and time seems to be the biggest variable between men and women—you reached a state of acceptance. You told yourself, “it is what it is,” and you were ready to take action and move on accordingly.

When processing or receiving 360-degree feedback, we encourage clients to recognize that these levels of reaction are perfectly predictable and normal. We also invite clients to see that Acceptance typically comes after the previous stages of turmoil or internal bargaining.

Research conducted by Dr. Barbara Annis, expert on Gender Intelligence, suggests that men and women routinely move through these stages at different speeds. Men tend to view unusual or surprising situations as problems to be solved. If a problem can be solved, men tend to value taking action and moving quickly to solve the problem. If a problem can’t be solved, men tend to move into a state of Acceptance: realizing that they can’t change the current situation, it makes the best sense to let it go.

Women, on the other hand, tend to spend more time in a rumination phase. Instead of being able to move as quickly into Acceptance, women tend to stay longer in the state of Rejection and Rationalization. They wonder what they could have done differently, or worry about what happened in the situation and what the possible consequences are, and cycle through this thought pattern for a longer period of time.

As much as I wish this were different, I had a conversation with my honeybunch, Dave. We discussed a hypothetical situation, as well as real situation that I had recently experienced. In both situations, I was stuck in a “rumination” phase; I was debating other possible reasons or rationalizations for what had happened. However, in both situations, Dave’s reaction was “If you can’t change it, just move on. Don’t beat yourself up. Why spend more energy trying to wonder what happened?” He admitted that he would likely spend 30 minutes processing a situation that I might spend up to 3 days worrying about.

So, what can we learn from SARA and how the two genders work through these phases differently?

  1. Recognize that SARA is a natural and normal “map” of the territory, which explains how humans react to new events or disconfirming information.
  2. Acknowledge that men and women react differently to situations; neither reaction is better than the other, but the two genders do tend to deal differently with situations.
  3. Men will treat new information as problems to be solved; if they can’t be solved, they will “let it go” more quickly.
  4. Women tend to stay longer in a rumination phase, recycling through what could have happened and what actions were taken.
  5. Both approaches add value. In some situations, women can learn from men to more quickly accept the situation and just “let it go” if it cannot be solved. When women tell their stories of what happened, men can acknowledge that this is the way that women process to make sense of their situations.
  6. Women seek understanding, while men tend to value action.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Mind of a Leader

A couple of years ago, I gave a keynote speech on how to be an Extraordinary Leader. One of the participants wrote this poem for me and handed it to me at the end of the session. It makes me smile every time I run across this Dr. Seuss-like poem. I hope you enjoy it today!

“The Mind of a Leader”

Have you ever, in the morning,

went to jump out of bed,

and declared to yourself,

“Today I won’t get ahead”?

No, you see we must always

strive to be great,

or we’ll really be sad

and our work…second rate.

But how to be great?

With your strengths and your flaws?

So you try to correct those

flaws and it gnaws;

‘til you see they’re not fatal

and you must go to great lengths,

to focus on building

your positive strengths.

Your reward in the end

if you manage to muster

competence, work and passion to cluster?

Not money or fame but the

intellectual treat,

of enjoying your role

in a spot that is sweet.

-KA (Kurt Akaydin)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Heart of the Matter

When I was growing up, one of the phrases my mother frequently said was “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” This phrase probably dates me; I cannot imagine current day mothers stating this same phrase to their daughters.

I began pondering “what is the way to an employee’s heart?” In workplaces today, managers and corporations are interested in motivating their employees—to higher levels of performance and productivity and innovation, so that higher goals can be met with potentially fewer resources. A frequent challenge managers face is how to inspire their team members, so that they are fully engaged.

The answer I arrived at was this: “The way to an employee’s heart is through his/her heart!” Bodies of research have shown that people don’t tend to change behaviors unless they have an emotional connection to the change. Thinking alone just doesn’t do the trick.

Let’s explore this. If you are like me, you probably ponder New Year’s resolutions and feebly come up with 1 – 3 that you proclaim you will focus on as you spring out of bed on January 1st. And, if you are like me, you abandon most of those resolutions before the month ends. Why? Because we arrived at the decision by thinking alone. We think we need to lose that 10 pounds or resume a regular exercise regime or establish a meditation practice. However, our hearts aren’t connected to the decision. We have neither felt the agony and disappointment of staying the same, nor the exhilaration and joy of achieving the desired future state.

In order to make new decisions, and choose differently, we must go through the landscape of emotions. How does it feel to be overweight or out of shape or crabby? How would it feel if you could imagine being healthy or peaceful? Instead of thinking about how you might feel, can you truly get in touch with the feelings? Slow yourself down, close your eyes, and place yourself in that experience and state of feeling.

What happens in the workplace? Leaders hope to inspire and motivate employees, and yet most of their persuasive elements come from the thinking domain. To convince employees to reach for higher goals and achieve brilliant results, leaders employ:

  • solid rationale
  • best practice strategies and tactics
  • supporting data elements
  • concise PowerPoint presentations
  • reward and recognition systems

All of these tactics make sense to our intellectual sides. We may accept and agree with the new directions and follow, because the data make sense. On a continuum from compliance to commitment, we are likely closer to the compliance end.

However, to really inspire people and engender full commitment and engagement, leaders need to do better. They must connect to the hearts of employees. How? By:

  • connecting to their values
  • creating a vision of what’s possible
  • asking employees to imagine what it would feel like to be in that vision
  • discovering what employees most care about
  • finding a way to connect those passions to the work that needs to be done

Leaders must make an emotional connection.

When I train leaders how to be better coaches, one of the questions that I invite them to ask their employees is, “how do you feel about this?” or “How would you feel if you could make that happen?” I am frequently surprised at how much resistance there is regarding that word: “feel”. However, passion is completely connected to feelings. You cannot be passionate about something without feeling strongly about it.

So, when you think about the next change you want your employees to commit to, consider how you ignite their passion and connect to their values. Don’t be afraid to talk about feelings. Use more than just intellectual persuasion. Remember, the way to our employees’ hearts is through their hearts!