Career Corner

Question: One of the biggest challenges I face as a manager is how to coach members of my team in a way that leaves them feeling I have been genuinely helpful and not merely critical. Sometimes, however, I really do want to be critical. How can I be an effective coach?

Answer: It is important to remember that a manager has two distinct roles. One is as a deliverer of results, usually through the efforts of others. After all, results are what a manager is held accountable for. The second role is as a coach and developer of individuals on a team. The latter is fundamentally different than the former, since its focus is not on the task but on the person who gets the task done. These two aspects of a manager’s job certainly intersect, but the strategies for addressing each done are quite different.

Two roles beginning at the same point
I tell all managers that they should begin the relationship with their direct reports with a clear and direct two-way conversation that results in the employee completely understanding the expectations of the job and their importance. If the manager’s job includes the growth and development of direct reports, then any discussion of expectations should also touch on opportunities for growth and development. This part of the discussion speaks to an employee’s ambitions, goals, and motivations. Ideally, the manager and employee will create a development plan that helps the employee move toward professional goals while meeting the organization’s needs.

Holding this meeting, and others like it, at regular intervals sets the stage for an ongoing conversation in which the employee views the manager as an trusted advisor who will provide timely and substantive feedback that grooms the employee according to their career ambitions and goals. This scenario is particularly well suited to an experienced and accomplished manager and a relatively inexperienced direct report, or when an organization requires a manager to groom their direct reports for the next assignment.

The manager wears two hats
Managers whose primary responsibility is coaching need to wear two hats and be ready to switch them.

For example, a manager might be working with an employee who has to give presentations to clients. The employee might have terrible presentation skills or has made a huge mistake. It is absolutely appropriate in this case for the manager to give feedback to that employee in an honest and timely way. Perhaps the staffer was nervous or didn’t have all the necessary facts. The manager should provide feedback about what they observed and the consequences of the employee’s missteps. This situation, however, also presents a coaching opportunity. Take off the manager’s hat and to put on the coach’s hat, perhaps saying,  "Tell me what your thoughts are about the situation," or ,"How do you feel about what happened?” Then follow up with: "If you were in the same situation again, what would you do differently?" That is very different from what a person might say while wearing the manager’s hat. A coach focuses on one person, on personal development and how to improve and grow.

When the manager is the one who needs coaching
Unfortunately, not all managers are good at managing and coaching others. They do not set clear expectations, nor are they inclined to care about their employees’ professional development. In these situations, employees need to "manage up," and perhaps even coach their managers.

If you are called into a meeting about your work, make sure you clarify with your manager what will be discussed. Focus on the meeting’s value: "What can I take away from this? They know my personal goal is to move up in the organization, so this is a great opportunity for me to learn." Consider sending your manager a couple of questions in advance. Try to have a productive meeting of the minds.

The role of manager and the role of coach are two different things. Wear those two hats well.

I am the manager of a team of 12 in a mid-sized technical services firm. The elderly mother of one of my staff members passed away recently. She is clearly having a hard time dealing with her loss and it is affecting her job performance. I think I can help, but am concerned about getting too deeply involved in her personal matters. How should I handle a situation like this?

As a manager, your job is to get things done through others. It is important for you to have a sense of who your employees are both inside and outside of work, but only to the extent that it helps you understand what motivates them and what factors might have an impact on their performance.

Members of your team might tell you about their personal lives, and that is fine. But it’s important to maintain professional boundaries. You want to be respectful and empathic. However, it is not legal or practical to pry too much into an employee’s personal life. You want to be warm and cordial, but you don’t want to pry. For example, if you know an employee’s child just played a baseball game, it is fine to ask how the game went. But leave it at that. As a manager you don’t want to get more involved than necessary because there is a power differential that can cause relationships to get unnecessarily complicated.

Stay focused on an employee’s meeting performance expectations. If you observe an employee who is having performance issues—especially if they had been a good contributor in the past, it could be due to personal reasons. If they have always been prompt but now have a pattern of coming in late; or if they start dropping the ball on projects where in the past they have been consistent, you should be curious about what is going on. It is your responsibility to give that person feedback; not in a judgmental way, but in an observational way. “I notice that for the past couple of days you’ve been late. Help me understand what is going on.” Keep it plain and simple—nonjudgmental. It is up to the employee to tell you more. If the problem is work related, that is what you should be talking about. But if it is not work related, then it is important to know what is going on so that you don’t commit what we call the fundamental attribution error—the tendency to blame a person when many times it is a situation that is causing a problem.

If you become aware that an employee is having personal challenges, you as a boss, should not play the role of therapist. Avoid questions like: “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” You might want to do that as a human being, but as a manager that is not your role. A more appropriate statement to make would be: “I notice that you seem a little bit distracted.” That is normal feedback. Hopefully you will get a sense of what is going on. If the employee starts to share too much information you need to set a clear boundary by saying: “Well, that sounds very difficult. Our human resources department has resources that you can take advantage of.” Certainly show concern, but don’t get into the role of trying to provide grief counseling or offering advice about how to deal with personal problems. That is not your job.

I think the mark of a great manager is someone who can listen with empathy but who knows their boundaries. If an employee is faced with a personal problem, offer resources but avoid giving advice.

I’ve just been promoted to a management position, and two members of my team are older than my parents! Can you give me some guidance about managing seniors?

Answer: This a question that is being asked more and more as the baby boom generation moves into what used to be considered the retirement years. As recently as the year 2000, older Americans comprised 12 percent of the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2009 the percentage had reached 17 percent. People are living longer, healthier lives, which means that by choice or economic necessity, older adults are staying on the job, and there is a very good chance that their managers will be considerably younger.

As a coach, when a young(er) person asks me about managing people who are much older, I tell them to keep three things in mind: a common goal, patience and perspective.

A common goal
The most important thing to keep in mind is that at some level, they should share a common goal – something they each contribute that helps the team, department or organization. Both parties have valuable skills, perspectives and knowledge to offer one another. The younger person may be more technically savvy and in touch with their own demographic group. The older person may offer experience, people skills developed over time and their own networks—internal and external to the organization—that just by the nature of the number of years they have been working can be very robust. If they have been with the organization longer than the younger manager they also have organizational knowledge that can be valuable.

Focus on showing mutual respect and be open to exchange of knowledge. Look for a common goal, perhaps framed in a question like: “We both need each other. Together we are stronger than we are separate. How do we leverage the knowledge that each of us brings to the party?”

The second principle of managing an older staffer is that it requires patience by both parties. It might be hard, for example, for the younger person to understand why the older person is not up to speed with new technology. New media may be something they read about in the newspaper. So it requires patience and an understanding of why an older person might be slow about seeing the value of “tweeting” or posting on a blog. They did not grow up with it like the younger person did.

Finally, try to imagine that you are in the other person’s shoes and what they might be thinking and feeling. Taking that perspective might help build an interpersonal relationship. I might ask a younger manager: “What do you think the other person might feel about you being their manager?” Perhaps the older person feels threatened. I ask what can be done to make sure that the older person feels valued. The objective is to reduce their level of feeling threatened or out of touch.

Try to reach a point at which the older staffer asks questions such as: “This is not what I had in mind, but let’s see what I can do to make the best of this. What can I learn? Is there an opportunity for me to help someone else with the knowledge that I have? Is there an opportunity for me to keep the pistons firing?"

When you get to that point you will be well on your way to successfully managing a person who is older than you.

Question: I started work about six months ago as a brand manager for a major consumer goods company. I will soon begin a 360-degree performance review process. I’ve never done one before. How can I get the most out of  the review and what are the pitfalls?

Answer: A 360-degree performance review can be an excellent way for you to develop a clear picture of how you are seen by all those you work with, and to identify ways to improve your performance. When I talk with managers about their 360 review, I tell them to think of it as a process with five steps.

Step 1: Check your perspective. When you receive 360-degree feedback, you are receiving input from every person who is in the circle around you at your workplace. That includes peers, your manager, those who report to you, and your internal or external clients. I know that performance reviews can be a source of anxiety, but it is important to know what people are thinking about you and the job you do. View it as a gift, because it allows you to gain a refined self-perception. Assume that you can learn something from the results.

Step 2: Start the process by reviewing yourself. When you complete a 360, you also fill out a self-evaluation. By the time you see what others have to say, you will have already identified where you think your own strengths and weaknesses lie. In addition, you will have a good basis for comparison between what you think and what other people think.  In addition to this self-assessment, take a few moments to think about your own aspirations and goals. What is important for your own development right now? What skills, knowledge and abilities do you need to get where you want to go? At a higher level, think about what you want to be known for and the legacy you want to leave. Capture that before you dive into the 360 review results. This self-reflection will help you make choices about what you want to pay attention to.

Step 3: Test and Process. Most 360s have scale questions in which people rate your performance with numbers. At the end there will usually be a chance to make general comments. People can get obsessed with the comments section because the words are more accessible than the numbers. But that is a mistake. You should be looking for themes, and not focusing on the one outlier who had something negative to say.

Try to look at it almost like a scientist or view it as you would any data set. Do you consistently overrate your performance? Do you consistently underrate your performance? Or are you dead on? That is really important to know.

In addition, ask yourself the following: What is common across all groups? Where are the differences between groups? Does your boss think you convey vision quite well but your subordinates don’t? What allows you to demonstrate that competency with your boss and how can you start to demonstrate it better with your staff? Sometimes perceptions will differ and the 360 can capture that. If one group sees you as really strong and another group sees you as weak in the same area, then you should be curious about that and try to figure out why.

Step 4: Make a choice. Choose carefully what you want to change. You may have a list of several things, but just choose one or maybe two to focus on. Once you improve in one area you can move to another. Behavioral change can be difficult. The people who do it are those people who don’t try to do too much too fast. They are clear about what the payoff is for them and for the organization if they make the change. Remember that you have a lifetime to develop.

Step 5: Develop a Plan. Based on the results of your 360 review process, develop a plan of action. Make sure your supervisor, and perhaps trusted colleagues, are aware of what you plan to do. Be specific. You can’t just say: “I’m going to become a better listener.” If it was that easy and intuitive, you would already be doing it. Look for very specific, measureable actions that are time bound. You might decide, for example, in your weekly departmental meeting to speak less and listen more. Quantify it: “I’m only going to try to add value twice per meeting, and then focus on what I can learn about my colleagues.” If the feedback is that you interrupt at meetings, develop a plan for change. Perhaps have your Outlook calendar remind you 15 minutes before a meeting that you will pause and not interrupt during that one meeting. Try for small successes first, and then go on to something larger.

I know that performance reviews can be the source of a lot of stress. But they can be very useful. You are fortunate to have the opportunity. Take full advantage of it

During my performance review I was told that while my work is excellent, I lack “gravitas” and “executive presence.” I am told it is something I have to develop. How should I approach an issue like this?

Answer: In my experience, terms like “executive presence” or “gravitas” suggests the quality of trustworthiness. Is this someone that I can trust with an important project or to manage a team of people and do it well? Can I put this in their hands? Some people convey a sense of trustworthiness by the way they carry themselves. Others do it in other ways. But it adds up to the sense that the manager is a person who takes their job and their responsibilities seriously and can be depended upon to do their work efficiently and well. Of course projecting gravitas and actually having it can be two different things. So the real challenge is to both have and project it.

Be clear about the problem
You should not assume, however, that my definition of gravitas is what your boss had in mind. So the first thing to do is seek clarity. Ask yourself: “What exactly does my boss mean when she says I must develop more executive presence?” You certainly don’t want to guess. The best way to get a specific answer is also the most direct--go back to your boss and ask. People often don’t dig for more information when they are first given uncomfortable feedback because they are taken aback. But you can certainly go to your boss, tell her that you want to understand in more detail what she means.

In fact, general terms like executive presence and gravitas can cover many things, from improving your presentation skills to telling too many jokes. It might mean paying more attention to what you are wearing or to the way you interact with colleagues. It is imperative to know exactly what your boss means before taking action.

The second issue is how the feedback you receive fits with your own perception of who you want to be in the workplace. If you are told that a particular behavior is a problem, you need to take a hard look at it and ask: “Is this behavior getting in my way? How might it be causing me a problem? Is this advice relevant and important to my ability as a manager or as a leader?” Along with external searching, you should do some internal searching as well.

The value of a trusted advisor
Be aware that your boss may not be skilled in giving specific behavioral feedback. Sometimes they will say: “I don’t know, you just need to be more like Jim. Or you need to be more like Sheila.” That is fairly common, but not very helpful, so you may need to go to a trusted colleague, tell them what you are working on and then ask for two or three suggestions about how you might improve.

Once you have the data, hopefully some really specific information, you can start to do something about it. If it turns out to be something as straightforward as telling jokes at inappropriate times, you can simply pause when you are tempted to crack a joke and consider whether it is the right time and place for humor. If it is about the way you dress, you may want to consult with a stylist or talk with someone who dresses well about where they shop. Your course of action depends on the specific issue. Don’t underestimate the difference that small changes can make.

Develop a plan and follow through
To bring about more significant change, the key to moving forward is to develop a plan and stick to it. The number one way people fail when they try to change behaviors is that they get started and then don’t follow through. Set specific milestones for yourself. Choose a setting in which you want to practice your desired behavior. If it is about how you present, for example, you may want to choose a specific meeting and give your presentation in a different style than usual. Tell your boss or trusted colleague in advance what you are going to try, ask for their reaction, and what you can do to continue to improve.

Be patient. Remember that any serious behavioral change is not going to happen overnight. The greater the change, the longer it will take to make a difference. Be clear about the change you want to make, identify those who will help, make a plan and put it into practice. You will be pleased with the result.

 I am a manager in a professional services organization. I have a smart and highly motivated team. As you can imagine, the current state of the economy and the political turmoil that goes with it triggers a lot of conversation and I am starting to see that my team’s varied political views affect their work and their relationships with one another. How should I handle this?

Answer: Managers are held accountable for achieving their goals through people. Superior managers understand that an effective way to do this is to create a team culture that is conducive to meeting the team’s goals. In the US and many western countries, the notion of free people having the right to their opinion and free speech are important values. However, in the workplace if conversation about controversial or political issues gets to the point that employees are distracted or there are feelings of animosity, it will definitely affect people’s productivity.

Assuming we’re talking about US or western cultures, my first suggestion for dealing with potentially divisive workplace political chatter would be to think about the culture of the group. Collectively engage team members in a conversation about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of behavior. Explicitly ask the question: What values do we need to embrace to be effective? Inevitably respect for others will be mentioned. Go through “what if” scenarios with your employees that involve issues of respect.

The scenarios should focus on business issues first. Go through scenarios that cause people to get upset with one another in a business context. That is a lot safer than starting with politics. Once you have established the general principal of respect for the individual, move on to an observation like: “I’ve noticed there has been a lot of chatter about politics and that it’s causing some arguments. How can we have respect for individual political views and still focus on our work?” Let your staff brainstorm about ways to establish boundaries--I won’t call them rules—for what is appropriate.

Notice that I did not simply advise a ban on political conversation in the workplace. That feels like a scolding. As a manager you want to be as consistent as possible. You want to have the respect of your people. Issuing a ban on certain types of conversation will have unintended consequences. If you get to core values and you help your people establish their own boundaries you will get better, deeper, longer lasting buy-in.

The exception is there are things that fall into the harassment category. In such cases you have all the authority necessary to say: “That is totally in appropriate. It’s illegal.” Harassment in general is so broadly defined that politics can fall into that category. For example, if I were to insult you because you were Muslim, a conversation that might have started out political and then became personal would be a harassment issue.

As a manager you should have explicit and open conversation about the values your team should embrace to meet its business objectives. But it is also important for your people to understand these matters from a legal perspective as well.

I manage a customer relations team that spends a great deal of time online. One team member is clearly spending a lot of time engaged with social media. He says it makes his work more effective, but I’m not convinced. Others are noticing. How do I handle this?

Answer: This is a very interesting issue and a very familiar one; not only in the type of workplace you describe, but in many others. I will give you a general strategy that many of our readers will find useful, and you will see how it provides a specific answer to your question as well.

The first thing you want to think about as the manager of a group is that it is your responsibility to create a culture that is conducive to the patterns of behavior that will help achieve your goals and those of the organization.

There should be explicit metrics in place for which everyone is held accountable. The metrics obviously vary depending on the type of work being done, but in a customer service organization they might include how long people are waiting on the phone or the extent to which customers are satisfied with the quality of the exchange. In addition, you and your team should work together to create a workplace environment that makes it possible to meet the metrics. It is important to ensure social norms are in place that can serve as a clear guide to how work is done. If you don’t already do so, consider having group discussions about what behavior is acceptable and what is not acceptable. As a manager, recognize the importance of metrics that define the work to be done, and the value of working with your team to shape a culture in which there are social norms that establish what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior.

However, if you have an employee who clearly deviates from that behavior, your task as a manager is considerably more straightforward. Assuming that everyone has bought into appropriate online behavior and that there are metrics to which each person is held accountable, then it is much easier to have an effective conversation with an outlier. You can draw the line by saying: “maybe you are not meeting the metrics because you are spending too much time surfing the web?” Or: “I notice that when you are on a call that you are not fully engaged and it shows up in the customer survey. “

One final point is that the use of social media is very much a generational issue – today’s younger employees are from a generation that is becoming known for their use of technological advances in social communications. Older managers can learn a lot from younger members of their team in this capacity. Be curious. Ask: “How can we use social media to do a better job? Maybe there is a more effective way to integrate social media into our process.” Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t, but it should be an explicit conversation. You might even consider doing some tests, with one group playing “by the book” and staying 100 percent on the task. The other would feel permission to use social media while on the job. (Make sure any testing is conducted in a way that service to your clients is not being jeopardized). If the group is engaged in the test, they will accept the results.

Ultimately, though, the question of how a manager should deal with behavior that distracts a staff member from doing their job gets back to the basics of defined metrics and transparent social norms.

I am a mid-level manager. A member of my team came to me with an idea for improving one of our processes. What is the right way to carry that idea forward?

Answer: The first question I would consider is how fully aligned it is with the strategic direction of the department, group, or organization. If it’s an idea that is very strategic and will make a difference, then move forward. If it’s not, then don’t, and take care to explain why.

Let’s assume that the idea seems like one that is of strategic value to the organization. Moving the idea forward depends on the person or persons you have to sell the idea to. In some situations it is fine to walk into your boss’s office and say: “Alice has a great idea. Let me run it by you and see what you think. If you give us a thumbs up we’ll develop it further.” Going directly to your boss, delivering the idea, and enlisting their help can be a very efficient way to act on a good suggestion. If that person gets engaged with the idea he or she may suggest a few other people to talk with who could add perspective. For some bosses, that is their style and that is very acceptable.

If you work in a more structured or political environment then moving an idea forward involves knowing what is important to your boss and how they need to receive information. Some people like to receive information verbally. Some people want to see something in writing. Some might say: “Don’t bother me until you can show a full presentation. “ (I hope you don’t bump into that.)

It’s really an elevator pitch!

If it’s a new idea and if resources and time are limited, test the water. At minimum make sure the idea is fleshed out fully enough that you can put together a thoughtful one or two page document that explains what it is, why it’s important, the strategic contribution that you see it making, or the value that it will add. In other words, go in with an elevator pitch.
If you conduct the due diligence necessary to produce the document, when you have 15 minutes of someone’s time you will know that you have something worthwhile to pitch.

Credit where credit is due

I think it is extremely important to give credit. If someone that works for you gave you the idea, I think you should try to allow that person to present the idea and not take it as your own, as long as the politics of the organization allow you to do that. That will signal to that employee and others that good ideas get you visibility. And that can be an important motivating factor.

A good idea can be useful on many levels. When a member of your team comes forward with one that sounds promising, it is worth paying close attention. It could be a game-changer if you handle it right.

Question: I've read that an important skill for managers is " informal coaching." Can you tell me more about it and how it is different from mentoring?

Answer: Informal coaching is taking off as a key management skill. I read a report recently that described it as a key practice of superior managers, second only to team leadership.

The widespread discussion of informal coaching is a sign that the mentor model, while still useful, has limitations in today’s workplace. For example, the mentorship model assumes that the mentor can teach and groom a person junior to him or her. But given the rise of information technology, globalization, and organizational leanness, it may well be that the world the mentor understands is very different from the world of the current middle manager. Certainly mentors can provide insights into the culture and political dynamics of an organization. But as you look to mentors for things like problem solving or career development, the rules the mentor may have used to progress in his or her career may not still apply.

The Three Skills of Effective Coaching for Managers

You don’t need to be an executive coach to have an effective coaching conversation, but you do need a few skills. The beauty of having the skill set of coaching is that it takes you off the hook from being the expert and puts you in the place of helping someone figure out their own way to success.

A lot of managers don’t coach because they don’t yet understand what it is; but with a little education it can become a really powerful tool. It is well worth the effort to take a short course run by a professional coach who can explain the basics.

It really involves three skills.

Skill number one is what we call deep listening and presence.
A lot of times when a person comes to the manager’s office with a problem to be solved or a decision to make, the tendency as a manager is to say: “Ok, what is it? This is what I think you should do,” without really taking the time to listen. Deep listening means that you resist the urge to talk. Really listen, and get to the heart of what’s going on. The acronym we like to use is WAIT—Why Am I Talking? If someone comes into your office and says: “ I have a problem.” You want to go into deep listening mode. WAIT and just listen.

Skill number two is to be curious; to ask open-ended questions. Close ended questions get you a “yes or no” answer. Have you done this? Have you done that? Yes-no. Asking such questions means you are inserting your assumptions into the conversation. Open ended questions might be: “I’m curious, where did this problem come from? Have you thought about x, y, and z? Is there anything else that you can think of? Is there anyone else you can talk to?" Help your colleagues figure out the best way to solve the problem instead of going down the decision tree chart and arriving at a solution that you think is best. After all, in today’s workplace it is very likely that you do not know everything in that other person’s world.

The third skill in coaching is closure. After you and your employee have talked through the problem that needs to be solved, help develop an action plan. You might say: “Ok, we’ve explored the options and it sounds like the most the most fruitful course of action is…” If the employee agrees, close with action items. What are the two things you need to do to make this happen? How will you know that you have succeeded? What does success look like? Ask the closure questions. This is familiar territory for managers. The hard part is listening and asking open ended questions, dropping the assumption that you know what’s best, and trusting the employee to find the best solution. You want them to have ownership.

Coaching “Up”

There is an interesting flip side to informal coaching. If you know more about coaching and its benefits than your manager, you might want to think about how to use a coaching conversation to manage “up.” Take the lead in going to your manager and engaging him or her in a problem-solving discussion built around open-ended questions and leading to an action plan. Sometimes you can help your manager provide the coaching you need.

Here is a word of caution. Remember that not all managers are good at managing. Think a situation through before starting a conversation. What could happen? What are the positives and the negatives? What are the consequences of not discussing an issue with your manager? I always advise people to have a trusted advisor. Tell that person what you are concerned about and rehearse the conversation. Have someone play devil’s advocate, especially if there is a political dimension to the issue.

As a manager it is well worth learning the skills of coaching. It will help build the capacity of those who report to you and help your organization compete more effectively in a complex business environment.

The skills of informal coaching are part of the curriculum in some of the programs offered here at the Kellogg School of Management, including the Executive Development Program, and Energizing People for Performance.

I was made Acting Director of my department more than a year ago. I’ve worked hard and believe I’m doing a good job, but there has been no change in my position. As a result, I find it hard to give my best in terms of leadership, motivation, and mentoring. This situation does not seem fair to me, my staff, and is certainly not in the best interest of my firm. What do you suggest?

Answer: To get at the heart of this difficult issue it would be important to understand the context. For example, are other people getting promoted? Is there some structural reason or some business reason that you are frozen in place? Is the company cutting costs or making no personnel moves because of the economy? Are they preparing to outsource your function? Perhaps your department is simply not a strategic priority in the organization.

So the first step is to look at the big picture. It might not be personal. There may be organizational reasons that are the source of the problem or politics at the upper level which you might not see at your level.

For the sake of discussion though, let’s assume that there is nothing in the big picture that is causing this problem, and that it is personal.

In this case it does sound like you have been strung along. If you have asked your boss about your situation and the boss gives one excuse after another, you really do have to wonder what’s going on. So the next step may well be a more direct and pointed conversation, with you saying: “I’ve asked about how to move beyond this ‘Acting Director’ position, I keep getting different answers and nothing’s happening. Is it my performance? Do you not see me as having management potential? Is there anything I can do to move forward?”

Try to establish a deadline with your boss. Perhaps an agreement that over the next 12 months you will get extra training or coaching—measures that will demonstrate that you add value. If you give it your best and nothing happens, then it would be time to say to yourself: “Clearly I’m not valued here.” You will have done everything you could and hopefully in that 12 months you will have put together a really strong selling document for yourself in terms of your accomplishments. Perhaps you can use that to document to move to a place within the organization that values someone with your talents and strengths. Perhaps you will leave the organization.

Now let’s consider what you should be doing as a leader in terms of motivating, coaching, and mentoring your staff. It is really difficult to do those things if you don’t have clarity yourself. So you have to take care of that upward relationship first, getting the best possible information about what is going on. Once you have a goal established with your boss, you can translate that goal into objectives for the people who report to you. You might say,: “Look, we really need to prove ourselves here. Based on what I’ve heard from management we have to do a better job of x,y, and z. Let’s figure out as a team how we are going to do this.” Having that goal and some sense of urgency will make you more effective in motivating, coaching, and mentoring because now you are working toward a specific goal.

You are not an island in an organization. It is important to think of yourself as being in a nexus of relationships. How you feel about your job, how personally motivated you are, and how clear you are about your role and responsibilities significantly influences your ability to interact with your team and to manage your own career.

Question: I've been in my current role for about three years and I feel like I am doing an excellent job. But I am nagged by the feeling that I'm virtually invisible. How do I get more visibility with my company's leadership without looking like I'm grasping?

Answer: It is fairly typical for people to assume that hard work and solid results will lead to visibility and promotion or some other form of formal recognition. That’s not always the case. If you feel invisible, you have to figure out ways to gain more exposure to the people that matter the most in your organization, the people that decide who gets promoted or who gets raises and bonuses.

There are two ways to go about it, formal and informal.

Talk to your boss - But do it right
In the formal approach, it is sometimes as simple as having a conversation with your boss and saying: “What do I need to do to qualify for a bonus or to get promoted?” Sometimes bosses don’t know a person’s aspirations. It’s not necessarily a given. It is often a good idea to ask the question in the context of seeking advice. Instead of going to your boss and saying: “You know, I really want to get a promotion.” You might say: “I’ve been here for a couple of years and I like the organization. I feel that I can add some real value. Can you give me some advice on how to move up? What would it take for me to get to the next level?” Be as specific as you can in terms of what information you want from your boss. But also be as clear as you can about your desire to move up.

If you have a mentor, you can ask that person the same questions. It is a good idea to talk to multiple sources. Sometimes your boss might be in a position in which he or she isn’t viewed that well in the organization and so might not be the best person to talk to. Getting a different perspective is helpful.

Stay alert for bad news. Your boss may feel that you do not have what it takes. That is good information to know as well.

There are also informal ways of getting the information you need.

Informal sources of information can be valuable
For example, every organization has social events - perhaps a holiday party or a golf outing. Use them as opportunities. Don’t just show up, telling yourself: “Well, I’ve got to network,” shaking hands with the big boss and having an awkward conversation. Think about what you want to say.

Perhaps there will be a role for you in planning these events that will put you in contact with senior-level people. It can be a fine opportunity to demonstrate that you can do a good job and to show your personality while working with people two or three levels above you. Serving on a planning committee can be a huge opportunity to be seen in action in a strategic role. Make sure you show up prepared and that you have good thoughts.

Another informal approach is to collect intelligence from your peers - people that you know inside or outside of your group. What do they know about advancing in the organization? You can learn a lot from your peers.

In these less formal situations, make sure that you have a strategy so that you come away with the information you need. Remember though that you don’t want to come across as calculating. The questions you want to have answered should, ideally, come up naturally in a conversation. If you look too eager or calculating it will undermine your efforts.

It is no fun to work hard, do an excellent job, and yet feel invisible within an organization. Part of managing your career is knowing how to come to the attention of those who matter, and doing it in an appropriate way.

Question: I am a middle manager at a firm that has gone through a series of downsizings. There are signs that the business climate is improving, but there may well be more staff cuts to come - me included! Do you have thoughts about how to sustain staff morale and productivity in a situation like this?

Answer: I am sorry to hear about your situation, but as a manager in today’s current business environment you certainly have a lot of company and your question is a good one.

When an organization has to lay people off, most of the attention tends to focus on those who are getting laid off versus those who are staying. I think it is important for you, as a manager, to balance the needs of both groups. If you have to deliver the bad news, it is human nature to feel anxiety. What’s important is that you and hopefully your organization try to be personally respectful and as financially reasonable as possible. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it sends a powerful signal to those who stay about the firm’s values.

To sustain the morale of your staff under these conditions, I first recommend gaining some personal perspective. Think about your own thoughts and feelings about your situation. The attitude of the manager cascades on to others. If you are feeling fearful or if you are working on your own resume, you will be less effective. You will be in a better position to motivate other people if you have done it for yourself.

To get your own concerns about job security in order, find out as much information as you can from your boss and other trusted colleagues about where your job stands. The hardest situation to be in, I think, is when you as a manager feel threatened. That really impedes your ability to motivate anyone else.

Let’s assume that you feel reasonably comfortable that you are going to stay and that you have to figure out how to motivate others. The best thing I would say is to talk openly about what you can talk about. If you don’t, people will start to make up things about you and management. Control the rumor mill. When fear is rampant, productivity is going to go down because people are going to be gossiping and/or working on their resumes. It’s your job to keep people as focused as possible. So clear the air. Be as open, honest, and candid as you can.

If there are some things that you cannot talk about, you should respond: “I’m sorry, I cannot discuss that. But this is what I can tell you….” If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Depending on the type of business you are in, consider getting your people involved in a discussion about how to keep up productivity in an uncertain environment. What can you do together to shine through this tough period? If you have good people, let them share the burden. It is easy to be an effective manager when times are good. It is challenging times that build strength and skill.

Question: I’ve signed up for an executive education program. How can I focus on the right things to make the most of my experience?

Answer: In my programs, I have what I call three key success factors to enable a person to have a successful executive education experience. They are the pre-program discovery, daily reflection, and action learning.

Putting Success Factors to Work
The value of the academic content varies according to the work you have done in advance to prepare for the executive education program. It is a process of meeting with your boss, your direct reports, perhaps even your clients or customers to clarify the problems you want to address in the executive education program and the specific questions to be answered. (see question below) The better your preparation, the more meaningful the academic content will be.

The second success factor, daily reflection, is very important. I recommend taking ten minutes or so at the end of the day to record the key learning points. What were the one or two mega-ideas that can make a difference? If you’ve done your homework in advance, that is when you might realize that “Oh, this is what my customer is looking for. This is what my boss is looking for.” Document this while it’s fresh in your mind. Without this daily reflection, it is hard to remember what the professor said and how to apply it.

Action Learning is something I do in the programs that I lead at Kellogg. All participants keep an action learning journal. It is a thin spiral bound notebook with each day’s reflections. This notebook is separate from the large binder filled with handouts and articles as I want participants to be able to access this easily during - and more importantly - after the program. During the program, I have them write down what their challenges are, opportunities to overcome them, what success will look like, and any action items they think of. As a group exercise, I have the participants review their notes they took in their action learning journal, identify the key ideas that have the most meaning or impact for each individual, and then work with their peers to flesh them out.

Building an Action Plan
For our longer programs, on the last day, we do a final exercise in which I have the participants make a list of all their action items and then prioritize them, setting up a 100 day plan. What do I need to do in the next week? In the next 30 days? In the next 60 days to put this learning to work?

The three success factors can make a huge difference. A good job of preparing for the academic content, capturing the key learning points, and keeping and consulting your action learning journal can help you get the most possible value from an executive education program.

Question: I will be attending an executive education program at Kellogg. What are some things I should be doing in advance to get the most out of the time I will spend there?

Answer: What To Do Before You Come
Executive education programs at elite business schools have wonderful faculty members and outstanding content. But what is really important in getting the most out of a program is for each participant to think through some important questions in advance.

• What are my goals in taking this program?
• How can this program make a specific difference in my job, my career, my organization?

Let key stakeholders know you’re attending the program. If the program will focus on a particular issue or problem, clarify it in advance. If the conversation is with your key reports, ask what questions they have that you can address during the program. Is there anything they would like you to be listening for that would be useful to the organization? Think broadly. If your boss is sending you, definitely sit down to talk about expectations. Ask: “How can I add value? What are you expecting from me as a result of this experience?”

Moreover, with the economy changing, some people participate in executive education programs because they are getting ready for a career move. If that is your situation, think about how this program can position you for that next move, whether it is a promotion, a move to a different function, or to a different organization.

What To Do While You Are Here
If you arrive with these questions in mind, you can be a proactive participant. The benefits will be evident right from the start. Most programs begin with a discussion of goals and objectives. There will usually be introductions in which each person is asked to discuss why they are taking the program. You should come in with a clear response to this question.

As you are listening to the opening comments, think about the questions you worked out in advance. At Kellogg, the person who is introducing the program will be the Academic Director, the person who designed that program. So that first session is a great time to ask about specific things that would be useful to you.

In addition to the academic content, executive education programs are excellent networking opportunities. There is a lot to be learned from your fellow participants. You want to be alert for clues to those in the room with information that will be useful to you or others who are at the same crossroads in their career as you.

At Kellogg we believe that executive education is a process that begins well before the program takes place and provides value long after it concludes.

Question: What are some creative ways to inspire and motivate staff during a time when raises are small, non-existent, and sometimes even cut?

Answer: Over the years, research studies shows that people care about money in a relative versus an absolute sense. That is, they ask themselves how are they doing salary-wise relative to their perceived peers. If they are doing as well as or better than their perceived peer group, then most likely they will be content with the monetary part of the job. However, a job is more than money. From the research I've seen and through my experience in interacting with middle to senior level professionals in Kellogg's executive programs and coaching senior level executives, what really motivates and engages people are affirmative answers to questions like:

• Do I feel valued and appreciated?
• Is my work and the organization I work for aligned with my personal values?
• Am I growing?
• Does my job allow me to integrate other important areas of my life - like family or hobbies?
• Is my work important to others, the community, or society?
• Do I get to do what I do best every day?

There are a lot of books about what motivates people. A good series is "First, Break All the Rules" and "Now Discover Your Strengths." These are classic books in helping to identify what motivates people and leveraging each individual’s strengths. So, the answer is not necessarily finding new gimmicks or creative ways to motivate people, but rather it's about having meaningful conversations with employees, finding out what's important to them, and creating an environment where they can thrive.

Question: When is the best time to hire an executive coach, and what kinds of results can managers realistically expect to achieve from coaching?

Answer: Yes, executive coaching is the hot topic these days. First, let me start by addressing when is NOT the best time to hire a coach. If an employee or manager is in trouble or is on probation, using an executive coach to "help" that person is not a good use of anyone's time or resources. Chances are that the person is underperforming because of a lack of appropriate skills or overall fit with the job or organization. Many times, companies hire coaches in lieu of having tough but honest conversations with employees. A coach cannot "fix" a person in this situation.

The best use of a coach is when a person understands what a coach can do and is willing to be coached. An executive coach can help a professional solve problems, gain clarity on the direction they want to take their organization or their career, design a plan of action and/or reach goals. So, the best time to use a coach is when someone feels as if they need help in one or more of these areas. An effective coach can get someone their desired outcomes - if they are willing to partner with him or her and do the work. Partner is the pivotal word here. A coach can ask all the right questions, provide a wealth of resources and provide great insights, but it's up to the coachee to be open to coaching and importantly do something based on their coaching conversations. From my own experience as a coach and what I hear from other coaches and coachees, coaching is very effective if one is "coachable" - open to learning and doing.

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