Career Corner with Professor Ellington-Booth

Question: I�ve read that an important skill for managers is called "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 don�t necessarily 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 reasons managers don�t coach is that they don�t yet understand what it is; but with a little education it can become a really powerful tool. It is well work the effort to take 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. Think about 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 putting a lot of 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 them figure 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 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 Kellogg Management Institute, the Kellogg Management Program and the Executive Development Program

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 todays 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. Whats 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 firms 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.

Lets 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 dont, 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. Its 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: Im sorry, I cannot discuss that. But this is what I can tell you. If you dont 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: Ive signed up for an executive education program. How can I focus on the right things to make the most of my experience?

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 youve 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 its 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 days 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?

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 youre 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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