Executive Coaching

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DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #16

Upon Further Reflection

Most of the people who engage me as a coach have some type of problem that they want to work on.  Big surprise, right?  Who doesn't have something with their current job, relationships, career, etc. that could use some improvement?  Everyone in the workplace is constantly making choices about short term dilemmas, career issues, or interpersonal issues with employees, peers or bosses.  Others might be even having personal issues which affect their job performance.

So where do you start in trying to solve these problems?

Before I try to answer this question, I want to once again thank those of you who took the time to forward my April newsletter to your colleagues and friends.  I still need your help to increase my readership, so please take a second to use the button above to give others an opportunity to subscribe.  Thanks!

The first place to start is usually NOT to dive into the problem at hand.  The problem at hand is usually full of messy details, personalities, stakeholders, and emotion.  The first place to start is to put CONTEXT around the problem.  My clients are sometimes surprised when we start our engagements working on past history, goals, principles, and future desires.  Doing this reflection work serves to remind people how they arrived where they are, what they care about, and where they want to be at the end.

Once this process is complete, the solution to many dilemmas is much more obvious.

For example, I was working with a client (Pam) who was recently promoted to manager.  After the initial excitement of the promotion had worn off, Pam realized that she was so overwhelmed that she was having a difficult time making an impact on anything.  She was pushed and pulled in five different directions by her boss, her peers, and her company priorities.   Her employees also needed guidance, and she was working on filling some open spots as well.  On top of this, she had customer interruptions and 300 emails per day to deal with.  The stress level was high, and Pam was not feeling like she was making progress anywhere.

Sound familiar?

My first goal with most clients is to work the reflection process above, and look systematically at the past, present, and future.  Let's look at all 3 in detail.

  1. Past
    Every time you see a commercial for a mutual fund or read the bottom of a prospectus, you might notice the words, "Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results". However, the past can hold a lot of clues for how we have learned to react in certain situations. Employees arrive in the workplace with a set of learned skills, most of which serve them very well. However, as we have seen in past newsletters, some of those learned behaviors can get us into trouble.

    If we can look to the past for similar situations to the one we are facing today, we may learn how to best handle it.  Or we may learn not to make past mistakes again!

    There are a number of techniques to reflect on the past. One that I have used on occasion is to look back as far as possible at different periods of life (high school, college, first job, etc.) and note the best memories and worst memories.  From there decide what made them the best or worst.  The themes drawn from a lifetime may be a clue for what has worked well in the past.

    In the example above, Pam reflected as far back as grade school.  She had many examples of great times, and some examples of disappointments.  Once we gathered them together, we realized that she had the best times when she was focused on achieving a set task (i.e. learning a part in a play, or getting a good grade in a hard class).  Some of her worst times seemed to come when she was stretched too thin with conflicting priorities (i.e. business travel vs. personal relationships). 

    Sometimes past performance CAN be a predictor of future results!

  2. Present
    Next, it's the here and now that require reflection. This may sound obvious, but when is the last time you sat down and made goals for the month, or wrote down what your principles are?

    • Goals
      Just stepping back and writing down the short number of things that are most important to accomplish will cut the clutter from your day. With a clear goal, you can prioritize what you work on, and put other things on the back burner with confidence.
    • Values
      Writing down your principles/values is sometimes a little more challenging. Personal values are things that define HOW you want to accomplish your job, or even your life. The goal is to have a list on paper of what you care about most, to again help you with the choices that you have to make on a daily basis.

      A great example is Benjamin Franklin, who had a set of personal virtues which he developed at age 20 and lived by for the rest of his life!

    In the example above, Pam's short term goal when she started her job was to improve the quality of her group's product to better meet customer needs.  This came from a number of issues that the team had to deal with over the last year.  She had a number of values, but one of those values was to put the needs of the customer first.  This came from a business need, but more importantly from a personal desire for herself and her team to be reliable and honest. 

  3. Future
    Lastly, I challenge clients to look to the future.  By future, I don't mean yearly goals or even the 3 year plan. I ask clients to focus on the really powerful things that the client wants to accomplish in their work and personal lives. This is where we look at what the client wants to accomplish "someday".

    The movie The Bucket List is actually based on a real life coaching tool.  In the movie, two older men have brushes with death, and decide to embark on a whirlwind journey to accomplish a long list of dreams before they die.  (Unlike most of us, they have unlimited funds.)  And like any good movie, there's some drama along the way as they learn that what is important is a lot bigger than they thought.  It's a life changing experience for both.

    In real life, the bucket list is a tool to look at the future and come up with tangible things that you want to accomplish in life.  This can be a either a list of accomplishments, or how you want to be remembered (by kids, employees, etc.) when you are gone.  The goal is to have a list of dreams to help keep focused on the "big picture".

    In Pam's case, her future goal for her time with her current company was to be known as someone who changed the company culture for the positive.  She wanted to have the company focus less on internal issues, and more on creating innovative customer solutions.  She also wanted to be a role model for other women in her company aspiring to leadership. 

Knowing what we now know about Pam, her dilemma gets easier.  She decided to put focus on anything that helped her customers.  She set goals and objectives for her team on customer satisfaction, and gained approval on these from her boss.  She got personally involved in hiring decisions for customer-facing employees.  Other items, although important, occasionally had to go on the back-burner.  Once she began to focus, she felt less stress about her job.

Once context is established, THEN we can dive into all those fun messy details and interpersonal relationships!

If you need help with your overwhelming list of issues, let me know. As always, I also welcome your comments on this article.  Feel free to email, Twitter, find me on Facebook or LinkedIn, or post to my blog!

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate