Coaching Uncovered

What happens in coaching sessions?

We have been delighted this year to have received more requests for coaching than ever before.  We’re delighted because we love doing it.  It’s one thing working with 12 people on a workshop, but the difference we can see in someone, working 1:1 over six months, is incredibly rewarding.

The question we often get asked, particularly by those who are organising the coaching, but have never actually had a coach themselves, is what actually happens?  What conversations are happening and how are we adding value as coaches?  Of course we cannot go into detail with them about their company’s coaching clients, but we can share some overall trends and useful insights about where we see the greatest change occur for people.

Having coached MDs, Marketing, Finance and Operations Directors, CTOs, PR professionals and not-for-profit leaders, we are often asked how on earth we add value to such a diverse range of people.  The simple answer is that all of these people have the same challenges.  They need to get some clear thinking space, consider how to translate ideas into solid goals and strategy and how to handle difficult conversations.

The greatest change occurs when people realise one or more of the following:

“I haven’t really asked myself what the problem is or what outcome I want.”

“I am limiting myself through fear.”

“I’m not saying what I’m thinking.”

This is the theme that underlies issues as broad as strategic planning and setting a new direction for the business all the way down to having a difficult conversation with one person.  In our article on difficult conversations, we share our top tips for those less comfortable meetings, which is the number one topic that comes up in our coaching sessions.  But here we focus on the broader themes and how you can benefit from these two insights for yourself and with your own coaching and mentoring clients.

Think of something that you want to achieve, or that you’ve been working to achieve for some time and it’s just not going as well as you would like.  From performance managing one individual to changing the culture of an organisation of thousands, it doesn’t matter what it is – take some time now to think about what it is you want to achieve.

Now consider these questions:

What is the outcome you want?  Work it through, past the initial project or conversation and to a longer-term outcome, what is it?  Why is that important to you? 

Imagine yourself in that outcome, you have achieved it.  What will be happening?  How is life / business / the team better? 

What could be holding you back from getting there?  What are you afraid of?

What do you need to say and to whom (as usually to achieve something we need to involve others)?  What would you say if you were really honest and just said what you thought?

What is holding you back from saying that?

These questions can help you identify the true outcome you want, or indeed challenge yourself: maybe the outcome you thought you wanted is really not that important and you can start considering something else.  The questions help you identify fears that are stopping you from acting.  And when you acknowledge those fears, you can challenge them.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Would that really be so bad?  What would you do if that worst situation did happen?

Realising that you would carry on, overcome challenges and survive can be very empowering.  Finally these questions can help you realise that you have simply avoided having the straightforward conversation that could unblock progress.  What if you had a go at just saying it?

This is a common flow of conversation in coaching sessions, because unclear goals, fear and not saying what we’re thinking are often are greatest challenges.

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Taking Accountability

Getting Others to Take Accountability

A common complaint from managers is that their people do not take accountability. Our feedback article talked about the need for awareness, agreement and action, but perhaps the message missing is the underlying foundation to it all: accountability.

In a recent coaching conversation, a senior manager we’ll call Jo described her frustration with a member of her team who was poor on time management. Jo shared a long list of things she had tried to help this individual, let’s call him Kris, to improve. Jo had done the work considering what could be the causes, issues and potential solutions.

Kris had the easiest job in all of this. All he had to do was describe how hard everything was, then simply say “I don’t know” whenever asked what he thought the causes or potential solutions could be. In a way, Kris has been allowed to take no accountability because he has never been pushed to explore his challenges or come up with solutions.

Driving accountability in others means asking them to come up with problem finding, analysis and solutions, then not letting them off the hook when they don’t have an immediate answer. When we ask, “what might be the cause of that problem?” and someone replies, “I don’t know,” we need to have other options than simply doing the thinking and talking for them.

What if you asked that person to take it on as a project, analysing the problem and coming up with ideas? What if you asked them to report back to you next week? What if you remembered that following week to ask for their progress report? What if you didn’t let it go?

Whilst you might argue that this isn’t really the person taking accountability at all, because you’re having to push and pull an awful lot, over time you create the expectation that your team manage their own problem solving. And that’s accountability.

This is not a quick fix, but what is when it comes to helping people understand their roles and take accountability for their work? Better to start small and build a culture or expectation over time that you expect people to think for themselves, than to keep going down the route of doing all the work for them.

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Binary Thinking

What triggers binary thinking and why it’s an issue

Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling uncomfortable about making a decision or you’re anxious about something, that you seem to only have two bad options?

It’s a sign you may be getting stuck in binary thinking – either it’s A or B.  Black or White.  Or an unattractive option against an equally unattractive option.

This is one of the limiting effects of our brain’s tendency to narrow our thinking when we’re under pressure.  It can be helpful to understand more about why this happens and what you can do about it when you find yourself stuck in binary thinking.

So why do our brains narrow in thinking when we’re under pressure?  It’s important to remember that our primary instinct is to survive and so when we face anything we perceive as pressure or a threat, then to some degree, our brain, muscles, hormones and chemicals are in survival mode.  You can dig into the neuroscience behind this here.

That might sound extreme for simply deciding how to address a difficult conversation with a  colleague, but the fact remains that since the days of escaping attacks by sabre-tooth tigers, we still have the same fight or flight mechanisms for any perceived threat.

The discomfort and anxiety caused by the idea of having an awkward conversation with a colleague registers in our brains in a similar way to a physical threat to our safety.  And so it makes some sense that during these times of pressure, our brain’s priority is not to be as creative and open as possible in thinking.

The brain’s priority is to get us out of the problem, so quick and minimal options that get us towards a decision and outcome is the focus: think fight or flight.  This might translate in your difficult conversation scenario to thinking your only options are to go in and shout at the person or say nothing.  Or you might decide that it’s fire them now or forever be stuck with their poor performance.

What we need is more options…

How can we break our brain’s natural reaction and find more options?  This is where mindfulness comes in.  We need to be consciously aware of what is happening in order to choose a different way of thinking.

So pay attention to those times when you find yourself thinking you only have two options.  Think of the thought “I can either do A or B” as an alarm bell – a warning that you are in narrow thinking and it could be beneficial for you to move into more open and creative thinking.

Once you have recognised that you’ve gone into that binary thinking, you can now choose to come out of it.  Here are some top tips for getting into a more creative space:

Tell yourself, or draw it out if you work well with visuals, that there are many options in between A and B.

Ask yourself, what if I could work out four other options between A and B?  How might that help me?  Posing this as a question rather than a factual statement engages the brain and challenges the brain to start thinking more creatively

This moves the brain to a future-focus

Focus on the outcomes – what do you want to achieve?  This moves the brain to a future-focus, imagining what we want to happen, which again breaks us out of the threat response.

In the difficult conversation example, you might say that you want the outcomes to be that the person changes their behaviour and that your working relationship is still intact.

In communicating bad news, like the need for redundancies, you might say you want the outcome to be that people know what is happening and why, and that people know you are keen to help them get through this.

It is helpful to think about your outcomes in terms of what you want other people to feel, say and do.  As this can be a clear starting point for you deciding what you need to feel, say and do.

Now plan out some other options.  Based on the outcomes you want, what are some different options?  What could you say and do?  Which options feel more appropriate?  Why?

Now you have moved from limited options to a clearer focus on the outcomes you desire.  So you can plan your next move.

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The Value Add of Executive Coaching

value-totemHow We Go About Improving the Value Add of Executive Coaching

Whether we’re coaching one senior executive in a firm or a whole leadership team and whether we are the sole coaching provider or one of many, there are some consistent ways of working that help.

We’ve put together this useful little guide to help you understand some of the key steps to successful executive coaching.

Click on the image and the magic will happen.


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The Coaching Question

Far from a nice chat, coaching can be extremely valuable to business.

But how do we measure this? How can you know you are getting value for money?  The value is in the time and space to think, facilitated to ensure clear progress is made. We rarely take time to step back, stop and think. We face a challenge, we find a solution and we run with it.

It’s no wonder with this pattern of working that we often end up realising months have gone by and we have not thought about overall performance, strategic direction, personal goals etc.

By taking that time to think with a facilitator, we become more effective, find ways around our fears and areas where we might lack confidence. It’s a difficult one to quantify – but think of a manager suddenly having the confidence to manage a poor performing team. Imagine you, at your best, performing with greater efficiency and focus. It’s all extremely valuable.

How can we measure the value of coaching?

As with any activity where it is difficult to quantify impact or benefit, the key is in the original objectives. It is only when we know what impact we are aiming for that we can measure whether any activity has been successful. It is for this reason that coaching objectives need to be aligned to business needs.

Consider exactly what you want to see happen and how you would know if it had happened.

Jelly Bean Diversity

Let’s take a classic example of a manager who was promoted due to their ability as a great technical specialist/sales person/engineer/customer advisor. This manager now has a team and they are not sure whether they should be aiming to be friends with the team or exert authority. They are not sure how to performance manage people that used to be peers.

This scenario is a perfect opportunity for coaching. Training in this instance would provide knowledge about what a manager should do, but coaching will more rapidly get to the heart of what is holding the manager back.

To measure whether coaching has been effective in this scenario, we could define some clear objectives. For example, “by the end of a six month coaching programme, this manager will have:

  • Set a performance improvement plan for team member X who has been lagging behind on targets for months
  • Improved overall team performance by at least 5%, moving up to 20% in the following 12 months
  • Contributed to team meetings and strategy days – the manager currently says very little. This should move up to at least three ideas contributed or developed with others per meeting”

Maximising your coaching session

So as long as you set clear objectives and measure the business benefit of these throughout your coaching programme, you can be clear on the ROI of the coach. To maximise the value you gain:

  • Define your objectives
  • Start with an open mind, then give your coach prompts on what is working well for you
  • Keep evaluating what you are gaining from the time and money invested
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Mediation in the Workplace

Totem-in-the-middleUnfortunately, it’s not just world leaders who need to know this…

From time to time there may be disharmony and discord within your team.  Managing at these times can be taxing, to say the least. But with a few techniques and practical tools for handling conflict, you will be equipped to confidently deal with these difficult situations and find a positive outcome.

Research suggests that managers spend around 25% of their time managing and handling conflict in their teams. Conflict isn’t always necessarily a negative thing – it can often mean that people are passionate about their work and it can encourage creative thinking. Conflict can, however, mean that teams become ‘stuck’ when an impasse is reached, so finding ways to resolve conflict is important.

You might be asked to mediate when a conflict has reached that impasse, or you might find it helpful in your own conflicts to have the tools and tips to address it effectively.  So let’s take a quick look at some the theories and models that might help.

Academic researcher and mediation expert Joseph Stulberg*, identified a pattern common to all controversies. He termed them the Five Ps of Conflict Management:

Perceptions: Our negative perceptions of conflict impact our approach in resolving conflict as we strive to eliminate the source of these negative feelings.

Problems: Anyone can be involved in a conflict, and the amount of time, money, and equipment needed for resolution will vary according to its complexity.

Processes: There are different ways to go about resolving disputes: Suppress the conflict, give in, fight, litigate, mediate, etc.

Principles: We determine the priorities of all resolution processes on the basis of an analysis of our fundamental values regarding efficiency, participation, fairness, compliance, etc.

Practices: Power, self-interest, and unique situations are all factors relating to why people resolve disputes the way they do.

With this in mind, mediation is essentially a dialogue or negotiation which involves a third party. Mediation should be a voluntary process for all. Unlike a judge, the mediator cannot unilaterally force parties to resolve their differences and enforce a decision.

Totem Gummi Bears

HR expert and academic Glenn Varney* suggests that to resolve differences between individuals it can be valuable bringing the parties together and, with the assistance of a third party, asking the following questions:

  • What is the problem, as you perceive it?
  • What does the other person do that contributes to the problem?
  • What do you want or need from the other person?
  • What do you do that contributes to the problem?
  • What first step can you take to resolve the problem?

Many people use the talking stick idea here.  This means when one person holds the talking stick, everyone else listens.  Interruptions are simply not allowed.  You don’t of course need an actual stick for this, you can just set the ground rules at the start of the meeting.

Varney emphasises that the context is important – each individual should be questioned while the other listens then asks questions for further clarifications. They should be allowed to express their feelings and get hostility out of their systems at this stage, but key to this is that both must be willing to admit partial responsibility for the problem.

It’s also critical that the first objective is for each person to understand the other’s perspective and not to get across their own view.  As Stephen Covey puts it – “seek first to understand, then to be understood”

Both individuals then discuss a mutual definition and understanding of the problem. Agreement should be reached on what steps will be taken to resolve the problem and should be put in writing in order to prevent later misunderstandings.

This requires good listening, low defensiveness, and an ability to stay in a problem-solving mode. The key to Varney’s process is exposing the different positions as early as possible.  Which is where the facilitator or mediator can help in pulling out what’s really going on.

If you’re looking for tips on encouraging good debate and positive conflict, you might find our simple approach to Six Thinking Hats useful.


*Stulberg, J. B. (1987). Taking charge / managing conflict. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

*Varney, G. H. (1989). Building productive teams: An action guide and resource book. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, Inc.

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Mentoring – The Basics

totem-mentoringLet’s go over more of the do’s than the dont’s…

Many of us have been mentoring for years without ever receiving training on how to do it. In a sense, that’s no bad thing – you don’t need training in order to give good advice. And yet for that advice to be taken on board and applied, there are some things we can do to be even more effective mentors.

What is mentoring?

If you’ve ever been asked to advise or counsel a colleague, you’ve been a mentor. Essentially the passing on of advice, stories from experience, lessons learned etc. is mentoring. Through years of both mentoring and advising mentors, we have found that the most effective mentors do more than just give advice.

What makes an effective mentor?

The following features have repeatedly come up in feedback from mentors and mentees in what makes a great mentor:

Really be there – It’s so easy in our world of being busy, checking the phone, rushing from meeting to meeting, to not really be present in a mentoring session. There are just too many other things to be done. The best mentors really focus their time and energy in the moment to offer their greatest advice.

Be yourself – There is no other person you need to imitate or attempt to act like when mentoring. It is your personal experience and learning that your mentee wants to benefit from, so be honest, share learning and be yourself.  This includes being vulnerable, sharing what has not gone well and exploring how you both learn from that.

Listen – For you to offer great advice, you need to have truly listened. Make sure you are really paying attention to what the mentee is saying, how they’re saying it, their tone of voice and facial expressions – what are they not saying? This will enable you to offer far more support and advice.

Totem Gummi Bears

Stay on topic – The main criticism of mentoring sessions is that they can become nice chats. Avoid that by finding out what’s on the mind of your mentee and what they want to achieve – then stay on that. Avoid conversations that go nowhere by listening to their concerns and ideas, sharing your experience and advice, then asking them what they will do now.

Don’t let them off the hook with statements like “it’s difficult” – push them by asking “what could you do then?”

Support & challenge – A lot of us think we have to do one or the other, yet both is best. Be supportive through your understanding and empathy for what they are experiencing. Be challenging by encouraging them to think beyond the barriers, try new things, focus on the positive and learn from experience. Joining these together enables you to demonstrate understanding whilst pushing for progress.

Give credit where it’s due – Often we get carried away in the mentoring itself, so that we miss the opportunity to celebrate success and acknowledge progress made. Constantly review what has worked well, where learning and real progress has occurred – and celebrate!

How will I know I’m doing a good job?

This is a great question to ask your mentee.

We each define success differently and it is a great conversation to both define what is success generally for the individual, i.e. how do they know they have achieved something great, and also how they will judge whether the mentoring has been successful.  So don’t forget to continue reviewing the usefulness of your meetings by checking back against the mentee’s success criteria.

You will also find that asking this question early on builds a great deal of trust and openness between you, as you have shown that you are not assuming superiority.

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Coaching – An Introduction

What is coaching and how do we approach it at Totem?

There are so many different definitions of coaching, and it varies according to the coach, the business need and the “coachee” or client. The Totem approach to coaching could best be described as the challenging yet supportive facilitation of progress.

A coach facilitates you finding your own answers to challenges, with the belief that you have all the answers you need. The reason the definition varies so greatly is essentially to make coaching fit for purpose. In the same way that different people prefer different approaches to training, so each client and business will have specific needs of a coach.

The coach may at times need to be more challenging, share more observations and give more suggestions – whereas in other scenarios the need is for a more supportive questioning style.

How does a coaching session work?

Far from a nice chat or advice-giving session, coaching starts with the individual thinking carefully about what they want to gain. The coach will then question, challenge and reflect what they hear to support the achievement of objectives. Some sample questions you might hear in a coaching session are:

  • What do you want to achieve in this session?
  • How will this support you in meeting your business objectives?
  • Where are you now?
  • What assumptions or beliefs do you have about this?
  • What are your options?
  • What will help you achieve your objectives?

Jelly Bean Diversity

How could you and your business benefit?

Coaching clients often bring a specific challenge such as, “I need to more effectively manage a difficult team member” or a personal direction question, “I want to focus on how to develop my career in this business.” For more executive level coaching, the challenges may be more strategic to the business for example, “I want to clarify where I want to take this business in the next five years.”

Consider what challenges you and your business have right now. If you could make some progress, move past fear into considered risk, make decisions and boost performance – you would clearly see benefits.

The benefits to the individual are increased confidence, performance, satisfaction and drive. The consequence of that to the business is pretty self explanatory. Again, as long as you are clear on the objectives from the outset, you can then measure the success and benefits of the coaching.

How do I get the most from coaching?

Follow these tips to ensure you get what you and your business need from coaching:

  • Find out about the coach’s style – does that meet with your needs in terms of support and challenge?
  • Meet with the coach first – check you have good chemistry and will work well together
  • Set and review clear objectives for every session
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Engaging Engagement

Concept of people as cogwheels representing communities & teamsEngagement and the Goldilocks principle

We send thanks through cyber space to the twitter user who posted: “Just completed the survey, is that my employee engagement activity done for the year?”

It’s such a great point to raise when for so many people, this is all they see of engagement every year.  But there are also many organisations who go too far the other way.  Do we overload our people with survey after survey, KPI after KPI?  Or not engage with them at all?

It’s easy for us to become disillusioned with the idea and at the mere sound of  ‘employee engagement’.  It’s important to find just the right blend of processes and action to best suit the business.  Not too much, but not too little.  The Goldilocks zone.

So how can we respond to that?  What choice do we have when, for example engagement surveys have become a process ignored by many?

Totem Lollipops

We may question the point in continuing them – but the conversations behind the survey must live on.  The action we take in response to the survey must continue.  It is these things that lead to employee engagement, not the survey itself.

The most powerful thing we can do is take action.  It’s action that makes the difference, not the processes, things we say, promises we make or strategies we sign up to.

So forget when the survey’s due for now, ignore the processes just for the moment, and choose to ask some big questions.  Ask yourself and then your team:

  • What’s important to you?
  • What can we do together to ensure you get more of that from your work?
  • What can I do to support you in achieving your best performance?

We may well get more out of these three questions than pages and pages of survey results.

The evidence of the links between highly engaged employees and high performance is increasing and gaining credibility, to the point where most large corporates are now desperate seeking to engage their employees.

As the old saying goes, if you can’t define it, you can’t measure it.  So it is critical for each business to understand what engagement looks like, then measure it.  Once we know what the engagement levels are, where there are fluctuations and what employees are asking for to raise those levels, we can take action.

And just the right amount of action…

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