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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Introduction to Mentoring

mentor-totemWhat is the difference between coaching and mentoring? Is one better than the other?

We tend to find a combination of the two has the greatest impact.  Coaching and mentoring could be at either end of a wide scale. In pure terms:

Coaching would be empowering someone to find their own solutions – consisting of largely asking questions and listening.

Mentoring would be giving advice – consisting of mostly telling, less listening.

In reality though, these two extremes rarely have the positive impact of combining both techniques.

If we just ask questions, we do not give others the benefit of our own experience, learning and expertise.

If we just give advice, we do not give others the chance to reflect on how they could make that advice truly relevant to their situation and take action that is authentically theirs, rather than just trying to repeat what we did.

And so the recommendation is to take the best of both: Coaching with suggestions added in, and mentoring with questions and listening.

What does that look like?

Have you ever had someone give you advice, where you just nodded and smiled, thinking you’ll never do anything with it? This is what we want to avoid.

Great mentoring can be spotted by the interaction between mentor and mentee. The mentee looks engaged and beyond that is talking about how they can apply the mentor’s advice in their personal work situation.

How could you and your business benefit?

Research has revealed that mentoring is one of the most important ingredients to career progression. Hearing about another’s experience, how they have got around challenges in your business, your context, your structure, is the critical learning that enables us to navigate political pathways early on.

Rather than waiting for a new recruit or recently promoted manager to work out for themselves the ways in which things really work – you can use mentoring to show them quickly. That means reduced time to reaching optimum performance levels.

How can I apply this?

When you’re mentoring, consider using the following structure as a rough outline for a session:

  • Spend a few minutes at the start of each session building the relationship, getting to know the individual and letting them build trust with you
  • Ask them: What do you want to achieve in this session? Or, what’s on your mind at the moment?
  • Make sure you get a clear focus for the session, as this will ensure you have more than just a nice chat
  • Offer your advice, what’s worked well for you in that scenario, what hasn’t worked etc
  • Ask them what they think about that, how they could apply it to their situation, and what they will do before you meet again – commit to action


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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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