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Coaching: A Hands-on Strategy for Performance Improvement

Cliff Hakim

Developmental coaching can focus and fine-tune the personal reskilling process. The IT workplace is increasingly demanding and the requirements on IT professionals for change and growth are incessant. In today's knowledge-based economy, "earning a living" is passé. Today's reskilling challenge, as described by the late Marshall McLuhan, is learning how to "learn a living."

In this interview, Cliff Hakim, founder and president of Rethinking Work, a Boston-based executive development firm, describes a key strategy for learning a living: developmental coaching. Cliff is interviewed on behalf of IT Performance Improvement by the Vice President of Information Technology of a large HMO.

IT Performance Improvement: Cliff, just what is developmental coaching?

Cliff Hakim: Developmental coaching is an individualized two-part process: first, developing an increased level of self-awareness through questions, reflection, and dialogue; second, action planning to increase productivity and improve effectiveness. Coach and participant focus upon clarifying personal strengths and desires and aligning them with organizational and customer needs.

Self-awareness questions include asking ourselves about our true strengths, and what we feel passionate about doing. Senior-level executives and managers benefit from thinking through their leadership beliefs and describing the contributions they most want to make to their organizations. A word of caution, however: self-awareness alone is not enough. An action-oriented self-development plan must be established. This is where intentional and disciplined reskilling comes in. Self-awareness without self-development is indulgent and leaves people frustrated.

ITP: How do you work with those whom you coach?

CH: On average, I work with an individual in a one-hour, six-session format, typically lasting from two to four months. We meet in person or remotely, by telephone, fax, and e-mail. At the core of the developmental coaching process is the value of win-win: the process must benefit both the individual and the organization.

People change and grow only when there is something in it for them, and the best growth occurs when there is something in it for their organization as well. The value of win-win is the basis for the trust that must occur, trust among the client, the organization, and the coach. This trust needs to undergird the challenging work of reskilling: changing and growing.

ITP: You know that we are experiencing structural change in our industry and at our HMO. We're also introducing new technologies that are requiring reskilling on the part of managers, staff, and internal customers. How might developmental coaching help us-what are the benefits? Why not just schedule some training courses?

CH: Successful coaching requires a commitment on the part of all involved. The price tag includes expenditures of time, money, and human energy. Training and education may well be necessary, but the coaching will augment the training and increase its benefits in several ways.

First, coaching provides fresh perspectives about change, personal transition, and growth, and these can be communicated widely during the more formal education phase. Values and beliefs-and these always come into play during structural and cultural change-will be clarified, shaped, and validated. New technical skills are applied more effectively when people understand and are committed to the changes that make their application necessary. People need to understand the context within which they are being asked to apply new skills. We don't want people just going through the motions. We would prefer that they commit themselves to their tasks and accountabilities. And commitment cannot be demanded-although people sometimes try. We can command a person's presence and time. But we cannot command a person's mind and thoughts. Mindfulness can come through coaching.

Other benefits to individuals and the organization include goal clarity, clear direction, and increased productivity. When people understand where they are being asked to go and to commit to that direction, they will take the initiative to reskill themselves and collaborate to transform the workplace. Coaching will help individuals find ways to surmount obstacles through creativity and innovative solutions. The overall result will be more focused and resilient IT leaders, managers, and professionals.

ITP: Our people sometimes get frustrated with the incessant changes and increasing performance requirements. I appreciate their concerns, and I sometimes wonder if we're unique. And from a leadership perspective, I also wonder how I can help.

CH: No, you are not unique, at least not from the point of view of needing to deal simultaneously with ongoing change and increasingly challenging personal and organizational performance requirements. People on all levels ask me if other organizations are experiencing acute change pressures and when might they expect these change pressures to moderate. My answers are yes and certainly not soon respectively. I also suggest to them, however, that those who consider change as their life and work partner go beyond survival, to thrive.

Uniqueness emerges in terms of how the organization and its people perceive change and how they decide to deal with it. Many organizations attempt to downplay the effects of change, and some even discourage their people from talking about it, let alone finding constructive ways to deal with it. On the other hand, if the organization is developing reskilling and mentoring programs and enrolling people in them, these are quality responses to change. From a leadership perspective, your organization's uniqueness can be distilled into this question: To what degree do you acknowledge the stress of change-and all change, even positive change, brings stress-and encourage others to experience change as an opportunity?

ITP: Sounds good, but how about an example?

CH: An example would be encouraging your people to intellectualize less and acknowledge more. For instance, add a twist to your business meetings. Ask participants how they're feeling a particular change. Give them opportunities to air their frustrations, anxieties, misgivings, and enthusiasms in a non-threatening and non-judgmental way. Too many managers are reluctant to do this, primarily because they're afraid of what they may hear and unsure about how to handle it. This is a reskilling challenge and an opportunity for quality coaching. My experience is that, when people are given opportunities to deal with the human side of their work life, their energies become focused upon changing, growing, and doing the work.

ITP: You suggest change as an opportunity. That sounds like a cliché to me. As a coach, what would you suggest that will enable us to manage personal and organizational change more effectively?

CH: I've learned that those who partner with change do better. They anticipate what might be coming and think in terms of options. For example, a change-ready director might perceive the need to restructure her department, but, rather than take unilateral action, she might open up the issues in a focus group meeting and ask others for their insights, opinions, and recommendations. That's real empowerment, and change-ready managers know they will benefit from truly empowered people.

This kind of commitment and collaboration is not easy and common perceptions are that it will take too much time or that it will result in a loss of power. As a coach, I remind people that this kind of action not only saves time in the end because of staff buy-in, it also results in managers gaining power. The paradox of power is that you gain power by sharing it. This kind of action also develops trust, something in short supply in organizational life today.

ITP: I agree, but in today's superheated business environments, how do you suggest we develop trust?

CH: Three steps. First, offer sound direction and communicate it. Second, involve others consistently. Third, follow through authentically. In other words, do what you say you will do. Nothing destroys trust faster that saying one thing and doing another.

ITP: In your most recent book, you remind us that "we are all self-employed." This belief is really an attitude and attitudes are most hard to change. How do you help people change attitudes so that they believe and behave as if they were-in fact-self-employed?

CH: A very important question! We start with our own belief system, for our beliefs help generate our attitudes. I believe that whether we work inside or outside an organization, we are all self-employed and responsible for our personal development and continual reskilling.

Our skills and knowledge are what we bring to the table, and we need to learn, and fine-tune our learning, continuously. I urge people to take ownership of change by clarifying their strengths, contributing ideas, and generating solutions. I don't believe we change attitudes and behaviors by just talking about them; we have to take action-do something-and learn from the results.

You would probably agree that information systems professionals are, in fact, problem solvers. The question is, however, do individuals believe they are problem solvers. If this belief is not part of their self-awareness, their attitudes and behaviors may not reflect the reality. If I were coaching some of your team members, I might ask them to give me three to five examples illustrating their ability to solve problems. These examples would illuminate a strength that already exists and hopefully would encourage them to utilize that strength more frequently. This is healthy professional development in action. Both the individual and the organization benefit from new awareness and behaviors.

ITP: You stress the importance of self-awareness, and I can't quarrel with that. But we're paid for results. How would you help my people to go beyond self-awareness and into self-development?

CH: Reskilling through coaching requires that we become more aware of our strengths, values, and personal attributes. But-as I think you are suggesting- self-awareness is not enough. As I said earlier, self-awareness without disciplined and intentional self-development is indulgent. Together, self-awareness and self-development energize our responses to change and the need to grow.

A realistic coaching program begins with participants answering self-development questions including: Who are our customers, both internal and external? What business problems are they trying to solve? Why? What are their priorities? Why? Are we really helping them solve their problems, or are we more fixated upon our own issues? If we are able to help them solve their problems, how will they benefit? How will the company benefit? How will we benefit?

As we help people answer these questions, everyone gains organizational and customer knowledge. People are then able to make better, more credible decisions as to how to align and apply their strengths and resources to attain organizational and personal goals.

As participants discuss these issues and apply what they learn, they become increasingly aware of a behavioral paradox in which we all find ourselves: that of behaving both independently and interdependently, both at the same time. This is a major developmental challenge for most of us.

ITP: I know it is for me. How would you suggest I behave both independently and interdependently? How can coaching help me reskill myself to become a better leader and manager?

CH: First, let's think about independence. I suggest you give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them. Like breathing, learning must be continuous. If we stop, we're in trouble. To the chagrin of many, learning means making mistakes. When mistakes occur, admit them, but learn from them. Humility is a source of power. Judge yourself less and stay open to possibilities more.

Next, consider this question: What do you most want to accomplish for your organization? Don't stop with just your own answer. Here's an opportunity to connect with your interdependent web of contacts. Gather together a small group of people whom you trust. Ask them for their help, and share the ground rules. First, tell them about your desires, goals, and dreams. Second, ask them for their feedback. Third, listen and do not be judgmental. What is, is. So listen to their feedback and dialogue with the group. The value of this exercise in interdependency lies in moving your thoughts from within yourself out into the world. You'll be able to hear and understand your own independent ideas better during an interdependent dialogue. You can then make whatever adjustments you wish.

When I coach senior managers, I encourage them to seek direct feedback from their work world. This is another aspect of interdependent behavior. They can involve others-colleagues, direct reports, and their managers-in their own growth by asking the following two questions. First: How best do I serve you as an individual? Second: How best do I serve this organization?

The answers become one of the cornerstones of senior management reskilling: learning what they need to know and do, to better align with others. The alignment issue is very significant, for alignment matches strengths with needs.

ITP: You mention alignment. I live with the need for better alignment every day: the need to better align our IT strategies and strengths with the strategies and strengths of the organization. How does alignment relate to reskilling? Can you give me an example?

CH: Alignment links independence with interdependence; that is, connecting our individual resources and needs with those of others in order to achieve organizational goals. In my one-to-one coaching, I'm often able to see where individuals are misaligned with their colleagues and also where departments are misaligned with the organization as a whole.

Let me give you an example of personal misalignment that is common in IT environments. Many technically skilled professionals feel pushed into managerial career paths-trapped might be a better word! They are in fact misaligned: their strengths and personal purpose do not match organizational needs. Many IT managers don't want to be in their roles. They feel they are rapidly losing touch with their real interest, technology, and they know they are doing a poor job managing and leading. They would prefer to be in a more technical role but feel trapped for personal, financial, and political reasons. As the chasm between their passion-technology-and the demands of their position widens, job satisfaction suffers and self-esteem dwindles.

Even if these managers wanted to realign themselves-and many do-they are unsure about how to begin. Here is where coaching can benefit them and their organization. The coach can help the client get unstuck by clarifying personal strengths and needs and assisting the client in identifying organizational options where these strengths can become assets.

For example, I coached an IT director who no longer wanted to manage her several groups of people. The details involved are all-consuming, they are not her forte, and she realizes she has become too far removed from both the technology-her first love-and her customers. With her boss's support and her coach's help, she is learning to acknowledge the validity of her personal needs, to let go of the prestigious director title, and to define a new role for herself as consultant and special team leader. She and her team will initially be responsible for the development of processes that attract commercial markets. This project is her idea and to refine her idea, into customer focus, she has selected a group of internal board members. Her board will listen, challenge, and provide support to help fine-tune her proposal and sell it within the company.

This is an excellent example of developmental coaching: first, aligning one's strengths and needs with the strategies and requirements of the organization and, second, taking action to make the alignment a practical reality.

ITP: Assuming I want to try coaching as a reskilling strategy, what do you suggest we do to make coaching an integral part of our reskilling efforts?

CH: I'm pleased you used the words "integral part," because developmental coaching is not meant to replace other learning processes. Because coaching is individually based, coach and client can effectively bring to the surface internal learning challenges and external implementation obstacles. Working together, coach and client can develop an action plan to learn to deal with obstacles and implement new insights and information.

Guidelines for Incorporating Coaching

To make coaching an integral part of reskilling efforts, follow these five core guidelines.

1. Recognize that people will experience both readiness and reluctance. This is a normal part of life and learning. Even when people are ready to do something, there is often reluctance to do it. This tension is a healthy part of transition and change.

2. Position coaching as a win-win strategy. A core value of developmental coaching is that it is good for the individual and good for the organization. People become change-ready when there is something in it for them and when there are opportunities that are aligned with their needs and that challenge their interests.

3. Involve participants every step of the way. Throughout the coaching program, involve those being coached in all aspects of their personal professional development: needs assessment, feedback, selection of learning resources, experimentation, ongoing dialogue, and growth assessment and feedback. Participants need to be active partners in the process and not merely told what to do or how to think.

4. Drive for alignment between individual strengths and organizational goals. This is the heart of the process. Coaching identifies and respects personal needs, strengths, and aspirations and strives for alignment with business issues and organizational goals.

5. Build on existing initiatives. Individuals and organizations are frequently working on several significant change efforts at the same time. Become very conscious of these and use coaching as a means to enhance them. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel!

The commitment for reskilling needs to start at the top, and it is important to think about one's own readiness to begin. Change can be a personal process and coaching gets right to the heart. It is the goal of this column to work together with the reader to help clarify his or her strengths and contribute the best leadership to his or her people and organization. This author will be asking his readers, "What do you want to accomplish? I'm ready; how about you!"

About the Author
Cliff Hakim is founder and president of Rethinking Work, a Boston-based consulting firm specializing in executive and entrepreneurial development. His clients are diverse, including high-tech firms, manufacturing companies, HMOs, and financial institutions. Cliff is the author of the recent best-seller, Rethinking Work: Are You Ready to Take Charge? Readers can reach him at

© Copyright 2007 Auerbach Publications