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Book Review: The Coaching Habit
Jan 23, 2021
12 minutes read

At times, a book falls in your hands as if it was no coincidence.

This is pretty much what happened to me with The Coaching Habit (M.B. Stanier). Great book, for the records.

As it happened, I have been thinking a lot recently about management, business direction, and what motivates people at work. Then, on one of the last days of 2020, I received a note about this book in the newsletter sent by the instructors of the MOOC Learning to Learn. They gave very favorable reviews of it.

One more book cannot hurt – I said –, and anyway I must read more than the previous year!, so I purchased it via Kindle. And devoured it in less than a week (it’s a short book).

The book touches upon topics very dear to me since, approximately, one year. The power of silence, the power of questions, what really keeps people engaged at work, and how to do great work.

I also loved the fact that the author carries on with repeating one sentence, a bit like I do in my essays: Less advice, more questions. Gotta love this one.

What do you want?

Every chapter in the book is centered around one question, and how such a question can help people’s (and their work’s) management. It goes well beyond management: it really is about coaching and mentoring.

A while ago I wrote an essay about mentoring that you can find on this website too. It feels now like if I should change it from beginning to end, after reading this book!

Anyway, what do you want? is one of such questions. And it surely isn’t an obvious one to ask in a meeting with somebody. It sounds rude and somehow aggressive.

For sure, depending on who you’re speaking with, you may rephrase it. But don’t. The power of Stanier’s questions lies also in the way they are formulated. His point with this one is that often people start with their long stream of thoughts, not because they are confused (though I think that’s also the case), but simply because there’s a lot going on and they can’t clearly see what’s the actual big thing they should work towards.

What do you want? forces them to reduce the choices to one or two. It’s great to clarify things, and focus on the OBT (one-big-thing).

Then, what do I want? I believe what I want is a very common want: to do more great work and a bit less good work.

I found the distinction between the two in the book too, and I was stunned about how closely it relates to my essay The Hamster-Writer. Good work is the to-do stuff, the checklist that we have to go through, because business needs it.

Obviously, I do a lot of that as a manager. I really love my job, make no mistake about it. I am very lucky to work with some fantastic people. That being said, perfection doesn’t exist and sometimes everyone has to do something that’s not great. Business needs it to move forward. Fine.

A few days ago I started doing some data statistical analysis. Before I realized, I had spent 2 hours on it, achieved some very promising results, and filled my time before lunch. That is called great work. Great work is the one which we are passionate about. We don’t need anybody telling us to do it. We don’t need any checklist.

The way I see it, the biggest power of great work is that it generates motivation. It’s like a self-sufficient machine: people can go on forever doing great work, and be happier and happier as they go on.

Thus, the question for myself is: how can I and my team do more great work?

In my opinion, the answer is to be searched in motivation and engagement. I believe that if you are engaged in your work then you will overperform, do a lot of great work, and even ask for more work to do. Another key point is responsibility: if you feel like the work is yours, and you own it, then the desire to achieve great results will come directly from you. If instead, you are told what to do and work under the pressure that comes from “I have to do this to please him/her” sort-of thoughts, then you won’t be great at what you do.

Does it sound like I am criticizing the old, good model of hierarchical responsibility, where a manager is responsible for everything that happens in her team, and she has to respond to her manager, no matter what actually happens under the scenes?

Yes, indeed I am.

Not because managers don’t have to be managed; they have to. Not because this model is wrong; it actually works pretty well in many instances.

The reason is that this model takes away responsibility and visibility from who does the actual work. And with them, engagement and motivation fade too. My advice? Keep yourself, and everybody around you, engaged through responsibility. Make sure they understand they own what they do.

What is the real challenge here for you?

The key words are here, for you. They make the question personal and spot-on the current circumstances. Without them, it would be one of those naive, look-how-smart-I-am questions managers always ask just because.

Here’s my point: if somebody else out there is like me, then the real challenges for them are the stuff they don’t like to do.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t work on strings theory or some other mysterious stuff. I have some interesting and relatively complicated problems to solve, but there’s no single thing that’s too challenging.

Thus, the real challenges for me aren’t things I don’t know how to do; rather, they are the things that I don’t like to do.

For me, it’s very challenging to manually fill spreadsheets, or writing code that I know it’s not very well designed because I don’t like to do so.

And we’re back to great vs good work. The most challenging things for me are the good-kind of work stuff. Those little, silly, too-easy-so-boring-I-didn’t-get-a-PhD-for-this things.

I realized that people, me included, tend to work on the good-work-type of tasks with a distracted mind, which leads to poor performances. And that, sadly and sarcastically, extends the duration of those tasks because they need to be reviewed, redone, reviewed, fixed again, etc.

If you had the habit of always giving your best on everything you do, then you would not need to re-do things, and so you could go back to doing some great work, instead of wasting your days on good work.

Thus, the question is: how can I make sure my team understands the importance of good work as the direct enabler of great work?

How can I help?

If nothing else, The Coaching Habit changed my mind about one thing: One-On-One meetings.

In most organizations, managers have 1:1s with the members of their team. However, as CTO of a startup I decided not to, for several reasons. First of all, we have a daily standup where we review the status of the various tasks. This daily catch-up is enough to know what everybody in the team is working on, what are the roadblocks and the challenges.

In second place, the fast pace, especially on the IT development, convinced me 1:1s weren’t really necessary. In my 1:1s with the CEO we review the various items my team is working on, but I don’t need to do that with each individual team member, on top of the standups. I thought.

After reading this book, I believe I was wrong!

The reason is that I misunderstood the value of 1:1s. Maybe a CEO needs it to be exactly like that because she’s a manager. All managers care about is checking stuff off the list. Task 1: done. Task 2: done. Task 3: when will this be done?

I surely am not the typical manager. I am an engineer first, and one who believes in lifelong learning. As such, I want to see my team engaged and thrilled about what they are learning while producing value for the company. The checklist of tasks is below in my priorities.

I believe that smart people can be autonomous and able to direct themselves so as to provide the maximum value to the society (or the company) while also maximizing their own interests.

Therefore, I find hierarchy almost insulting to people’s intelligence.

But, like I said … this is an utopia. Or, is it?

Here’s where things become interesting. I’ve noticed that, on the contrary, a common behavior is to be pleased with “getting the stuff done”. In other words, the majority of people are happy to get paid for doing things other people tell them to do. They then try to do these things as quickly as possible, more often than not with way lower quality than what they would be capable of, then see the manager pleased, and do it again. And they are just happy with this cycle.

And actually, this is a pretty good situation to be in. It makes everybody’s job a bit easier. People do the work, managers give them more work to do, and the cycle repeats itself. Everybody keeps doing the same thing, everybody’s quite happy with their stable work.

There’s just one problem. I don’t like this system. I don’t want, nor need, anybody doing work to please me.

So, How can I help?

How can I help? is another of the questions in the book. I find it very relevant for my own experience, because I have the tendency to act as a “rescuer” (another term emphasized in the book). Some people want to fix everything on their own. They ask somebody else to do something, only to then fix it by themselves. I am guilty of it.

A good way to stop it is to simply ask: is there anything I can help with?

If the answer is no, then stop thinking about it. Move on. Trust your teammates. If you put trust back in people and give them a chance, they will surprise you positively. And that’s the biggest reward of working in a team.

What are you saying No to?

This is my favorite of all questions in The coaching habit. There’s a story around it that dates back several years.

I arrived in the corporate (and startup) world from the research (academic) world. Back when I was working as a researcher I used to complain that we didn’t get enough stuff done. Writing a paper took forever. Meetings took forever. Everything took so long.

On the flip side, in the corporate world we get too much stuff done just to fill time. We do stuff that we don’t need. We put things in the checklist that we don’t really understand. We always say yes, let’s do that, without thinking about the consequences.

Again, managers only think about checking items off the list, and with so doing they don’t look at the system as a whole. When you put useless stuff in a system, the quality drops. More problems can arise. Failure is more likely.

As Stanier himself says, the coolness of always saying Yes and being very busy (but “a good busy”) is bu****it (such emphasis is mine, not his). It forces us to produce lower quality work.

The question that could stop all this is: “If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?”. Something will have to go off the checklist, or be done with lower attention and motivation. That’s really terrible, and I believe it is the death of the great work.

Then why don’t people ask that question more often? Well, I guess that’s just not how it works. The policy of growing and growing the checklist seems to work very well. Like I said earlier, it gives employees stuff to do and it gives managers stuff to check. And both parties are happy.

Overall it seems like a reasonable way to work, and one that’s been pretty effective for many years. The fact that could be better is irrelevant to most people. They just want to get paid for the work and move on. Others just want to feel they have the power to decide. It sounds funny to say, but at the end of the day it’s always about the same few things: money, power, and just a couple more. Thus, I believe I am wrong in wanting to change this. It doesn’t really matter how good it could be because perfection doesn’t exist in theory; perfection exists only in practice and it’s determined by what people want.

It reminds me of another great book I read a while ago, Creativity Inc., written by Edwin Catmull (founder of Pixar, President of Disney and Pixar). The book is really great and I recommend it. In it, Catmull dances on the very narrow thread that defines the limit between the utopia I am describing and the real corporate world.

He mentions countless ways to enhance creativity at work (all tested on the field), and, at the end of the day, I believe that’s the most important thing: giving people space to be creative. If you show people that their ideas matter, that everybody can solve interesting problems with their own brain and not go through a checklist, things may change for the better.

And so I am back to the previous question, How can I help? The mission of a manager is not to check the list, deadlines and tasks. That’s the good work of a manager, not her mission nor her great work.

Managers' mission is to make sure team members have enough space and time to unleash their potential.

What was most useful for You?

On a second thought, this is my favorite question of all! Mostly because it’s about learning and staying engaged.

Also, I am back on the 1:1s subject. The point of my 1:1s is not not to give advice, rather to stay curious and interested in everything that’s going on in the other person’s workdays (and life).

I, as a manager, need to ask this question and spend time thinking about the answers I get. This is how I can best learn what works and what doesn’t.

It’s the best way to provide value to the team members and, hence, to my company.

But also, never stop asking the same question to myself!

The other fundamental questions

There are two more questions in The Coaching Habit. They are both powerful and you should think about how they can help you be a better manager.

Here they are, purposefully without comments: they need to be tinkered.

  • What’s on Your mind?
  • And what else?

Tags: essays

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