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Question number 7: Who do I coach first?

Who do I coach best as manager: the stars or the underperformers?

Now this is a tricky question. First, you need the courage to admit that your team is not perfect while at the same time you need some wisdom so as not to blame yourself for your non-perfect team. Then you have to fight the misapprehension that everybody in business must be a star. This is simply not true: all corporations all over the world are filled with a mix of stars, average people, and slow movers.

Dividing your staff into three categories and then putting a label on each of them is dangerous. Labels tend to become reality and reduce people to the label they have on their foreheads: this may lead to “corporate racism.” Labels describe the intrinsic (lack of) qualities of people. But, they also say something about the one who applies the label. If your company only uses three different labels, then the company itself is rather simplistic in the way it treats its staff.

It is even more complex when you realize that someone can be a slow mover in one area of work while he is average in another. The lowest performing engineer may be good in administrative procedures while your
best salesman is a below-average administrator. To add another level of complexity, you could argue that companies have a responsibility to helping their staff to become better in what they do. This implies that the company (read: you the managers) has the responsibility of managing all staff towards better performance. Limiting labels are no help here.

What does help is to define the requirements you make of your staff in terms that are as detailed and concrete as possible. One can only be called slow if measured against a specific norm. A Ferrari is a fast car when compared to most cars, yet slow when compared to a plane. However, you can go shopping in town with a Ferrari and not with a plane.

Now, this being said, with all levels of complexity added, it still remains true that some are more equal than others. Even if you have distributed tasks optimally, described them well and allocated the resources accordingly, you will still have some staff members who are faster and more efficient than others. In an ideal world, everybody is perfect or at least more then good enough. But perfection is a myth, and managers have to deal with imperfection. The question of who to coach first remains.

So, let’s be practical while keeping the above-mentioned complexity in mind.

As a manager you coach individual employees, and you also coach teams that are made up of a bunch of individuals. In order for a team to be more than the sum of its individuals, they need to act like a cycling team that is competing in a time trial. The team that wins is the team that has the highest average speed combined with a fast leadsman. If the star of the team rides so fast that his slowest team mate comes in too late, they (all) lose.

So, you coach the leadsman to go as fast as is useful for the team, you coach the average cyclists to speed them up a little, and you coach the slowest to go as fast as he can in order to come in on time.

However, there are more people involved. Every cycling team has specialists in it who do not ride a bike. They prepare the bikes, arrange hotel rooms, and coach the sportsmen. During a race, they sit in a trailer, stand on sidewalks, or ride in the car that follows the team. Their sweat only comes from the stress of their commitment!

Make sure to spend time with these experts and show them how important they are, even if they will never cross the finishing line personally.

For the best results, you must coach all of them: the stars, the average,
and the slowest. Who you spend the most effort on depends on the situation. When you need a breakthrough in your team, you coach the person with the highest potential for pushing the limits. However, make sure that you help that person to stay in contact with the rest of the team: they need information about what he/she is doing concerning that breakthrough, so that they can do the groundwork when it’s their turn to work on the results of the breakthrough.

Take the example of a high-potential sales engineer working for a major business-to-business provider of logistic applications. His company really needs that new account that he has been working on for months. Winning this account will have enormous consequences for his team: they will need to develop, test and implement a giant new piece of software according to the specifications of the new client. His manager has supported and coached him when times got rough. At the same time, his manager made sure that the sales engineer constantly reported the progress on this account. The goal of this was two-fold: reporting his progress gave him additional support and ideas from his team members. At the same time, it prepared the team for what they would need to do after the sale was closed. Imagine what would happen if the sales engineer closed that deal with all the help from his manager but without any communication with the team.

Laws of statistics tell us that the most frequent subspecies of humankind is the average man or woman. Coaching them is great since they are average: they do not need too much, nor too little attention. They only need the correct attention. They have areas where they perform better and issues on which they are not so good. Good managers coach the average person on his well-functioning characteristics and support him to do more of what he is already doing well. The less well-functioning aspects of the average person are probably not so bad as to cause serious concern. Good managers coach the average person so that his less well-functioning aspects put no constraints on his contribution to the team or company. They don’t lose time or energy in trying to change the average person into a non-average person: this is idle and preposterous (although politically correct in certain business cultures). The only thing you need to avoid is setting the average as the norm: that will not help you win any business prizes!

Then come the slow movers. You pay attention to the slowest in your team for two main reasons. The first reason is that there always is and always will be someone who is the slowest. When you show your interest in the weakest team member as a manager, this instills a respectful atmosphere for the whole team. Showing interest is, of course, not the same as protecting them, let alone allowing them to lower the team’s performance. Secondly, you want to see if there is a way to speed them up a little so that they contribute to raising the average speed of the team as a whole.

There is of course a limit to the effort you devote to the slowest team members. This limit comes in sight when in spite of your coaching (or even coaxing) efforts, the slowest constantly stays too far behind in all aspects of his work. Then they offer neither added value nor useful contributions. If this is the case, they move into the category of chronic underperformers: they stay too slow on all aspects of their work and there is no betterment in sight. To question where their underperformance comes from, from lack of capability or from lack of motivation is actually irrelevant. The fact is that chronic underperformers have a braking effect on team performance. It is up to you as a team manager, if you want your team to ride a time trial with the brakes on. The intervention with these team mates is either to find them a new spot in the organization where they can perform better or to ship them out respectfully. When they are not able to shape up and you have to ship them out, it comes to firing them. Have a look at the paragraphs on how to fire someone (page 219 of the Solution Tango) for the best way to do this. If you have no time to coach all of them at the same time, you’d better
make time to give everybody a little of your attention and make sure to show respect to all the members of the team (which maybe is the most basic form of coaching).

To conclude:
• Perfection is an illusion.
• A perfect team consists of stars, average, and slow team members.
• Stars need coaching to help prevent overperformance, and thus losing as a team.
• Slow staff are an unavoidable statistical part of the population.
• A little extra coaching for the slow raises the average speed.
• The average performer is the most frequent, but cannot be allowed to become the norm.
• When it comes to chronic underperformers you have to make a choice for the good of the company.
• Success is all in the mix of differences.

Question number 4: The perfect manager – superfluous?

What is left for you as a manager when your employees can help themselves?

In your career as a manager you may well have dealt with a boss that suffered from the horror vacui: the feeling of anxiety that befalls someone when he or she thinks that they do not have much to contribute, or when they are not in control. People suffering from horror vacui have a counterproductive tendency to make themselves feel important by keeping themselves busy with all kinds of stuff that isn’t that important. To fill the vacuum, they invent new things that they think will make them indispensable.
To cut this illusion short: throughout the world, the cemeteries are full of indispensable persons…
It’s normal practice to see yourself as indispensable and fully in charge, working long hours and interfering with almost everything your staff is working on. Isn’t that the self-image of the modern manager? Isn’t that what we all craved for when we first wanted to become a manager? Isn’t that the big illusion the corporate world wants us to believe and adhere to? It often sounds that way. However, reality teaches us a different, although less traditional, lesson: being on top of everybody and everything at all times is not only impossible, it’s counterproductive. In addition, our staff are intelligent people who come up with interesting ideas themselves without always needing their managers. Our staff — like you — like to do things independently and crave acknowledgement for their efforts. So, if we make the mistake of thinking that as managers we are the center of the universe, while we are confronted with an entirely different reality, then it’s pretty normal that we have to fight feelings of being superfluous once in a while.
Now relax, actually, there is nothing wrong with feeling a little superfluous!
If nothing else, it keeps your feet on the ground. Let’s look at this topic from a more constructive and solution-focused point of view. If management is the art of getting things done through people and you notice that your employees take care of themselves, then the simple conclusion is that you are a very effective manager. Instead of feeling superfluous, you should give both yourself and your employees a big compliment. However, there is still a lot left for you to do and maybe the following tasks are the core of your job as manager.

One, if what they do is working, your job is to help them do more of the same that works, by encouraging them. Two, while your staff are doing a good job, you have time to look over the horizon of the future and make plans for the longer term. In short, your staff is acting and you can be proactive. Here is a non-exhaustive list of what you can do when your staff are operating well on their own:

• Help your employees to grow by coaching them (not because they’re deficient but to ensure that things stay the way they are).
• Facilitate meetings.
• Manage by wandering about.
• Socialize and take care of the good working relationships throughout your team and company.
• Be the interface with other departments.
• Provide your staff with resources where needed.
• Listen.
• Encourage people.
• Give compliments on what your staff do well.
• Smooth out potential conflicts.
• Speak up for your team towards the outer world. (Be the “foreign minister.”)
• Think about long-term strategy.

To conclude: it’s a great honor and pleasure to be the manager of a team that is able to do its work independently of you. It enables you to oncentrate
on your core task: helping them to do more of what works.

Question number 3: How do I manage myself?

It’s lonely at the top

The way to the top — every top — is long and often crowded. Yet only few really make it there, and the way up is never ever easy. You have been working hard and intelligently to get into the position you are in today. But that doesn’t finish the job! Getting to the top is one thing, staying there and achieving great things for your company is another. You are shrewd, hard working, persistent, self-confident, wise at some moments and a risk taker at others, well educated, emotionally and intellectually intelligent, and maybe you have been lucky at times. Yet, as the saying goes: luck favours the well prepared.
Being a manager, you have surely used all your resources and selfconfidence while avoiding the trap of over-confidence. In reflective moments, you probably once in a while say to yourself: “I got the top job because I was able to play the corporate game to this level. Of course I am competent, of course I am intelligent, of course I am an expert in handling business as a top professional. I earned it to have been selected for this top job, and the people who supported me on my way up are no fools.
They are in for shareholder value, and I am good at providing just that. Sure, the pay and everything that comes with my top position is good. Of course, it is a stressful job, but hey, pressure comes with the territory.” Once in a while some managers feel loneliness at the top. If you don’t recognize this feeling: congratulations, how did you do that? However, occasionally feeling lonely at the top is all too common. Some even say that this is the toughest feeling that comes along with the top job — the cliché is correct: it is lonely at the top. “I don’t belong to another group anymore. I am the top manager, and there is just one spot at the top. Being a CEO is no T.E.A.M. sport: there simply is no team that provides me with shelter from the storm. If we hit success, success shines on me, and I have learned that distributing success among my employees makes me a better leader. If we hit trouble, trouble lands on me personally. Being the acting CEO feels like a one-man show with an audience of hungry wolves staring at me and waiting for my first wrong move. As a CEO, I sit high in the corporate tree, but the storm wind is howling. I’m visible, and I do feel vulnerable. On top of that, I’m afraid and convinced that if I show my vulnerability, the wolves are out there to get me. I sometimes feel scared, but am afraid of that feeling, even a little ashamed. That is not something a top manager ought to feel. If only the others knew how much I sometimes feel like an impostor…’’

What can you do?

You may feel lonely but the fact is that you are not alone! Rest assured that you are not the only person in a high position with these thoughts and feelings. No matter how difficult it may be at moments, having selfdoubts, feeling scared and overwhelmed by certain difficult decisions that you have to make alone is normal. Virtually no one will ever admit it in public, yet practically everybody recognizes these negative moments. Furthermore, a person who never doubts him- or herself is so self-centered that he or she has no openness to what happens around them. That is not the stuff successful managers, let alone CEOs, are made of. Now it’s one thing to have these doubts, it’s entirely another to nurture them.

Here are a few insights that you might want to try:

• Think of moments in the past when you were doubting yourself: what did you do to stop doubting and start acting? What worked best then?
• Remind yourself of your resources and the way you have used them on your way to the top.
• Remember the people who helped you on your way up: how did they do this? What was most helpful then? Can you find a similar person now?
• Write these thoughts down in as much detail as possible and keep this document in a safe place. The next time you find yourself in doubt, reading this personal document, written when your emotions were not clouded, will help you to recover faster.
• Talk to someone you trust and respect that is not involved in your organization and has no stake in your professional life. Being able to vent your loneliness and doubts, and just being listened to without getting advice, is often the shortest way out.
• Beware of the inevitable corporate yes-men and flunkeys, hear what they say but don’t listen. Instead, keep searching for authentic opponents and counterparts, who have no stake in opposing you but sharpen your ideas by their opposition.

To summarize:

• Guard your self-confidence as your most valuable weapon.


De man in het middeneen oplossingsgericht feuilleton


Sessie 2

De volgende vergadering met Piet verloopt al in een heel andere sfeer. Piet is opgeruimder en vlotter in het contact, en nog voor de vergadering van start gaat, meldt hij al dat hij fikse vorderingen gemaakt heeft in zijn projectontwerp betreffende de ontmanteling. Zoiets gebeurt vaak in een interventie die uitgaat van het oplossingsgerichte model. Als mensen hun blik een beetje kunnen afwenden van hun fixatie op problemen, duiken er als vanzelf constructieve elementen op.

Hank: ‘Oké Piet, hoe is het verlopen? Je lijkt me al een heel stuk gevorderd, als ik zo hoor wat je me op de gang net vertelde. Hoe is het met je opdracht gegaan?’

Piet: ‘Nou, wat ik zeker zou willen behouden, is mijn werk in deze onderneming. Ook het werk in de projectafdeling is altijd vlot en goed gegaan, we hebben in het verleden bewezen dat we succesvol kunnen zijn. Miracoil mag dan wel niet meer dezelfde onderneming zijn als vroeger, maar ja. Alles verandert, ook onze business.’

Hank is verheugd over dit antwoord. Het geeft aan dat Piet op zijn minst inziet dat er beperkingen zijn, terwijl hij toch zijn engagement uitspreekt. Hank begint uiteraard niet te juichen, want het antwoord is nog niet dé oplossing. Maar het is wel een aanzet tot oplossingsgericht denken bij Piet.

Hank: ‘Uitstekend. Waar sta je nu op diezelfde schaal van 1 tot 10, waarbij 1 gelijk staat met ‘dat wordt hier niks’ en 10 met ‘dat gaat hier goed aflopen’?’


Merk op dat, in weerwil van het woord ‘diezelfde’, dit een heel andere schaal is dan degene die Hank eerder gebruikte. Deze schaal heeft meer te maken met hoop op vooruitgang dan met ‘meten’ hoe ver het nu staat.

Piet: ‘Ik denk een 4. Ik heb goede vooruitgang geboekt met de voorbereiding van de ontmanteling. Gerard heeft me gebeld om te horen hoever het daarmee stond en, wonder boven wonder, hij heeft alleen geluisterd zonder zijn fameuze kritiek te spuien. Vorige week maandag zijn we trouwens ’s avonds met het team een pilsje gaan drinken, omdat er iemand jarig was. Dat was lang geleden, maar wel heel plezierig voor iedereen. Dat zouden we meer moeten doen.’

Hank: ‘Zeer goed. Wat nog meer?’

Piet: ‘Verder niets. Voor de rest loopt het nog altijd niet denderend, want er zijn toch nog veel momenten waarop ik twijfel en het niet zie zitten. Ik ben bang dat dit maar een tijdelijke opleving is.’

Hank vraagt niet verder door over de inhoud van het cijfer 4 dat Piet op de schaal aangeeft. Hij accepteert Piets twijfel zonder zich te laten verleiden tot peptalk. Nu Piet getoond heeft dat hun werkrelatie comfortabel op de zoekende positie blijft zitten, acht Hank de tijd rijp voor de volgende stap: de wondervraag.

Lees nu reeds Aflevering 9

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