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 6: How do I manage my employees?

A little note on the concept of resistance

Resistance is a peculiar form of cooperation.
How often do you hear: “I would like to … but no one will support me” or “If it were up to me, that would have been finished a long time ago but the others don’t want to …” or “The top/middle/lower management isn’t prepared to accept my proposals, so there is nothing I can do” or “They are against me” or “There are too many opposing forces” or “If that wasn’t the case, I would …”.

When they don’t achieve their goals, some people even use the concept of resistance as an explanation: something or someone else is the cause of their failure. Furthermore, it is not their failure, they are not to blame. It is someone else’s fault. “Well, it wasn’t possible anyway. The odds were stacked against us.”

We often have to work with people who don’t ask for our help, don’t allow us to help them, or sometimes openly oppose our offer of help. All the above-mentioned attitudes and behavior styles are called resistance to change, in the classical problem-oriented approach. Resistance is seen as a negative characteristic of a person — as if people prefer not to change or refuse to acknowledge the possibility of change.

When we meet resistance, we are tempted to keep repeating our viewpoint in other words. If we don’t watch ourselves, we get excited and annoyed. We might even become angry. But reacting with anger won’t help us to reach a solution — in fact, it will probably make things worse.

To summarize, in the classical problem-oriented management style, resistance is seen as “a thing, a virus” that exists in the world. In the solution-focused view, resistance is merely a concept in the mind of the one who defines certain behavior as resistance: it has no “objective truth” whatsoever.

Steve de Shazer showed that resistance in the classical interpretation is just a concept, not more, not less, and in addition to that a rather useless concept. The solution-focused model takes an entirely different stance on this topic. It defines resistance as “every interaction that initially doesn’t seem useful for achieving the goals, but that nevertheless offers information.” The word “seem” is crucial in this definition because it indicates that one can do something else with this information rather than just discarding it as negative.

If resistance is no longer seen as opposition, then we do not have to oppose it. Instead, if resistance is seen as information about a peculiar form of cooperation, it becomes a useful concept. Resistance is no longer a dragon to be slain. Resistance is a signpost guiding our behavior.

When you offer your best advice to someone who doesn’t ask you for advice, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that that person doesn’t listen, let alone follow your advice. Is that a resistant person? Or is his behavior of not accepting your advice his way of informing you about your less than appropriate action?

Seeing resistance as useful information isn’t easy. Learning this novel and innovative view of the concept of resistance will make you into a master of cooperation!

Beware of corporate sabotage

Some forms of resistance can’t be seen, let alone tolerated as information: insubordination, sabotage, deliberate and excessive criticism, (sexual and other) harassment, theft and other criminal actions, etc. Such acts of “corporate terrorism” are unacceptable, and swift action must be taken. Treating people in a respectful way does not mean that everything is allowed.

In cases of corporate sabotage, you will take off your manager-coach hat and put on the hat of the manager-leader who is also responsible for keeping good order. Of course, you will first make dead sure that you are not making a wrong judgment about the behavior of the employee concerned. You will probably consult with others about the issue. But once you are one hundred percent sure that their behavior is deliberately geared to doing harm to their fellow employees and/or the company, you will take action to remove these people from the payroll. The best removals are swift removals. And it is always good to inform the remaining employees about the facts behind this removal so that nobody is left in the dark. This sets a good example for everybody and, at the same time, it allows you to show your respect to the employees who are loyal to the company.

Question number 5: Coach hat — manager hat

What if wearing different hats as manager and coach gives you a headache?

If this happens, it is very unfortunate because wearing more than one hat comes with your double role as manager-leader and managercoach. When it is not clear to both yourself and your employees that every manager has (at least) two different roles, confusion is likely to occur. With confusion comes tension and with that tension comes your headache.

It helps if you are not wearing both hats at the same time. Just make sure that your employees understand that in your position you have several hats, and when you are wearing the leader’s hat, you keep the coach’s hat in your hand and vice versa. That way nobody gets confused.

Once you have said and done what needs to be said and done as manager-leader, your employees know the direction and the boundaries of what you expect from them. For example, you give them budget constraints, sales targets, allocate resources to their teams, etc. When that is clear, you can take the manager-leader’s hat in your hand and put on the manager-coach’s hat. Now they know that you will be supporting and encouraging them to do what is useful to meet their goals and the goals of the company. When the confusion is gone, your headache is likely to disappear along with it.

Of course, doing your best to make things clear doesn’t solve this problem
forever. Since both your roles are intimately connected, they cannot always be separated so neatly, even though you try. The two roles are different sides of your managerial coin, so there will always be a little overlap where both roles are at play. You may sometimes hear your employees saying: “I thought you were coaching me, and now you tell me that I was wrong in doing X.” Or, in contrast: “I thought you had given me an order and now you tell me that I have to come up with my own proposals for action.”

This overlap is unavoidable for different reasons. The first is that people
always make interpretations about what they hear: “I thought this is what you meant …”. These interpretations might or might not have anything to do with the hat that you had been intending to wear in a given situation. So, even if you had intended to wear the coach’s hat, people might perceive you as leading and vice versa. Secondly, some employees will use these interpretations to serve their own purposes, and this can be a challenge for your leadership. For example, while you are coaching your sales team to help them reach their targets, they might interpret your helping attitude as opening the door for a bigger budget. Thirdly, both you and your employees work in an ever-changing context. This forces you to shift your role and position constantly.

Let’s look at an example. As a sales manager you probably do some field coaching. You sit in on meetings with clients. The clients see you as the leader, and now that they have the opportunity to talk with the top guy, they may ask you to make decisions. These decisions may run counter to what your salesman has promised them. You neither want to cut his decision short nor do you want to say to the client: “Hey, sorry, but I am only coaching my staff for the moment.” So you adapt on the spot. You consult with your salesman as if you were on the same hierarchical level, and you jointly take or postpone decisions. After this meeting, you shift back towards the coaching position and discuss the lesson learned by both of you.

To summarize:
• Wearing two hats is unavoidable.
• Make it clear when you are wearing which hat.
• Accept a limited amount of overlap.
• Talk constructively about these gray areas so that your employees knows where they are.

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.

Question number 2: Work smart, not hard!

How can you manage to work less hard as a manager, and still get your employees to work smarter?

Dear reader, this is your captain speaking. Please look at the instructions in the seat pocket in front of you. What follows is crucial information, so please sit tight and listen carefully. Because of your lack of time, I will say this only once.

For those readers that, instead of reading the whole book, were lured to this paragraph because of its enticing title, congratulations: you are the truly lazy ones! Why read a book when you can learn from reading one paragraph? Now, if you want to learn how to use the simple solutionfocused
tools in the easiest way possible, read the rest of this paragraph and then jump to chapter 5, The Man in the Middle. There you will find a real-life case study in the form of a story. However, beware: after reading chapter 5, you might — and this is our sincere hope as authors — be lured into reading even more of the book.
For those readers who took the effort of working themselves through all of the preceding pages: congratulations and thank you for your time and effort. If the title of this paragraph makes you think that what you are reading now contains the ultimate secret of the solution-focused model: again congratulations. This means that you truly understand what the solution-focused model is all about, and you already know the secret by now! This secret is: More is less, and less is more.
But hey, I thought that managers are supposed to work hard, or at least harder than their employees. Are we not paid for putting in the extra hours, the extra stress, the extra mile? Sure, but sweating when you work does not necessarily mean that you work efficiently, especially not when you are a manager. Managerial sweat ought to be reserved for the gym!
Remember, management is the art of getting things done through other people. Doesn’t this imply that you are not supposed to do everything yourself? Instead, your job is to create an environment in which your employees perform optimally. Your job is to help them work smart, more than just hard. Now, what is working smart?
You all know the famous acronym for the description of goals, of course. Classically, “S.M.A.R.T.” stands for: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Time-bound. And as you know, a lot of smart management involves goal-setting and making sure that goals are attained whilst keeping a resource focus. With our adage “simple works best” in mind, working smart is defined by a precise balance between input and output: maximum results with minimal effort.

Tips from the hitchhiker’s guide for the lazy but efficient manager:

• Set clear, concise, and obtainable goals for the short, mid, and long term and make sure these are in line with the overall goals of the company.
• Make sure to involve your employees when setting goals: the more involvement, the more ownership, the more motivation and the better the results.
• Make sure to demonstrate the four tenets (page 22) of the solutionfocused model in everything you do as manager.
• Be a hunter for exceptions to the problem, for these open doors towards solutions.
• Prefer resource-drive over goal-drive.
• Encourage your employees to be as open as possible with themselves and each other about their own resources.
• Indulge in what goes well in the team, and make plenty of compliments about everybody’s contribution.
• Don’t be shy when it comes to giving compliments.
• Don’t be shy when it comes to criticizing.
• Don’t be shy when you take decisions. Just keep everybody involved in the consequences of your decisions.

Question number 1: What is the solution focus all about?

Three-minute explanation

Imagine you are in the elevator with your CEO and she gives you three minutes to explain what this solution-focused mumbo-jumbo is all about. This is what you might say. To set the right tone and get her in the mood for what’s coming, you could start by saying:

“Good morning, Mrs. CEO. Thanks for asking me about our solutionfocused project. I’m glad to get a chance to talk to you about it.”

And of course, business comes first, that’s what the CEO is interested in:

“This project is on time and within budget, and this is mainly due to the efficiency of the solution-focused management approach.”

While you look her in the eyes to get her attention, you use a little yesset:

“It also fits very well with our culture. Here at XYZ company, we have always been pragmatic, haven’t we? At XYZ, we aim to get results as fast as possible.”

Now prepare the CEO for the more difficult part while at the same time you reassure her that you are really talking business:

“Well, being pragmatic and achieving the company goals fast and efficiently, that’s what solution-focused working is all about. The extra edge that the solution focus gives us lies in cooperation, the concentration on our strengths, and working on goals rather than spending too much time analyzing problems.

We don’t go searching for the causes behind problems because if you do that, more often than not, you end up with a situation in which you are looking for the person to blame rather than getting the problem solved. Just like when you have a flat tire — you don’t spend too much time trying to find out why it is flat. You get a new tire and try to make sure that it stays inflated.

Concentrating on our strengths enables us to utilize the company’s resources, both the personal resources of our staff and the resources of the company, optimally. To access the personal resources of our staff, we as managers ask them solution-building questions rather than providing them with all the answers. This way, we develop their competency and get customized results.

When a new solution is developed by our staff, we make sure it gets passed around so that everybody in our team and the company as a whole can benefit from the learning. You know the old saying: T.E.A.M. —
together everybody achieves more.”

So far this all sounds well and good to the CEO — however, is it credible? It’s time for an example:

“Last week, two of my sales managers were arguing with my project engineer about our new product. They told him that one of the clients complained, not about the quality of the product, but about the difficult technical manual that goes with it. The engineer started defending himself and the sales people kept going at him. Soon they were accusing each other of all kinds of mistakes. In the heat of the argument one of their colleagues came in and got involved in the discussion. He complimented both parties on their commitment to the company and on their efforts to do the best possible for the client. This took away some of the heat of the discussion. He then asked them if they had had similar problems in the past and how they had solved them then. It soon came out that in the past they had solved similar problems by writing an additional “getting started” manual and by putting the engineers in contact with the client to explain all the technical features. The project engineer said that his people would love to do that again, and the sales managers immediately saw a commercial opening towards the client. They agreed to propose this as a new procedure at the coming meeting for the complete team.”

Add a little clarification:

“Our people all encounter problems of some sort. This is perfectly normal, and it comes with business life. Working in a solution-focused way does not mean that we are problem-phobic nor that we are naive optimists. On the contrary, problems are there to be solved. The major difference is that we deal with problems from an entirely different viewpoint. We solution-focused managers see problems as golden signposts to  possible solutions. This model offers lots of insights and simple, ready-touse tools to enhance the productivity of our human resources.” 

Time to go in for the kill:

“You see, working in a solution-focused way is hugely practical and handson, no mumbo-jumbo involved. It’s about enhancing the ability to create sustainable solutions quickly, and this is essential for economic success. In the end, everybody benefits: our employees, we as managers, and the company as a whole. To put it in one sentence: “Simple works best.”

PING: The sound of the elevator at the top floor.

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