Coaching in Awkward Situations

Prologue

Coaching moments are not always obvious. What might start out as a humorous, questionable, or awkward situation may evolve into a perfect opportunity to step back and provide some impactful advice and counsel.

Our team’s global teleconference calls frequently provided just that chance. We regularly had ~300 people from more than 10 countries and 50 locations on our quarterly updates. Our operations reviews had slightly fewer participants.

You know the drill – regular, virtual meetings to update everyone on the progress and activities of the organization.

Typically, you learn to recognize voices quickly. Regardless, many insist on continuing to re-introduce themselves to the audience that already knows them well. “Yes, Emily, please continue.”

You also learn speakers’ habits … especially of those who participate frequently. Some speakers may have speech patterns or verbal ticks that can become annoying to some audiences. Some may even become chat-room fodder for the distracted teleconference meeting participants.

Let’s start here.

 

Saying Um

When Opportunity Strikes

Conference calls can be tough. Staying on track and being both effective and efficient with time is a challenge. Echoes due to poor phone connections, background noises, the unintentional use of the mute button, and questions such as “Can you go back one slide?” make achieving all of the call’s goals difficult.

One of our peer directors that had a key role in cross-organizational communications was required to speak often; he regularly led the conference calls. He had one of those vocal habits that grated on people, like fingernails on a chalkboard: he constantly used filler expressions. Filler expressions are useless words or phrases that create a pause in the conversation such as, “I mean” or “you know.” If used infrequently, they are less obvious as audiences usually focus on digesting key messages rather than analyzing every single word streaming from the speaker’s mouth.

Most of us are prone to use a filler word or two. Like, I mean, you know, those words that do, er, absolutely nothing for the content of the conversation other than creating an, um, you know, annoying or distracting pause. Right?

Derek’s vocalized pause of choice was “Um” and he said it quite often. Actually, he said “um” so often that nearly everyone on our calls became absorbed with keeping and posting the “count” on a subgroup instant message thread during our 100+ person calls.

“10! 25! 50!” And, so it went. Needless to say, this little “joke” got old fast and meetings devolved to the point where we all thought, “I hope Derek is not speaking today.” Unfortunately, he always did speak and everyone continued to keep score, whether consciously or subconsciously.

During one such two-hour meeting the count neared 100. Something had to be done. Instead of Derek’s intended message coming through to the audience, the “ums” seemed to completely obscure his important business communications.

What should be done about this?

 

Stop Saying Um Star Trek

Time to Coach

I thought about this for a bit after one call and felt terrible that one of my peers was unknowingly being mocked due to something that many speakers suffer from, so I called his office.

“Hey, Derek. What did you think of that call?” We chatted for a few minutes. “Derek, I have a question for you. Has anyone ever given you feedback about your speaking style?” “No, Michael, no one has. Why?”

I knew Derek well and I was confident that he wouldn’t mind my ribbing him so I decided to use his filler word of choice in my explanation.

“Derek, um, I want to share something about, um, the way you, um, speak during our calls. Um, you have a tendency to, um, say ‘um’ often. In fact, way too often.”

No one had ever bothered to share this issue with Derek. I was nervous at first, but he took it well. His involvement in our organization and business meetings was too important for his communications problem to be treated as flippantly as it had been.

Derek asked, “What should I do about it?” I inquired if he had ever considered Toastmasters. He hadn’t. I suggested that he seriously consider joining them and added that the company would probably pay for it.

He thanked me with deep sincerity and an also-noticeable degree of embarrassment. I told him that he’d do just fine!

Derek enrolled in Toastmasters shortly after the conversation. I told our boss what I had spoken to Derek about to ensure that the idea would gain traction.

 

Bad Habits Die Hard

And In the End

I shared the conversation with several of the scorekeepers over the next few weeks so that the background games would stop. Improving the habit of using filler words takes time.

At first, Derek’s pauses were more awkward than natural as he focused intently on reducing the “ums” that had infiltrated prior conversations. Sometimes improvement comes after a step or two back. By the time six months had elapsed, he was well on the way to being completely de-ummed.

At one point later that year we were together and discussed what he had been doing. Joining Toastmasters was a seminal moment for him. It had dramatically improved his speaking pattern in several ways and he was grateful that someone had been brave enough to make him aware of this habit. The conference call tracking games were now ancient history.

 

Making It Work … For You

What made this coaching experience successful? First, it started with a clear example of an issue to be resolved. Second, it was addressed during a private conversation because coaching is best done one-on-one as it keeps the recipient from becoming defensive or embarrassed. Third, the approach was rooted in trust, authentic concern and support. Derek had no reason to question my motives for speaking with him despite the levity of the approach I had elected to use.

As a professional, colleague, or leader, one has to remain conscious of what transpires in a given setting. Coaching moments rarely advertise themselves with bright, flashing neon lights. Most of the time, they are more subtle such as in the story above where they may present themselves in a more embarrassing or awkward manner.

True coaches and mentors do not shy away from these opportunities. Rather, they address the situation as a coach or advisor should, directly and candidly with the coachee. More often than not these opportunities develop into a successful endeavor.

It is very important to remain aware of the environment in which you and your colleagues are in. The subtle undertones of office humor may actually be a sign of the need for coaching intervention. The next time you encounter a situation that may require coaching, identify the issue, devise a plan, and, as a team, come up with a solution.

 

Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.

Additional articles about coaching and leadership from Michael …

Dear Dad …

Dear Dad,

Happy Father’s Day. The last time we got to spend Father’s Day together was 1979, a very long time ago. I was not yet 22. Just over one year later, you left us. It seems like forever ago. More time has passed since you died than the time I got to spend with you. We missed the best of times – the transition of a hyper-active, over-achieving first son into manhood and fatherhood.

You left suddenly on July 27, 1980 after a very long battle with heart disease. The same ugly disease that took your mom when you were only 9, your oldest brother before he turned 40, and your youngest sister. Thankfully, that gene seems to have been thwarted.

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I was driven by you from as young an age as I can recall to be successful. No matter how well I did, “You can do better, Michael” was what you told me. It’s never left my psyche. I compete with myself to this day – sometimes that’s been great for me, others not so much.

I always wanted to live up to whatever hopes and expectations you had for me. I put the picture of you and me sitting on a dormitory bed at Notre Dame after the graduation ceremony in 1979 on social media every year. I know how proud that made you, you never got to finish high school. And, the one with us wearing hats on our couch with the caption “Men in hats!”

I never got to hear directly from you about how proud of me you were. Mom always told me when we reminisced about you. I learned a lot about it at your wake and funeral when the long line of friends and colleagues you had paid tribute. It did not take away the sting of your death.

I never got to call you when those life’s moments faced me and I was not really sure what to do. I never got to call you when celebrating a great moment, like the birth of my two daughters. They never got to see either grandfather as both of you died well before your times. Trust me, there were many times I needed to call you …

What lingered in my mind too long was the summer after 4th grade when you punished me to write “I must be good and I will be good” after a school year of straight A grades but “Not Acceptable” in conduct – I was very hyperactive and not challenged in school. Nevertheless, it was a very long summer being stuck in the house every day. Regardless, I knew you were serious.

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What I know now that I did not know then is that you developed in me a very strong sense of self-confidence. The hyperactivity of youth became a constant personal energy source. I am always positive with a hopeful outlook on life. If I’m known for anything, it’s the smile and infectious energy that I exude, thanks to you. You instilled that hope and faith in me while pushing hard to be the best I could be.

You’d be very proud of many of the things that I’ve accomplished in my career. You’d also be disappointed of the mistakes and bad judgments I’ve made. It’s all part of life. If there’s one thing about life that I’ve learned, it’s the fact that there are no guides to al

l the situations that you will face. “C’est la vie” is one of my overused clichés.

I wanted to be a great father, a caring and loving dad. There are many great memories for my girls but many difficult moments, too. It was almost 10 years between your death and the day I got to hear “Happy Father’s Day” said to me. It was almost more 10 years afterwards that the enormity of you being gone really struck.

I was laid off of work in 2001 but was back working in just under a year, I was fortunate. But unemployment hit me hard, harder than I could understand or admit at that time. I recalled

 

how hard our lives were in the mid-70s when you were out of work. I feared that moment for my own life every day since and I still do as I approach 60. It scared me more than anything had up to that point in my life.

Being out of work changed me forever, in many good ways and some bad. I really needed you then, but there was no one to call. The void was overwhelming. It was Father’s Day in 2004 that it really hit me about you being gone, I broke down and cried for what seemed like an eternity.

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When I look back on our short time together, I remember the great things like the first baseball game when you and our neighbor kept laughing at the goofy jokes of the ushers. The next thing we knew, we were in the seats behind home plate for the 2nd game of the double header. Or, how we managed our way through a weekend camping trip of nothing but pouring rain.

 

 

 

I remember the confidence you showed as we came home from a family visit in NYC when you gave me the keys to the car during another rainstorm while mom sat white-knuckled in the backseat of the car. With rain as the theme, our drive to Notre Dame the first time was wild when we could not see past the front of the Triumph Spitfire on I80 near Cleveland. All good memories.

It’s now 2017. 60 is just down the road. I’m healthy, employed, happily married, and watched my children grow. One is on the verge of great success. The other’s path is still uncertain. I did my best to get them where they have both gotten to. I know that they have to take it from here. I just wish they had met you.

Mom died three years ago. She lived happily after you left with her second husband. It’s just me, Rick, and Joanne now. Thankfully, we’re connected to many of our cousins and your closest sister, Millie.

I just visited my wife’s dad for Father’s Day, another NYC Italian of immigrants, just like you. He’s 96 and still kicking. I call him Dad. I tell my wife how lucky she is to have him around for her entire life so far, it’s a blessing.

I am grateful for every day that I have. I’ve had a lot more time than you did and I appreciate the chance to see my family all grow. I have 2 step-grandchildren, too. What a joy that is!

Well, it’s time to call it a day. To sum it all up, I beckon the call of Frankie, your musical love that has passed on down to me. In the song that you took as your own that I have since co-opted he says, “Regrets, I have a few. But, then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption. And more, much more than this I did it my way!”

 

Love you, Dad!

Michael

 

Trailblazing & The Danger Zone – Musings of a Mentor

Leaders are almost always in a position to coach and mentor. Rarely a day goes by when an opportunity to mentor others is not available. The chance to formally mentor an individual is something to cherish. It is so exciting to help a person who wants to grow and who looks for your guidance.

What follows are a couple of short stories about two individuals I had the privilege of coaching and mentoring. The stories will highlight the critical junctures in their careers that I was involved in. They will go by their pseudonyms Jobs (the trailblazer) and Maverick (the danger zone).

trailblazer

Blaze the trail or follow the beaten path?

I met Jobs at the local university. We developed a relationship over a 3-year period and met regularly to discuss his projects and progress. He was a member of the leadership development program and formal mentorship was expected.

By the end of the second year, the participants were ready to leave the rotation program and begin a “real” career in the organization of their choice. Jobs was the third person I worked with to make the decision.

“Michael, which position do you think I should take?” Clearly, my role as the mentor was not to answer this question directly.

“So, tell me about each role, Jobs. How do you describe what you are choosing between?”

The first one would insert Jobs into a role that had been played by another person. He would pick up where that employee left off and follow the trail that was in place – well defined and smooth.

The second one was to join a brand new team that was part of the company’s transformation driven by the new CEO. It was not fully defined. It was definitely like going out to ski on a fresh, pure, uninterrupted field of snow – the trail was yours to carve out anew.

“So, Jobs, do you want to reap what others have sewn or do you want to blaze a new trail? If you can answer that question, then the position that you should take will be abundantly clear.”

As a sales person would look at it, do you want to hunt for new customers or harvest existing ones?

Jobs eventually decided to be a trailblazer. With the choice framed differently for him, Jobs was able to look at where he was in his career and make the best choice himself.

As the mentor, it was not my role to decide, but to help elucidate the facets of the choice in front of him.

 Danger Zone

Fly into the danger zone?

Maverick had been with the company for almost 10 years. His roles had evolved from engineering into supply chain. He performed well in all of them. He reported to me directly and led a key part of our global inventory and supply team.

By our third year together, we were starting to discuss the next steps. As a well-established contributor and manager, Maverick wanted something different. He had just finished leading a very innovative supply chain project that drove major improvements in our metrics. He needed something different!

We discussed alternatives and agreed that we’d both work to find something that would accentuate skills he had not yet tried or developed. It was imperative to break Maverick out of his comfort zone and try something more risky.

The first opportunity appeared. It would definitely take him out of the group he had worked in seemingly forever, in technology years, and into a position that would reach out into demand and finance. We discussed how it would push him and the growth it would foster.

Much to my chagrin, Maverick decided the comfort zone was better. Thankfully, he acknowledged that he felt disappointed in the choice, but was not ready for Top Gun exhilaration yet.

Less than a year later, another opportunity surfaced in demand planning for one of the business units. This time there was no need to coach or mentor. Maverick came up to me with a lot of excitement and explained the new role. After four years of working closely together, I was elated for him.

Ultimately, this role was even more of a stretch that the initial one he rejected. He was clearly ready to fly into the “danger zone!”

 

And, in the end

Jobs and I caught up in late 2014 for coffee. He was much more focused on the next position he needed for his career path. He recalled the entire decision process we went through with a positive glow on his face. Apparently, he’s told the story a few times to others.

Maverick grew well in his new role and became a critical part of the new team he joined. He now laughs at his initial reticence to move out of his comfort zone. For my part, I continue to send LinkedIn and Facebook posts to him about growth and breaking out of the comfort zone as a friendly reminder.

ciao…mam

Michael Massetti is a supply chain executive who has led, coached, mentored and developed many talented individuals. He was AMD’s executive sponsor for the University of Texas Supply Chain Management Consortium and interacted with undergraduate and graduate students for 5 years. Michael recruited and mentored many graduates into AMD’s organization.