Liz Keogh, lunivore

5 Rules of Coaching

These rules have nothing to do with any methodology (except maybe complexity thinking, because human.)

I have found it useful to bear these in mind while I coach. I’ve passed them on in various forms to people who are learning how to be better leaders, and suggest that leaders pass them on too.

These are contextual, which means… well, they’re not actually rules. They’re heuristics or guidelines; there are situations in which you’ll want to do something different. Having said that, they’re applicable in a lot of contexts, and they seem to be things that are easy to forget when we get stressed or low on energy.

So I call them rules because that seems to help them stick in my head better and make them my default responses to situations where context doesn’t suggest anything better. And a fair few have said that they found them useful, so… here they are.

5. Say Thank You.

This used to be “Make thank you your default response to feedback”. Sometimes when people give us information, it’s hard to hear. By making “Thank you” your default response, you can take time to decide how you feel about what you’re being told; whether you need to respond in a different way; and what you can learn from it.

We also don’t say “Thank you” enough. I spend a lot of time ranting at the TV, watching a film or a series in which one character does the other a favour, letting them know that they’ve just been rescued. The favoured character sighs. “OK.”

“Say thank you.” Nothing. “Say thank you! Why does nobody say thank you?”

It’s because we get lost in our own heads; we’re focusing on what we need to do next, and not what just happened. Saying thank you is a really quick way to amplify positives (see Rule 1) and meaning it when we say it can also help us to think of ways to amplify it, for instance by adding detail or asking for further help. “Thank you. I really appreciate that you did X. Any chance that you might have time to pass that on to the other team too? I think they could really use it.”

4. Pretend to be Brave.

Everyone gets impostor syndrome.

Everyone.

Some get it more than others; but there is always some element of doubt in our heads, some feeling that maybe we don’t really belong. The trouble is that unless you’re stuck in a rut doing the same things you’ve always done, you’re going to be doing something new; and if you’re doing something new, you’re not necessarily going to be great at it to start with.

It’s not that you’re an impostor. It’s that you’ve found a niche, and now people are expecting you to be an expert, but you’re merely knowledgeable and you’re still learning.

As the Peter Principle suggests, we tend to rise to the level of our incompetence… but that’s not actually such a bad thing, as long as we can learn fast, safely. The best way to do that is to make sure things are safe-to-fail, which usually means putting appropriate feedback loops in place. In a human system, that usually means feedback.

Getting onto the ground and listening to the stories (“gemba”) is one way for leaders to do that. Another way is to make “thank you” the default response to feedback. See Rule 5.

Respect the knowledge you do have! I’ve seen wonderful, kind people who uplift and motivate and guide others be so very mean and unkind and down on themselves. Think of the skills and knowledge you have as a sound base on which to build, and strengthen that base inside yourself. And see Rule 1.

3. Clarify Your Intent.

A leader once asked me, “How do I stop the devs from gold-plating this thing? They keep wanting to put tests around it and refactor it and I just need them to get it out there; it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit flaky?”

“Huh. I like tests and high quality code too. Is there a reason you don’t think it needs maintaining?”

“Yes; we don’t even know if it’s valuable or will be used yet.”

“Ah. It’s an experiment?”

“Yes!”

“Did you tell them it was an experiment?”

“…Oh.”

Sometimes it’s the simplest thing in the world, and we forget to do it. Clarifying why you want something allows people to make autonomous decisions about how best to work towards the outcome you want; or (even more important) give you information about the context you were unaware of that will cause difficulty getting that outcome. (Remember Rule 5 – say thank you.)

I like David L. Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around” – one of those books that everyone talks about and you bought it and stuck it on the shelf and never got round to it. (Actually, if you bought a physical copy you’ll have seen how small it is – a very easy read – so this is mostly for the people who have it stuck in a Kindle or similar backlog somewhere.) Read it!

2. Visualize the Work.

Jabe Bloom once said of Wardley Mapping, “If there are two people in front of a map and they’re arguing with each other, it’s because there’s something missing on the map.”

Visualizing work, or the problem you’re trying to work through – putting it down somewhere where people can see it, ideally move things around, separate easy from hard and agreement from disagreement and related from unrelated can help to clarify all kinds of problems. Make it spatial; something other than a document or a list.

It doesn’t have to be on Jira or Trello or involve post-its. I like mind-maps, drawings and sketches, triads and dyads, and anything involving Cynefin. Miro and similar electronic tools are great for remote work too.

1. Amplify the Positives.

If you see something going well, call it out. Strengthen it.

When dealing with probes in complexity, we have to be able to tell what’s working and what isn’t, amplify it if it’s working and dampen it if it isn’t.

People on the ground though know better than most leaders and coaches what might be coherent, meaning there’s a sufficiency of evidence to progress, or a realistic reason for thinking things are a good idea. So they’re always trying out new probes and ideas.

I was on a project once where a couple of less experienced devs went a little astray, trying out a new tool that turned out to be a bit of a waste of time. The PM and senior BA came down on them like a ton of bricks. “Nobody is allowed to do anything without checking with us first!”

The problem with that was that the project had already spawned a ton of innovative tools (Mockito was one of them!) – and the innovation stopped overnight. We hadn’t amplified the value of that experimentation enough. The PM and BA were unaware of how much the autonomy had helped us; far more than a couple of days of development time.

It’s also far easier to spot things going wrong than going right. Learning to see the positives, and then to amplify them, is a habit that I had to actively develop. I got in trouble so many times in my coaching career for wading in and suggesting changes without first showing my appreciation of what was already working well.

Amplifying positives is the single simplest way to give feedback, help create psychological safety so that people feel free to experiment and report back their failures, and it helps to build rapport in case a more urgent intervention is required. A lot of people trying out “Radical Candour” miss this bit; it’s the part where it has to “come from a place of care”.

Above all though, amplify your own positives. You’ll fail sometimes. A sound base inside yourself and knowledge of what you can do well helps with getting back up again.

0. Breathe.

Of course there’s a Zeroth Rule of Coaching; a thing that is more important than all the others.

There will be hard days. Change is difficult, and sometimes people don’t like it. They will not be your friends. They will have bad days themselves; they will be scared, have low self-esteem, feel like their identity or power is threatened. There will be days which are frustrating. There will be impossible expectations. There will be context-switching and you’ll forget things and do things wrong and be ashamed and guilty and feel terrible.

Breathe.

I really love Katherine Kirk’s work on situational awareness and insight. One of the things she taught me is that we make poor choices when intensity is high; either because we want something desperately or because we hate or fear something awfully. We react, instead of widening our possibilities. We turn inwards, instead of nurturing our relationships and letting others help us. We see the things going wrong, and the imperfections, instead of the seeing the resources we have for innovating and improving.

Breathing is an easy, simple way to reduce intensity.

I have a particular love of Playne; a meditation game in which you bring life back to a small island where the sea gently washes against a sandy shore, while a fox gives you guidance beside a fire that represents your ongoing journey.

Breathing deeply, and taking time to do so, is the single simplest act of self-care that I can suggest for anyone, anywhere.

I’d love to say that it’s all going to be OK, that it gets better. Sometimes it doesn’t. There are pandemics, and climate crisis, and corruption, and some days the world is tangibly falling apart. There are many of us grieving loved ones, our dying ecosystem, our collapsing civilization. Life, and the prospects of our future, can be terrifying. There are many of us for whom the world is hard, and getting harder, and many of us grieve too when we cannot find a way to help.

It’s OK to stop; to take a moment for ourselves. We cannot navigate when we are blind, and intensity is blinding.

Breathe.