Last week, I attended a one-day workshop here in Austin, with Lara Hogan on Demystifying Management. Lara was previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy, and she’s now a leadership coach. I have followed her blog for some years, after some colleagues shared her post on work at different management levels, which was super helpful to me as I went from leading individual contributors to leading other team leads.
The workshop was based on the concepts covered in Lara’s book, Resilient Management, and consisted mostly of us practicing and applying those concepts in small groups. There was a strong focus on coaching.
Mentoring v. Coaching
Lara defines mentoring as “lending advice and helping to problem solve based on your own experience.” She defines coaching, on the other hand, as “asking open questions to help your teammate reflect and introspect, rather than sharing your own opinions or quickly problem solving.” A primary area of focus for her is that most leads should be coaching the majority of the time, and mentoring rarely, but in practice, the opposite is usually true and leads find it very difficult to coach rather than mentor.
This definitely applies to me — I have a hard time remembering to coach, and have gotten feedback from my direct reports that I jump too quickly to advice-giving. Many of the exercises in the workshop were designed to force us all to practice coaching each other and avoid mentoring. It was really hard!
First, Lara had us pair up and identify a problem that we’re currently facing and could use some help in resolving. She had us take turns mentoring each other on the problem. This felt very comfortable and familiar to me. Then, she had us repeat this exercise, but with coaching — we could only ask the other person genuinely open-ended questions about their problem, no questions that could be answered with yes/no, no leading questions. We could also offer a reflection, wherein we basically restated what they had told us. Reflecting was really easy for me, but asking only open-ended questions was surprisingly difficult.
Although I had been pretty sure I fully understood my partner’s problem straightaway in the mentoring exercise, the coaching exercise taught me that in fact, there was a lot more to it than I realized. I developed a much more clear understanding of the issue through asking lots of questions and focusing on listening rather than advising.
Later in the workshop, we did a manager roundtable wherein one person shared a problem that they’re struggling with and everyone else at the table coached them for 15 full minutes (only open questions and reflections). At the end of the 15 minutes, we could each offer one piece of advice, but we also had to offer a reflection in order to offer the advice. This was incredibly difficult — 15 minutes of open questions is a really long time! This would be a great exercise for any group of peer leads to use for brainstorming: if a team lead is wrestling with a thorny problem, they and their peer leads could run this exercise (assuming it’s appropriate to share the problem and/or things can be adequately anonymized). By the end of it, not only would the lead have a broader understanding of their own problem and some ideas for where to go with it, but all the peer leads would have a similar understanding of how to handle that sort of issue. Note that this exercise requires a facilitator who understands it and is comfortable stopping and redirecting others if they ask a leading question, give advice, etc.
Why Don’t I Coach More?
I spent a lot of time that day thinking about why I find coaching so difficult and why I tend to default to mentoring. I identified the following causes (ranked generally in order of importance):
- I am impatient and want problems to be solved quickly and efficiently. In part, this is a response to our company culture — we move very fast at Automattic, and I like that, and the pace suits me.
- I don’t want my team leads to have to repeat my mistakes. It seems part of my job is to save them from the pain and ramifications of going through what I went through in my own learning process.
- I worry that if I allow my team leads to stumble their own way through problems, it will adversely affect others at the company and/or others will think I am simply not doing my job properly and will step in and mentor my team leads for me.
- I worry that if a situation worsens through a team lead failing to solve it quickly and well, it will make a lot more work for me later on.
- Coaching does not work if your direct report doesn’t share the same goal you do. For example, if you want them to correct what you see as an urgent problem and they don’t really agree it is an urgent problem or would rather avoid doing it, they won’t really participate with a will in the coaching process.
- Sometimes I feel that a more hands-off coaching approach allows problems to linger for an unacceptably long time, when not paired with accountability.
My Plan to Coach More and Mentor Less
I know that coaching is extremely important. Mentoring might quickly solve problems in the short term, but in the longer-term it makes you into a bottleneck because other people aren’t really learning how to do what you do. They stay overly dependent on you. People have to have the room and space to make their own mistakes and learn from them, and when it comes to leadership, this probably means that each new lead needs to repeat some of the mistakes their lead already made.
So, now that I better understand why I struggle with coaching, here’s my plan to control for some of these unwanted outcomes and make space for myself to do the hard work of coaching more often:
- Identify a timeline at the beginning of a problem and stick to it — so, for example, I can tell a team lead, “let’s try this approach for one month, but if it doesn’t result in the outcome we want by then, we’re going to try something else.”
- Along those lines, the team lead should be open with other stakeholders about the timeline and plan to fix the problem. For anyone else who functions in a leadership capacity toward that team lead, I can tell them at the beginning that I am intentionally leaving space for the team lead to learn through trial-and-error on this problem, and that I will step in more assertively if things don’t improve by x date. This way, they know not to intervene.
- In the event that the team lead and I are not in agreement on the severity or urgency of a problem, agree to let it ride (if possible), but agree on a deadline to reexamine the issue and agree on what at that time would indicate that either (a) they were right and it wasn’t really a big problem, or (b) I was right, and it’s something we need to deal with.
- Sometimes problems really do need to be solved right away and without missteps; in those situations, I can jump to mentoring, but I should be intentional about doing this, and also explain to the lead why.
Lara covered a lot of ground in this one day workshop. I’m focusing on the coaching aspect here, as that was the most valuable takeaway for me personally, but if you’re interested in reading more of Lara’s advice for managers, I recommend her blog and her book. The book is quite short and is a good overview of what you should be thinking about during your first couple of years as a team lead, explained in a really easy to understand way.