Coaching Tactically and Coaching Strategically

I work for a tech start-up in the heath care space and within our company (at least in our office which is lead by a couple of former Microsoft ninjas) two key buzz words are tactical and strategic. I was not sure exactly what these words meant and how they were used in business until I had a very specific meeting with our site director who was my manager for roughly 6 months. I was in a one-on-one meeting explaining some challenges that I was facing in my role. Every day I was reacting to problems that bubbled up and needed my immediate attention, and I was not quite doing anything that would get ahead of those individual problems or solve the long term issues that grew out of acute problems. My boss at that point described the difference of thinking tactically versus strategically.

 

The daily grind and the individual problems that scream for our attention is the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems from showing up in the first place is the strategic work. The tactical is important and takes a certain set of skills, but the strategic is the differentiator, what separates the average companies from the excellent companies, what makes the top employees stand out from those who show up each day and punch a clock. What I was learning in that one-on-one was the difference between the two types of thinking, but now when I look back, I’m also able to see the difference in the coaching style that was taking place along those same lines.

 

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier makes a distinction between two types of coaching, coaching for performance and coaching for development. He describes the two styles and approaches in the following way, “Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire or building up the fire or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary.” In this quick quote he is describing tactical coaching. How can you help an employee, colleague, or friend navigate the individual challenges that are popping up in front of them and how can they get through those hurdles? Bungay Stanier continues, “Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.”

 

The second piece is about coaching strategically, helping the individual see not just how to overcome one challenge, but how to adapt and change what they are doing, the process they work with, and how they are approaching obstacles to make them better in the long run. It is a focus on the individual and their growth as opposed to a focus on a problem and how to address that problem. Thinking strategically requires awareness and an understanding of common threads between problems and issues. When you coach strategically, that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth that will connect the dots in their own life and story, and you are working with them to shift their perspective to solve long term problems, build successful habits, and move beyond immediate issues. This is what my boss was doing with me when he explained the difference between thinking tactically in my daily work and angling myself and my operations to be more strategic.

Kickstarting Conversations

When you are coaching someone professionally, meeting with a colleague or associate, or just hanging out with a spouse or friend, how do you really get around to having important conversations? In my life, I too frequently have quick chats about the weather that don’t often lead to something more interesting. Inevitably, when I head down the weather small talk, I bring up the Don’t Panic Geocast (a fantastic geology podcast that I highly recommend) and get too deep into the science of a given weather patter or how that weather shapes some aspect of earth science. The point I am making is that some days and in some situations getting a conversation going is a challenge, and sometimes the conversation we get started is not the conversation that we both actually want to have.

In his book on how to be an effective coach and create habits that lead to positive coaching interactions, Michael Bungay Stanier offers a solution to the conversation initiation conundrum. He offers what he calls a Goldilocks question that is just right to get a meaningful conversation flowing. He looks at this question specifically in the realm of coaching, but it can be used across the board when conversation about sports teams has died out or when you don’t want to talk to the 17th person about that day’s weather. Bungay Stanier’s question is simply, “What’s on your mind?” which he describes as “An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.”

The power of this simple question according to Bungay Stanier is that “its a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most. It’s a question that dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.”

In a coaching relationship, it can feel like you need to be in control. That you need to direct the conversation and ask intimate probing questions that get the subject to connect new dots and make new realizations that they previously were unaware of. While asking more questions than speaking is a good thing, the coach does not really need to be in control. When you are helping someone else as a coach, you can use this question to give them a little more control of what is discussed, because they are the one who knows best what issue they are facing and need assistance on. Asking “what’s on your mind?” and not forcing a question toward a specific area will allow the conversation to center around the biggest item that needs to be talked through and ironed out. Rather than getting stuck in a rut with your coaching, this question requires you the coach to be nimble and on your feet as conversations go where the subject needs them to go, not where you are comfortable with the conversation going.

In my life I have not been good at remembering this question. It is one that I hope I can return to and one that I hope can help me have deeper conversations with my wife, my uncle, and some of my friends.

Resistance to Change

A short section in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is titled “One of the laws of change: As soon as you try something new, you’ll get resistance”.

 

I think we have all experienced this at one time or another in our lives. We end up with the habits and patters of our lives because it is easy. We get used to doing the same thing each day and become accustomed to the same routine. Changes and adjustments to that routine become incredibly difficult and we often find ourselves doing the same things each day and then reflecting back and wondering why we didn’t make the change we wanted or why we couldn’t fit in something new.

 

Bungay Stanier doesn’t see these habits and the resistance to change as a necessarily bad thing. If you can develop a great routine that is helping you to be healthy, encouraging meaningful relationship with those around you, and allowing you to accomplish the most important things in your life, then you can use the power of habit to your advantage. The grooves and tracks in life that make change hard, can be an advantage when you don’t want to think about working out in the morning or after work and when you want exercise to be something you do out of habit. What is important with habits is to remember that habits can be tools to shape the structure of our lives so that we achieve the outcomes we desire. Bungay Stanier writes, “We live within our habits. So change the way you want to lead, and build the right coaching habits.”

 

The book is specifically about coaching and adopting the right mindset and habits to be a strong coach in areas of life, business, or sports. However, the awareness of our habits and actions is powerful and applies to every part of our life (not just the coaching side of our lives). Recognizing when we have let a habit set in is crucial for change and for living an intentional life. If dessert is a habit after dinner that you don’t consciously think about or if the doughnut on Friday is automatic without pause, then you will never be able to change the behavior. If you can become aware of times when you are on auto-pilot, you can begin to change yourself and your routine so that the same decisions do not exist and you break out of the habits you dislike. It is not easy and you will feel push back from your own habits and the structures in place, but you can adjust all of these things to build the new habit that you would prefer.

Plan To Be Resilient

The most well designed systems have back-ups. Major buildings have back-up power generators, sports teams have back-up athletes, and companies have back-up computer drives. The reason  that all these back-up exist is because plans fail, infrastructure breaks, and people make mistakes. Designing the best building, coaching the best team, and creating  the best company requires that we think about what will happen when things go wrong, so that we can bounce back quickly, stay on track, and make sure the lights stay on. If back-ups are part of the best teams, buildings, and companies, shouldn’t they also be part of our plans when we try to design and create the best possible lives for ourselves?

 

Michael Bungay Stanier thinks so. He quotes Jeremy Dean’s book Making Habits, Breaking Habits in his own book The Coaching Habit to talk about how to build resilience into your plans and goals for changing habits. We already know that the best engineers and the best designers and planners of buildings, boats, and barbecues expect that things will go wrong and that you will need back-ups to make sure your building power is not gone for good, to make sure your boat can still get you out of the storm, and to make sure your grill doesn’t blow up. It is important to see that no matter how well we plan our own life, we will still need back-ups so that when things go wrong our life doesn’t explode and leave us without a way to come back together.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “Plan how to get back on track. When you stumble–and everyone stumbles–it’s easy to give up. … What you need to know is what to do when that happens. Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious.”

 

In my own life I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I will do to be resilient. I spend a lot of time thinking about how awesome I am and how I am obviously going to crush-it and achieve my goals the first time. I spend less time thinking about what I am going to do to still be successful or achieve my desired outcome if for some reason my initial plan does not work out. What I end up doing for myself, without recognizing it, is failing to set myself up to be resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles.

 

This is not the first time I have written about the benefits of thinking ahead to the challenges and roadblocks that we might face on our journey. I have written about Richard Wiseman’s recommendation that we look ahead and anticipate the road blocks that we will face on our journey. By expecting challenges and then writing about how we will overcome those challenges, we are planning to be resilient. Rather than looking ahead and just expecting easy success and wins, we can look ahead to the obstacles we must overcome and build a plan to reach those. When we fail, which we know we will, we can have a plan in place so that we only fall one rung on the ladder, and don’t land on our butt at the bottom, paralyzed and unable to restart our climb.