I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms.  Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.

Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:

  • As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness.  Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing.  I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.

I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation.  But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation.  I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role.  I also asked for an initial work plan.  What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar.  Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.

  • As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision.  I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies.  I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.

One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider.  Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment.  But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business.  This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.

  • As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another.  My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.

One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes.  I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.

After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students.  However, that never happened.

When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired.  A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission.  Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage  the whole team but require real effort.  Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.

I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.

A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.

I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement.  Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.

Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers.  But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.

Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are the ten points they list:  (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)

Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.

* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.

* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.

* Have transferable skills.

* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.

* Have more than one solution to a problem.

* Be a good listener.

* Be a team player.

* Be able to market.

* Gain client trust.

* Remember who’s the star.

And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:

* Be comfortable telling the truth.  Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise.  A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.

* Be tactful and affirming.  Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive.  A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.

* Know how to ask great questions.  Great consultants ask great questions.  It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.

* Be willing to play together.  You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table.  Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well.  A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.

* Have lots of integrity.  Confidences need to be respected.  Promises need to be kept.  A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.

* Admit mistakes.  Great consultants aren’t always right.  What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.

* Love simplicity.  Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand.  A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.

* Enjoy the work.  Great consultants have fun.  Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children.  Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.

It’s all about Spirit

January 10, 2012

Jodi Flynn (of Luma Coaching) and I have been meeting to share our understanding of the coaching process, of how to facilitate constructive change, and of how we ourselves have gotten more “on track”.

The agenda for our most recent intensive was, “How do I know my goals and actions are in alignment with my authentic self, or my authentic path?” Business coach Mandy Schumaker had posted this question, and we both felt that it was an important starting point for any transformative process.

Jodi was well prepared, with a brilliant list of “red light” and “green light” indicators, that could help us identify when we’re on or off that path. Read her blog entry for more about this very helpful set of questions, and how they might be applied.

What I want to report here concerns that “ah ha” moment, when one of us exclaimed, “It’s all about Spirit”. Both of us have had the experience of feeling actions, writing, images coming through us rather than from us, so it should not have been surprising to hear this affirmation of personal faith.

But what followed was much more radical. I asked Jodi whether this applies to all her clients, and not just those who consider themselves believers of some sort. Without hesitation, Jodi replied, “Absolutely!” She explained that the words may be different, God or Christ or Buddha language may not fit, but that sense that we all connect with some higher power not under our conscious control is primary and universal. It can be a challenge to acknowledge this truth, while not proselytizing a particular expression of it, but we both affirmed that this is possible and necessary.

“What about clients who have much more mundane concerns?”, I asked. “How can I be more effective at work, more engaged in home life, more successful in promoting my own business?” Again, Jodi’s clear response, with which I concur, was that to access our greatest potential we have to look within and whether we acknowledge it or not, that is the process of accessing spirit.

“Spirit” may not be the right word for you, if it bring up old baggage, negative experiences with religion, dogma with which you disagree. Perhaps you’ve a better word for that guiding force, that source, that positive constructive energy that can lead us towards centered grounded action. And your coaching work may appear to stay far from notions of spirit or whatever. But the affirmation that came out of our sharing was that Spirit really is at the center.


Lots of people will parody the work of consultants — suggesting that we’ll contract for a study of whether to do a study studying why a study might be helpful. But forget that foolishness.  A good consultant will work with their client(s) to identify clear goals, important questions, kinds of knowledge that must be transmitted or answers that must be obtained.

I believe we need to teach good “clienting” just as we learn good consulting. My best clients work with me to define goals, they welcome surprises, and allow space to make changes based on what they learn. They know that they’re getting value from my work. Or, if they don’t, they initiate a meeting or other process to set things straight.

Yes, of course there are times when I can see an issue that I believe should be addressed, and the client does not.  It’s my challenge to suggest a project that will, in the end, provide value for the client.  I may or may not convince the client that the need is real, and that sufficient budget should be allocated to address it.

Let me stop here, and ask you what teaching good “clienting” should mean, what needs to be taught.

Executive Scavenger Hunt

January 5, 2011

A member of the Organization Development Network asked, “I am facilitating a program for executives on the topic ofTransformational Leadership’.   What questions do you think should be asked to really get the heads spinning?”

In trying to respond to this query, I asked myself what might get executives to look beyond the surface view of their organizations.  Too often we see what we want, and not other things that don’t fit our paradigms.  What games might get them to look further — based on what they already know?  And then I had it — a scavenger hunt!

Divide the executives up into teams of two or three, and ask each team to identify where in the organization they might find:

  • Ecstasy
  • Greed
  • Delight
  • Fear
  • Contentment
  • Pride
  • Exasperation
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Eenergy
  • Team spirit
  • Anger
  • Powerlessness
  • Ingenuity
  • Community

(or your own list, in this spirit)

Normally, executives don’t talk about these things. But ask them where these things might be found, and a new degree of honesty and courage may arise. That would be my hope.

Need I point out that most of these scavenger items are about individual feelings, that can lead to healthy or to destructive behavior.  Too often, I believe that managers think of their organization as a whole, and not of the individuals who make it up, and whose personal experience feeds right into an organizational culture.

Transformational leadership involves blending the best that indivuals can offer into an organized, coherent, creative, and profitable endeavor.  It means knowing all the stakeholders (and those who should be stakeholders, but, for whatever reason, are not), having a strong vision, creating a climate of trust, integrity, and creativity, and being able to model the values that should guide the whole organization.

One of my coaching clients wants to be more active facilitating change in her organization, but is frustrated by the apparent lack of interest, or perhaps it’s hidden resistance, on the part of the managers who work under her.  Efforts to brainstorm needed change, or in other ways to create an agenda for the future, have not been successful. She was evidently worn down, perhaps really depressed, by this difficult and unrewarding process.

What might make a difference?

She had one very helpful insight: Part of what’s wearing her down is the negative attitude of so many around her, and she’d be better off spending more time with those staff people who are most agile, resourceful, and interested in real change.  Such attitudes and temperaments are indeed contagious, and I’ll be anxious to see what comes of this conscious effort to pick up the most constructive staff energy.

I also had an insight that might be fruitful. Listing possible changes brings up all sorts of resistance.  Why not spend more time  as a management group listing things about the organization that should be preserved — things that are really good or right?  This might give more staff permission to join the discussion in a non-threatening way.  We expect that the process of enumerating aspects to be preserved will actually highlight some things that need to be changed, but that would be the discovery and not the stated goal.

I tread very carefully in making any suggestions.  My role is not supposed to be that of a consultant, offering solutions, detailed strategies, or lots of content expertise.  Indeed, I’ve only a vague sense of this organization’s mission and program.  I’m there to help the director find insight and clarity herself, occasionally offering hints or suggestions, but primarily listening to her reflections and observations and helping her hear her own insights in the most constructive way.

That’s what coaching (which I call “clarifying”) is about.  Remember, you can have a free half hour session, in person or on the phone, to help you decide if this could add value to your life, or your organization.

People generally don’t come to me for “coaching” (I prefer to call it clarifying) because their lives are working well, because their creativity is flowing, or because their organizations are functioning at maximum potential.  They come  because of perceived gaps, deficits, problems, and challenges.

Typically we’ll start work with the client filling out “Wheel of Life” forms, such as the one shown at the left.  This one focused on personal issues such as health and family’ others are more about business or work, creativity and production, organizational health.

My clients probably assume that I’ll zoom right into those quadrants with the lowest score or ranking.  If “health” or “personal growth” is the area of least success, isn’t that the place to start?

“No!”, I insist.  Instead we start with the best ranking areas, reviewing what efforts, what paradigms, what personal initiatives led to that success.  By experiencing, and reviewing, how we succeed in some areas, we can best plan our success in others.

This chart focuses more on management skills and tasks, such as planning, team building, maintaining accountability.  Most managers experience challenges with some of these areas, while enjoying success with others.

Coaching (or clarifying) is not a substitute for skills training, but it can be critical in bringing out those skills when needed.  Sometimes what’s needed is not a whole new skill set,  but just a metaphor, a paradigm, or an idea.

One client of mine was challenged bringing out the aliveness in one of the managers who reports to her.  My asking, “How did I just get that strong response from you?” was all the hint she needed.  We each model behaviors for those around us.  The  questions I was asking her were part of our coaching — they were also tools she could use with her staff.

This model is not complex, and is can be completely transparent.  Most coaches have no secret agenda, or magic method.  By asking cogent questions, offering honest support, and allowing our clients space to think, to respond, to take charge, and to grow, we get to see incredible results.

When our daughter was in high school, the school organized an evening program for parents on “resiliency theory”.  The lead speaker pointed out — as all the parents present already knew too well — that our children were at risk getting hooked on alcohol or on illegal drugs, that they may be in a crash with a drunk teenage driver, that our daughters  could get pregnant.  Indeed, there were perils at every moment!

All this is true, but not helpful, the speaker explained.  What was more helpful was the fact that our kids had been navigating these dangerous waters for some time, and had mostly been making good decisions.  We needed to identify the strengths that led to those decisions — such qualities as character, judgement, integrity, and courage — and find ways to highlight and support those strengths.  We needed to empower our children, reminding them of the positive qualities that they have to draw upon — rather than focus primarily on the risks that they face.  The risks were real and important, but they were not a key to safety and positive action.

What he was talking about, we learned, is “resiliency theory”.  There’s an excellent summary of these ideas at the WestEd Health Kids website:

At its foundation, a resilience based approach to youth development is based upon the principle that all people have the ability to overcome adversity and to succeed despite it. Resilience is a strengths based model meaning its focus is on providing the supports and opportunities which promote life success, rather than trying only to eliminate the factors that promote failure.

Research has consistently shown that the presence of these developmental supports and opportunities provide a better indicator of whether youth will grow up to become successful well-adjusted adults than the presence or absence of risk-factors (i.e. poverty, drug-use, etc.)

I’ve found this a helpful approach with people of all ages.  Recently I took on a new ‘coaching” client, a manager who came with a list of goals reflecting difficulty in social skills, a sense that he was managing short term operations but not visioning or achieving long term goals, and a concern that he was in some significant way a disappointment to his staff.  Indeed, when I had him complete an inventory of strength and weaknesses, and of the parts of his work and personal life that were working well or that were lacking in significant ways, I could see the same judgements and concerns reflecting in his answers.

We could have wallowed in those negative perceptions.  It might have been cathartic, and perhaps satisfying, but I doubt that it would have been empowering.  Instead, I suggested that we start by reviewing all the areas where he had given himself the highest ratings — to see what innate strengths, and what positive actions had made those parts of his work and personal life function so well.  That was the beginning of a healthy coaching relationship that has seen him energize his staff, spend more time envisioning and working for needed changes in his organization, and feel better about himself and his contribution at work.  Our focus is on what we can do, rather than on what might have eluded him.  He’s in control of the coaching sessions, and I believe he’s more in control of his life.

That’s right.  This whole blog is a marketing tool.   That’s not to say it’s not interesting, perhaps engaging, accurate, or useful to most of you who are not my clients.  But it’s also an exercise in relationship marketing.

While you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve been developing a relationship with me.  And if you’ve taken the initiative to add comments, you’ve helped me learn about you.  I hope — and do believe — that our relationship of one of trust and respect.

Now … what if  you need a consultant to help with questions of strategy or organization in your business?  What if you’re concerned about maintaining your organization’s values in this age of increasing automation and mechanization?  You may feel that your computer systems or web sites are confusing, hard to use.  Or perhaps you feel that some “coaching” or “clarifying” would help you work more effectively, overcome a creative block, or break through some other barrier.  Most of us don’t go to the yellow pages, or its internet successor, Google, to find help in these times.  We look to our established relationships, and set them in a more structured business model.

In this relationship marketing strategy, I’m trying to build connections that will result in a few business relationships.  I say “few” not to be self-defeating, but because I’m realistic.  In marketing terms you’re not all “qualified” prospects, who can gain value from my services and skills.  But some of you can.  (Talk to me, please.)

Some of you may stand back, observe this scene, and notice how such relationship marketing can work for you.  People talk about “social networking” as if it’s a technology.  But, as our local social marketing consultant Fred Abaroa (Costa Vida Fred) has proclaimed, “If you want to use social marketing, you have to be social!”.  Treat this blog, and all the electronic and soft personal communication that can surround it, as a potential salon for sharing, listening, and finding who and what can add value to your life and your business.

The advertisement is not over.  Keep reading!

What makes a great question?

September 26, 2009

What makes a great question?

Of course I have my ideas about this one.  All of my consulting and “clarifying” (my term for “coaching”) involves asking questions that illuminate, that invite understanding and inquiry.  Even in doing photography, I often start with questions.

But this one is for you!  I’ll be interested to see your responses

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