leadership dot #2104: realism

Almost immediately after the tragic bridge collapse in Florida, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent staff to the site to conduct an investigation. I admire these problem solvers whenever I hear about their work on the bridge, watch Sully or learn that they are en route to investigate a recent train or plane crash. They are wading into an area where emotions are high, the evidence is damaged or missing and the consequences of their work are great.

I often wonder what it takes to be an NTSB investigator, but I think there are parallels between the role and that of a coach. Both positions must have subject-matter expertise, along with the ability to assess a situation and draw conclusions based on observations of what is seen – or not seen. Both positions must be masterful at noting the details and minor variances from the norm. Both need to be able to make recommendations that improve future performance, even if it is unpopular to say them.

In the TED Talk by Atul Gawande (see dot #2013), he describes how he learned from the coach who observed his surgery – but the coach had to know the field intimately in order to give the recommendations for Gawande to hold his elbow differently or know how to reposition the light. Not just any outside observer can be helpful.

Coaches and the NTSB are knowledgeable eyes and ears with the sole purpose of seeing the situation for how it actually is – not how it was supposed to be, or how we think it was or even how we want it to be. They become highly focused on reality, providing a mirror back to the affected parties to describe the current situation with raw realism.

I hope you are never in a situation where the NTSB is actually needed rather I wish that you find yourself often with the gift of a coach who can bring an outside perspective to your work.

leadership dot #2103: coaching

If I say: “coaching,” what is likely to come to mind is either an athletic coach or coaching for an executive leader. Many people have a narrow definition of what coaching is and the benefit that it offers.

I recently watched a TED Talk by Atul Gawande who advocated for a broader view of the practice. “Coaching is how people get better at what they do,” he said. “If professionals don’t realize there are problems, then they stop making improvements.”

Gawande, a surgeon and social entrepreneur, has used coaching to improve himself in the operating room and to decrease infant mortality in Indian hospitals. He was reluctant to allow an outside observer in his operating room but did so when evidence convinced him of the value of coaching. Gawande thought he conducted a flawless surgery, but the coach provided him with a page of observations that Gawande did not recognize were happening, and recommended changes that have made a marked difference in his practice.

The TED Talk provides examples of how Itzhak Perlman’s wife used to coach the great violinist from the audience and how most people could benefit from the perspective another person provides. I know from firsthand experience that a coach can see things that elude you or become so much a part of your routine that you no longer question them (even though you should!).

“Coaches are external eyes and ears, providing a more accurate picture of your reality,” Gawande says. “They recognize the fundamentals, break your actions down and help you build them back up again.” 

No matter what your line of work, if you are serious about improvement, don’t rely on just yourself to get you there.

Watch Gawande’s TED Talk: Want to get great at something? Get a coach.

leadership dot #2102: assurance

With the number of recent trades and team-swapping in the NBA, some fans are understandably nervous about investing in a jersey of their favorite player for fear that it may be obsolete in the short term.

The NBA Store and American Express have teamed up to offer a “Jersey Assurance” program that allows fans to switch jerseys if the player switches teams. With the number of restrictions on the program, it is unlikely that there will be a huge financial loss, but there could be a substantial gain.

The Jersey Assurance program is a way to encourage purchases but makes everyone feel better if a trade happens.

Think of how you can adopt a component of this program and do something to mitigate perceived risk. Maybe your providers aren’t traded, but providing some assurance to your customers is a slam dunk.

leadership dot #2101: point of view

People generally want to be right. What makes it more difficult, even for open-minded folks, is to absorb the concept that while they may be right, others may be right, too.

This simple exercise can help illustrate the point.

If you look at the figure from this perspective, it is a 3:

From this side, the same shape is an M:

But from this way, it looks like a W:

And from the other direction, it appears to be an E:

Someone might see this drawing and report that it was an E, 3, M or W – and be correct.

The next time you hear a statement that differs from yours, think of this dot. Ask yourself whether they literally have a different point of viewing rather than a different point of view.


Thanks, Mike!



leadership dot #2100: sound of silence

When someone does something that displeases you, what is your initial reaction? If you are like many, your tendency is to raise your voice, but it may be more effective to do the opposite. Silence can be a more powerful tool in your supervisory arsenal.

A colleague recounts the story of an employee who erred and after she gave her explanation and mea culpas, he sat there and nodded. The silence was more unnerving than a reprimand would have been, and she said so. “Aren’t you going to yell at me?” she asked. No.

In a vastly different arena than supervision, the puppy training manuals encourage the same treatment when the dog has an accident. Instead of scolding, ignoring the puppy and giving it the silent treatment is claimed to be more powerful. Puppies want affirmation and affiliation so instead of scaring it, shun it and behavior modification will come more quickly, or so the theory goes.

While I am not advocating for silence in all (or even many) situations, saying nothing does have its role. If the deed is already done, the person has acknowledged the error and learned from it, there may be nothing more meaningful to say.

leadership dot #2099: test run

Yesterday I went to a meeting to learn about new regulations for a grant I am writing. There is a substantially new financial reporting form, and within minutes of reading it, many of the attendees had questions about what information was needed. The administrator did not know the answers; the financial reviewer was not available, and we left the meeting with more questions than answers.

I think of how many times we are all guilty of preparing a new form or policy that makes perfect sense to us but ends up being confusing for the user. Wouldn’t we be better off if we made it a part of the process to test our products or process with those who will be using it before implementing them?

Prototyping is precisely the final stage in Human-Centered Design, where a model or draft of your concept is shared with those who will be engaged in the solution. The goal is to get feedback from the end users early in the process to reduce your risk, learn what is/isn’t working, and make iterations to change the design for the better.

It may feel like it takes more time to prototype and field test, but in the end, you’ll save yourself time and gain allies as you create a better process. What idea do you have that needs to go out for a test run before it’s final?

leadership dot #2098: hybrid

While waiting for a recent meeting to begin, the participants began discussing their dogs. My four-month-old is a cross between an English Cream Retriever and a Golden Retriever – and she was the most common of the bunch. Others had recently acquired a Bernadoodle (Bernese Mountain Dog/Poodle), a Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel/Poodle) and Goldador (Golden Retriever/Labrador). What happened to the generic Beagle?

It seems that genetic engineering is prevalent in the dog world these days. Science has made it possible to take positive traits from one breed (i.e.: no shedding) and blend it with desired traits from another lineage (i.e. great personality). It has resulted in a robust market for all kinds of hybrids and “boutique dogs.”

It got me wondering why the same principle couldn’t be applied in organizations – taking the positive aspects of one service and crossing it with desired characteristics of another. It already happens in many online professional development courses – mixing low cost (online learning) with relevant material (formal education). Planet Fitness combines the best of gyms (equipment) with a casual user model instead of bodybuilding (free training). Southwest took the self-serve aspects of bus travel and the speed of air travel to create its model.

Ask yourself the “if only” question. If only…retrievers didn’t shed so much. If only fitness trainers were included in membership so people actually kept going. If only affordable education was offered on topics that adults really wanted to learn…Then create a new hybrid combination of your own that gets your client’s tails wagging.