Strong coaches build successful IT dept, says expert

Gregg Thompson, author of a new coaching book entitled, Unleashed!: Expecting Greatness and Other Secrets of Coaching for Exceptional Performance, thinks the IT industry is in need of better leaders. He sees strong coaches as the lifeblood of a successful IT department.

As president of Bluepoint Leadership Development, Thompson accumulated 25 years of management and consulting experience in a variety of business sectors, including the technology field.

Thompson has worked with such clients as Microsoft, HP, Mattel, Autodesk, DHL, New York Life and Starbucks. He also regularly acts as a keynote speaker, addressing leaders at Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric and Siemens.

Thompson spoke with ComputerWorld Canada’s Rafael Ruffolo about some of the coaching strategies in his new book, and its relevance to IT managers.

? What coaching strategies are at the core of the book?

Gregg Thompson: The three elements of coaching come from the great expectations model of coaching. There are three pieces to it: earning the right to coach, a perfect partnership, and dangerous conversations.

? Can you tell me more about earning the right to coach principle?

GT: Earning the right to coach is plainly about being the kind of person from whom others would accept coaching from. People are very fussy about who they will enter into that kind of relationship with because coaching deals with things that are very personal. So, we focus on three pieces. Firstly, that the coach is seen as an authentic, genuine person who has a high degree of ethics and honesty. Secondly, they have high self-esteem. They can’t be boastful or brag, but rather they must be confident enough in their own abilities that they can focus on the other person. In other words, they don’t have to build up their own ego at the expense of the other person being coached. And lastly, is this idea of noble intention. This is when a coach truly has the intention to help the other person and it’s not just to get them to do what they want them to do. And that person is really noble if they are able to sacrifice some of their own needs, in the moment, for the talent.

? What does the perfect partnership entail?

GT: It’s kind of like a perfect storm, as the three principles of a perfect partnership — appreciation, confrontation and accountability — come together and really make the core of the “unleashed” process. It’s the fundamental building block of the great expectations model. Appreciation is seeing the greatness in others. Confrontation is about confronting these people about their greatness. So it’s not confrontation in a negative sense, but instead about confronting people with their own potential, their own greatness, and their own aspirations. Finally, accountability is about holding them accountable for that. When we ask people in our workshops about the people who have been coach-like to them, that’s the kind of relationship they often describe.

? How do you describe the last principle of coaching, dangerous conversations?

GT: Well, it tends to have a discovery piece, where you and the person being coached learn more about each other’s performances aspirations and the like. There is a creation piece, where you come up with new ideas and options on how to solve problems. And lastly there is a phase called commitment, as until there is a commitment to action and accountability, coaching is all talk.

? Why is this relevant to IT managers?

GT: We use the model primarily with technical people to increase their ability to coach. People like software developers, project managers, hardware folks, engineers, etc. IT folks particularly connect with this, because talent is such a premium in your industry. A wonderful quote by writer John Gartner is that “most human talent goes undeveloped,” and if that is the case, talent development in the IT industry has a huge premium. In my experiences working with developers, I’ve found that one really great, high performing developer compared to an average performing developer can be up to ten times better in productivity.

? Do you see these characteristics lacking in the IT industry?

GT: There really is a chronic undersupply of coach-like managers in technology-based companies. I believe that it is, in fact, near epidemic, I don’t know any company that believes they have an adequate supply of coach-like managers and leaders in their organization, and this is particularly true in IT companies.

? How does this book differ from other coaching books on the market today?

GT: We believe that coaching doesn’t have five linear steps. If you read a lot of coaching books, and I don’t mean to criticize them because there are wonderful books out there, but the classic mistake they make is that they portray coaching as having these five or six linear steps. But we suggest this isn’t the case, we see it as a flow, because you’ll move through these different phases of coaching through different times. For instance, there are three elements of the dangerous conversations flow, but they aren’t linear. People might go through discovery, and then creation, and then go back to discovery again, and they might cycle through there a few times before they get into making a commitment.

? One chapter getting a lot of praise in the reviews I’ve read is the 60 Big Coaching Questions. Tell me a bit about this?

GT: Coaching is not about giving advice. Coaches are not advisors. Coaches help people see their problems, their challenges, and their performance through fresh eyes. One of the best tools of doing that is simply to ask powerful questions, so we’ve presented 60 questions in the book that we think are very classical and potent questions. They are questions to get the talent thinking about certain issues in a whole new way. For example, “are you doing your best work right now,” “are you using all of your talents,” or “if you could do more of the work that you love what would you do?” These are questions that get the talent thinking about their performance and how they might lift their game. Coaches in many ways are simply there to ask challenging, annoying, and affirming questions, and probably 90 per cent of coaching is about the questions coaches ask their talent.

? What’s the feedback been on the book so far?

GT: It’s been great. Microsoft has selected it to go into their corporate resource library and they are very selective as to what books they take into that library. They’ve selected it to be in the library as their core coaching guide and while that may not sound like a big thing, it’s huge for us.

Unleashed!: Expecting Greatness and Other Secrets of Coaching for Exceptional Performance is in bookstores today.

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