Best Ideas of 2008

One of the tenets of coaching is that a coach supplies tools but not answers. That means that I learn a lot by watching how clients solve difficult issues. This month I am going to share with you my list of the top three creative, inspiring and successful actions and ideas from client organizations and executives with which I worked in 2008. A couple of these are unconventional, but all earned ink here based on highly successful outcomes.

  1. Reading the Comics. Scott Adams, cartoonist and creator of “Dilbert,” has such a rapier wit and unerring aim that his cartoons were banned from cubicles at his old employer, Pacific Bell. After a series of brown-bag lunches to uncover issues that were not being talked about at his company, the COO of a business services firm realized that he was not getting the full story, so he began making it a point to walk the halls and observe what “Dilbert” comics were posted where. Although it may seem unscientific, he could use what he observed to guide his questioning in the future brown-bags. There are likely many more layers of employee satisfaction and business issues to uncover. But his discovery of three important but dangerous issues that he could solve went a long way toward building the trust he was looking for. I classify this as an astute form of listening.
  2. Witness for the Prosecution and the Defense. I was coaching a senior vice president of human relations who was new to his company. One of the primary strategies he had planned for the company was more effective performance management reviews. Turnover of staffers the company wanted to keep was out of control. There were too many cases of people who had been passed around and never given honest feedback about their mediocre performance. His predecessor had tried a consulting firm and spent money on training, but that had not had the necessary impact. One day in exasperation during a coaching call, he said, “I am going to get this sorted out if I have to sit in on every performance review myself.”

Today there is a corps of trained executives, including the SVP of HR, whose job it is to sit in on the reviews of every one of the 320 employees and hold both parties accountable for what is said and decided. The professional witness is drawn randomly, but every manager knows that his preparation will be scrutinized and there is a central database to keep track of commitments made in reviews. Undesirable turnover is down 35 percent, and key performance indicators rise by the month.

  1. Trading Hats. At a management retreat I was facilitating early last year, 50 managers were carrying on what was an old quarrel at the firm. Departments were entrenched in positions that they had held for months, and, meanwhile, the issue was not being solved. I employed a tool that took the groups through the process of looking at the issue through every department’s point of view and on into a discussion that was less confrontational until they found an answer – and a good one. It is a very powerful exercise when done well, but if not executed properly can be a disaster, which is why I was concerned when the CEO had the idea to have all the members of the top team switch jobs for a few days.

It was not an open-ended event and not without controls (and, yes, there were plenty of jokes about what the SVP of sales would do when she finally got the checkbook). But through this rotation, each member of the executive team had to learn to see the business through the eyes of the others. The next planning session I facilitated with this group was amazing.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, February 9, 2009.