Guidance & belief

A good coach puts some pressure on you to do better and demonstrates his belief that you can do better in you. But more than that, the coach makes sure that what is expected of you is clearly communicated so that you have a clear vision of yourself accomplishing it. The ‘video’ that can be played in your head is important. If the resolution of this video is poor, then it is harder for the coachee to perform. And putting pressure on the person by reminding him or her of the deadline or final prize is pointless.

A coach doesn’t review a race with the runner telling that him or her that at different point of the race, how far or near he/she is still from the finish line. He tells the runner about his or her gait to improve, the rhythm of breathes. The how is more important than the what; but the why even more so. The good coach then reminds the runner of why he or she is running.

It is not possible for managers to help a team thrive without these coaching capabilities. Most managers would just be churning output without developing the team or sustaining the right motivation for the team to go on. Often this could lead to burn-out and poor morale. This is where a strong individual contributor needs to learn new skills to move into manager position and not thinking that he or she can just keep doing what they are good at.

Criticising the work

There was a time when I gave very indirect feedback. Especially when it comes to negative feedback. It was probably an artifact of my work in the government where people are just way too afraid to offend. And often, the boss could be the one making a mistake and no one wants to embarrass him/her. So it was perhaps a big change for me when I joined a French firm. The french were known to disagree passionately about things; and also give pretty direct negative feedback.

Fast forward 2.5 years at the firm. I got feedback from fellow countrymen that I was too direct in giving negative feedback. Upon reflecting and scrutinising the way I gave feedback, I think it wasn’t so much an issue with the directness but how far I was criticising the work rather than the worker. I might not have been delicate enough to recognise this. Going forward, I’d have to pay more attention to structuring these feedback. And there’s a model I came up with which I’d like to share. It follows this framework:

  1. Start by discussing expectations and standards
  2. Then bring up observations on the work done. Note, it is the work and not the ‘performance’ of the individual
  3. Get the individual to compare and share what they think are the gaps
  4. Discuss how you can help them with the gap

It is not easy to follow this framework. Because we are quick to start sharing our observations and how things can be better. What is missing is the point about standards and expectations. Even if those are implied and not made explicit, there has to be some way of aligning it.

Sales or professional service

Whether you’re in a law firm, accounting firm or consulting firm, as you rise up to Partner status, your major contribution to the company is deemed as sales. Nevermind you’ve accumulated lots of experience and is able to solve very tricky issues for clients, if you fail to bring business in, you have failed at your role. This is a challenging thought and it made me wonder whether the end point of growth in professional service and being able to serve clients well is just sales? Or is that all a false dichotomy to begin with?

How can we set up sales situations such that it is less adversarial, where we can be really win-win rather than see it as a zero-sum game. In some sense, it is true that a client can still get some kind of service from another firm, a competitor whereas when they walk away from you, your firm gets nothing. So it is very easy to see it as a win-lose kind of deal. And moreover, the client will be putting in process and structure to try and get the best deal out of their vendor. That is simply the way the mature market economy is set up. Can there be really different rules and different ways of working to contextualize situations in ways that are less tense and difficult?

Can sales be driven by the desire to serve and not to profit from the client? How can sales be set up such that the joy of service pays and profit is just a byproduct? I think the missing piece in the puzzle is really around the purpose and the conviction of the service to be rendered. When one is truly able to deliver superior service and product, with a strong faith that it will satisfy the clients’ needs, then the sales situation will be more of a win-win deal. The client loses out by walking out because you are the one who is able to bring the solution to the client.

The question is how do you know? Perhaps that is for another day.

Owning the problem statement

As you might tell, I’m back to in the mode of thinking about the nuances involved in problem solving. The reason is in part because I’ve been interviewing candidates for various roles in my company across four different offices in APAC. That forces me to start considering what are the attributes I value highly and what really demonstrate those attributes. Some of these are really so nuanced and difficult to really describe or pinned down – mostly uncovered through questioning and observing responses in various circumstances.

I am reminded to be grateful for the experience I gathered while working within the Singapore government as part of what was known as International Enterprise Singapore and also Infrastructure Asia. In both instances, I had to work across cultures in Asia which forced me to be sensitive about culture differences and made me pay more attention to the manner we can communicate better. It was also a very collaborative environment that involved a lot of coordination, across departments, government agencies, teams and across various levels. I had the opportunity to with ministers, very senior public servants and observed the way leaders approached problems and manage delicate situations.

And because early on in my career I dealt with a lot of issues where I had to own a problem statement without having the full solution to it but rather, coordinating and managing teams of people, often with different interests to get to the solution, I came to be comfortable with project management. It wasn’t something I had consciously picked up but it was emergent through the themes of various work I did.

Often, what earns us the right to serve our client as consultants is really the ability to take hold of, and own the problem statement that you’ve determined alongside your client. It is not the mastery of content or topic or expertise in particular subject matter. All of that should come along but there will always be someone better than you out there. The ability to take responsibility and do what you can to harness and gather the resources towards solving a problem is the more valuable attribute.

Specific thinking

I wrote about the holistic thinking that was characterised by western researchers of Asian’s approach towards persuasion as contextualised by Erin Meyer. I had the chance to reflect a bit more on specific thinking as I begin to observe it more and more at work in western workplaces and cultures. There are no right or wrong and the good and bads can only be appreciated from particular perspectives or lenses.

Specific thinking parcels out bits of work and various tasks, having more of a tendency to operate in silos even when coordination is excellent. This can make things difficult to change and also individuals becomes less sensitive to the overall workings of the system they are part of. It can be good in that it reduces the anxiety around being unable to bring about the intended collective outcome because one can just focus on delivering one’s part and leaving the rest to others. Being specific in thinking also encourages focus on the smaller specific outcome that is within one’s control.

However, specific thinking may mean that there’s less ability to navigate situations that are far more complex where clarity does not come instantly. For example, during a business development meeting, one may not yet figure out if there’s chance of collaborating or working with the prospect when we are still in discovery phase. Specific thinking can lead one to try and force a result and be counterproductive, or to give up too early.

Specific thinking may also render us unable to genuinely celebrate collective wins as one becomes overly focused on the parts they are ascribing to themselves to the extent they ignore other parts of the system they are part of.

Just some observations and muses on my part.

New year gift

For a while now, I’ve had a career newsletter which allowed you to download the Dream, Think & Act! ebook I’ve written. And that’s all about creating the marketing funnel etc. Now I think perhaps it works better as well if more people could access it without having to surrender email addresses to me. Though you could still subscribe if you decided my ideas are useful – I don’t write very often and it’s usually just 4-6 times a year.

Thank you for giving me the attention and time to read through my random musings and nuggets of thought this year. Please do share my materials more broadly and tell more people about my materials.

For the new year of 2023, I’m putting up my ebook free. And it gets better, the original version that was being circulated around was a pdf. Now you can get it as ebooks which you can read on kindle or your favourite ebook readers. Download Dream, Think & Act! ebook (mobi and epub versions) here.

Do we really want to work all our life?

A friend who has a workaholic boss became really offended when my friend waxed lyrical about not wanting to work all the time and preferring to have more time with family should his life end abruptly. The boss countered “do you think I really want to work all the time?” This is probably a good question for most workaholics to ask themselves, myself included.

Work has become more than just pure toil and pains of labour. It has become fun, more aligned with passion, with a veil of impact and meaning attached to it, and a lot friendlier (ie. Restful) to the human physique. Perhaps more importantly, our expectations on what we can consume through our wages from labour has risen spectacularly. So work becomes even more central in our lives. And in most cases, we come to see it as so central it is such an integral part of our identities.

So it is strange that we still get offended when it is made explicit that we have allowed work to become so much of us. Maybe because something inside us realise that is true. That in the short term, while we may be enjoying the dopamine hits of problem-solving in work and earning a great income; in the long run, that is not what we are made for. We are made to be more than our worker selves.

And perhaps for some of us, it’s time to discover ‘what else’.

Talking to bosses

In my career-coaching, I often encounter cases of communication challenges from employees or staff especially in conveying messages or ideas to the bosses. Part of the problem is probably culture and the strange imbalance of power with bosses, particularly in larger organisations. There is a lot more filtering of information with complex intentions:

  • Staff might be trying to simplify things for bosses in order to get information across fast but end up obscuring some information
  • Staff may also be trying to manage their bosses’ perception of them and hence try to be focused on delivering more good news than bad
  • Information might be mixed with remarks incorporated for bootlicking purposes

All of these we learnt through a combination of poor workplace culture, bad upbringing with parents hiding lots of different things here and there. There are much better ways to be able to bring truth to the table without having to flinch at the expected responses.

  1. Highlight the context and the objectives of the company or project, and gain affirmation first
  2. Bring up how the objectives are not being met
  3. Define the problem clearly and how it connects to the objectives not being met
  4. Provide some options; each of which justified either by expert or external opinions, past experience from the team and other parties
  5. Request for a decision to be made

If the boss sits on the decision and don’t make it; you may need to be more persistent in highlighting the issue. Then you can start bringing the consequences and laying alongside the costs of the options so that doing nothing would clearly be more costly.

This approach is also useful for sales but perhaps that’s for another day.