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Steve Crago on Coaching, Mentoring and Facilitating Effective Teamwork

In this podcast recorded at Agile 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Steve Crago about how leaders need to be coaches, being a good mentor and facilitating effective meetings

Key Takeaways

  • There is an expectation that leaders are able to be effective coaches for their teams today
  • There are tools such as the Leadership Circle Profile that can help you understand your own strengths and weaknesses
  • You don’t necessarily need to work on weaknesses – often enhancing areas of strength can give better results than focusing on improving areas of weakness
  • To effectively mentor someone in an area you need to have deep knowledge and experience working in that domain
  • Facilitation is a skillset that is about helping others achieve their goals in a collaborative session

Show Notes

  • 00:21 Shane: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ engineering culture podcast. I'm at Agile 2019, and I'm sitting down with Steve Crago.  Steve, you and I have known each other a while, but I suspect our audience haven't come across you. 
  • 00:34 Welcome. Would you mind doing a very quick introduction? Who are you?
  • 00:38 Steve: Oh, sure. Well, I am the CEO and founder of my own company, it's Phoenix Rising Trans4mation. My main background for the past eight years has been coaching, agile coaching, professional coaching, and also I'm a trainer. So I love training people as well.
  • 00:52 Shane: So let's explore this coaching thing a bit. Our audience are technical influences & leaders, coming up working in the technology space. Why would somebody working in that space even think about working with a coach?
  • 01:06 Steve: Well, first as technical leaders, especially in today's world, leaders are moving out of the command and control type environment, and there's an expectation in society that leaders know how to coach people.
  • 01:21 So one of the things that I do as a coach is I help people. Number one, through different things, like the leadership circle profile, I help identify their creative and reactive sides, and so then I coach them  in how to become a better leader. And through that process by becoming a better leader, that means that they can in turn, help their teams become better.
  • 01:43 Shane: So what's the leadership circle profile, creative, reactive. Isn't this woo-woo stuff.
  • 01:49 Steve: No, not really. I initially used to think that way. So a little more on my background, I spent 20 years in the military and so I was a very strict disciplinarian  at one point in time and  when I first took my coactive coach training, I swore I would never wear Birkenstocks or hug a tree because that's not who I am, but over time I've seen how it has benefited me personally, and through engaging the right kind of people that were empathetic, that helped me grow personally I realized that that's what coaches do when I have coaching clients. I don't sit around a circle and do mantras or anything like that. I'm just a good old Texas boy and we help people identify areas in their life that they're stuck on and that they can overcome those barriers by themselves.
  • 02:38 Shane: So I've heard of the leadership circle. Do you want to just give us a little bit more depth on what that is? The creative, reactive you mentioned?
  • 02:46 Steve: It's all about identifying you as a person, you as a human being, as a leader, but it's also, you get a 360 look from people that work with you, work for you, and that are your superiors and they identify different personalities.
  • 03:04 It's a profile; you’re sent a link and you answer a bunch of questions. And from those answers, we look into a database of over 20,000 responses worldwide, and they identify areas of like, what is important to you and what does your team feels important to you? As an example, how protective are you? How controlling are you? How understanding are you? Do you have a strategic focus and purpose? And there's a lot more to it, but it gives us a full 360 view of where you lie within your leadership skills. And the research has shown over a period of time. And I can't quote you the exact period of time, I want to say 10 years, but they shown that people that are more on the creative side is that you're more understanding; you're more willing to collaborate and coordinate and help people grow. And you share your vision and your strategy, and you're deeply involved in your team as human beings versus resources or assets.
  • 04:05 Shane: If I'm not on that creative side naturally, what do I do?
  • 04:09 Steve: Well, what we do is we identify the areas that you are willing to work on, cause even though there's areas that we see you might want to improve, if you don't want to, we're not going to work on it. Cause it's all about you as a person, as a leader, what do you feel comfortable working on?
  • 04:26 And it's not just for leadership circle for me, it's also in coaching. I will not coach someone where they say no, I don't want to go there, you know, because it's not about me, it's about them. And so, with that circle with a profile, we look at that and say, okay, so what would you feel most comfortable with looking at first?
  • 04:44 And one of the things I've learned is that sometimes the areas that you are the weakest in is not where we start coaching.
  • 04:52 Sometimes people where they're strong, but they want to get better. They want to be coached in that so they can improve that. And when you improve one thing, it helps the other things. So there's direct correlation of, as one thing improves, the other thing moves. And so if you're improving something you're really good at that means that the opposite side of that is getting less as well.
  • 05:14 Shane: What does it mean to be coached? Am I just going to come and talk to you and say, you know, Steve, I'm really struggling, I’ve got this team there that they're not doing their work properly, I've shouted at them, it doesn't help. I tell them, I try and encourage them, it doesn't help. What do I do? And you're going to give me answers
  • 05:32 Steve: No, I'm not going to give you answers at all. I'm going to ask you situations about that. What do you think is going on? And depending on the type of coaching agreement we have, there's several times, some may want straight coaching. Others may want coaching and mentoring. So it depends on the agreement, but if it's straight coaching, then through a series of discussions, I will help the coachee identify some areas that they can look at and from that, they're going to identify things like what's really going on here, in their minds. And we're going to talk about what they think they can do, that they're willing to do to try to help alleviate that or remedy that, or get more discovery and through that discussion, we come up with a plan.
  • 06:22 So list several options, and then we come up with a plan that they are going to implement. It's not my plan. It's a plan that they've committed to, they agree to, they say, okay, Steve, I'm willing to do this. And then from that plan, they let me know what they're going to do, and then during the next session, we have an agreement on when they're going to get back with me about how that plan worked and we're going to talk about that. And the next session. So, again, it's not my plan. It's their plan.
  • 06:48 Shane: Now you made the distinction there between coaching and mentoring. Can we explore that a bit further? What are the differences?
  • 06:54 Steve: Sure. So for instance, a mentor, number one, you've got to really know the topic that you're going to do. You don't ever try to mentor somebody if you've never done it. If you've read a book that doesn't count, you have to actually have worked in that field. And for me personally, when I'm mentoring somebody, if I'm not an expert, even if I've done it, I don't want to mentor anybody.
  • 07:16 That's my own personal opinion, some people don't have that, but I would feel reluctant to provide advice about how to do something if I'm not an expert in that.
  • 07:26 Shane: So mentoring is providing advice.
  • 07:28 Steve: Yes. Providing advice, it's providing options and that's basically it in a nutshell.  I'm an expert in a specific field,  and you've come to me and we start out in a coaching, you always have to start out on the coaching stance because you don't really understand what's going on. Once you get that understanding, then you can offer the advice, you can ask them. Is it okay if I offer some advice from some kind of form like that, where you get permission from the coachee to offer your options and you talk about them, you make sure that the person fully understands the options and then they get to pick and choose, and it's okay if they don't pick any of them.
  • 08:04 And so, when I talk about having that coaching conversation, and I share this in the coaching classes that I teach, my first failure as a coach was a mentoring thing. 
  • 08:15 Back in the day when I had hair and it was brown, I was a senior mobile solution architect and I prided myself in that.  I knew mobile architecture, and more importantly, I knew mobile payments and I had a colleague of mine, a junior colleague come to me with a problem. And after only two to three minutes, I solved her problem. The only problem was I wasn't listening carefully and I didn't ask any questions because I knew what her problem was and I told her what to do.
  • 08:44 I told her what to do. She did it because she trusted me,  she respected me and it failed miserably and she got reprimanded. And so my take back from that was ask questions, don't assume you know what's going on and give them options.
  • 09:01 And so now whenever I'm mentoring somebody, which I do, is I'll spend the majority of the session asking questions, wanting to know more, you know, what's going on here, what have you tried? How did that work out? What other options do you have? And if, if we get to the point where they don't have any, then I'll give them information. But my information is going to be specific, and they get to choose, and it may not be the right one for them, but it's their choice. Not me telling them here, go do this.
  • 09:32 Shane: But isn't that just abdicating responsibility?
  • 09:36 Steve: No, not really, because it's not your problem. They have to be willing to take responsibility and that's why you have to make sure they understand your options and you have to make sure that they understand it. So you ask them to reframe back what you recommended.
  • 09:53 And that's why you never give just one option, because if there's only one option, they're probably going to run with it and it may not be the right option. So you want to give multiple situations and always let them know that you know what? You don't have to do anything if you don't want to.
  • 10:07 Shane: When we first started, you made a point of mentioning that leaders need to understand what coaching is and how to do it.
  • 10:15 Steve: Yes.
  • 10:15 Shane: How do you figure that out? So I'm a recently promoted technical leader. I'm struggling enough dealing with those people's stuff. Now you want me to coach them? So how do I build those muscles?
  • 10:27 Steve: Yes, and it's all about understanding how to ask good questions. And so when I've got a new leader that I'm coaching or I'm working with I always helped him understand how to ask, and in the coaching world we'll call him coaching questions are powerful questions, but basically they're nothing more than open ended questions. You avoid the use of "why" because some people take that as a negative connotation. You avoid closing with questions like yes or no, or true or false, because those shut down the conversations.
  • 10:56 So you want to ask questions that start with what  or how or have you, all of these different types of questions. So I teach them that and there's plenty of references out there on open end questions. And the big thing is when someone's working with you or for you, is be curious, want to know, because as leaders you're going to work with people, people are going to look to you.
  • 11:20 And it's the old adage of, you know, you can give a person a fish, but if you teach them how to fish, they'll eat for the rest of their life. And that's what coaching does is we teach the leaders how to ask these questions, we teach them empathy, how to be present with people when they're having a one-on-one or even a team situation, where the team is looking for them for guidance and recommendations is that we want to help the leaders know how to coach people on their teams,so that they can get better.   Rather than tell them what to do, because anybody can tell people what to do.
  • 11:54 But when you're coaching people, they learn how to look within themselves to help themselves realize that they more than likely know what to do, but something's keeping them from bringing that up.
  • 12:06 And so when we're talking about leadership and coaching, the easiest model  that I've learned to teach a leader is called GROW model. It Is so simple and easy, and you know, you start out with the G stands for goal. Okay. What's, what's the goal. What's your objectives for this session? So as a leader, when you bring someone in for developmental discussions or career path discussions, you ask the person, what's your goal? What do you want to achieve?
  • 12:34 Shane: As the leader, don't I tell them that?
  • 12:36 Steve: No, you don't tell them that. Because then it's your goal, it's not their goal. You want to understand where does your employee want to be? When they think of this, of their job, their career, what do they want to be and what rings their bill? What makes them happy to come to work in the morning? So you find that out.
  • 12:55 Then the next thing is the R and the R stands for reality. What's your reality in relationship to your goal? What's really going on in your life and in your job because the job and the life are combined, what happens at home is carried back to the work and what happens at work is carried at home. So you want to find out the full reality, not just what's going on. Okay.
  • 13:19 And then from there you look at what are your Options? So you said you want to achieve this. You've told me your realities. Now, what kind of options you have available to you? And as a leader, maybe the person that you're coaching that works for you, their options is to get training.
  • 13:38 Now here's where the leadership and the mentoring comes in. The person says, okay, I want training, for instance, let's say they want to be a trainer, and so they want to take this course called training from the back of the room. Well, it's not cheap. Then as a leader, you can say, you know what, give me the cost, and maybe we can work something out.
  • 13:55 So now you just kicked out of the coaching mode and went into the leadership, said, okay, look, maybe we can do something to help you achieve this. And then you work out that relationship and you continue on with the options.
  • 14:07 And then the last part is the Will. Okay, fine, we've talked about the options. We've discussed things now, what will you do? And the will is exactly that. And so then, because I'm a leader as well, and if I had a budget, if I said, okay, I'll pay for the course, what will you do now? And that's gotta be very specific.
  • 14:29 So as an example with a TBR, so, okay well, I will register for this course on this date and I'll take the course on this, and then as the leader you say, okay, now, how are you going to let me know you did this? And then the coachee would come back and say, okay, well, I'll send you a copy of my registration and I'll file my expense for the quarter, then that's it in a nutshell.
  • 14:50 Very simple, very easy. No, tree-hugging no kumbaya. Just, Hey, I want to help you grow as a member of my organization or my team, or as a human being.
  • 15:01 Shane: Steve, that's really interesting. So the GROW model, something pretty straightforward that people can use out of the box
  • 15:07 There's something I'd like to explore with you personally.  You're the former military man walking around the conference with a strong bearing, which you definitely have, and you have a red Elmo puppet.
  • 15:18 Steve: Oh yeah, my buddy.
  • 15:20 Shane: Do tell us why Elmo.
  • 15:22 Steve: Okay. Well, I first learned about Elmo years ago, I was taking my very first agile coach class with Lyssa Atkins and she taught us about the acronym ELMO, which means Enough, Let's Move On.
  • 15:36 As a facilitation technique to help people, because people love to talk and sometimes it's on topic and it's very long and sometimes it's off topic. Well, as agile coaches, one of our skill sets is facilitation and so we use ELMO to let people know that we appreciate the conversation, however, we have objectives and we have to move on.
  • 15:58 So you ask them to put the main topic on a sticky note, put it in the parking lot and we'll get back to it later. And so, you know, anybody that's taken Lyssa's class, I left her class and I was all fired up. I did my first workshop and I taught people about ELMO and they started using it to close the conversations because they didn't want to hear what the person had said, they're using like a hammer and I went home and I started thinking about it, there's gotta be a better way. There's gotta be a better way. So I was watching kids play with Elmo and I looked at Elmo of course, and I've got kids and grandkids, so I've spent dozens of hours with them watching Sesame street.
  • 16:38 Elmo's such a soft, sweet, loving, empathetic character, very gentle, very kind. And I thought, how could anybody use Elmo like that as a weapon? And so I bought Elmo love Jeff Bezos. I get these things from Amazon. They're cute. They're fuzzy. They're soft. When I started making it part of my brand of who I am , people loved it. They loved it.
  • 17:05 And they stopped using Elmo as a weapon, cause you can't beat people with Elmo, I mean, you could, but everybody in the world's gonna look at you like, what are you doing?
  • 17:13 So that's how I use it. The other thing is for me, it's a great way to have conversations with people, so I'm walking around the conference with Elmo around my neck and they look at it and they automatically have a conversation with me. So it's a good conversation piece.
  • 17:27 The other thing I do. Is as I travel around the world doing workshops, the people that helped me with logistics, like I've been to China a lot and Singapore and India and anybody that's done that knows how hard it is to coordinate, getting everything you need to do a high quality workshop.  Whoever helps me gets an Elmo and they absolutely love it.
  • 17:50 So that's the thing with Elmo - soft, sweet, it has no gender and it's also a facilitation tool.
  • 17:56 Shane: So let's talk about facilitation as a technique, as a tool, you mentioned as an agile coach, facilitation is one of our skills.
  • 18:05 What is facilitation and why is it different to the other things we've been talking about?
  • 18:11 Steve: Well, facilitation is a technique that helps people keep on track. And so when anyone wants to have like a strategy session, as an example, there's an acronym that we use called POWER, which I also learned from Lyssa.
  • 18:27 In that anytime you have a workshop or a session, you need to have a Purpose,  you know, why are we getting together? And if  you can't have a purpose and don't schedule it.
  • 18:38 And the next one is, what are your Outcomes and deliverables from this session? What do you hope to achieve? So you have objectives, now we have our outcomes.
  • 18:47 And then the next one, the W is What's in it for everybody. What is this workshop going to do to get the attendees excited about not only going there, but participating. Okay.
  • 19:00 The E involves Engagement. How are we going to engage? Are we going to be all face to face? Is there going to be remote, all of these things on the engagement, is it going to be part facilitation, part training, part coaching?
  • 19:13 And then the R is for the Roles and responsibilities who's going to be there. What is their responsibility is going to be there. What are the roles? Are people going to be there that are subject matter experts? And the reason we want to know about the roles and responsibilities is again, we want to save people's time, if they don't have a need to be there and they can't contribute and they can't make decisions, why waste their time doing it?
  • 19:35 So a facilitator. Does all this prep work with the people that want this again, as a strategy, they want to create a strategy. So I would work with the person that requested my assistance as a facilitator to identify all of those things.
  • 19:51 Now there's a lot more into it, but basically my job as a facilitator is to make sure I got a good power statement. We've got the right people at the right time and the right location with the right equipment, supplies. And then during the session is facilitator helps keep the discussions on track. And so you periodically check and you're looking at the objectives and you're making sure that the people understand the objectives and they agree with the objectives and you work towards that.
  • 20:20 And the other aspect of it is we find activities that's going to make it fun because who wants to be in a boring four day conversation where it's just blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. As you want to come up with activities, that's going to make things interactive. 
  • 20:34 One of the things I like to do comes from TBR, I like to get people out of their seats, working on the walls, you know, using sticky notes or drawing or doing all kinds of different techniques to help them achieve their objectives. And at the end of the workshop we review, we call it walking the walls, we review everything we've done. 
  • 20:54 We get agreement or disagreement on did we achieve this objective, or all the objectives? And then we talk to the stakeholders. We pull in the stakeholder, the executive sponsors and we do like a playback or a showcase and we show them what we've done and then we celebrate.
  • 21:11 As a facilitator, I make sure that all of these steps are done, and if something happens in the middle, then I'm the one,  the facilitator's the one that says, okay, let's stop for a minute, some objectives have changed, let's discuss this, how does this impact what we've done so far? How's it going to impact what we're going to do in the future?
  • 21:29 So again, that's the importance of a facilitator.
  • 21:33 Shane: Again, some useful concrete advice there. Thank you very much. Steve, if our audience wants to take the conversation further, want to follow up? Where do they find you?
  • 21:43 Steve: I'm on LinkedIn. I'm on Instagram. I'm on Facebook. You can search for Steve Crago or Phoenix Rising Trans4mation and I'm there.
  • 21:51 Shane: Thanks so much.
  • 21:52 Steve: Okay. Thank you very much.


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