Coaching: How I Get Them To Do What I Want

a little more on coaching theory today…

folks ask me a lot of questions whose fundamental focus could be expressed as “how do you get them to do what you want them to do?”

so. here goes. i hereby reveal my entire competitive advantage as a professional coach, by telling you my special secret for how i get them to do what i want them to do.

i don’t. i don’t get them to do what i want them to do. i get them to do what they want to do themselves.

that sounds weird, maybe a little zen-like, i spoze. “what is the sound of the one hand getting them to do what it wants them to do?”

but i don’t really mean anything very mystical by it. it connects back to the always-small-always-improve thing we’ve talked about before.

a common way to express these problems is to talk about horses and water, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”

(tickled memory: the algonquin round table wits use to play “use this word in a sentence” as one of their punning games. i think it was dorothy parker who used “horticulture” in a sentence this way. “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”)

here’s the thing about horses and water. horses *like* water. they drink it all the time. they drink it because they’re thirsty, and because it tastes or smells good, because it cools them, and it heals them, and prolly other reasons i don’t even know.

when a horse *doesn’t* drink water, what does that mean? well, it could mean a bunch of things, some pretty scary, but i could collapse those into one vague hand-wave: it isn’t drinking this water just now because it does not want this water just now.

well, if i only get horses to drink when they want to, how do i even do my job at all? i mean, the whole point of getting hired to be a coach is to get horses to drink the software development modern synthesis water.

i do my job by hanging around and/or pitching in, with really good water right in my hands in just the right portions with just the right flavor. when the people i’m with are thirsty, i give them water.

and the more i manage to pull this off, the more they come to expect me to be the kinda person who gives out good water. some of them come very quickly not only to enjoy my water but to want to know where i keep getting it from, so they can get it when i’m *not* standing around.

as water-bearer’s, software development coaches *do* have certain advantages.
first, the water they have right now is insufficient or gross-tasting or both. i do know folks who work w/high-functioning teams in environments that crackle with energy & hope and embrace both learning & change with vigor.

but that’s actually pretty rare in the trade.

second, we are usually invited in for the express purpose of coaching. they don’t know how to do it themselves, someone thinks it needs doing, and they ask us to come help.
note: not *everyone* in an org thinks it needs doing. 🙂 but usually the someone who hires me packs some weight, and my victims have the general idea that they’re supposed to attend to me a little.

as it happens, i turn out to not be just another boss-y guy, and i turn out to be occasionally useful, so i get the *good* part of being hired by a heavy without the *bad* part. by and large.

third, as coaches we are not responsible for all the things these teams are held responsible for, which gives us lots of time to work on preparing water and watching for thirst.

fourth, we generally have far broader experience in water-procurement than our teams do. i know a lot of ways to get water. i know a lot of different ways to flavor water. i know a lot of kinds of thirsty.

so, let’s back away from this water metaphor thing for a minute.

advice: develop a catalog of “better-than-this” changes. the job is not to install the one best way to make software. (there is no one best way, but that’s for another day.) the job is to make things *better*. and even a little better is better.

advice: focus in the beginning on small owwies that they agree are owwies. it’s both doing your job, making things better, and it’s generating “capital” you can use later for larger owwies or owwies they don’t yet know they have.

advice: *collaborate* *with* *them*. “coach” is not a synonym for “boss” or “teacher” or even “expert”. work on your collaboration skills more than any other thing.

advice: be kind to the victims and kind to yourself. forgive both parties as often as you can. neither you nor they can always be open, strong, decent, right, or fast. in the AA rooms, we say, “time takes time”. patience is one of your most important resources.

advice: look out especially for the times when they want to do something you also want them to do, and be ready with a small concrete step that will pay them back quickly.

anyway, that’s what i got. how do i get them to do what i want them to do? i don’t. i get them to do what they want to do.

Coaching? Like People!

Hey, there, it’s GeePaw! And you are watching the first ever GeePaw video aimed specifically at coaches. I hope you like it.

Do you know what the first absolute prerequisite for being a successful software development coach is? You have to like people.

You have to like people. You have to like their style. You have to like their resistance. You have to like when they do the thing you want them to do. You have to like when they don’t do the thing that you want them to do. You have to like people.

We get into this business because we’re very hot on a system, or a method, or a technique, or a something, and we want to share it with everybody.

But it’s really easy to get caught up, caught up in the system, caught up in the method, caught up in whatever flame war is running around the building today. It’s important to remember, though, the secret requirement for all successful coaching enterprise, is to like people.

What I’m Not Saying

Now, before we get very far, we have to address a couple of things I’m not talking about. I am not suggesting that you have to be an extrovert, a person who gains energy rather than losing it by being around other people. You don’t have to be an extrovert.

And I’m not suggesting that you have to be some sort of rainbow-farting unicorn floating up in a blue sky with just enough fluffy clouds in it to prove to you that, truly, every day is a beautiful day.

You don’t have to be either of those two things. I’m not either of those two things, not even by a stretch. But I like people. I like how they think. I like what they smile about and what they cry about. I just like people. What can I tell you?

And if you’re going to be a successful coach, you have to do that, too. Now, listen, I’m a pro. And I always find something nice to say about every team that I work with, because it’s a perfectly ordinary and healthy part of the job. I admit, sometimes, it’s a really big stretch. Gosh, you know, you guys just have the best shoes of any team I’ve ever worked with.

But truthfully, I like people.

I like knowing how so-and-so met her significant other. I like knowing why so-and-so became a geek. I like knowing what happened at the house last night over dinner that was funny? I like knowing that my friend buys tons and tons of video games but never ever has time to play any of them. All of those things, I like about people.

I like people because we’re so messed up and we try so hard.

That’s my secret to liking people. That’s what led me to like them so much.

We’re so broken. I’m broken. You’re broken. Everybody around you is broken. And yet, we’re all trying so hard to be who we want to be, to do the right thing, to be kind, and strong, and fast, and smart.

And that is what let’s me like people so much.

Play More Favorites

Let me ask you something. Do you ever play favorites? Are you ever a little warmer to somebody else because they’re one of your favorites, a little more tolerant of them, a little more cheerful around them, happy to see them, happy to listen to them, happy to talk about things that don’t have anything at all to do with work?

So do you play favorites?


Keep it up. Play more favorites. Pick more favorites to become your favorites.

Remember The Last Time?

Do you remember how it felt when you were listened to, when you were asked, when you got help from somebody else, or you gave help to somebody else, when you were regarded kindly by someone?

Do you remember how powerful you felt, how much stronger, how much more whole, how much more hopeful about what was coming in front of you, and about the possibility of you actually pulling it off?

So. Dig it.

Do more of that.

I’m GeePaw, and I’m done.