Coaching tax – the movie version

I thought this was about coaching tax

Last week I wrote about “coaching tax” from the perspective of being in a coaching conversation (time on task) versus not being in a coaching conversation. This week I thought I would write an article about “coaching tax” from the perspective of the coach who is already engaged in a coaching conversation.

Once we are “on task” we are actually coaching someone. This is the moment that we yearned for, where the insights and the self-motivated call to action comes out and the coach can sit back an marvel at the transformation that they are witnessing (and I hope facilitating it too).

Time on task involves enabling a good conversation as well as having it

At it’s best, every coaching session will lead to either a new insight or a next step that is clear to the one being coached (who I will refer to as “The Hero of the Story” or “The Hero”).

The same conversation will also lead to a feeling of fulfilment or joy for the one doing the coaching, as they watch the Hero gain new insights and take meaningful action (I will refer to the coach as “the Coach” or “the Supporting Character.”

However, in my experience, a lot of my coaching does not attain this ideal. Instead I find myself frustrated by people not gaining the insights that I want to force down their throat or explaining to them that they are the Hero and that they do not need me to tell them what to do, since I am just the supporting character in the story.

That sounds a bit vague, but I believe that I have been able to make more sense of it recently. Not all coaching (even when “on task”) is about unleashing insights. Much of it can be about creating the relationship, environment and conversation that enables the insights to occur.

That is where I thought movies about coaches might help me explain.

Movies about coaches

To understand this at an abstract level, I decided to see if there are any good movies or TV series about good coaches.

There are quite a few movies about coaches in sporting contexts (See https://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-list/best-sports-movies-about-coaches).

This is great, but I think they are a bit misleading if you want to learn about how to coach in a work context (like I do). They include such things as coaches struggling to get teams to believe in themselves and the coach also being imperfect, but by having the coach as the hero, they can trick coaches into acting as the hero.

In sports coaching (the movie version) there are a clear set of goals (win games without cheating, being happy while also winning a lot). But this is actually a problem in the workplace.

Yes – we need to build trust and yes, an agile coach should know about what agile is and have valuable insights to how to “play the game.” But this is really about consulting or teaching the team, rather than what I see as coaching.

What can we learn from these mythical sports coaches?

What I take away from these movies is that coaching is a journey for the coach as well as the team. I also think it is valuable to understand the importance of the team trusting the coach.

Both these topics touch on the concept of “coaching tax” because they consume effort that could otherwise be directly applied to helping people improve. I will try to explain that properly in my next article.

What else can we take away from these coaching guides (err – fictional dramas). One thing I like is that the coach celebrates the winning of their client or team, which is part of the joy of coaching.

One movie, “Eddie the Eagle” is good in that the coaches journey is not actually the same as the hero’s journey, but this is where there is a danger in learning from these movies.

Just like an agile coach, the supporting character (coach) has been there before and is imparting wisdom. He does a great job of stretching Eddie and of teaching him basic skills. Unfortunately both his ego and his prior experience actually get in the way.

Based on this detailed assessment (watching the movie a while ago) then I would differentiate teaching basic skills (ski jumping, Shu Ha Ri, teaching agile practices) from the actual coaching conversations where the ego of the coach is a major tax on the conversation.

There is nothing wrong with teaching basic skills and I am sure the story of Eddie the Eagle would have been less inspiring if he never learned to take off (or more importantly land with some hope of safety, I guess).

This is where I think the myths portrayed in coaching movies distract us coaches from doing our jobs properly. For the supporting character (coach), the journey should be the heroes journey of the actual hero of the story.

This means that, like a movie coach, we should demand accountability from the hero. I mean demand specifically because coaching someone who is not willing to commit to the journey is actually doing them a disservice – it leads to a lame movie and a wasted series of conversations.

But the problem is that the hero is often not (knowingly) aware of their readiness and need to go on the journey. So a valid role for the supporting character (coach) is that he/she should help the hero realise both their potential and their motivation to leave their comfort zone (or current dilemma). This is core to coaching but often involves work to enable growth rather than to realise it. Again I will discuss this in the context of coaching “tax”.

Along these lines, what we should NOT take from these movies is that the coach will be the hero, get the girl, conquer their demons and be admired by the team and the crowd. Good coaching leads to gratitude but must still leave the hero feeling like they won the victory.

Similarly – real coaching often involve the “Student becoming the master” or excelling to the point that they no longer need the coach. This is an important part of the relationship and is where the coach’s ego, need to receive an income and other issues can become an impediment.

Maybe tv shows are better

There is a TV show called “In Therapy” which is about a psychologist helping people. There are some good lessons about listening and not owning the client’s outcomes, but there are two problems with this show if you want to copy the approach of the main character (the therapist).

Most importantly, the show is about a psychologist helping people with serious psychological trauma and issues. Ie people who are in therapy. Because of this the most important lesson for coaches like me (and probably you) is DO NOT DO THAT.

Do not attempt therapy with your client, instead help them find a real psychologist who knows how to manage therapy. The best we can do with serious psychological issues, is, I think, Psychological First Aid and support to take the step of asking for help.

As a coach you can be a friend or colleague but not a therapist and if you are a friend then you will help someone find the right help, rather than trying to be the hero, reading your book on pop psychology and fumbling through someone’s real trauma.

There is a second lesson, not as important, but still worth learning. The Therapist in the show is on his own journey and tries to deal with it on his own. However (without giving away too much) he is a flawed person like the rest of us.

I am similar to the main character in that I like to solve my own problems and I often don’t think about asking for help. If you think about it though, if you are a coach and you really believe in the value of coaching, you would not only be open to being coached, but be eager to access it.

This is where you get to be the hero of the story and you can learn from others.

The best movies on coaching

The best movies on coaching are (I think) probably fantasy movies or martial arts movies. They have the coolest coaches and the coolest action scenes.

Unfortunately, the coach is never the main character and often, the coach/mentor dies so that the hero can rise up and engage in great acts of heroism.

I am not too keen on being the coach who is killed so the hero can rise up, but I am keen on being the witness who watches someone (or a team) grow and then get out of the way.

Sometimes the coach is a super-guru who is kind of the team leader (like in Mutant Ninja Turtles with some rat guy or X-men with Charles Xavier) but the coach is not the star. In fact their team often go against their advice or find themselves having to solve their own problems. I guess this is where the Leader as Coach can work, where the leader is off leading or teaching or managing budgets to pay the rent while the team are tackling the adventures.

My favourite coaching movies are

  • “Star Wars” with a hero (Luke and maybe his friends) and a couple of coaches who are right for the hero at the pivotal moment in their growth (Obi One and Yoda); and
  • Karate Kid (with LaRusso as the hero and Mr Miyagi as the coach)

In both of these movies (or series or platforms or entire enterprises) the coach is understanding and really believes in the hero, even though the hero is often hopelessly short of the mark.

The coach somehow manages to be cool while remaining a supporting character. More importantly they balance teaching with positive reinforcement and reality checks so that the hero can go on the journey.

The coach bathes in the hero’s glory and stresses at their challenges but never takes ownership of them and never loses sight of them.

These (admittedly fictional) coaches spend a lot of time enabling the hero to grow and appear at the right times to create a safe place where the hero can reflect, practice, be vulnerable and gain strength.

So what

There is a possibility that I got a little off track there, which is a “tax” that I have to manage when I coach. I have to fight myself sometimes to focus on letting the person I am coaching (the hero) have the conversation, while I help them make sense of it rather than telling my own war stories or talking about coaches in movies).

Unfortunately if I spend 40% of the time with a hero (coachee) talking about movies then there is only 60% of the time left to actually get to the insights and the next steps. It is like I am paying 40% tax on my time.

So that is where I should focus next – how do I minimise the “tax” I pay when coaching so that the maximum focus possible goes to growth, insights, courage to act and so forth.

Sadly our time is up and that is the end of the session. Hopefully I can remain on task a little more of the time on our next session.

Do coaches pay tax (part one: time on task)

I love coaching

I like to believe that coaching has a really positive impact on the person being coached. At best it is a “generative conversation” that leads to either new action or new insight. I have heard this summarised as discovering what is “next or new.”

When coaching an individual, the conversation is one sided because it is all about, and all for the benefit of, the person being coached. This differs from collaborative problem solving where both participants share the burden of thinking, listening and talking. It also differs from normal conversations over coffee which are often a free exchange of ideas or an experience of feeling connected to another human, without any agenda.

This means that when coaching, the coach is a thinking partner and not a guru. The coach focuses on listening while the other person (the thinker) expresses and explores their thinking. It would be great if the coach could interpret and explain that thinking, like a psychologist, or ponder it and give wise advice, like a sage, but this is not coaching. In coaching the thinking partner hears what is said (or often not said) and reflects that back so that the thinker can see what their thinking looks like. This involves listening, questioning and summarising but not really any problem solving. The result is that the thinker can observe themes, insights, gaps and biases in their own thinking, allowing them to either understand something new or to find the motivation to move to action on something they have already decided that they should do.

This is a great thing to be a part of, whether you are the coach or the thinker.

Unfortunately, as a coach, I do not get to spend all my time actually in these great coaching conversations.

Like all other jobs there are things that distract me from the actual coaching. Some of these things are just bureaucracy or distraction (unnecessary waste) and others are necessary to enable the actual coaching to occur (necessary waste). I measure these roughly by looking at my “time on task.” I will discuss time on task in this article.

Even when I am coaching someone there is often a portion of the conversation that is not about growth but rather about other things. These include banter (saying good morning), mindset tax (dealing with people having a fixed mindset), building trust to enable robust conversations and thinking traps (catastrophising or getting stuck in a way of thinking that inhibits insight). These are all part of coaching and dealing with them is an important part of the job. However they are often the things stopping someone from fully exploring the “new or next” results I get excited by. I loved the term mindset tax when I heard it, so I have stolen the term to create a more generic “tax” that I will call “coaching tax.” I will cover coaching tax in my next article.

Coaching tax – the frustrating thinking effort that we go through to enable insights

Time on task

I often think of “time on task” as a good measure of whether I am adding value as a coach. Time on task is the percentage of time I spend coaching, rather than going to management meetings, talking to other coaches about coaching, setting up coaching engagements, reviewing Jira data to find the insights to share with teams etc.

If I am spending more time “not coaching” than coaching, then it is harder to have an impact than if I am fully on task, coaching and sharing insights.

So if I want to be effective, then I want to spend my time either enabling my coaching or actually coaching. The rest of the time I spend is potentially wasteful.

A simple way to assess this is to just look at your diary for each day of the week. For an external coach I guess you need to look at the time assigned to a client, but for me these days my entire diary is basically my dataset because I work as an internal coach. Look at what time is spent on interacting with people to coach them and then look at what time is spent not doing that. This gives a simple ratio that you can call time on task. You will never be 100% on task but you can consciously monitor it and experiment with how to improve it.

A slightly more nuanced view

Some things though are kind of on task. This could include observing the person or team I coach in action or it could include assessing the data they have about the tools they use to track their work (product metrics, Jira data, Product Board, OKR things, SLA’s, Zendesk, bugs and issues etc).

Tracking this work is necessary for coaching teams and sometimes individuals. In fact one of the challenges of remote coaching (being online or in a different office) is that you may not have sufficient access to data and the observing people “in the wild.” It is possible to coach without this insight if you are working only as a thinking partner, but it is a significant constraint if you are meant to be designing training or making recommendations for improvement. In fact it is like looking out a window or a video feed when observing a sunset – you get a picture of things but you do not get the full nuance and majesty of the experience.

Then there are other things, such as comparing notes with other coaches and updating management so they have some faith in what you are doing.

These things are necessary, but I am not sure if they are purely on task because insight comes from interacting with the coach and these are examples of the coach gaining perspective or interacting with others. They therefore represent the potential value of coaching but not the realisation of it.

So I guess you could look at three things if you want to optimise the focus of your coaching:

On task (coaching)On task (context)Not on task
Drop in session with Zac
Running retro
Delivering feedback to Kim
Planned coaching with Marie
Run course on listening
Reviewing Jira
Observing sprint
Interviewing stakeholder
Self development
Attending all-hands
Updating management
20%40%20%
A fictional table of time on task

At some points in the coaching journey I will be deliberately on task (gaining context) and at other points I will be on task (actually coaching someone).

A more nuanced look could also dig into how much of my on-task time is with a particular team (the web team or the management team) or person (the scrum master or the tech guru). You could also split it into a more deliberate look at where you spend your time versus where you see the potential leverage of spending your time. I do this with my own, very basic, model that I shared in an article a while ago.

I sometimes formalise this coaching breakdown in a coaching agreement, though I like to keep the “time on task” measure among the coaches because I always seem to be embarrassed about how little of my time is spent at the pointy end of actually coaching someone. Maybe that is something I should focus on in the future, but in my defence I do actively manage it and I use it to nudge myself to being deliberate in gaining context and getting to the actual coaching conversations.

My simple coaching model – sometimes “coaching” is not pure “coaching”

Using these rough ideas I find I can be more deliberate with where I spend my time. Even when I am right on task though, not every conversation turns out the be “generative” leading to great insights about what to do next or discovering something new.

So I will tackle the topic of “Coaching Tax” next week.

Moving into the Learning or coaching zone

We sometimes talk about moving out of your comfort zone so that you can really stretch yourself and thereby grow more.

Moving out of your comfort zone can, however, be a bit harder than we make it sound. But why is it hard?

Overcoming inertia

One reason is inertia. We are not making the deliberate choice to stay stuck in our ways, but actually we are kind of used to doing things the way we do them now. Being good people we decide to make a change, but thinking about the change actually kicks off a series of reactions in our brains.

A slightly simplistic view – a tug of war

When we start thinking about doing something, our mind focuses some energy on working out if it is a good idea, but there is also a lot more going on.

Different parts of our brain calculate:

  • Whether this seems like something to move towards (food) or away from (a monster);
  • Whether this will bring a dopamine hit (playing a fun computer game);
  • How this relates to the kind of person we see ourselves as (or at least ourselves in this role right now); and
  • Whether we need to make a choice at all.

Where our brain suspects that their will uncertainty (ie change) and effort (ie growth) then our brains release some helpful cortisol, to cause us to feel unpleasant and move away from the perceived effort, or they might drop in some pleasant distractions so that we don’t have to worry about all this effort and uncertainty right now.

All this can cause inertia and distraction, that we might perceive, in a moment of guilt, to be a lack of will power or a poor attitude. In fact though it is our brains juggling things constantly to decide how we can survive in the moment and possibly thrive later on.

The more we make something seem like a big deal, the more brain power we use to assess it and the more our brains decide to help us avoid dealing with the whole the big deal. That is unless we can find a way to turn the challenge into a game, or a fun sounding adventure.

Surprisingly though, there is one very well researched technique that often helps to get us started – committing to only a simple, small sounding step.

Some examples are:

  • Rather than committing to go to the gym, commit to put on your exercise clothes. After that it is likely to be easier to take the next step, and then the next (See “Atomic Habits”, by James Clear); and
  • Rather than trying to get something right, start with a messy first attempt, or a Sh***y First Draft, according to Michael Bungay Stainer in “Getting Started“.

There is, of course, more to it and you can find out a lot more about the validated research if you read “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock or “Helping People Change“, by by Ellen Van Oosten, Melvin Smith, and Richard E. Boyatzis. But that sounds hard, so I recommend just finding a simple thing to do to get started.

The Pomodoro technique

A very effective way to get yourself to focus on learning and new habits is to commit to focus for a short burst of time, before taking a break. This is known as the Pomodoro technique and it is both simple and effective. You literally set a timer for 25 minutes and try to focus 100% on doing something. Then take a 5 minute break and repeat.

I use this for completing admin tasks (not a challenge but boring) and for learning new things. I also use it to blog, but I often find myself deciding not to take a break when I get into the zone when writing.

Increasing your awareness

One reason for not adopting new approaches or trying new things is that we are too busy to notice when we are going back to our old habits.

It is hard to pay attention all the time so I often write myself a “not todo” list for the day or a “try to do” list. A more effective way is to define when you will stop to pay attention and deliberately try a different, less comfortable approach using what I call habit cards. These are really just some thinking patterns I stole from some good coaching books, written on a card or in a notebook to help prompt your memory.

Zones of growth 2 – managing the journey

My last article, I suggested that we should move out of our comfort zone in order to learn and grow. I looked at how you can target specific areas for growth and then volunteer for scary adventures that take you through “the fear zone” and into a longer term learning zone where you continue to grow (or where you can use delegation to encourage others to do the same thing).

I think that leaving your comfort zone and facing your fears in order to generate real learning more is good, but I don’t think the model I shared is complete. This article looks at the same challenge through a different perspective.

A different perspective (and model)

I encountered another learning model when my daughter was in kindergarten, and it has stayed with me ever since.

It was a model that the teacher used to encourage the kids to try things that were challenging and to build the persistence and resilience to keep trying until they succeeded at something that was difficult (but important) to learn.

3 different zones

There are 3 zones in this model:

  • The comfort zone (green, in the centre) is where we are relaxed and comfortable. Things happen easily. We do not need to focus very hard and not need to expend much energy.
  • The stretch zone (Yellow, just outside the comfort zone) is where we stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. The stretch zone is where we need to try new things, experiment, and practice with things we are not yet comfortable with. This means we need greater focus, and it requires more energy.
  • The stress zone (Red, just outside the stretch zone) is where our emotions over-ride our thinking and we get stressed, scared, angry or anxious. This requires a lot of energy, but it undermines our focus, since we are more focused on protecting ourselves from danger than we are on learning.

When my daughter first explained this model to me, I assumed that being in the stretch zone was the best, because it would generate the most learning – kind of like being in the “Goldilocks learning zone.” However, my 6-year-old daughter explained to me that this view was not correct.

According to my daughter’s teacher, who had far more credibility than me, all the zones can generate learning. The idea is to recognise which zone you are in and then apply the right tactics to either benefit from being there or move to a more useful zone.  I am not sure if she explained it exactly like that, but this is how I interpreted the explanation.

Applying the model to our teams at work

I don’t think my 6-year-old thought in terms of EQ, presence, or mindfulness, but the model is quite a simple one to use when trying to increase your personal awareness.

Let’s look at each in turn.

The “stretch” zone

We spend much of out life running on automatic, but if we are on automatic then we are unlikely to pause and think about how to apply a new lesson or practice a new, as yet unfamiliar, habit.

Trying something new means pausing and reflecting on what you want to do and then focusing on how to do it. It also means that you are likely to make mistakes or get stuck.

Teachers tell kids to consciously focus on either listening to a new idea or completing an exercise to practice how to do something new themselves. This is the same for us at work; we need to pause and focus on the task at hand to learn new things or get better at the things we are not yet comfortable with.

Set your mind to the task at hand

So, the first skill we need to learn is the ability to pause, plan and commit to our plan.  

Let’s look at the same example I used in my last article. I am going to facilitate our teams OKRs (goals) for the first time and you are there to help me.

If this is something that I know how to do, but am a bit daunted by, then I might just need to sit down with a cup of tea and plan out my approach. If this is really hard for me then we might sit down together and break the problem down. We might walk through the steps to take, the risks and challenges that might arise and go through different approaches to attack the problem.

Build in a recovery and resilience strategy

We often start with good intentions and with a strategy to try. Teachers and kids go a step further though and I think this is something we can learn from them.

When you are in the stretch zone, you will fail a lot, make mistakes, and sometimes get completely stuck. In each of these cases we need to have tactics to help us move forward. For example, kids are taught something like “step one is to ask the others in your team, if that does not work, try to see what you are missing and if that fails then ask the teacher.”

The tactics change depending on the task, but part of the planning for the lesson if for the kids to plan out their strategy and tactics for tackling the problems that will no doubt arise. Feeling prepared means that when they hit a challenge, they feel a sense of agency and keep persisting.

The same thing should happen at work when we are stretching ourselves. Rather than just pushing ahead and using sheer will power to succeed, we should anticipate that we will need to deal with getting stuck or going off track etc. The plan might be a simple as agreeing a few check-ins to get support or it might involve learning strategies to cope with the feelings of getting stuck.

Comfort zone

One of the strategies to deal with getting stuck (and with procrastinating) is the “Pomodoro technique,” which involves focusing intently for 25 minutes and then taking a break for 5 or 10 minutes.

Taking a break could also be called “going back into your comfort zone.” 

The comfort zone is where you are not stretching yourself and you are not trying hard. This could sound like you are slacking off and I certainly did that at school.

However, it is also where we recharge our energy and where our brain processes a lot of things subconsciously.  Teachers build this into their lessons, and I do the same thing as a trainer.

It is not just about taking a break though; it is also about letting your brain process things in “diffuse mode” which is a fancy way of saying you stop focusing and let your brain wander. Letting your brain wander, sleeping or doing a relaxing task all allow your brain to find connections between different concepts and to work out where your new lessons fit in. Without doing this, you will not remember how to do the things you are pushing yourself so hard to learn.

Taking a break in your comfort zone is also a chance for your brain to recharge. You burn a lot of energy when you do things like prioritising your day, focusing hard on listening to others, tackling a complex problem etc.

If you were a sports person then you would build your stamina and you would push yourself hard when you need to, but you would also take deliberate breaks to allow your muscles to recover. It is exactly the same with mental work; if you really push yourself for a while, you will start to see diminishing returns. You will learn less, you will struggle to solve complex problems and you will perform less well.

Teachers structure their lessons to give kids a break. We often structure our day to pack as much in as possible. Kids learn fast and (some) adults burn out. So a key skill when stretching yourself in your stretch zone is to take a break and spend some time in your comfort zone to recover your energy and to give your brain a chance to process all the stuff you that is causing you to stretch.

Of course – taking a break does NOT mean checking twitter, checking slack, checking emails, jumping into a meeting where you need to focus. It does mean having a coffee, catching up with a team member without an agenda, going for a walk etc.

With practice, you can learn to recognise when you need a break from being in the stretch zone. Even without this you can insert deliberate breaks or opportunities to do non-challenging things during the day.

Stress zone

I remember being told to focus more and try harder at school. I don’t remember being told to feel less stressed and to stop trying as hard. Maybe I was a relatively low-stress student, or maybe there is a part of my education that I missed.

When I entered the workplace though, I did learn about EQ, self-regulation and not burning out. I am not sure when I first encountered this, but it was early on.

My daughter learned to notice when her chest started to feel tight or when she was starting to feel anxious. Then she was taught some focused breathing activities like breathing in an out as she drew a square, or as she ran the finger from one hand over the fingers on the other hand.

This is something I think we should do more of at work too. If we can learn to recognise when we are starting to “lose it” or “shut down,” then we can take deliberate action to tackle the problem.

The stress zone is not where you really want to be if you are trying to learn new things, but strangely it is still a place of learning. For example, if you can start to notice what happens just before you get stressed, then you can start to recognise your own triggers. These triggers are the things that people do or that happen around you that cause your emotions to hijack your thinking.  If you start to learn what those things are then you not only learn how to respond to them better, but you often find an opportunity for growth in that space too.

The stress zone serves another purpose too, which I think schoolteachers only touch on slightly.  Sometimes we feel stress or anxiety because something is in fact wrong. Something that represents danger or at least a cause for concern.

We are not facing a “learning situation” that we should learn to adapt to, we are picking up warning signs that we should pay attention to.

Hopefully in your work you are not actually in danger of snakes and crocodiles appearing in the board room and attacking you halfway through a meeting. However, there might be situations where someone is being less than honest, where people are themselves being evasive because they are out of their depth, or you and the team are experiencing bias or group think.

You might not be experiencing danger though, you might just be missing something in the problem you are trying to solve, that is actually very important.

In all these situations, it would be an amazing superpower if you could pause and reflect on what set off your instinctive stress response.

While I don’t have the spider senses of spiderman, I do believe that when I learn to recognise my body or mind starting to experience stress, there is a lot to learn by pausing and reflecting on what caused it.

Conclusions

Growth at work comes from leaving your comfort zone and experiencing some anxiety in order to try new things and practice new habits. However, it is not just about being uncomfortable, it is about building the confidence to operate in your stretch zone and also knowing when to stop and recharge or when you are no longer stretching yourself but rather stressing yourself.

This is where coaching can really help – not just from a professional coach, but even from a fellow traveller, someone in your team who also wants to grow and who can support you while you support them. The process of supporting each other will not just increase your chance of succeeding in a new skill but also help you and your friend to become more resilience and more attuned to opportunities for growth.