“Rules of Thumb: My Own Coaching Heuristics” by Lilian Abrams



  • A heuristic is a rule or method that helps you solve problems faster than you would if you did all the computing. It sounds fancy, but you might know a heuristic as a "rule of thumb."

  • Derived from a Greek word that means "to discover," heuristic describes a rule or a method that comes from experience and helps you think through things, like the process of elimination, or the process of trial and error. You can think of a heuristic as a shortcut. Besides finding it in philosophy books, if you are interested in computing, you'll find references to heuristic programming. You can use it as a noun or as an adjective."
    https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/heuristic (accessed 11-22-17)

My personal treasure box of coaching “heuristics”

I have realized over my time as an executive coach (and prior to that, as an OD consultant) that I have assembled my own personal treasure box of what I call “heuristics”.  These are the pithy sayings, models, and go-to concepts that I have found useful in describing my meaning, in terms of providing a contribution to my client in that moment in our coaching conversation.  (Understanding the nature of that prompting urge is, I suspect, a topic for another blog-piece!)

Over the past few weeks, I have started jotting down some of my favorites heuristics.  These are a few of the ones that come to mind most often during my coaching practice, with a bit of description of their source (happy to explain more if you are curious and really want to know more):

  • Task/people (Managerial Grid, Blake & Mouton 1962; learned in Org. Behavior in grad school)

  • Power Distance (source: Hofstede; from my dissertation work)

  • “You need a bigger carrot & stick, plus 1-2 clear baby steps” (don’t know, but I added the baby steps part. This is to impel change and make it easier for the person to start moving)

  • “Providing a reason is better than nothing at all, because people will make them up otherwise” (the core revelation from my Org. Justice lit. rev. in grad school)

  • “WIIFM”/ ”What’s in it for me?” (from working in business/corporate)

  • “You get the behavior you incent” (learned this during my OD consulting work)

  • “People go towards what feels good, and avoid what feels bad/painful” (undergrad psych - behaviorism)

  • “Change the conversation” (this is a new one, based on trying to get along with my teenaged daughter; it means there is an underlying premise and resulting “dance” that can be changed.)

  • “Often, the work gets done between sessions” (Fiona Adamson, re: supervision, and coaching)

  • “Time is a variable” (this one reminds me that sometimes, things need time to play out or develop)

  • “No one has an epiphany just because you want them to” (my husband made this one up, and it’s one of my absolute favorites, repeated frequently)

  • “Ask forgiveness, not permission.” (corporate life exposure, again)

  • Idiosyncrasy credits (a concept from undergrad Psych)

  • “Small things done consistently over time yield big results.” (don’t remember)

Each one needs to be used and explained in context.  This is by definition, as a heuristic, since they are the short-hand axioms I use to myself to encapsulate an important principle or idea around leadership in actual practice.  As a coach, I mention each one with my clients only when something in our conversations comes up that prompts it, and I believe it’s relevant to helping the leader work with their actual leadership challenge/situation.  If I explained them to you one by one, especially with examples, you would surely get the concept (just as you and many others do, with any idea in any management book.)  However, the art and true test of leadership principles is when they become “live”, meaning when the leader applies it effectively to their actual situation(s), in a way that fits for that particular person and their audience.  This caveat might have spared any sense of gap, or being left hanging by the rest of the list, for any reader.  

A Case Study that Illustrates Use of My Personal Coaching Heuristics

I’d like to give you an example of how I use these heuristics.  I recently spoke with a fairly new client who I’ll call Sunil.  Sunil recently acquired new responsibilities that include leading a division of over 500 people, as part of a global financial services firm. 

I was told that Sunil generally rides roughshod over anyone who gets in the way of his desired methods or results.  There apparently was even a saying (client heuristic?) used in his organization, to describe his impact: “You have just been ‘Sunil-ed’”, which I gathered meant he treated someone in a brusque and dismissive manner.

Sunil has had a very loyal long-time band of about a dozen guys who have followed him from role to role, who he calls his CORE Team.  They were said to be just like him: Intensely bright, driven, strategic, ambitious MBAs; guys who work 24/7 and produce great results.  No touchy-feely stuff for them – it’s all business, all the time, for these guys.  (Yes, I asked, they were indeed all men.)

Sunil and I have met a handful of times so far.  During our first in-person conversation, I observed and then asked him: “Now you have gone from a small tight band of guys just like you, to leading a large organization of people.  You know that the large group, for the most part, isn’t much like your highly self-selected Core Team.  In fact, very few of them are.  So, how are you going to lead them?  How are you going to form a meaningful relationship with them, such that when you charge up the hill you want to take, and turn around, you will actually see them all behind you, rather than just your existing small band?”  To his credit, right away he saw the point, and got thinking on it.

I then drew my usual graph for Heuristic #1 above:  Task/People.  I labeled the y-axis “Task”, and the x-axis “People.”  I then drew “high” at the top of the y-axis line and also at the right-end of the x-axis, followed by “low” in the joint corner of the 90-degree angle made at the point of intersection for the two axes’ lines.  Then I explained “Some people are high on Task.  These people are excellent at working hard, driving to completion, and getting results.  You are off-the-chart high on this.  However, the problem is, people who are high on Task but low on People tend to get their results while leaving lots of dead bodies by the roadside.  On the other hand, there are people who are low on Task, but high on People.  Everyone loves these people.  However, they might not get anything done.  The ideal is to be high on both.”  And I drew an “x” on the chart to show where High Task/High People would be.


Sunil pondered this thoughtfully.  Being as sharp and strategic as he is, he was able to open up his mind and see how this made sense. He also discussed how this was a big shift for him.  And he also saw that it really was the right thing for him to do now, the “effective” thing to do in terms of “outcomes”, to manage his much-broader range of reports well. 

In a following conversation, I mentioned the last heuristic axiom in my list above: “Small things done consistently over time yield big results.”  This was done in the context of discussing how to shift people’s perceptions of him from bulldozer (my word here) to someone people can relate to, feel connected to, someone they liked and wanted to follow.  That’s when I encouragingly offered this heuristic. 

As a coach, I never really know what people hear when I say something.  They are all entitled to their own point of view, and I figure, whatever resonates with them that’s useful for them, great.  And if not, fine.  So I did not know how much he took the second heuristic to heart until before our call yesterday.

In preparation for our morning call, he sent me an email beforehand with the first part of the second heuristic in the Subject line: “It is enlightening to see how small things impact people - from my Thanksgiving email”.  (Note:  This quote indicates evidence that he was actually applying both heuristics.)  Besides the Subject line comment, the only other content of this email to me consisted of more than a dozen attachments.  Every single one was a note of appreciation towards him, saying things like “This was the best note I’ve gotten all year”; “You made my day”; “Thank you for being such a great mentor/friend/leader, from whom I am learning so much”; etc. 

I then read the original email note that he’d sent out to them, that sparked all these responses, which was listed underneath the replies.  In the spirit of the upcoming U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, he listed more than a dozen things he was thankful for. Maybe 1/3rd of these were work-related.  The rest were about all his family, his children, and his personal life.  Here’s a sample of one thing he listed as being thankful for:“Our exchange student taught us that language knows no bounds when it comes to having fun and connecting in a global world.  Everyone screams the same way when coming down a 130MPH ride.”

This says so much about who he is – his voice, his values, his sense of humor. His humanity.  Reading the notes, my jaw literally dropped open, and then I got really excited for him.  When we spoke, I asked him what it felt like to get these notes, what did it say about the impact he was having, etc.  He said he had received even more positive responses that he hadn’t sent on to me.  He still couldn’t quite believe the response he got.  He was clearly pleased, but surprised. He mentioned that this was not the first time he had sent out mass notes like this. However, before, he’d only sent it to his senior-level peers and superiors, and it was much less personal.  When I asked him what specifically had he done differently this time, he said that this time, he had included people “downward”, by sending it to all his directs. He had also included a much greater amount of personal information and stories than business results than ever before.

Insightfully, Sunil then added, “I know how to manage up, the 3 levels to the CEO.  I know how to talk to them, I know what they want, and I know how to give it to them.  This is how I have been trained.  But I have never been trained on how to manage 6-7 levels below myself.”  Having a full discussion with him about what he did, the response he got, how he felt about it, the impact he thinks it had on others and why, etc., in the context of his new, broader perspective on leadership, seemed to solidify his own successful experiment on his leadership learning journey. 

Learnings and reflections

Starting to identify and exploring my own heuristics development and use has been enlightening for me, as well as exciting and rather fun.  I keep adding to the list, daily. I now am starting to become more aware of when I use them, and I am identifying new ones all the time, that I use. (Just today, I added “many roads lead to Rome.”)  Likely I will next start to pay attention to when I use each – what sparks that idea for me, at that time?  What is it about the conversation, and/or the client, that leads me to bring it up? I then may also investigate how different ones, or the use of them, affects my clients more specifically.  They seem to be of benefit, as above, but perhaps I will identify more systematic ways they work in my coaching, over time.

My questions for you now include:

  • What are your own heuristics, as a coach?

  • Where do they come from, in your life?

  • How does the process of development for them work for you?

  • Do you know a heuristic right away, when you first meet the saying/model/concept/etc., or does it only become revealed to you over time?

  • What kinds of forms do your heuristics take? For example, I mostly listed sayings and concepts in this piece, but sometimes I use images, metaphors, etc.

To connect with Lilian Abrams

LA profile.jpg

Lilian Abrams (Ph.D., MBA, PCC) is an organizational psychologist with more than twenty years of Fortune 50 consulting experience, in all manner of organization and leadership development areas and applied research. She has been a senior consultant for Towers Perrin, Watson Wyatt, Nabisco, and Kaiser Permanente, and an accredited executive coach for many client organizations, including ADP, BASF, BMS, KPMG, Unilever, Warby-Parker, Sanofi, New York Presbyterian Hosipital, and the FAA. As former New Jersey Organization Development (NJOD) Learning Community's Education Team Chair, she facilitated learning to bridge the gap between academia and practice. She teaches, publishes, and serves, always seeking to learn and bring the right learning to the right people at the right time. 

LinkedIn profile:  Dr. Lilian Abrams
Email:  labrams@abramsandassociatesllc.com
Website:  www.abramsandassociatesllc.com