Passing ownership and responsibility with a non-directive style of coaching by Simon Dennis

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My style of management and coaching can best be described as non-directive. Over time my roles have evolved to become more strategic than tactical, more management than operational. Partly it was about always seeking consensus – usually by asking questions – rather than telling somebody how something could be better. Partly it was also because I didn’t necessarily know the detail of  what they necessarily did.

I remember a colleague I trained with many years ago, he did some work with show jumpers. He used to work with the riders on improving their skills, and their body position on the horse, and getting the most out of the horse. He was quite successful doing this. Then somebody said to him one day, " How long have you been riding horses?" He said, "I've never ridden a horse in my life." They said, "You've been working with these horse riders, working with these show jumpers, and they've all seen improvement from working with you. If you're not there telling them how to do a better jump, or how to do a better ride, how's it working?”

He'd just fallen naturally into this world we now label as Coaching whereby he would watch what they did, and then he'd play it back to them and say, "Well, how did you feel going into that final fence? What was different about riding into the final fence compared to the one before that you didn't knock over?" Asking lots of questions about how the riders themselves were behaving, and feeling, and what worked well when they did a clear round. What went well? What felt right in that round? There's a learning for next time. He just had a reflective model, and I did the same in radio.

I would sit down with our presenters and I would say, ''Was that a good show?'' They'd say, ''Yes, pretty much." It was unlikely that any of them would ever  say they did a bad show. Generally they would  say, "Yes, it was a good show." I'd say, "Talk me through the good bits?" What made them good etc. Things like this are now marketed in coaching as strengths-based coaching; looking at strengths and building on strengths, but at the time to me this was just common sense.

It was just what I did because it came naturally to me to ask somebody who had just told you they thought they'd done a great job, "What made it a great job? What were the good bits?” Then, in exploring that they would often naturally come to a point when they’d say, "That bit there wasn't as good as maybe it could have been." At this point I used the opportunity to ask things like , "What makes you say that? What have you reflected upon that makes you feel that it didn't go as well as it could have done?”

Then the next question is, "What could you do differently next time? Is it about preparation? Is it about learning? Is it about skills development? Is it because you weren't familiar with the equipment at that point? Or was it because you were actually overstretching yourself and trying to do too many things at once?"

The bit for me that came most naturally was this unassuming desire to actually help them picking it all and reflect on everything. I think that's where I fell into coaching, because I've always had that approach. Even when my children come home from school, "Did you have a good day at school?” they say, "Yes," and that's the end of the conversation. Whereas I tend to say, "What made it a good day?" I try and get my daughter, and sometimes even my wife, to reflect on what made it a good day?

I have this genuine interest in others (see Being genuinely interested in you: My pathway into coaching).  Some people don't like that because they hear it as being flippant or shallow but usually, when I say to people, "Have you had a good day?" and they say, "Yes, it's been a great day." I'd say, "What was great about it? Tell me? Tell me what was great about it?" I’m genuinely interested in knowing. Then as they're exploring that, they might reflect on some challenges they’ve had which allows me to explore further, "What wasn't so good about this morning?” for instance, “What turned into a great day?" And that genuine interest allows me to help people explore through their reflection. I guess it's how I learned, but also I think it's when people reflect on things they often aren't always as bad as they may have seemed at the time.

A lot of it, for me, has been non-directive mostly because I'm not in their position. I don't assume to be in their position. I don't assume to be feeling the same way as the person sitting next to me on the train, or when we're all in a queue for lunch. I don't pretend to be, and I don't assume that I'm having the same kind of boring thoughts as the next person. I am genuinely open to ideas, if you like.

Who’s really taking responsibility and ownership in directive coaching?

The biggest challenge is the responsibility that comes with being directive. It's quite interesting as a non-directive coach; you can, in some sense, absolve yourself from responsibility. I look at the people when I'm formally coaching. I'm very open, and honest with them when I say, "At the end of the session you can walk away and do nothing differently. That has no impact on me whatsoever."

For me, the coaching session is about them. It's about them wanting to improve in a specific dimension, or a specific area. Therefore, if they choose to do nothing, they choose to do nothing. It is their responsibility. Not a problem. When you move into a position of being required to be directive, you have to recognize the responsibility that comes with that because if you are telling somebody how to do something - so you're working at that lower level, and you're saying, "This is how to do it." If you get it wrong, there's a reputational damage, which is mine to deal with and there's a bit of my baggage that comes into it.

In addition to that, there's also the impact on the individual because they might be doing something, and quite often in my role they will be doing something for somebody else in most cases. In which case if it then doesn't turn out right, they then take, if you like, the first brunt of the impact, and I would feel responsible for that. For example, in Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership[1] the more directive you are, and the more you have the authority to say, "Do it this way," the less you're removed from it when it goes wrong so the more responsibility you have.

An interesting example is within a sales organization. The good sales manager are the ones that sit down with the sales consultant, and they'll say, "Talk me through your forecast. Talk me through your deals. How are you going to close this one? What's the next step in this one? How can I help?" Now to me, that's brilliant because the responsibility clearly sits with the sales consultant to do the thinking, to do the planning, and the manager is just offering themselves as a tool. I think the directive managers, and this is where the responsibility comes in, the directive managers will say, "All right, so if that's the deal, this is the campaign that you need to follow, this is the way it's going to pan out, and these are the steps you need to take." What I've seen is that when you do that, when the deal goes wrong the sales consultant just says, "I'm only doing what you asked me."

There's no ownership.

For me, responsibility and ownership go hand-in-hand. If you're the manager that is directive, whether you have to be or whether you choose to be, what you're doing is retaining ownership AND responsibility for the solution. The clever thing about being non-directive, and being supportive, and applying a coaching approach is that you’re passing the ownership over to the individual, and saying, "You own this, so I'm here to support you, and you can bounce ideas off me, but ultimately you need to own the solution to your problem or your issue or your next presentation. You need to own it because otherwise it's not yours. Otherwise I might as well do it."

Another good way of seeing this is when you watch people present, particularly when certain people present other people's slides. Recently I saw a CEO give a presentation, he put up one slide - the one with his name on -  and then he basically ignored the rest of the slides, and just did his presentation. Then towards the end he went, "Well I suppose I better show you other slides that had been prepared," but clearly, they're not his slides. He took no ownership of the content. To him his presentation was owned by him and delivered by him there in the moment.

Similarly, I get stuck sometimes with people who say in the middle of their presentations, "Simon can you just talk us through these few slides? usually on phone calls or Skype calls?" I find it awkward, because if I was going to be asked to present I would have prepared the slides myself.  In one incident I can recall, the guy presenting didn't know I was on the call, but afterwards he said, "Had I known you were on the call I would have asked you to present those particular slides at that point in the meeting," which he’d found quite awkward. I said to a colleague, "I'm quite glad he didn't know I was on the call because those slides were not what I would have said, and I would have found it difficult to support the message he’d prepared.” As it was I had an opportunity to present to the customer on a future call which allowed me to prepare and present a very clean message which wasn't confused by what he had previously presented on his slides.

This is quite an interesting dynamic. It got me thinking… If he'd said to me half an hour before, "On this call can you present the pricing detail?" I would have probably said, "Yes, sure," and I would have prepared for it, but I wasn't prepared to do it with his content. Interesting!

Understanding how people relate to ownership

In my experience, where people are afraid of ownership it tends to be things where they've had their fingers burned in the past. So maybe they've prepared something in the past, and it's not gone well, and the feedback they have had has been quite often personal. I see that a lot. Given my background in radio I do quite a bit of coaching around presenting, and presentation techniques.

It is interesting when you ask people, "Why don't you like presenting?" It is often down to things like, "I don't know the subject well enough so I don't feel confident”, “The audience will be full of experts”. You can explore that and unpack that as an issue and I would normally say, "If you're the presenter what makes you think you're not the expert in the room?" Even in the big conferences people aren't usually there to contradict you. They're usually there to hear what you're going to say.

Quite often the thing that has the biggest impact is a personal comment.

When people make a personal attack based on an outcome of something that they've done, that's the emotional connection, because ownership is an emotional thing. If you own something, you own it, and you really truly own it in that sense. If someone then attacks it, you feel that very personally. We see that in all walks of life.

I think what I try and do then with individuals is to help them to understand that they own the solution; just because somebody else doesn't necessarily like the solution or like the presentation, it's not a personal thing. We all have different likes, dislikes, and assumptions, and that's the element that we've got to try and help people overcome and say "It's not personal. It is just what it is."

It’s quite a paradox. There's an element of you wanting them to have the ownership, and the empowerment to deliver, but then you almost want them to be able to disconnect themselves from it should it become hugely personal. I'm guessing that this can be a huge emotional struggle for some people.

Coaching people to let go and be comfortable with ownership

Depending on the circumstance, a lot of the time I tend to revert to things like asking them on a scale of 1 to 10 does it really matter? As I shared earlier, it's hard because you want someone to care enough to put the effort in and to do the work. If that then is criticized, and falls apart, you've got to be available and able to pick them up. From a practical perspective, I would normally take them back in time to doing the work, and how passionate they were about it, and how engaged they were in the activity. Then in the grand scheme of things, one person's comment versus what you actually felt you put into it, does it really stack up? I find myself when I'm at conferences looking at things and thinking, "Do you want to be overly critical, and are you overly critical of the content or the person?" It's very easy to confuse the two.

Just to say, "That was a poor presentation." Was it, or was it just delivered badly or actually was the content poor but actually the guy delivering it was fine? It's trying to get that in people's minds, and say, "What you've achieved, you still achieved." You've got to take it in a wider context of things.

People who deliver presentations, it's one moment in time, but if you look at the wider context, are you still the person you were before you went in the room? What are your next opportunities? That's almost bordering on counseling and therapy as a coach, because some people are truly caught up in the moment, and therefore, broken when things don't ‘go well’.

Finally…being realistic

It's a very weird world at the moment. That whole dynamic about ownership-responsibility, and then the freedom to let go when it doesn't matter anymore. There's a lot of blurring of the lines there that needs to be looked at, particularly where the world is saying to people now, "It's limitless. It's endless."

Everything is driven by what we want, and we want everything now and society needs to wise up to that, and look at where the skills need to be in terms of helping people deal with that. We have people joining our organizations, young people, graduates etc. and they want to be senior directors inside five years. Is that realistic? I’m saying to myself, "Well, I shouldn't be trying to limit their beliefs. I should be encouraging them to think big, but also think realistically." You look at startups and you think, "They could be CEO within six months."

What I try and do is not to limit their belief in their own potential for success and growth, but add a level of realism to that. I remember talking to a new starter, a graduate, who actually did come out and say, "I want the CEO’s job inside the next 5, 10 years." I let his words sink in, and I just asked, "What's the first step towards achieving that goal?"

He seemed surprised because his comment was, "I thought you were going to tell me that was impossible." He was almost expecting the push back, for me to say "Get real. Who do you think you are? I've been here 10 years. You've been here 10 minutes. You want the boss's job?" I didn't. What I said was, "If you absolutely believe that's a possibility for you, what are you going to do about it? What's your next step? What are the things you're going to do in the next 6, 12, 18 months to get you on that journey?"

That helped with an element of relationship building in terms of how we got on, because I hadn't just dismissed his big dream. He knew deep inside he was being a bit clever, and trying to be a bit smart about the whole thing. Ultimately, what I said was, "I'm not here to tell you what you can and can't do. Let's just take it one step at a time." By doing that, you can add realism into the mix without necessarily limiting the belief. Hopefully, over time, if he takes the right 20, 30 steps, he could well be CEO inside 10 years. He might not be CEO of our company. Equally he might be. I'm not the one to judge that.

My job is to say, "If that's your goal, what are you going to do about it?"

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