Coach’s Challenge for 3/16/09

Good day, team,

Last week I visited my father at his new residence, an upscale assisted living center called Falmouth by the Sea, in Falmouth, Maine, on the Atlantic Ocean. I could write extensively about my experience of the place, the situation my father is in, and my overall impressions of what happens to people who grow old and infirm and end up in these kinds of facilities, but honestly, I’m still digesting much of what I experienced. Perhaps some of my impressions will make it into future challenges.

That being said, a column I read in the New York Times yesterday got me thinking about my father and one of the gifts both my parents gave me as a child. The title of the piece is “No Picnic For Me Either” by David Brooks. You may recognize that phrase, since it is attributed to Barack Obama’s mother. Evidently, the young Obama was struggling in school, and his mother decided to wake him up at 4:30 a.m. to tutor him. When he complained about getting up so early in the morning, her comment was “This is no picnic for me either, buster.” Brooks points out the two traits in this scenario that are necessary for academic success: relationship and rigor.

This anecdote reminded me of my father and the kinds of sacrifices he and my mother made in raising my sister and me.  I look back now and see that the quality of the relationship they had with us and the rigor they put us through helped us to value the results that come from working hard and challenging ourselves. We were encouraged to make a contribution to the greater good, and my parents tried to set an example by doing the same in their own lives.

I recall my father driving many hours to some historical spot in New England, while my sister and I complained bitterly in the back seat, wanting to be anywhere but in a hot, muggy Plymouth station wagon, searching for the exact spot where some historical battle had taken place that was key to this country’s success in winning the Revolutionary War.

Once Dad found the spot, he stood on the grassy knoll in his Bermuda shorts, black socks and wingtip shoes and narrated the story of what had happened there and why it was so important in winning our freedom from the British.

I can still hear him say, with great passion, “Just think about it: Right here, our soldiers pushed the British back and held their position. If it hadn’t been for that resistance, we might not have the right to vote!”

We thought he was weird back then. We rolled our eyes as he spoke and hoped we could soon drive to the nearest ice cream parlor for some relief. But years later, when I was sitting in a history exam, it was that particular battle that I wrote about, with so much eloquence I got an A for my final grade. At that moment, I greatly appreciated my father’s rigorous efforts to try to teach my sister and me experientially, rather than just telling us to read the next chapter in a history book.

My experience in coaching and training has taught me that relationship and rigor are fundamental to the success of anyone’s personal and professional development. Many managers insist that their team members attend training, but if the managers don’t create a strong relationship with them and have a rigorous way of helping them apply that training in their day-to-day jobs, the training is lost and the dollars misspent.

Your challenge this week is to focus on creating better relationships with your people and finding rigorous ways to help them engage more fully in their jobs. Part of this effort is letting people know that there are consequences to their actions. In my father’s case, he would often quiz us after one of our outings (over food, thank God) about what we remembered. The positive reinforcement we received from both of our parents when we came up with the right answer was reward enough. And, conversely, if we spaced out and allowed our bad attitudes to prevent us from paying attention, the follow-up conversation was not a fun experience, and we inevitably felt stupid and left out.

In working with team members, many rewards come from adding extra rigor to the way things get done. How about setting stretch goals for your team members and checking in with them each day to see whether they’re going above and beyond what’s normally expected? Maybe you create a competition so that people are rewarded for thinking of new ways to use a product or service. Perhaps it’s time to take them out of the office and engage them in a team activity so they come back the next day refreshed and willing to re-engage after having had a different way of connecting with each other.

In the end, working hard, being held accountable, and getting recognition for the results of that hard work make everyone on the team happy.  But it’s an even more enriching experience if the people you work for take a passionate interest in you, and invest in your success by showing you how deeply they care about your continuous improvement. Statistics show that when times get tough, people naturally come together to help and support each other. The smart companies I work with are using our current economic hard times to strengthen their one-on-one relationships with their team members and putting more energy into challenging them to do a better job.

In the case of Obama’s mother, we see that she cared passionately about his future and was willing to make the extra effort to help him realize that future. She was also disinclined to put up with any of his bellyaching about it. I think that attitude served him well.

Have a good week!

Kathleen
Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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