Archive for January, 2011

Coaching to Core Ideals – Straight Talk and a Straight Walk

By heartwoodgroup

This is another post in the series Coaching to Core Ideals.

The IDEAL LEADER is 1) Visionary, 2) Authentic, 3) Disciplined, 4) Accessible, and 5) a Strategic Learner. See the Coaching to Core Ideals post to get a quick overview and context for the series. We are going to break each sub-topic down over the next few weeks.


  1. Makes tough decisions in a timely manner
  2. Talks straight and moves forward with feedback effectively and courageously
  3. Does not make their problems anyone else’s, they own them and act accordingly

In an earlier post on meaningful dialogue I asked the following questions.

Do you have to go “undercover” as a leader or can you build a culture that fosters, demonstrates, and rewards straight talk?

Why do managers hesitate saying what needs to be said rather than just talking about it?

Straight talk or “telling it straight” is a significant leadership concept that is 1) not practiced consistently and 2) a skill that requires a tremendous amount of emotional maturity. This single concept can be a source of tremendous personal success and business results. We all can espouse that straight talk is great and believe it is the right and principled thing to do. However, practicing it consistently and embedding straight talk as a “way of being” into your own behaviors and organization’s culture is where effective leaders begin to separate from many managers and business owners. Straight talk is a language activity we lose quickly as we become social beings. The opportunity is not so much about acquiring it, but rather to recapture what was lost.

We had it when we were kids and then slowly social norms train us to just stop saying “what is”—because it just might hurt someone’s feelings. Or even more influential is the idea that we may not be liked by another if we said it straight. Little kids are a riot when they use the words and limited language they have to explain the world they see. Many of you may be too young to remember the early TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things by Art Linkletter. He was master at interviewing kids and getting to their straight talk on how they saw things. If you have never watched it (click the link) get ready for some good laughs! It’s refreshing and restorative to see these children just say it from their perspective.

Our family has a few prime examples of straight talk, which I define simply as telling it like you see it. One of our favorite examples is the following—one of grandkids in the family enters the bathroom where elderly grandma is in the bathtub. Grandma says, “Hi”, and the little one looks her naked body up and down real close—then says, “Grandma you are falling apart”. From the mouth of an innocent a 3-4 year old it is a funny story that even grandma would repeat. If grandpa had said it—we are quite sure grandma wouldn’t have thought it funny. It may have even been experienced as very hurtful…even to grandpa!

This story quickly illustrates what really gets in our way in delivering straight talk.  Straight talk is not always valued and especially if the person receiving thinks your intent is different than that of an “innocent” toddler.  It’s all about perspective of the intent of the “speaker” first. The content of the straight talk only is received or considered when the receiver clearly understands your intent. The perspective of the receiver of your motives then becomes the most important part of delivering straight talk or successful feedback. As a leader you must be adding value and straight is born out of a base line commitment to the other person.

When you are coaching a leader to be better at having powerful conversations the key starting point is having them gain clarity for their own commitment to changing things or helping someone change. Once this is discovered you can begin to help them refine their understanding of their own energy and passion to be actively involved in changing outcomes for others and the business. Conveying intent or your “real commitment” to the person you are leading and coaching is not about being polite, it’s about results and effective action. These results are not just about “the business” it is really about “the person” that individual needs to be in order to achieve success. The success they need in their career. The business will thrive if they are clear and sometimes that means changing behaviors and sometimes careers. Regardless, it is about the individual and business aligning the vision, values, and passions in an authentic fashion. True sustainability is only reached when clarity for both the outcomes for system and the individual within the system are brought forward together in the conversation.

If I believe in your commitment to me is genuine (and I have no reason to think otherwise) I can take some very difficult conversation from you. It may be difficult to hear straight talk about the system’s situation and how it impacts you. In turn, it can be equally demystifying to really understand my position within the system as an individual. What has to be said won’t feel good or make me happy-all-warm-inside as a person, but I if know your intent and it is meant to help and not harm me—I have just received a gift that many just will not give me.  I have gotten pure feedback. A rare form or contribution many will experience infrequently if at all in their adult life.

That’s why, as leaders, we need to deliver straight talk with a simple set up. Its pretty simple so here is the set up and it’s worked for me every time (because I deliver it from an authentic commitment to the team or individual).

You open with a question:

“If I knew something that was going to help you be better, more successful, and reach the goals that were most important you—AND—I didn’t tell you because it was really difficult for me to say; what would you think of me or how would it make you feel?”

The answer you will get is usually in some shape or fashion like the following—“not very good…you have let me down…you don’t really care”.  You are now set up to begin giving feedback.

You might begin with something like:

“That’s why I want you to listen to me like someone who cares about your success. So please listen to what I have to say from that point of view that I have something I think will make a difference for you. Then let’s both discuss together.  How’s that sound?”

You must always ask for permission and this is prevalent in many books on tips for giving and receiving feedback. I’ve found little is said about setting up the “listening” for your intent of the feedback. It can make all the difference.

When you ask for feedback you better be prepared to do something about it. NEVER ask for feedback without clearly resolving to be active with it. If even at minimum you thank me and say you are unwilling to change in that area, I know you are making a conscious decision and not blowing me off. You can also build power by thanking others for feedback and then declaring how you will use it and what you want to be held accountable to in context to the change you will make. Feedback really is the “breakfast of champions” and becomes very addictive.  Once you build a relationship that operates at this level of candor you realize how much efficiency and expediency to act it creates.

If straight talk and feedback are so powerful, why do we struggle with creating an environment where it becomes the norm? I think it fundamentally challenges some of our deepest “hard wired” behaviors as a human. We live by default so much of life that we really are blind to our opportunities. To get better is hard work and it challenges our perspective of who we think we are. Our identity resides in others and yet somehow we cling to our own points of view rather than value a clear description of how we really show up outside our own reality. We make others wrong and then we get to be right. And then the real travesty begins. We live by default in a world that maintains our identity, but brings little value to our dreams, aspirations, and authentic self.

I am certified in Crucial Conversations.  It is a fantastic program and I suggest reading the book to clearly understand what a successful leader does that makes them a successful communicator—when it counts. When a business fails or underperforms it hurts a lot people. There are also dire consequences in some professions when crucial conversations don’t happen. People die or get gravely harmed. The program works because it unpacked what successful leaders do when they communicated effectively. I believe in this sound approach. How many times have you participated in a “training program” that was the product of the most recent theory or trendy program. Sound development is often repeated when you define or study where it is successful and then use that model to develop others. You don’t always need extensive training to gain success. You may just need perspective and awareness, so that you can recognize when you should be getting in the game. Too many human beings want the quick fix and the tips or techniques without going deeper into their own role in the dysfunction. The thought is—if we could just train those people the problem would go away, when in fact the straight talk to that business owner is…”It’s not a training problem, your business model is wrong or your culture is not conducive to people contributing their ideas or taking initiative themselves.

Where do you need some straight talk?


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Coaching to Core Ideals – Tough and Timely Decisions

This is another post in the series Coaching to Core Ideals.

The IDEAL LEADER is 1) Visionary, 2) Authentic, 3) Disciplined, 4) Accessible, and 5) a Strategic Learner. See the Coaching to Core Ideals post to get a quick overview and context for the series. We are going to break each sub-topic down over the next few weeks.


  1. Makes tough decisions in a timely manner
  2. Talks straight and moves forward with feedback effectively and courageously
  3. Does not make their problems anyone else’s, they own them and act accordingly

When I started to write about Coaching to Core Ideals it was my inaugural attempt at posting to a blog that I had set up last spring. Coming up with ideas and subjects are not the issue for me. I needed to get into the practice of writing and to be disciplined (not as in punished!) in my writing. My belief is that once I start posting I have made a commitment. Commitment is a way of being intellectually and emotionally bound to a purposeful action. When I start up with new clients we begin with defining this word, so that we both live and language with a common understanding of what it means when we say…”I commit”. BEING DISCIPLINED implies that you understand how to make and keep commitments to yourself and to others—AND do it repeatedly over time. Understanding commitment has everything to do with the ability in making tough decisions.

I’m in this writing adventure for the long haul. Here I am 6 weeks or so later and this is my 9th post. I have been pleasantly surprised at having hundreds of views and growing connections with others who are interested in being a lifelong learner and growing as a leader. Our communities and businesses need leaders to aspire to Core Ideals in every aspect of their lives. There is a growing demand within our families, our communities, our work place, and this planet (that grows smaller) every day. My goal is to help leaders understand commitment and the discipline it takes to be the Ideal Leader others need and want you to be.

I make this commitment to write—first to myself and equally to you as a learner and a leader, I will keep writing and finish this series—even if only one person were to read these posts AND take on the actions, rigor, and discipline required to succeed at their calling as a leader.  Leading, like writing, has its fundamental disciplines.  It takes time, consistent practice, and a clear focus on the end result. In my younger impetuous youth the word discipline was more associated with punishment. Writing and leading feel like punishment sometimes if you don’t have a clear “line of sight” to the end goal. Faced with many other demands on your time; it becomes critical that you can make choices to focus and stay on task.

Some decisions are the proverbial “no brainer”. It is obvious what needs to happen. How about a tough decision that needed to be made quickly and in a timely fashion? It might be that you don’t have all the information you need and— your business’ very existence is at stake. We struggle with making decisions when we lack perspective. What can I anchor to when it really counts? Ideal leaders get better and better at making tough and timely decisions. I believe this is because they work hard at gaining perspective and points of view that serve as a guide—and this is a constant. This is why expert coaching has a huge ROI for leaders. It is all about perspective and being proactive. Ideally you capitalize on the learning from past judgment and tough calls based on the experience of others in your network.

I was in a powerful conversation with a client recently and the discussion evolved to the 2 biggest and influential elements in decision making. They are time and pressure. The things that of which diamonds are made.

1.       Time – Could also be called “Timing”.  It has to do with timeliness of decisions.

a. What amount of time has been afforded you is not in your control in many of the situations. It is a circumstance to be dealt with—either accepted or overcome. Terminal cancer patients are given a time estimate that they may influence, but likely won’t avoid. Truth is, we are all terminal—the terminal cancer patient just has a better estimate. Making timely decisions requires extraordinary skills in leading teams and businesses to overcome obstacles of time.

b. Some opportunities have “THE WINDOW” (you know the cliché). When the “window of opportunity” passes there is no option for – “I’ll do it later”. The opportunity bus stopped, you had a chance to get on, and you hesitated or just reached back for your bags—it left the curb and drove off with you left standing in a cloud of exhaust fumes.  Just that fast “opportunity” was gone! The old saying—“Opportunity only knocks once” is no longer true.  Life and work is moving so fast now, that I don’t think opportunity even takes time to knock at all anymore. It slows up just enough for you to recognize it and you run alongside and jump on board.

2.       Pressure –Is about intensity and importance. It has to do with the level of impact of decisions.

a. Under Pressure” the Queen and David Bowie song always plays in my head when I hear the word. “Pressure pushing down on me…” Defining the degree of pressure on your decisions can begin in clearly understanding the critical success factors vital to reaching necessary outcomes. The pressure to perform is a good thing in my book. Life is full of expectations and winners/leaders want to take on the challenge.

b. No doubt some people want the ball on fourth down even though they may end up failing. You may have heard the phrase “glass balls”. This business metaphor refers to identifying those key items or “glass balls”—that if dropped would be extremely detrimental to the success of a business. You need to know where you are vulnerable and not live in a dream world. Every business goes through some stress and testing and you need to know where you are weakest.  The tough decisions may involve minimizing the damage and living to fight another day.

Discipline was not something that was “put off” in my family growing up. It usually was quite timely, swift, and sometimes painful to my backside. Yes, my dad would open up a can of “whoop ass” on me—and you know I had it coming. Why? Because I was the kid that would weigh the pain of punishment against the fun I thought the mischief might bring me. It was a tough decision, but I weighed the options. That’s pretty sick really. But my stubbornness needed to be molded by discipline into focusing that youthful energy towards positive and productive behavior. I appreciate a Dad and Mom (they are in Heaven now) who cared enough to discipline me. If discipline was ever slightly delayed it was to protect my dignity and so that it could be done in private. I’m not sure it was my parents’ first choice of activities, I was sure sometimes it was a tough decision on my parents’ part to administer. They had a set of ideals and values they used as guidelines—they were molding me into an adult. Some of the toughest leadership calls come in our relationships with friends and family.

Just like my mom and dad; making tough and timely decisions are less stressful if you know where you are taking your family, organization, or yourself. It requires commitment and the ability to trust yourself to do it.

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Coaching to Core Ideals – Other-Wise: Focused on Others

This is another post in the series Coaching to Core Ideals.

The IDEAL LEADER is 1) Visionary, 2) AUTHENTIC,  3) Disciplined, 4) Accessible, and 5) a Strategic Learner. See the Coaching to Core Ideals post to get a quick overview and context for the series. We are going to break each sub-topic down over the next few weeks.


  1. Knows who they are as a person of strengths and weaknesses
  2. Doesn’t hesitate to be engaged in meaningful dialogue with people at any level
  3. Is “other” focused

At first thought you might wonder…”What’s the connection between being an authentic leader and having a mindset or focus that is on others?” I would and I think it is a valid question.  As I wrap up the 2nd Characteristic of The IDEAL LEADER let’s reflect on who and what we focus on, AND how it impacts whether people experience you as an authentic person or leader.

Have you ever had someone in your career or personal life seem more interested in what was going on with them and their world then what was up with you?  How did it feel to be around that person?  It probably felt a little shallow and superficial.  Heck you might even had been a little bored after a while.  Self Awareness is likely low on their list of attributes.  It’s not that it is wrong to be that way, it just isn’t very powerful as a leader and can really be a big stumbling block to being an extraordinary leader.

I am not a social psychologist or academic.  My expertise and focus has been in the area of transition coaching and leadership development, but my masters in human resource development was based in 3 core pillars of basic theory.  Those 3 pillars were Economic, Systems, and Psychological theory.  There has been much discussion and program development within adult and human resource circles around the concept of “self”.  And I will be really simplistic in this blog post and try to make it very pragmatic by offering just two dimensions for the sake of delving into this concept.  This is a little crazy when you think that PhD’s and gurus all over the world have written or spoken volumes in this arena.  In short this post won’t get into, much if any detail in, defining or distinguishing a definition of the “Self that we are”.   My condolences for complexification (I made this word up a couple of months ago) and praise to the simplification in advance.

1) You can focus on yourself first and then work on others. This might be called self actualization from Carl Rogers’ theory on personality. There is a popular belief or discourse that we should…”understand ourselves (the “self” that we are) first before we try to understand others”.   In my interpretation this means, before you start trying to fix others you should fix yourself.  If you don’t know who you are and what makes you tick; well you can really be of little help to others that rely on you for counsel and advice.  Does it make sense to you?  Makes practical sense to me in many ways and can be considered more of a humanistic point of view.   The issue or problem that arises with this point of view is that sometime business and life events just do not afford the time to “self actualize” or engage others in self discovery.  The problem needs to be solved and quickly.  Even more central to this approach is we are impacted so greatly by others in almost every aspect of our being.

2) You can make your focus on trying to understand others and let go of being wrapped up in self discovery. This is a belief and philosophy that we should…”seek first to understand before we are understood”.   St. Francis of Assisi was most noted for speaking this as a prayer and then “Seven Habits” creator Stephen Covey also made it a part of his approach to personal development and action as a leader.  It’s Habit #5.  In short, doctors seek first to know what is wrong or diagnose the issue before they fix it.   We should not pretend to understand all the issues that are important to people and systems we lead before we attempt to fix or improve upon them.  The discourse in this point of view is powered by trusting that you will learn more about yourself as you learn more about others.  This conversation is more focused on being aware of the other “selves” that are outside our inside world of thought and focus.

My truth in all of this as a leadership coach and organization development professional is that each point of view has utility when coaching leaders to Core Ideals.  However, as I age I tend to invest more time in seeking out other’s stories and learning more about what makes their life/career work…or not.  Less time is focused on my own deeper self discovery because I have spent a lot of years with me.  I like me, but I find others more interesting and they possess new points of view that help me.  The amazing aspect of being other focused (focusing on others more than our self) is this.  Our own issues and problems become less of a focus and fade into the background in the present moment of life.  We allow our problems to be seen in the perspective of the lives of “others”.  We become OTHER FOCUSED!  We can then loosen the grip our own self focus (and well practiced stories) have on our own reality.

There is a simple and yet interesting mystery that many of us never come to realize.  We are never who we think we are.  Indeed we are always who other people think we are, because out there…outside our own self we exist in the minds and interpretations of others.  I have a simple technology that I developed with my first coach Jeff Brown.  It involves a set of questions that I have clients use to gain self awareness.  It is a brave adventure to discover what others really think of me or experience me.  The questions aren’t for the client to answer though.   They are the interviewer.  If they so choose to take on the assignment, they have a set of questions to take out and begin to interview others on how they show up in their life.  As an example, a few of the questions are below:

1)      Has there ever been a time that I’ve disappointed you or let you down?

2)      Is there anywhere or anytime I haven’t acknowledged you?

3)      How would you want me to interact with you so you would always feel honored in our relationship?

Email me at The Heartwood Group if you want to learn more.

The magic of looking at other’s stories about us is that it actually opens up a unique access point into our own picture.   We begin to realize that our point of view may indeed be valid or quite possibly built upon some very poorly grounded ideas of what really is so about us.  I do have a lot of experience and significant time invested in becoming more self aware as a coach and leader.   However, I have just learned that it helps for me to discover it through my investigation of what others think of me and less about my own assessments.  No doubt we are the final say and are the expert of “me”.   When we really get present with someone and take their feedback in we are always the one with the final say in whether it is something to act upon.  The Core Ideal of BEING AUTHENTIC is born out of intentions and not wishes. You can let go and be the real leader that your people and organization needs.  It is always about the “others” that are depending on us to lead them into better performance and more potent futures than otherwise would have happened by chance.

Next post we will start a Disciplined approach to the Core Ideal of Being Disciplined.  This won’t be sexy, but it just might have a breakthrough or two in it for your moving forward in developing into the leader you want to be.  If you liked this post let me know and pass it on….to OTHERS.

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Coaching to Core Ideals – Engaged in Meaningful Dialogue

This is another post in the series Coaching to Core Ideals.

The IDEAL LEADER is 1) Visionary, 2) AUTHENTIC,  3) Disciplined, 4) Accessible, and 5) a Strategic Learner. See the Coaching to Core Ideals post to get a quick overview and context for the series. We are going to break each sub-topic down over the next few weeks.


  1. Knows who they are as a person of strengths and weaknesses
  2. Doesn’t hesitate to be engaged in meaningful dialogue with people at any level
  3. Is “other” focused

Simplification is a quest most of us seek in our day to day work and lives.  We don’t like the being engaged in a conversation that wastes our time.  We want to break things down to THE common denominator.  Said another way, to find the point from which complexity arises.  Get to the point and get there fast.  So here goes….In this post I declare that… “Business is nothing more or less than a network of conversations”.   And for the sake of exploring this concept we assume that you choose to believe what I’m declaring is “the simple truth”.

With that simple truth established it would then logically follow that we coach leaders to be more competent in speaking their requests and articulating clear directions.  Part of that skill is doing it in simple yet meaningful ways to those individuals and organizations that they want to follow them.  The other parts of this equation is doing so in a compelling way and without hesitation (timeliness).

You most likely have heard the cliché…”It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters”…that is a quaint saying and only focused in one dimension.  Being engaged in meaningful dialogue is a more dimensional interaction than many ever experience in life and work.  It is made up of the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT you say to those you are privileged to lead.   If you are going to coach a leader to this core ideal you need to understand these three dimensions and practice meaningful dialogue yourself.

Have you seen the show “Undercover Boss”?  The “boss” goes out into their organization and works at jobs with employees and engages everyone in conversation.  Lots of listening goes on and most seem to have some drastic changes in their perspectives of not only their businesses, but also who they are as a leader.  In some cases it is a huge paradigmatic shift (I had to work that word in).   In farmer boy terms…THEY GOT THEIR EYES AND EARS OPENED!  They heard a lot of why, how, and what in their conversations.

Regardless if you think the show is faked or not, the concept is interesting because they get into some meaningful dialogue with people.  The employees are doing most of the speaking and usually are “teaching the boss”. This concept alone intrigues me because meaningful dialogue involves learning and understanding for both parties.  As understanding increases and the boss begins to see the importance  and how the dysfunction within their organization is impacting the people personally and the performance of the business;  there is a marked increase in the motivation and commitment to change things…to right the wrongs. This all gets wrapped up at the end of the show with meaningful dialogue and declarations to the entire company.  Lots of cheers, crying, and benevolent rewards to those that the boss interacted with while undercover.

Do you have to go undercover as a leader or can you build a culture that fosters, demonstrates, and rewards straight talk? Why do managers hesitate saying what needs to be said rather than talking about it?  Well, to be fair to the undercover bosses…employees often won’t open up to you if they know you are the CEO and possess the power to fire them.  Many professionals within the field of human resources and organization development accept this circumstance as reality.  While I accept that as a valid point of view, I believe it is possible to build a culture with the safety and openness to speak your mind.  It is very possible to have a culture that is founded with respect and the broader commitment to contribute and build up, not tear down or gossip.  It takes a leader willing to not hesitate to engage in meaningful dialogue with people at any and every level of the organization.

Time is more than money.  It is the difference maker when you pursue meaningful dialogue that can change the trajectory of someone’s life, business, and financial future.  Having leaders that are coached to be straight talking, compassionate leaders can be the difference between success in a business start up or sustaining an enterprise over time.  Is there really any neutral ground in a culture?  I had to ask myself this question because it seems passive to me.  Passive indicates to me a lack of intention and commitment.   If you (owner, CEO, team lead) own the system you can make a request from those you lead and then model it as the leader. Straight talk becomes embedded in the DNA of the organization’s culture.  If you don’t you will have a business culture where everyone goes undercover in their jobs.

You might say this 2nd post in the subject of being an authentic leader is meaningful dialogue that I just can’t hesitate any longer to engage in with the readers and leaders.  Take this on and don’t go undercover…this could change your business performance and results far beyond any capital investment you could ever make.

Please tweet, facebook, plaxo, linkedin, yada, yada this post to your friends and colleagues!  Next post is coming soon to finish up the Authentic segment in Coaching to Core Ideals for Leaders. We will explore what it means to be “Other” focused in “Me” focused world.

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