Then I remind myself of the pledge I took years ago:
“Remember, Jill. Sit on your hands. Coach, don’t fix.”
I adopted that mantra so I’d have to learn how to help my newsroom staff improve their work without taking away their ownership, responsibility, and too often, their pride in performance. I’d have to learn to teach, not just do. Moreover, I’d need to teach in a way that would help people discover ideas and approaches for themselves, instead of just following instructions from the boss.
Now, in my leadership workshops, when I identify myself as a recovering fixer, I ask if there are any others like me in the room.
I’m never alone.
Many of the aspiring great bosses my workshops say they, too, are hooked on fixing. They’re also the ones who play catch-up on all their other daily duties as they hand-polish the work of others. But it’s become their way of life. Maybe it’s your reality, too.
Why are managers so addicted to fixing? I’ve identified top five reasons:
1. Vanity: Your company promoted you to management because you were really good at your craft – a top producer. Now, your supervisory duties are different from the front line work at which you excelled, and it’s hard to give up something you love. So, when a chance to demonstrate your old chops presents itself, you can’t resist.
2. Efficiency: To review a piece of work with the person who produced it takes time. For expediency sake, you just repair it. You hope the employee will learn from the changes you made, as if by osmosis. You’re wrong, of course. But you do it anyway. Again and again.
3. Quality: You have high standards. The one person whose performance always meets the mark is — you. So, for quality assurance, you assign yourself the task, even though it adds to your list of duties and often lengthens your work days (and nights and weekends.)
4. Responsibility: You never want to let your organization down. You’re dedicated to making deadlines, achieving goals and beating the competition. When anything on your watch isn’t as good as you think it could be, you personally deliver the solution. (Even though others could, should and probably would do their part, if you used the right leadership skills to guide them.)
5. Incapacity: Fixing is the lone tool in your repair kit. You’re capable of critiquing a product by saying, “This doesn’t work for me,” but you can’t articulate the why and how of that assessment in detail. You don’t yet know the right words that describe a path to improvement. You’re talented, but you haven’t learned how to coach. So you keep relying on what you know – jumping into the fray – and you miss opportunities for both you and your staff to grow.
Your addiction to fixing causes problems.
By fixing, you let mediocre performers off the hook. They can keep churning out substandard work because you’ve led them to assume it’s YOUR job to elevate it, not theirs. You’ve created an assembly line where they produce a first draft and expect you’ll doctor it up.
Meanwhile, you’re frustrated, and wonder why they never seem to get better.
On the other end of the spectrum, the high performers on your team resent your interference. They are proud of their work and may feel you’re hijacking it, just to put your own mark on things. Even if you’re making minor modifications, you come across as the “corrections officer” rather than the coach who helps them discover options, try new things, see what they’ve overlooked and enjoy taking good work to an even higher level.
How do you become a coach instead of a fixer? Here are some tips:
- Become a student of quality work, including your own. Deconstruct it; take it apart to identify the decisions, the process, the steps that built it from the ground up. None of us “just does it.” We operate through a series of identifiable actions with certain assumptions and values attached. If it’s writing, for example, look at a resource like Poynter’s inexpensive e-book “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism” that puts the work of top performers under a microscope and asks them questions about how that quality came to life. Familiarize yourself with the answers.
- Develop coaching language. Once you see distinct pieces, parts, techniques or barriers related to quality, name them. Build your own book of smart, descriptive terms. There’s a famous phrase around Poynter; “Get the name of the dog.” It’s shorthand coaching language for: Stories are made memorable by key details, as in “The firefighter stepped out of the still-smoking house,
cradling a dogBuddy in his arms.” In my journey to become a coach, I built my own coaching lexicon. To help writers remember how passive voice can take the life out a sentence, I’d massacre a Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit by singing, “The Sheriff Was Shot By Me.” They got the point. Have fun; craft a coaching language that works for your craft and for your team.
- Remember the power of questions. The most important tool a coach has is a question. How can I help? What’s your goal here? Can you think of another way to do this that’s less complicated? What would happen if…? Being good at asking questions helps people discover their own answers, which you can then applaud and they can then execute. When I made the commitment to be a writing coach instead of a fixer, I started each review of a story by asking the writer: “What do you love about this story?” It turned out to be a very effective opener. Most writers would talk about a few things they really liked, but often blurted out what they were concerned about, making it an easier coaching opportunity. My “love” question also let them know I expected people to care about every story, every day. For the record, once you make questions your primary coaching tool, you can also give direct advice. But do that strategically and sparingly, so people don’t revert to being dependent on your wisdom instead of their own.
- Enjoy a new level of satisfaction in your work. Where once it was all about “What I produced today,” it’s now about “My employees’ success.” Your fingerprints aren’t all over the good work. In fact, your input is almost invisible to an outside observer. But you and to your grateful team know the real story. The work, the workers and the workplace are all improved when a fixer becomes a coach.
Remember, great bosses don’t fix the product, they coach the people.
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Coaching also works to help people make better everyday decisions, too. More on that in the companion podcast to this column: