Updated: Mar 31
Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by incredible guests who share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.
In the third chapter of the season, we had three different guests:
Helen Dunnett, a Business Performance Coach & Trainer, shared her insights on coaching teams and leaders.
As always, Marilyn closed the chapter with a special episode where she recaps the previous speaker's key takeaways, and shares her own insights, perspectives, and experiences on the topic.
You can watch the recap episode here.
Here is what she had to say:
I used to be a very competitive individual contributor. The first time I got promoted to a manager role many years ago, I was given sales targets. I had to complete some projects, bring the team to the finish line. I had accomplished all of those about three months before the deadline. Around September, I had already gotten over the revenue target. I had done all the projects on time. When my yearly review came around, I was certain that it would be an absolutely positive one. But it actually wasn’t. My manager told me that everything that made me a great individual contributor might be what doesn't make me a great manager, that I was too competitive, that I was expecting everybody to be like me - not just as good as me, but to act and behave in the same ways. I felt really down because I had really worked so hard to make sure that we got to where we were meant to be, but I understood the message he was sending me. What I was doing really wasn't what the role of a coach is. The role of the coach is to understand the individual preferences and subtleties of every player, and then make sure that each one of them individually is doing their best work. That collectively as a team, they're also doing their best work. Many years later, I still cite this incident. Whenever somebody on my team or someone I know gets promoted to their first manager role or team leader role, I tell the story because there is so much to learn and so much to unlearn when you start leading a group of people.
Leadership: focusing on engagement & performance
I think what this conversation also highlights for me is that endless duality between performance and engagement. A friend of mine, Mark Mortensen, recently published an article in HBR about the duality between performance and engagement. He mentioned that in a survey of 300 senior business leaders across industries, whether it's hospitality, automotive, biotech, 61% of people reported that they're struggling to balance employee's needs for support where their company's drive for high-performance. A key takeaway from this is that you don't really have to do one or the other. As a coach of a team, your job is to do both. In fact, there's a Gallup survey where they surveyed 8,000 employees and found that the highest performing managers are both performance and engagement focused. Employees who work for a manager that helps them set clear goals are 17 times more likely to be engaged. Of course, we know that engaged employees are more likely to perform, sometimes delivering up to 21% higher profitability. The first lesson for me here is that you don't have to choose between this or that, but that there are times where it's more useful to focus on performance and times where it's more useful to focus on engagement and values.
A really great leader who wrote a book that I always advise new managers to read is called High Output Management by Andrew Grove. Andrew wrote about the role of leaders in complex, uncertain, and ambiguous worlds. When trying to decide between when focusing on performance or engagement, you should focus on engagement and values in situations where complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are high, and focus on team performance when those factors are low. In these instances, it is expectations that shape the team’s performance.
Purpose, values, culture
As a way to determine the expectations (defining roles, setting objectives, checking in, reviewing performance) when complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity are high - be it from the pandemic or the various conflicts taking place around the world - it's a time for leaders to influence outcomes and performance. Not by focusing solely on performance or on objectives, but rather by focusing on cultural values, by role modeling them, by making sure that we can always go back to our purpose and our values and why we exist.
Lucy D’Abo said in her episode, “Vision is the picture. Mission is the path to get you there. Values are the behaviors that support the journey and purpose is the reason you're doing it”. Lucy's work is all about helping organizations enhance their culture. According to her, and we share a lot of her vision, the vision, mission, and values of an organization might change with time, while purpose tends to stay the same over time. It's really what drives people to actually feel like they're contributing to something bigger than the sum of their parts. That's a very important role that leaders have to play when coaching teams, which is to remind them of what the big picture is, and what it is that they're contributing to, to create a shared language between team members through values and turn the team into an actual community. These are all the things that we spoke about together with Lucy, and they were really beautiful points.
Coaching for psychological safety
Hayley Lewis, the first guest of the chapter, spoke to us about psychological safety. The concept of psychological safety is all about creating space for team members to feel like there is no interpersonal risk. Like they can fail, they can suggest ideas, and they won't feel judged for any of that. It's really important for leaders to focus on creating that psychologically safe space. Psychological safety does tend to start from the top, but it's also important to make team members, in my opinion, co-responsible for that. It's not just the job of the leader. It's the job of everybody on the team to make sure that we have a psychological least safe environment. One way team members can contribute to that is by paying attention to the habits within the team that can either reinforce or hinder psychological safety. There's a lot of small practices that can help to improve that, and Hayley shares quite a few of them on her LinkedIn profile, where she simplifies some of the academic papers that she reads through reading incredible drawings.
I think that creating that space for experimentation, innovation, trust, and solidarity between team members is definitely important. One thing that we always recommend can help besides role modeling coming from the leader themselves is also certain rituals. You can find on our website as always a ritual bank. We've also developed a game - Cosmic Conversations - to help teams start conversations about themselves as people and as colleagues, and be able to share and find points of commonality and points of differences. There are a lot of rituals that you can do in order to increase psychological safety, everything from serious rituals, like running retrospectives, or lighter rituals, such as team time. In retrospectives, we look back on how we work together, and then talk about how we can do better next time, which demonstrates to everybody that admitting failure or knowing that we could have done better is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something to note and take action on and move forward from. When it comes to team time, I think creating time to connect with each other as humans really helps with psychological safety.
The role of emotions
We learned from Helen, another one of our guests, that self-awareness within the team is to allow everybody on the team to understand their emotions. I think a lot of unspoken conflict in teams can arise from situations where somebody behaved in a way that wasn't exactly what you would have wanted, or that you don't understand or that you misinterpret. One of the things that Helen does, is that she coaches both team members and leaders to understand their emotions better by giving names to those emotions. We tend to bundle everything under, “I feel good”, “I feel bad”, “I'm upset”, but it's really important to be able to decompose those words and be able to share them with others in order to feel seen, and to also be able to interpret the actions of others through that lens.
Even just being able to say, “I feel shame”, or “I feel disappointment”, is very different from saying “I'm upset”, and it allows others to be there for you in a new way. We actually developed a platform to improve team connectedness called Aion, where everybody can share their emotions every day using a calendar. Aion creates a great opportunity for you to check in with one another.
What makes a great coach?
Another really important piece for me in terms of how you go from being a player to being a coach, is a definition I really love about what it's like to be a manager (or a coach in this case), which comes from a professor, Joe Santos. His definition for what makes a great manager, is that they are great at absorbing the risk that surrounds a team, and creating a safe space where the team can continue to perform at the best of their ability. That risk today can come from a lot of places: it can come from the state of the affairs of the world, COVID, the uncertainty around a specific industry - how it's evolving, or a market that you're in. Sometimes, it's even internal risk coming from pressure from the company itself. I think great managers and great coaches are good at taking that risk, and turning it into action rather than taking that risk and passing it onto the team. I don't think anybody else on the team can do that job.
Coaches can help you uncover your individual values, as well as your organizational values. For your individual values, there is an exercise in which you can ask a series of questions such as, “What do you value?”, “What makes you angry and why?”, “What qualities have you inherited from your parents?”. Then there's a process for you to filter through those words, group them, and decide which ones are your absolute core values and which ones are your supporting values. I think doing that exercise as a team can help you know your team member’s values. For example, for me personally, one of my biggest personal values is solidarity. When I see somebody on my team not expressing solidarity, I get really upset, maybe not to the same degree that another person would have. Having that conversation is really insightful. In fact, anything that the team can like rally around the concept of values can help understanding each other better. Some resources to do that are the Ray Dalio's principles test, and the cultural dimensions tests. Their results allow you to see how you and your team members rank, and the values that are most important to the team. You can also use a team charter, which talks about what the team's objectives are, what the red lines are, how we expect to behave with each other. I There are good templates for that on Miro. When it comes to organizational values, it depends on the company and its size, and at which stage of documenting their values they are in. That process can be really different from one place to another.
Becoming more assertive in your transition into a team coach
For coaches to be more assertive with their team, especially if they were once a member of the team they now lead, they should be comfortable with the fact that they will never again be a team member. That's a really tough loss to deal with. And that's okay. Don't let past friendships get in the way, if you fully want to embrace that role. I've had many tough conversations with friends who became team members, or team members who had become friends. They've always seen me prioritize our relationship at work - I would never give them a pass because they were friends. I was certainly not easier on them because they were my friends, because the work relationship was the primary relationship. Friendship is important and cherished, but it can't get in the way of what we need to do for the work to work. There are trade-offs to every role in life, and being promoted from within a team is wonderful, but it is also difficult and lonely. Don't be afraid to be assertive, don't try to find solace in the team. You can't go to a team member, and say, “I feel bad because I had to do this”, and that's it. You have to go and find a peer group, a coach, other people who aren't even in your organization, but are in the same place as you, and just have a conversation with them because they have more insight into what you have to deal with and your team shouldn't be the one that you vent to.
Helping team members understand their emotions
As a leader, it is my job to help team members understand why certain things happened, which certainly leads my team members into very personal, sometimes uncomfortable conversations. A lot of the time, we aren't able to pinpoint why we behaved in a certain way, we feel like we will actually be penalized by the group or by our leader because of the way they interpret it. I believe that we should bring our whole humanity to work. If a friend of yours was behaving in a way that was counterproductive to your relationship, you would talk to them about their feelings. While I fully respect keeping boundaries and not forcing people into conversations they don't want to have, I also think a little nudge to say, “Is this how you were feeling when you said that, can you explain to me what prompted you to behave in this way or react in this way?” is really important. If you, as a leader, have the capacity, the ability, and the interest to help people through those moments, you can have a really wonderful long-term impact on just their ability to self-process, to regulate their emotions, and to react in the right ways.