Management Too many metaphors

The Coach and the Fixer

For this piece, I am going to simplify management a bit. Let us assume there are three different hats you wear as a manager. They are: the Leader, the Fixer, and the Coach. I will briefly explain each role and then explain how I’ve screwed up each. I’m going in reverse order because I’m building tension.

The Coach

Your standard persona. You are the more experienced human in this team, and your job is to pass your hard-earned wisdom on to others. Most of these lessons are not planned because we move intently and quickly in business. After all, that’s how you win.

Problems arise. Conflict ensues. Some you see with your eyeballs, others you hear about after the fact. In both cases, your job is usually not to escalate but to educate.

You say things like:

  • Did you think about this perspective?
  • When I’ve seen this in the past, this is why it happened.
  • Allow me to explain how I’ve failed amply doing this in the past.

Delivery of this wisdom is key to both building up the team and establishing yourself as an approachable Coach.

And this is how I screwed it up.

Months after I left a prior gig, I received a mail from the person who took over my role. A friendly note. They wanted to understand what I could teach them about the team. I responded with an immediate, “Of course.”

The conversation was rich. They had a good read on the team after just four months. I dropped some knowledge on several of my co-workers’ professional hopes and dreams and asked how else I could help.

This person said something off the cuff that I think about every single day. They were talking about their perceptions of what had changed since I left. I don’t remember the entire story, but I remember this phrase. “They liked you. Perhaps too much.” A throwaway comment that they forgot immediately that I’d never forget.

See, the Coach is nice. They want to be liked, they want to be always approachable, they like positive vibes, and they are conflict-adverse. They liked me? Perhaps too much? What I heard between the words was the team appreciated me as a Coach and as a helper, but they did not trust me to make the hard calls because I was afraid of hurting my relationship with the team.

And they were right.

The Fixer

A specialized persona. As it’s prone to do as we move intently and quickly, the sky falls now and then. There is no more obvious call to action than the sky falling, and when it does, you leap up and run to the front of the room, waving your hands, declaring, “I GOT THIS.”

The circumstances that require the Fixer are not fun, but the role of the Fixer is a blast. Why? First, you get to blow through the bureaucracy. Second, everyone wants to help. Third, you get to move exceptionally quickly. It’s a delightful change of pace.

I’ve written extensively about Fixer-esque situations over the years, and that’s because I love being The Fixer.

And this is how I screwed it up.

The VP needed us to move to a new platform for reasons. Other Directors had made two attempts, and both had failed, leaving us on a janky old platform costing us millions of dollars. The previous efforts were happening outside of my engineering world, but the VP had seen me fix it before, so he tasked me with fixing again.

Off I go with my Fix mandate! I spent the weekend researching how Attempts #1 and #2 had failed. I educated myself on the future platforms, building a lovely pro/con list, a cost analysis to scare the hell out of everyone, and an initial two-week plan of action. I finished by scheduling a Monday morning all-hands.

Look at me! At the front of the room! Fixing the thing! Enthusiastically!

Wednesday, close of business, the VP dropped my office and said, “Let’s take a walk.”

Outside he began, “Thank you, you are starting to fix it. You are moving quickly and purposefully, but there is a problem. Your bedside manner signals to the patient that they will die.”

What? Bedside manner? Death? Too many metaphors.

“Do you think the folks who have already worked hard to fix this screwed up?”

“I do. They did. Twice.”

“Yes, they can tell how you feel about them by how you treat them.”

“But they screwed up.”

“Do you think they don’t already know that?”

The Leader

I’ve screwed up. More times than I can count. There was a time when I leaned too much into being the Coach, so they didn’t believe I could make the hard calls and lead. There was the other time when all I wanted to do was Fix, but I killed the team’s morale because all of my well-intentioned actions predominantly conveyed how much I believe they screwed up.

Management isn’t a promotion; it’s a new job. Leadership isn’t management; it’s a set of principles you continuously and consistently demonstrate to your team to show what you believe is important. Leadership is how they learn what to expect from you. Managers tell you where you are. Leaders tell you where you are going.

Sometimes you’ll need to Coach, and sometimes you’ll need to Fix, but aren’t they the same thing? The Coach fixes stuff. The Fixer coaches to resolution. Aren’t they vastly different hats?

I finish one of my talks with a synopsis of this article regarding being unfailingly kind. Go read it. Classic Rands. Invariably after the talk during Q&A, someone asks me a question about kindness in the business place. They have a benign scenario designed to test whether kindness works as a practice, so I make it serious.

“Is it kind to fire someone?”

The room is silent.

“Your gut reaction is no, but you’re thinking of the scenario where someone is randomly fired without prior knowledge. They are shocked, and that’s not kind at all.”

“When you first identify a challenge someone is having, you talk about it with them clearly and constructively. You listen to their reaction and then start to coach them. For weeks. You talk about the challenge with them. For months. And sometimes the challenge can’t be fixed.”

“You explain this to them, listen to their reactions, adapt your coaching, and talk some more. If letting them go comes up, there’s no surprise. There is a probable disappointment, but no one involved is uninvolved.”

“And in that scenario, after all that discussion and coaching, the fix is for that person to find a different role. Perhaps at the current company. Or another. And you never call it firing because that’s not kind.”

The Coach listened. The Fixer acted. They did it with kindness because that’s how good leaders behave. Being nice is a part of kindness, but the core of kindness – and leadership – is respect.

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4 Responses

  1. Old Reader 2 years ago

    Good article, thanks. Hope a lot of (new) managers read it…

  2. Working Hypothesis 1 year ago

    Great, thought-inducing article, but I was a bit disappointed that you didn’t give us a specific example for how you’ve screwed up as a leader. You reference your previous two stories, and you talk about how someone *in general* can screw up as a leader, but not how you did; only that you did.

    I’m not trying to ask you to embarrass yourself publicly for our amusement… leadership is more complex than either coaching or fixing. I dunno about everyone else, but the more complex the topic, the more I learn best from other people’s experiences, rather than from principle or abstraction. So I went into this article eager to hear about the experiences… and indeed the two you shared already taught me a good deal, especially the first (the second represents a problem I know I have and work on fixing; the first is a new idea to me). I just wish I could’ve gotten a similarly specific case to ponder for the third role.

  3. Chloe Handelman 1 year ago

    A fun reminder of how to be a multi-dimensional leader and pull on different character strengths with integrity and respect.