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Category: 2016

Session 6: Coaching at Work, Part 1

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The first of a three day ‘mini-course’ within the module devoted to coaching. Today was all about coaching theory, tomorrow will be practical application, and then in around a month there will be a third day covering how you have implemented coaching in the real world and how to coach teams rather than individuals.

These sessions are being delivered by an external consultant, Matt Somers, who’s coaching model is based on the work of Tim Gallwey who’s work includes The Inner Game of Tennis which Matt recommended in particular for follow-up reading.

The day began with an exploration of what we each wanted to get out of the coaching sessions, and our collected responses can be seen in the first piece of flip chart paper in the attached photo. What I wanted to gain was to learn how to apply the principles of coaching in situations where people and teams are likely to be resistant, to coaching specifically but to any kind of change in general.

Next was the day’s first exercise and demonstration of the power of coaching. Standing in a circle we had to toss a ball between us, recording how long it took to do so. On our first attempt we did it in 20.1 seconds. Matt then asked us how we could do it in half the time. There were many iterations, and eventually we go it down to an incredible 0.15 seconds – I won’t tell you how, spoilers. The point of the exercise is that after each iteration we all thought we had done pretty well and, after the first two or three rounds, that we couldn’t possibly improve further, but by making us think about how we could half the time, instead of telling us to do so, or that it can be done, or other teams have done it faster, Matt was coaching us to push ourselves, to find our own solutions.

And that is the crux of coaching. It is about drawing people out, releasing potential, helping them to learn as opposed to teaching, training or counselling them. The role of the coach is to ask the right questions, to help motivate people and to remove internal barriers to success – internal interference as identified in the second piece of flip chart paper in the photo. These are factors such as low morale, a fixed mind-set, boredom, stress, low self-esteem, etc. There are also external factors of interference which a coach may not be able to do anything about, such as the influence of others, conflict, office culture and family problems.

Another important factor for success we discussed was motivation, and the importance of motivation in getting people to perform at a consistently high level. We identified three broad categories of motivator – performance, learning and enjoyment – which are distinct from routine day-to-day things such as salary, benefits or job security. What these three factors of motivation have in common is that they are largely internal, and thus can be developed with the help of coaching.

The day ended with another couple of exercises. ‘The Trials of Tell’ was designed to show the limitations of an instructive or commanding style by having one partner in a pair imagine themselves to be an alien who, lying flat on the floor, had no concept of the ability to stand, while the second partner had to instruct them on how to do so. The second exercise contrasted this by having someone who self-identified as clumsy and unable to catch a ball consistently, doing exactly that, with the aid of being peppered with coaching style questions as they were tossing the ball back and forth between themselves and Matt. Instead of commanding ‘Watch the ball’, asking closed questions, ‘Are you watching the ball?’, or asking interrogative questions, ‘Why aren’t you watching the ball?’, Matt started by asking ‘What do you notice about the ball?’ and then followed up with questions about the ball and exercise which were related to the catcher’s responses. In doing so Matt demonstrated two things, firstly the power of using questions as an effective means of getting people to think, rather than giving instructions, and secondly the nature of coaching questions: that they should be open and not closed, start off broad and then get narrower, follow the interests of the person being coached, and use their own words and responses in your follow-up questions to show that you are actively listening and engaging with them.

Finally, I’ll end this post with a couple of random quotes from the session. These are not Matt’s, but axioms he has picked up over his years as a coach and isn’t sure who to attribute them to:

"Quitting and going is bad, quitting and staying is worse."

"Learning is easier than being taught."

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Session 5: Emotional Intelligence

Today’s session began with a discussion of organisational culture, using Johnson and Scholes’ Culture Web as a starting point, then breaking us up into groups to explore each of the six factors making up the organisational paradigm and how they are expressed and represented at the university. Those factors were broken into two groups, representing soft and hard aspects of the organisational culture, soft being:

  • Ritual and Routines;
  • Stories;
  • Symbols;

and hard:

  • Control Systems;
  • Organisational Cultures;
  • Power Structures.

This was followed by a discussion on the differences between, and the problems caused by the discrepancy between how the most senior management wishes an organisation to be perceived and what it is actually like and how it is perceived by others, internal and external. Of particular note was the problems that arise when management tries to change or impose a new set of values.

We were then asked to reflect on our personal values and how those link to, or are in conflict with the values of the university. This wasn’t too difficult for me. I know myself, and there are some pretty core values which came to mind instantly, including inclusivity, openness, honesty and trust, and I’m pleased to be able to say that these are fitting in very well with my team and the culture at the University of Sunderland in general. It’s been almost two years now and I’m still very happy here and glad I made the leap from Northumbria, an institution where they tried to change the organisation’s culture and values from the top with results that decorum prevents me from commenting on.

This all led into the core topic for today’s session, emotional intelligence. The concept of emotional intelligence, henceforth EI, was popularised in the mid-90s by Daniel Goleman, based on the work of Mayer and Salovey. In his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Goleman defined EI as “… abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” A great deal of research was introduced to us, much of it as post-session reading, going into the history and developments of EI as a concept, and showing that the ability to manage our emotions and relationships has been consistently linked to effective leadership.

A number of self-assessment exercises to measure EI have been developed by psychologists and we were asked to complete one of these, the Schutte Emotional Intelligence Scale, which provided a global EI score and scores in the four individual capabilities:

  • Perception of emotion (self-awareness);
  • Managing emotions in the self (self-management);
  • Managing other’s emotions (social awareness);
  • Utilization of emotions (social skill).

My global EI was 123, with a mean of 125, but my scores in the related capabilities of ‘managing emotions in the self’ and ‘utilization of emotions’ were above the mean, and in the remaining two capabilities a little below the mean. That is a result that rings true to me, and accords with my personality as an introvert and my Insights Discovery profile which pegged me as a ‘Coordinating Observer’.

EI can be developed and improved upon and the session gave us some tools and ideas on how to do this, one of which was to keep a reflective journal, which is handy for me, as that is one of the reasons I keep this blog! Although I must admit that, being public, posts here are edited and tailored for an audience, rather than just being for myself and thus completely candid, and while I do also keep a private journal, work related things rarely make it in there.

The session linked EI back to transformational leadership by introducing us to the Betari Box, showing the cycle of how your attitude affects your behaviour, which affects the attitude of others which affects their behaviour, and that comes back to affect your own behaviour; and highlighting the body of research that shows a strong link between high EI and successful managers.

Finally, Goleman’s work on types of leadership was discussed and we performed an exercise to divulge our own leadership styles and preferences. The six leadership styles identified by Goleman are:

  • Coercive – demands immediate compliance;
  • Authoritative – mobilises people towards a vision;
  • Affiliative – creates emotional bonds and harmony;
  • Democratic – builds consensus through participation;
  • Pacesetting – expects excellence and self-direction;
  • Coaching – develops people for the future.

Goleman argues that all of these styles are of value in different situations, but cites evidence in the form of case studies and surveys that shows that generally some are more effective than others, with a coercive style being least effective and authoritative the most. Note that authoritative in this context doesn’t mean leading by command, by asserting authority, but leading by example and being able to articulate a clear, achievable goal, while giving people the trust and freedom to find their own means of getting there. The self-assessment exercise revealed that I lean towards the affiliative and democratic styles, but shows an interesting gap in how comfortable I feel using an authoritative style and how often I actually use it. Something to work on I think. Something else I’ll take away from the session is a sense of responsibility to be more proactive in setting the mood of the team on a daily basis to help make the university a positive and happy place to work.

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What Makes a Good Project Manager?

Attended a session delivered by David Bewick, a project manager at Nissan and the University Liaison Officer for the UK chapter of the PMI, the Project Management Institute.

David started by discussing the role and background of the PMI and presenting their definition of a project as “… a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” He then moved on to talk about the composition of project teams, the role of the leader, and factors affecting project success, of which he said communication was by far the most important.

The session was fine as far as these things go, but it was pitched primarily at students starting their careers in industry and I don’t feel like I learned anything new. There was some brief discussion at the end about differences between traditional project management and new methodologies such as Agile which David largely dismissed as being best suited for IT. On the Scrum Master training I completed last year much was made of how Agile and Scrum can be applied to any context. I think there is an element of proselytising which comes from people who have made their careers in particular specialisms.

Personally, and perhaps because I work in IT (I do at least try to be conscious of my own cognitive biases), I am much more of a fan of Agile and Scrum because I have seen too many traditional projects which have, not failed, in their own terms, but delivered very sub-par solutions. Take the Pearson LearningStudio Course app for example. Without any inside information (Pearson are incredibly secretive about absolutely everything) I would infer that this is the result of a project, and a successful one too, as it has delivered a unique product with a particular feature set to a specific time. The problem is that those features are pathetic, and the app is an embarrassment. No course content can be viewed through the app, there is only a limited of tools which can be accessed, and only one, Threaded Discussions, has been fully implemented. It is so bad that when it was released to us one of the features listed was ‘the ability to sign out’. The app was last updated on the 2nd of July 2015 and is currently on version 1.0.1. Why? I believe because the project to deliver the app was completed. And that was that, mission accomplished. One of the principles of Scrum however, and a concept that I love, is that you don’t have projects, only products which are subject to continuous development and improvement.

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ALT Annual Survey Results 2015

ALT has published the report and data from their second annual survey which can be dowloaded here. Interesting reading as they now have comparative data from last year’s survey so you can see the trends and changes.

No signs of the monolithic VLE going anywhere just yet, and interest in the field of data and learning analytics is continuing to grow. I was a little surprised to see open badges so far down the list, but as a colleague in another department said to me a few days ago, employers don’t know what they are or how to value them, and as a consequence students just aren’t interested.

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PDF Certificate from Storyline

For the Bribery Act training module that I have been developing for our Legal, Governance and Business Assurance department, I was asked to find a solution whereby persons identified as being at high risk could prove that they had taken and passed the module. The module, which includes a presentation followed by a quiz, has been built in Storyline as they wanted something that could standalone and would look very slick.

We discussed the possibility of hosting the module in SunSpace and rewriting the quiz using SunSpace’s native Exam tool, but ruled this out as it adds unnecessary complexity and would result in an inferior experience for people taking the module.

We finally agreed that simply instructing the high risk individuals to save the results slide produced at the end of the quiz and emailing it back to Business Assurance would suffice. That’s fine as far as it goes, but actually introduces a lot of complexity and possibility for human error. People would have to either take a screenshot of the slide, different on every operating system, or save / print the slide as a PDF, different in every browser. I wanted a simple solution, a single button that all you had to do was click.

I found that solution through Articulate’s awesome E-Leaning Heroes community, in a post by Ryan Lowry which explained how to use pdfmake, a JavaScript library, to generate PDF documents on the fly, on the client side. After successfully integrating Ryan’s template into the Bribery Act module I then modified the code in pdfmake to produce a certificate that’s University of Sunderland branded and matches as closely as possible the certificates issued by HR upon completion of CPD courses. The only real issue I had with this was integrating an image for use in the footer. To get this working I had to convert the image to Base64 text and add it into the certificate.html document. To do that I found one of those fabulous little online niche tools: https://www.base64-image.de.

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Brightspace Webinar

Following on from our webinars and demonstrations of other VLE systems of late, I arranged for the team to gather round to watch a recorded webinar of Desire2Learn’s Brightspace platform, the final major commercial VLE provider for us to investigate. It had to be a recording as their live webinars all take place during unsociable hours, though they helpful record them all. Very unhelpfully they are using Adobe Connect which took over 15 minutes to get working today, spanning three different browsers, two attempts at installing the plug-in – admin account required, thank you very much! – before finally getting it going in Chrome this time. (I could rant about the appalling state of web conferencing software until the cows come home, then rant about it some more to them.)

The webinar I picked out as possibly the most useful for us, with none of us having any prior experience with Desire2Learn or Brightspace, was an overview and demonstration of their latest major release, Autumn 2015. Our collective option is that it looks very much like a version 2 of LearningStudio, which unfortunately sets off alarm bells for us. The ‘Learning Paths’ feature which was demonstrated allows instructors to restrict access to certain content until students have completed set criteria. This looks really nice but it is something even LearningStudio can do, and actually does pretty well, and I know that Blackboard Learn has had functionality like this for quite some time. Another nice looking feature was the ability for students to check off completed items and see a progress bar along the top of their course site. This is something that has actually been requested by our academics and would go down really well, I think it’s a great feature for students, but I do have questions about how well it works in a dynamic context when academics are adding and modifying content throughout the duration of the course. It all seems to point towards a course delivery model rather than a VLE. It seems to be a very US way of working, and it’s making me think that perhaps that’s the reason why Desire2Learn have yet to achieve any significant market penetration in the UK. LearningStudio is a course delivery platform, and our attempts to use it as a VLE have not been successful. We do not want to be repeating that mistake.

What we saw of the admin part of the system looks good, as did the virtual text box editor which I think was TinyMCE. There is also the ability to drag and drop files which are them displayed onscreen, inline with other content, similar to how Microsoft Office and PDF files can be added in LearningStudio, though with highly variable results. The demonstration also showed how to set up rules and alerts to monitor student engagement on a course and send automated alerts to them, a very nice feature. Desire2Learn does have a great reputation for learning analytics by all accounts.

We didn’t see any of the quiz or assignment tools, and there was no mention of plugins or LTI support which is crucial for us to use Turnitin. The presenter repeatedly emphasised the ease of use and flexibility of the system, but all we saw of this was the ability for users to manipulate modules (blocks of content) and instructors to customise the background and appearance of individual course sites, very routine and unimpressive stuff these days. The whole thing was lacking a bit of a wow factor. Though, as one of my colleagues pointed out, the fact that it sort of looks like a version 2 of LearningStudio could actually be a good thing, making the transition easier for our academics and students.

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Session 4: Strategic Leadership, and Culture and Context Part 2

Part 2 on the themes of strategic leadership, and culture and context started with a group discussion on the exercise to seek feedback on ourselves as leaders, for which I used the Johari adjective list as previously discussed, and then a return to values. This time we discussed the importance of expressing your values and not leaving any gap between your values and your actions, as part of being a good leader means being seen to be living the values you extol.

Something else we revisited and discussed in more detail was leadership types and the role of middle managers. On leadership types, the focus this time was on the dangers of dysfunctional leaders and how that can come about from the ‘loneliness of command’, having doubts about what to do, and an inability to discuss fears and doubts with others. On the flip side was what works – sharing leadership, distributing responsibilities and collaboration across organisational and professional boundaries.

On the value of the middle manager role we talked about how this has changed over time as the increased use of computing and automation has taken over traditional ‘managing’ style tasks such as monitoring workload, becoming instead about coaching and leading your team, having the ability to move between layers and boundaries within and even outside of your organisation, and in tying together strategic objectives with operational issues. I enjoyed this discussion as I came to realise, as others were talking about problems they have had with their teams, that I am lucky to have such a well-established and functional team who know what they are doing and always deliver very high quality customer service. Something else that came out of this discussion was some research about the value, or lack thereof, of traditional performance reviews which people find demotivating due to their backwards looking nature. What does work is putting the focus on coaching and looking forward to what is to be achieved over the next review period. This is something I want to keep in mind when the next appraisal cycle comes around.

The final part of the morning session was on the power of using influence rather than command to achieve your objectives, particularly the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model which argues for the use of reciprocity to gain influence with others, and that this is more sustainable and works better than when tasks are completed by commanding.

Our afternoon session began with an introduction to the concept of stakeholder management, a methodology designed to help ensure the success of projects by getting you to think about who the stakeholders are at the start, how to categorise and prioritise them, the influence they can have on the success of your project, and how to tailor your communications with them based on where they fall in your stakeholder analysis. The technique that was introduced to us was the power / interest grid of prioritisation, a simple chart that places stakeholders in one of four quadrants which shows whether you need just to monitor them, if they have low interest and low power, keep them informed in more detail, if they have high interest but low power, keep them satisfied if they have low interest but high power, and finally manage them closely if they have both high interest and high power.

As an exercise to put this into practice we were asked to create a stakeholder grid for a project we are currently involved with or which is on the horizon. I chose a VLE review, and the three images attached to this post show the grid I produced at different stages. The first is the shockingly poor finger painting I drew on my tablet during the session, the second is a polished version of this with one or two additions, and the third is the one I developed a few days later when I had the time to give it some more detailed thought. An additional detail shown in the second two grids is a categorisation of stakeholder using different colours; green for those who are likely to be advocates, blue for supporters, orange for possible critics and red for anyone who may have the power to be a blocker.

Finally, the concept of the action learning set was introduced, along with our first task. Action learning sets are a form of peer-to-peer learning with small groups arranging their own work between sessions. Our first task, to be completed before the next session, is to meet to discuss progress on our work-based projects for the course and to help each other work out any issues we may be having. To help we were given an introduction to some coaching models: GROW – Goals, Reality, Options (or Obstacles) and What’s Next; and OSKAR – Outcome, Scaling, Know-How and Resources, Affirm and Action, and Review. Also included was the concept of powerful questions which should, if they work, help to shift the perspective of the person being coached and have an impact on them.

Other homework to be completed before the next session is to read up on constructive development theory and to submit our project proposals.

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Managing Absence

Attended a briefing on the new HR / SLS procedure for managing short and long term sickness absence. The session covered the impact of absence to the university and the trends over the past few years, best practice for reporting and monitoring absence, the paperwork required by HR, triggers for referral to occupational health, new guidelines on phased return, misconduct (which is extremely rare), our responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act, and how to access internal and external services which are available to help people, such as counselling for stress and mental health issues. The purpose of the new procedure is to give line managers more direct responsibility and to try and remove the perception of HR as the ‘police’.

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