The ABCs of Prioritization

When you begin work on an initiative or something smaller like an individual feature or deliverable, it is important to know that not every piece of what you are about to start will have the same priority.

There will be items that are mandatory, items that are important, and items that are nice-to-have. Unless you can identify and classify which items are in which category, you run the risk of wasting time and effort on lower-priority items.

And, if you are in a complex environment where the needs of customers evolve quickly, you need a prioritization method that encourages fast feedback.

Here is a simple prioritization method that will help you identify the priority of the items within your work.

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Quick Take: The Question Ratio for Leaders

As a leader, you juggle many competing priorities. You are accountable for delivering against your department’s goals, staying aligned with your leader’s goals, managing budgets, putting out fires, planning for the future, managing performance of your team, and so on and so on.

Hopefully among all those competing priorities is a desire to grow the capacity and the capability of your department and the members within it.

You want your group to become stronger and more effective over time. To do this, you must develop the leadership capacity within your department.

There are many ways to develop leadership. Some are expensive, some are complicated, and many take a lot of time and investment.

One, however, is quick, easy, and you can implement it immediately: improve your question ratio.

Your question ratio is measured by comparing how many sentences you write or speak end with a question mark versus a period. The more questions you ask and the fewer declarative statements you make, the higher your ratio.

If you want to develop your leaders, you need to increase your question ratio. You should be asking more questions.

As a leader the people that work for you listen to you. They listen to you and they do what you ask them to do. They have to as you have a large amount of control over their livelihood. This makes them inclined to go along with what you say, whether they agree with it or not.1

And once they hear that you’ve decided something or formed an opinion, it is in their best interest to listen and act on that decision or opinion. When you share your opinion, it often signals the end of the conversation, even if your team has a lot of other great ideas or open questions.

I am sure that you became the leader of your group because you have excellent experience, ideas, communication skills, presence, vision, and so on.

And yet, it isn’t possible for you to be well informed on every topic. You cannot be part of every decision. You cannot review each piece of work output before it is delivered.

Simply put, your organization cannot increase its effectiveness if you as the leader become the bottleneck.

So how do you begin to help your group become more effective? Ask more questions.

When they bring you a decision and ask for your opinion, don’t give it to them. Resist the urge to reply with a sentence that ends with a period. Reply with a question instead.

Instead of saying, “Thank you for sharing, I think we should do X,” or “I think we should to X rather than Y,” ask a question.

“What are the implications of doing X?”

“How does X compare to option Y?”

“What did you consider but ultimately discard in favor of X?”

“What if it wasn’t X or Y? What would option Z be?”

When you reply with a question, you help them analyze the decision in different ways. You help them learn to think more like a leader by considering additional possibilities. Asking questions is one of the most powerful ways of helping them grow and develop.

So rather than, “You haven’t considered the budget implications of this plan,” try “What are the budget implications of this plan?”

Phrasing this as a question rather than a declarative statement keeps the dialog going. If they have considered the budget implications, they will have an easy answer (and you won’t have accused them of not being thorough in their work).

However, if they haven’t considered the budget implications, then they quickly understand that they have more work to do before they can bring the topic back to you for a decision. And, they will learn that in the future, they should bring the budget analysis with them the first time.

To increase the capacity and effectiveness of your department, help your leaders learn what questions they should be asking. Do this by increasing your question ratio.

The next time you have an urge to declare your opinion in front of the people who work for you, pause. Pause and reformulate that statement as a question.

Or to restate the above in a different way…what would happen if the next time you wanted to share your opinion with your department, you took a pause instead? What possibilities might emerge if you found a question to ask instead of making a statement?

See how that works better as a question?

  1. I learned this lesson firsthand when I moved from being a technology leader to being a coach. I had exactly the same great ideas as a coach as I did as a leader, but I soon found that when I suggested something, people didn’t immediately take what I said and put it into action. Either my ideas had become bad overnight, or maybe the primary reason people listened to my suggestions is because I was their manager. ↩︎

How to Lose Invitation to Coach

The best and fastest way to lose invitation to coach is to show up ready to tell your client what you think they should do.


When we are asked to coach, the invitation takes several forms. The best is when a leader recognizes they have a challenge or opportunity that they won’t be able to fully address on their own. They invite a coach to be a thought partner to help them unpack their ideas and shape them into action. The leader with the need requests the help.

A common but less effective invitation comes when a leader wants you to fix something within their organization. They invite you into their organization so they can give you orders on what they want you to do. “This team isn’t working well, go fix them.”

A variation of the above is when you are invited into the organization as part of some transformation effort and you are told as a coach that you are responsible for ensuring that leaders, teams and individuals adopt a certain way of working.

In the first scenario, the person with the need requests your help. They acknowledge that they need to change and that they will need assistance and support in doing it.

With this type of invitation you can truly be a coach. You show up curious about them and their needs and you partner with them in thought provoking dialog to help them move forward.1

Clarity and alignment…a powerful combination.

With this type of invitation, there is little chance of misalignment of goals. The leader requesting coaching wants help achieving their goals and the coach’s only goal is to help the leader achieve their goals.

If we are engaged as professional or executive coaches by the leader or executive that wants the help, things play out as above.

However, many times we find our coaching engagements and invitations are less formal, less structured and don’t begin with such clear terms of engagement.

Many times we (as coaches, consultants, or other type of change agent) are brought to an organization as part of a larger transformation effort. Maybe we are expected to teach, train, or set up systems or processes.

Behind all of those transformation efforts that focus on explicit, tangible, and visible change (such as restructuring, forming teams and working groups, establishing new routines for tracking work and communicating progress, etc.) there are usually two types of expected outcome.

The explicit outcome that is stated out-loud is that the organization will look and operate differently after the transformation.

The implicit assumption and hope that both the mindset of the executives and leaders and the culture of the organization will change. (I don’t know that transformation efforts ever get support and buy-in from executives and leaders if the stated objective of the transformation is to change the mindset of those executives and leaders)

As a result, we find ourselves asked to do one job (teach, train, and transform) with a hope that we will also accomplish another job (change leader mindset and organization culture).

Many coaches and consultants simply focus on the explicit part of the request. They teach, train, establish process, create teams, document standards, support planning, and increase transparency. These are all good things, but they don’t necessarily lead to mindset and culture changes.

A few coaches and consultants fulfill the explicit requests, but do it in a way that allows them to achieve greater invitation to work on the implicit request. They perform the visible, easy to measure work while developing relationships and gaining invitation with executives and leaders.

When a coach or consultant is able to generate invitation with executives and leaders (and they weren’t originally invited in specifically to coach those executives and leaders), the coach or consultant has to navigate that relationship very carefully.

Many a well meaning coach/consultant has gotten invitation to work with an executive or leader and taken the same approach they took with the explicit transformation work. They show up as the expert like it is their job to guide and educate the uninformed. They show up with their wealth of experience and know that they know better than those they are coaching what the real problems are. They act as though they know the most important problems, and they know the best solutions, so the only challenge is to get everyone else to agree with them.

If you try that with executives and leaders when you haven’t been specifically invited to tell them what to do, and you’ll be dis-invited to the conversation after your first meeting.

The best and fastest way to lose invitation to coach is to show up ready to tell your client what you think they should do.

To achieve success when coaching executives and leaders in this situation, don’t show up with a list of problems you see and a set of prescribed solutions.

Instead, show up with curiosity. Show up interested in them and what they see as the highest priority challenges and opportunities. Understand their needs, and help them to better articulate the nature of the challenges and opportunities. Help them explore new possibilities and uncover ideas and understandings that were already within them, but just needed some help being drawn out and made visible.

Partner with them, to achieve their success…not your success.

Some may argue that the executives and leaders may be ignoring the real problems. Maybe the things they want to work on are not the biggest challenges that you see within the organization. Some may feel that unless we are confronting them with the uncomfortable truth, we’re not fully doing our jobs.

Maybe.

But I’d rather be effective than right.

We help the leaders we support when we share things other people are thinking but aren’t saying.

However, if you confront an executive or leader with something they are not ready to hear, and you do it before you have developed the trust of that person, they may decide that they don’t want to work with you anymore.

Sometimes we do need to be willing to risk the relationship to share something uncomfortable the client needs to hear…but the key there is ‘risk the relationship‘. If you haven’t yet established trust, you haven’t yet established the relationship. Establish trust first.

And the way you establish trust is by being curious, listening ,and helping them to solve their greatest challenges and opportunities…not yours.

If you are fortunate enough to be invited directly by an executive or leader to coach them on their needs, then you will need to be curious, listen and help them identify and address their greatest challenges and opportunities. It is clear from the beginning that you are there to help them achieve their goals.

I’ve found the path to success is exactly the same, even when you haven’t started out with the invitation to coach an executive or leader. Even if you’ve been brought in as part of a transformation or other change effort, you still have the opportunity to coach executives and leaders…provided you earn the invitation by being focused on their needs, not yours.


  1. This is consistent with the International Coach Federation’s (ICF) definition of coaching: “ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” ↩︎

The Best $1.67 You’ll Ever Spend

When I’m overwhelmed, I have this pervasive feeling of stress that I can’t let go of. It is like there is this weight on me, and even if I’m relaxing or doing something I enjoy, the weight is still there.

When I search for the cause of my stress, I can’t pinpoint the source. Sure, I’ve got a few things I’m worried about, and I may have many things that are going great…but I’m still overwhelmed.

When I feel this way, the one thing that always helps me is a technique I learned a few years back. It doesn’t take much time or much effort, but there is a cost. And the cost is $1.67.

Continue reading “The Best $1.67 You’ll Ever Spend”

It Is Never the Rider, It’s the Elephant

When working with others, we often encounter people we find hard to understand. We try to connect with them, we try to influence them, and we try to understand why they do the things they do.

And yet, they remain a mystery. We can’t understand them, and if we can’t understand them we can’t communicate with them and support them, manage them, or influence them.

I’ve found a technique that has made me more effective as a coach and a leader. It is called, “The Elephant and the Rider”.

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Don’t be nice, be kind

I was going to write a post this week on what it means to be nice vs kind, based on the work of Liane Davey, then I found that she has a video on the subject which would have been better than my perspective anyway.

Based on her work, and the book The Good Fight, I took away this key concept.

(these might be direct quotes, or a synthesis of what I heard in this podcast…either way these are ideas I’m working to integrate into my coaching practice.

“Nice is easy, kind takes candor. Kind is willing to make yourself uncomfortable for the benefit of someone else.”

We need more kind people in our lives. And we need to be more kind to those around us.

My #1 Coaching Question: “How will you know?”

Most leaders who interact with a coach do so because they want something to be different. They may want to improve the performance of their team, or become less overwhelmed, or to prioritize more effectively, or to increase their impact as a leader. It could be one of a thousand things they want to be different.

Often the change they want seems so big or complex that neither the leader nor the coach know where to start.

My go-to approach is to take whatever they’d like to change and reformulate it as a question back to them:

  • If you team is performing better, how will you know?
  • If you become less overwhelmed, how will you know?
  • If you are better at prioritizing, how will you know?
  • If you have more impact as a leader, how will you know?

It is such a simple technique, yet it is incredibly effective. Let’s explore why it works.

Continue reading “My #1 Coaching Question: “How will you know?””

Quick Take: Turn Off Your Camera

When you’re on a video call, turn off your camera.

It is hard to focus while on a video call and having your camera on is a distraction. Turning it off will help you focus and be more attentive to the conversation.

But, wait. I’m saying that with your camera off you’ll be more likely to pay attention and less likely to get distracted? i find that when my camera is off, I can multitask without fear that people know I’m doing it?

I understand the confusion.

You need to keep your camera on for other people to see you. This helps you stay engaged and makes it easier for other people to read your body language.

But, you need to turn your camera off so that you can’t see yourself.

Turn off self-view.

We are easily distracted primates who are naturally drawn to images of ourselves. Self-view is helpful just like checking your appearance in the mirror before you leave for work is helpful.

But we don’t walk around all day with a mirror so that we can look at ourselves constantly. That would be a huge distraction.

If you wouldn’t bring a mirror to an in-person meeting so that you could look at yourself while you’re in the meeting, you shouldn’t have self-view turned on.

Turn off self-view and you will find your focus and attention increases.

Quick Take: One Measure of Coaching Impact

The impact of coaching is difficult to quantify and measure. And it is difficult if not impossible to define ahead of time exactly what actions you will take as a coach and exactly what result those actions will produce.

But there are indicators that you are having an impact as a coach. Here is one.

If you have time scheduled with a leader you are coaching and you find that your 30 minute session becomes 60 or 90 minutes because you get into a good topic and the leader doesn’t want to cut the conversation short…that is an indicator that your coaching is impactful for that leader.

Leaders and executives are very busy and it is likely that their calendars are full. At the same time, they are willing to rearrange their calendars as needed based on shifting priorities.

If you have coaching conversations with these leaders and executives and find that your 30 minute session doesn’t end after 30 minutes because they are seeing the value of what you are doing, that is an endorsement of the impact you are having.

One thing that I’ve started doing is ensuring that my calendar has flexibility for the 30-60 minutes after a coaching conversation with a key leader or executive. Because the last thing I want to do is feel that I need to cut an impactful conversation short because I have another commitment.

People show you their priorities by what they do, more than what they say. If they say they are open to coaching and that your coaching is valuable, that is one thing. If they are also willing to move other meetings to continue their conversation with you, that demonstrates the impact you are having.