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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Reflecting on Office Behavior

Career Coaches Help People See Themselves From Co-Workers' Perspectives

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page F04

Lucy Stribley was a take-no-prisoners, there's-no-excuse-for-mistakes kind of rising-star boss several years ago. Although she wanted her team to succeed, few would have considered her warm and fuzzy. In fact, the people she managed at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. had dubbed her the "weedwhacker."

Stribley's boss, by contrast, is what she calls a Care Bear. When her boss told her she needed to change the way she communicated with employees, Stribley, 35, just didn't get it.

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So Stribley's boss got her a coach.

Less than a decade ago, few people knew what an executive coach or career coach was. Today, companies hire them to work with employees, hoping to build executive potential into reality. The cost isn't small, but companies that use coaching services say the return on investment can be huge.

Stribley, on maternity leave with a daughter, says her coach changed the way she worked, the way her team worked and, frankly, her life.

One of the first things the coach did was ask the people Stribley managed for input. The employees called Stribley impatient. They said she didn't care about people.

Stribley was not happy with the results of this survey and fought with the coach, saying the assessments were wrong. All she ever did was try to help people succeed, she argued. But Stribley began to understand, with a bit of coaching, that much of the problem was perception. Even if Stribley told people they were wrong because she wanted them to do better, employees perceived in her tone and body language that she was attacking them. And that's why her employees read her as cold and uncaring about them and about their careers.

In fact, Stribley thought she was a better manager for telling it like it is. She wanted to be the first to tell under-performing employees that they weren't living up to her standards. "I don't think it's fair that they're the last to know," she said. "But what was happening is people read [my actions] in a different way."

So with some guidance, she learned to say things like: I may be making you a little uncomfortable here, but my intent is to help you succeed. "When I finally got it, it was so simple," she said.

Stribley's coach helped her realize that her actions made her unapproachable. Many of her employees at the time were just starting to have babies. Stribley knew they thought of her as a career-only woman, so she brought in pictures of nieces and nephews. She hung pictures of co-workers' children on her wall. Suddenly, she was an open, real person, it seemed, rather than a careerist with no interest in life outside work. She was "changing my posture," she said. It perked up her employees and made the team more cohesive.

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