[Land O’Spin] On the (Mini) Beach

Land O’Spin is an occasional set of writings focused on best practices in coaching and assessment: how do take what you observe, know what it means, and draw conclusions about what outcomes will occur in the future.

There is nothing quite like a plumbing tract infection to cause you to slow down and lay low. One minute you’re watching March Madness, and the next moment you’re piling on the blankets to ward off chills that alternate with hot flashes – still with the TV as “company”.

I don’t know if it’s my low-grade fever, or the horizontal viewing angle from two days in bed, but it seems that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (or his handlers) continue to struggle to find the setting that works for him. Like John McCain behind a teleprompter, the settings in which Geithner has been placed: speaking behind teleprompters, testifying behind those long tables on the Hill, on-camera and off, and standing and speaking extemporaneously at press conferences have all bounced.

Geithner has neither looked comfortable or competent, which in his work – selling competence and solutions – spells looming disaster. And yet whcn you look at him carefully, as my colleague Jackie McGrath might say, he has all the tools to do well.

As an easy contrast, consider Barack Obama, who by all accounts has taken to new settings like a duck to water. While Geithner has not looked like the Treasury’s version of the Shell Answer Man . Obama, on the other hand, has looked – well, Presidential. In part that’s because as President he pretty much gets to pick his setting – and stays away from the places (bowling anyone ?) that don’t work.

Geithner’s continuing struggle to find his setting – and footing – is instructive for coaching people. There are a hosts of things that culturally signal to us authenticity, command, and competency, all which can vary by role, sector, gender, and age.

In my experience, work starts with assessing where / how / when people do well. Once you understand those positive attributes you can begin to figure out a way to leverage them in other settings. The goal, in all cases, is to help the person with whom you’re working be more effective – not to always try to make them be effective in settings that they will unlike succeed. But trying ad hoc by putting him in different settings – really just a "sink or swim" approach – is not likely to be very effective.

A few years ago I had a chance to do some work at a worldwide team offsite with Barclays Global Investors CFO Frank Ryan. Frank, who is a good guy, is sort of live death at a podium; stiff, stilted, and not very personable. The solution for Frank at this 75 person off-site was to set up a "fireside interview" (think Oprah with a favorite guest) in front of those 75 people where Frank could worry less about the printed word and have more comfort knowing that he was sitting down with a friendly colleague. The result? People raved about Frank’s session learned more about him and the direction he was taking the group than they would have in a 10 regular speaking sessions. The result for Frank was that he became even more effective with his direct reports – all because they got to see him in a setting that play to his strengths (smart, funny, quick-witted, and business savvy) , rather than his liabilities.

Stay tuned.