Friday, December 16, 2016

Leadership lessons from unusual places: Project Runway

With this post, I'm wrapping up a week-long recap of my presentation "Leadership Lessons from Unusual Places," from last week's Government IT Symposium.

Coaching and mentoring are very important to me. I named my blog "Coaching Buttons" because of the importance of coaching. The name "Coaching Buttons" refers to those informal moments when you can provide some coaching to one of your team.

Of course, it's better to find separate time for proper coaching. And there's a great example of coaching in Tim Gunn from the TV reality show Project Runway. If you haven't watched the show, it's a reality show where fashion designers compete. Because it's a reality show, there's an elimination every week. But I think it's fair that designers get eliminated based on merit, not personal bias from the judges.

Each episode has the same basic structure: the designers receive their challenge, they shop for materials, then they have one or two days to create a fashion garment. It's a very short timeframe for the designers to create and execute their visions.

About half-way into each episode, Tim Gunn arrives to provide some coaching to the designers. Let's watch this brief clip and observe Tim's coaching style:

I think this clip is typical of Tim's coaching on the show. Note how Tim asks probing questions, and offers observations. He doesn't "push" a viewpoint or agenda on the designer. It's up to the designer to execute their vision.

Tim doesn't dictate a resolution. In other episodes, it is extremely rare for Tim to make a direct suggestion for what to do with the design. In this clip, I observe the designer answering questions with an implied "question mark" at the end of his answer, possibly to elicit approval or direction from Tim. But Tim doesn't respond to that. He doesn't force an idea.

Through his probing questions and observations, Tim lets the other person explore options and find their own way. This clip is one example of that. I also tried to find another great example from the show, but for the life of me I can't find it on YouTube. In that coaching moment, Tim helped a designer who felt "stuck" on his design. In response, Tim suggested they look at the design from a different angle. "You are literally too close to this." So they went to the other end of the work room and looked at the design on the mannequin. Having some sense of separation helped the designer, who immediately saw the problem and had an idea for what to do.

When we provide coaching, we need to avoid pushing our own agenda onto the discussion. Let the other person explore new ideas, let them make the discovery. If you think you know the "answer" and offer your own solution, then whatever they do is your "fault." They won't feel any ownership in the decision. Instead, ask questions that allow the person to work through a problem and work out the issue on their own terms. When they return to work, they will have ownership in what they are doing.

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