The Power of an Unbiased, Agenda-less Observer

When the meeting first appeared on my calendar, I incredulous at the idea of a management coach. “A business shrink who would sap another hour from my frenetic day,” I thought.

I was a few months into being a product manager at Google and stressed because I was in over my head. Most difficult of all, I lacked any type of formal authority. Google structured its product teams to have authority through influence, not direct management of engineering teams or marketing teams or sales teams. The brilliance of the engineers, marketers and salespeople I worked with amplified this challenge. We were all holding each other to very high standards.

I walked into my first meeting with my management coach frazzled with the demands of the PM job and frustrated to be allocating an hour to the meeting. Unprepared, without an agenda, I introduced myself and sat down, not without an air of arrogance.

Within the first five minutes, the coach had completely disarmed me. Her tool of choice: the open-ended question. How are you? Where do you want to be in a few years? What are you struggling with at work? How do you want to improve? With that series of questions and knowing that she had no agenda other than to help me and listen to me, she had made an ally of me and over time, I became a more effective and happier PM.

During those sessions, I began to understand the impact of an unbiased, agenda-less observer - in other words a coach. It was easy for me to be open with her and share my worries about my shortcomings as a product manager. There were no negative consequences of admitting them because everything we shared was held in confidence.

My coach brought fresh eyes to problems, asked basic questions and pulled apart the challenges I brought to her each week. Because she wasn’t familiar with the inner-workings of the company, the people, the interpersonal dynamics, or the technology, I was forced to explain the situation, an exercise which often helped me put to words how I was feeling or dealing with the situation. These summaries also revealed the solutions: simplify, simplify.

When presented with one of my problems, she would equip me with simple frameworks for structuring important presentations to the executive team (clear - describe the slide, content - deliver the content, transition - set up the next slide), sharing difficult feedback to co-workers, and techniques for effective delegation. I use many of them today.

It’s been seven years since my first meeting with my management coach and I still see her and consult her with my challenges from time-to-time. A fresh perspective from a skilled unbiased friend/coach can be refreshing and insightful. It’s an investment well worth making, even for the most time-constrained people.

Published 2014-04-16 in startups  Best Practices 


Tomasz Tunguz is partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


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