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Posts from the ‘Consultants’ Category

The Right Conversation: An Innovative Process for Teams

I have recently been trained on a remarkable new tool that helps leadership teams assess the quality of their interactions and then discuss how they want to make improvements. It is called The Right Conversation and was developed by Dik Veenman and his colleagues. Instead of offering my regular two cents here I want to link you to several sites where you can learn more about this process.

Here is a video of Dik talking about leadership team conversations:

Here is the website:

For those of you who are members of leadership teams and want to improve the quality of the dialogue or for OD practitioners who are looking for a unique tool to support your clients I highly recommend that you spend time looking at TRC. You will find Dik to be a wealth of information, insight and helpfulness.

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One Reason to Keep a So-So Team Member

As a consultant I was a wizard at assessing team members and advising leaders on building effective teams. As an executive I found myself facing many of the common roadblocks my clients had trouble resolving. Listen up all my fellow consultants out there: most leaders have the proper insights about their direct reports and team but get tangled in company history, policies or politics that can prevent them from doing the right thing. I know this from experience.

In my countless ongoing discussions with my executive peers about the talent and progress of their direct reports they were usually fair, informed and insightful.  They all wanted the best players on their teams to help accomplish their shared goals so these were conversations they were interested in having. There were always a good amount of employees who were doing well, getting praised and receiving new assignments. And then there were all the rest.

In spite of the damage that a poor performer was having on the team I was regaled with stories about why this was so and why little could (or should) be done about it. Institutional knowledge is one of my favorites. I heard complicated tales of personal setbacks, past snafus, loyalty and simply no stomach to make a move. It’s not that I’m a cold hearted bitch; quite the opposite. But I was struck by the leeway that some people could receive while others suffered or were left to pick up the pieces. I get that relationships and alliances form in the workplace but this is entirely dysfunctional. It jeopardizes the retention of the best talent, overall results are compromised and morale decreases.

I stopped scratching my head over this one when I found myself in their shoes. I was instructed to lay off someone on my team because headquarters wanted to centralize the function and because this person was too stuck in the past. Intellectually I understood the plan but operationally I knew it would be a disaster.  This woman knew how to keep the (very quirky and idiosyncratic) trains running and she was my go-to person. It’s true that she had been at the company forever and was initially resistant to any changes and would never be more than a reliable individual contributor. But she was also the most sought after member of my team by all facets of the organization. I found myself telling my boss the same stories about institutional knowledge and loyalty and yadda yadda. As my boss was explaining why I was getting dinged on my bonus that year he cited my refusal to let this person go.

My take away from this is that sometimes it’s the right thing for an executive to advocate for keeping an essential but mediocre player but you may suffer some consequences for doing it. And this is a lesson that consultants don’t understand until they have been on the other side of the table.


After many years as an organizational and leadership consultant I was convinced that I would make a great executive. And so did the people who hired me. After all, I had advised so many C-suite folks in so many industries and they were all doing quite well. All I had to do was apply my smarts to my own situation. Right? Ahhhh….

Long story short, I discovered there is a huge (really huge!) difference between talking about leadership and actually leading. So for all the consultants who imagine you’d be a great leader and for all the on-the-market leaders who think you’d make a great consultant, allow me to offer a few, very hard learned, lessons.    

Companies pay consultants big money to tell them the unvarnished truth.  Executives who do the same will find themselves on the fringe. 

This was the hardest thing I learned.  Unfortunately I had to learn it over and over again because I never understood this.  Before becoming a VP I had been a trusted and respected consultant and had provided hours of straight talk to leadership teams. It took me three years to comprehend that truth telling on an executive team is quite a different beast.  Any seasoned executive would wince at my naïveté that ignored the complicated relationships, history and politics at play. It wasn’t until my last year as a VP that I learned to keep my head down, nod and smile a lot and to speak of tough issues in private or with the three confidantes I developed. If I had to do it all over again I’d pick my timing and phrasing better.  But not calling out the obvious is not in my DNA.  Experience has taught me that bad things can happen to people, teams and organizations if the truth is offered only selectively.  Only consultants get the luxury of speaking up all the time.  If you don’t, then you’re not worth your fees.

Consultants see things at high altitudes to prescribe the best solutions.  Organizational success is achieved at the ground level.

The part of my consulting training that made it possible to roll out big plans and listen to the specific needs of various clients was that balance between great thinking and implementation. The best ideas for the client to achieve objectives were based on solid research and staff input. This became an area of many successes for me as an executive. I was able to get good data, create a robust overall strategy, sell the plan to key people and mobilize the team to implement it.  I took an active role in monitoring progress and was willing to modify plans to meet individual client needs. Lots of hybrid approaches and very few cookie cutters. Consultants aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts of implementation; rolling up their sleeves, working side by side with staff and changing the rules when necessary.

Organizations have a monochromatic template for leaders.  Consultants understand that effective leaders come in many forms.

As a consultant I was able to identify not-the-usual-suspects to CEOs and encourage them to take a chance.  Conversely I shed light on the-anointed-few and sounded the alarms.  I backed up my claims with data and feedback.  Generally my clients were willing to take a second look at a highly effective but under the radar leader with good outcomes.  Getting them to pull in the reins on a stallion was less successful. As the VP of HR this was a very tough sell. The very same guidance I would have given as an external consultant was rejected when I was an internal leader.

Executives receive mixed messages about spending time developing talent.  If you don’t do enough you aren’t doing your job.  If you do too much you aren’t doing your job.

I learned three very tough lessons in this area.  One is that, in general, staff is sorely neglected because of lack of time and attention devoted to their supervision and development.  Two, if you spend next to no development time as an executive with your people but get good results you will get admonished but rewarded.  And last, if you spend 40% of your time (the recommended amount in all the executive leadership literature) developing your people you will be drilled about your results…even if they are good. In reality, executives who do what the consultants recommend regarding talent development (and what the senior team signs up for) will not be the conquering the hero. It will always be the one with the best business outcomes.

A core competence for consultants is improving the effectiveness of the executive team.  An executive who volunteers to do the same will be shut down yet become the primary individual confidante for all team members.

When I told the CEO that two of my peers were creating a divisive atmosphere and undermining his authority I was told not to meddle in team dynamics.  When I suggested that I facilitate some meaningful conversations amongst executive team members to get us pulling together I was told that wasn’t my job. It took me too long to understand that a peer cannot do what a consultant can do.  Naïve?  Yes.  Well intended?  Yes.  What really messed with my head is that everyone on the senior team (and well beyond) beat a path to my door to vent about the dysfunction of our team.  When I asked “what can you, I, the team do about this?” nearly everyone backed away and claimed they just needed to get this off their chests.  So I’m hearing two things: we suck and someone ought to do something about it but I don’t want to initiate anything.  No wonder I made such silly errors as walking into the CEO’s office and imploring him to address these issues!  I was being filled with data points daily.  I totally got my consultant and executive wires crossed.

Most major organizational initiatives or changes are planned without any consideration for the impact on the people…unless there are good external consultants assisting.

The best consultants help executive teams discuss the human consequences to significant business changes.  It’s part of the strategy and planning and expert resources are brought to bear.  Communication specialists will draft talking points and coach executives in how to position the change.  Managers will be trained to tell the truth but provide a motivating message about how things will be better.  HR will be engaged in revamping processes to train and reward new skills.  Consultants understand all the elements that are touched by organizational change and this is one reason they get paid the big bucks; extra help during extraordinary times. I ran into a wall repeatedly as an executive until my peer group finally relented and began to acknowledge and then plan for the people issues. It was a very hard won challenge.

Leadership is hard.  Any consultant who presents a formula has never run anything.

A consultant, a business school professor and an executive walk into a bar.  The executive says, “Geez, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”  Concerned, the consultant and professor asked what was going on.

“The CFO told me that if we are going to hit our targets for the first couple quarters that we’re going to have to cut expenses by 10% ASAP.  We just went through this fire drill six months ago.”

The consultant nods sympathetically and says, “You know, in times of crisis it is imperative for you to be visible to the organization, to rally the troops, to engage them in making changes, to communicate constantly and lead them towards the light.”

To which the professor adds, “Research shows that in the most successful Fortune 500 companies these moments of downturn are actually the beginning of transformative reinventions.  The best CEOs pull together a tight group of advisors that lead their organizations into greener pastures.”

The executive picks up a double martini, takes a good, long drink and turns to the consultant and professor and declares, “I can’t believe you get paid to say crap like that.  You clearly have no idea what it takes to lead in the real world.”

If I hadn’t already felt like a charlatan before I took this executive role it would have hit me like a ton of bricks within the first few months of my job.  I was so convinced that everything that I had learned from books, research and clients would help me make a smooth transition into leadership.  My boss spent the first year repeatedly telling me, “We are not on consultant time here.  Slow down.  Organizations move slowly.”  Heard it, understood it but could not digest it.

Organizational culture is the key to success or failure.  Both consultants and executives have thrown their hands up because changing a culture is the singularly most difficult change to make.

Culture is the elephant in the room.  Open any book and somewhere in the first paragraph it will state how exceptionally difficult it is to change a culture.  Many consultants have either dropped this service or dramatically modified it because consultants and executives alike know that the returns on this investment are sketchy. As a consultant I have focused years of my time on this issue.  As an executive it was front of mind always.  In my reflections I seem to keep returning to one simple truism.  Put a bunch of smart and sane people together and stupid and crazy behaviors can appear.

I remain committed to helping my clients on the topic of culture.  How does a leader optimize productive human behavior to generate a critical mass of the right stuff over a sustained period of time to root out negative and unproductive behaviors?  I have parts of the answer that come from a lifetime of study but I’d be lying if I said more than it’s a bitch.  I am convinced that a healthy culture leads to productive behavior and satisfied employees.  I used to think if you just get enough of the right people in the room that the right things will happen.  Sometimes you luck out.  But we are all so ridiculously human that I know the clues are in that confluence of all the personalities and abilities that create the culture.

There was much more that I learned during my stint as an executive. One thing is absolutely clear to me. I am a different and better consultant now that I have had a turn in the seat across the desk. So, consultants out there…take the plunge. For execs making a transition into the world of consulting/coaching…learn some of the tools of the trade. They are invaluable and will give you a much broader perspective.

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Not a week goes by where I don’t have to say, “You know there is more than one style of effective leadership. Quieter, lower ego needs, super smart with little flash is actually a very dynamic combination. Just ask the people who work for that person.” These comments are usually made to CEOs who are thinking about his/her executive team and succession planning. If one more leader says to me, “Yeah, but I don’t sense the fire in the belly” I will pull my hair out and run screaming from the room. At least in my inner fantasies. That would actually be a very bad move in front of a CEO.

I’ve written about this in the past but, as I said, this is a constant conversation. And all the latest press and research studies seem to be wondering why there are not more women in executive roles.  Here is a great HBR blog entry on just this topic:

This expresses my point of view quite well and is backed up with some good psychological insights. I believe that gender plays a large part in this but I also think it is bigger than that. Whether these less aggressive traits show up in a man or a woman the reality is that typically male behaviors and disposition are valued more highly than more typically female ones. In my experience there are many men who are more humble and many women who are more narcissistic than their traditional gender assignments.

But now for the real world application….

  • When you find yourself in a leadership selection conversation, challenge, challenge, challenge. “He may be a little rough around the edges but he really gets stuff done” usually translates to “He has tyrannical tendencies with his team”. “He always seems to be on top of what I need” means he is good at managing up. Ask his staff what it is like to work for him: does he engage them in getting the work done or just bark orders and is he badgering them for information so his ass is covered? It is a big mistake to conflate good results with good leadership methods. Probe much more on the “how” he gets those results.
  • The talented but introverted leader can be phenomenally productive but it looks different than the extrovert. S/he has a strong tendency to work with and through their people instead of standing on high. This person holds a fundamental belief that there is no true and sustainable success unless others are involved. An extrovert believes that his/her actions determine success (and sometimes will acknowledge failure). So the introvert looks more subdued. Team members give the presentations while the leader is more in background. Again, this gets mistaken for (pick the one that fits) discomfort with being in front of a group, too much delegation to the staff, not engaged enough or just plain wrong. When the reality is a completely different behavior style and set of beliefs.
  • If you really want to know how effective a leader is have candid conversations with his/her staff and pick up the buzz around the office. Without exception, these understated leaders are rock stars with the staff. They provide coaching and real development opportunities for their people. They don’t shy away from the tough conversations but they are delivered with respect. “You are consistently missing the mark. I’ve tried to be helpful. What else do you need to get on track? Or do you think this is just the wrong fit for you? Let me help you either succeed or exit gracefully.” They let others speak first, they listen intently and only chime in if something was missed. They are often described as “the best boss I ever had”. These people serve as role models and informal mentors for people all over the organization. I’ve seen people change functions or locations (globally!) to continue working and growing with these leaders. I dare you to find that kind of admiration or loyalty with the more obnoxious leaders.
  • When I look at the composition of leadership styles on an executive team they are, not surprisingly, very monochromatic. Leaders tend to surround themselves with people who are more like them than not. Yes, yes, they’ve all read the books that say this is absolutely the wrong way to go but in the real world most leaders simply find it easier to manage a team of like-minded people rather than one with many points of view. I can count on one hand the number of CEOs I’ve encountered that select for differences and are comfortable handling that. So if the leader is primarily results focused in an aggressive manner you tend to find a whole team of those types. Ironically, if there are one or two of these quieter leaders on the team they become revered. They even get iconic nicknames: Sage, Yoda, Guru. And they always get feedback to speak up more often. To which they reply, “When I have something valuable to say I always say it. I don’t need to hear the sound of my own voice.”

I have so many stories about individual understated executives who are treasured assets in their organizations. But when asked if they are CEO material the current CEO and the boards give a highly qualified “yes, but”. The translation: S/he is amazing but I just worry that s/he will get eaten alive by the investors or the board or the industry so we should really be thinking about someone tougher.

What a loss. And what predictable thinking. Isn’t it time yet for a broader definition of effective leadership styles?

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A couple years ago I conducted a small research project with an HR colleague, Marcie Schorr-Hirsch. We were feeling particularly disheartened by the state of most Human Resources functions and wanted to do two things: verify if things were so bad and, if so, what is an alternative.

We asked HR executives in the Boston area what was going on in their worlds. Here is a high level summary of what they told us:

  1. Employee engagement is the number one concern of the executive team.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that, in spite of efforts primarily led by the HR staff, the employee feedback has been poor and trending in the wrong direction over multiple years.
  2. Elimination of management training programs has had a dramatic, but little discussed, impact on organizations.  HR has been hustling to fill the gaps in supervision and employee development left by managers who are not prepared to guide their (ever larger) teams.  This phenomenon is a significant driver of poor engagement feedback. The draconian training budget cuts that began 10 years ago gutted high value programs.
  3. Beyond filling in for managers, HR leaders and staff spend their time on primarily tactical activities. The CEO and other executives demand that the trains run on time, that the data is clean and accessible, that employee complaints are handled without escalation. All this is to be done faster and for less money. HR has reworked its priorities and deployed precious resources to respond to these demands.
  4. The CEO’s agenda is almost exclusively bottom line driven. HR has been unable to get on their radar screen with creative solutions that address the human issues in their organizations and mitigate the unintended consequences of this narrow focus.
  5. In general, this is a hard working but frustrated group of professionals.  Even if they sit on the senior team, their input has been hijacked or falls on deaf ears.

Honestly, we weren’t surprised about anything we heard.  But we were concerned.   Based on our shared experiences as consultants, managers and HR executives this data confirmed our own notions.  And we strongly believe that continuing down the current path does not successfully deal with the present and looming concerns of the employees the HR function has been charged with addressing.  The gap seems to lie in the failure to recognize what Daniel Pink calls  “the mismatch between what (social) science knows and what business does” to motivate and engage people.

Organizations desperately need to recognize and integrate this valuable knowledge. We believe the answer lies in the creation of a new role: Chief Social Scientist. This function would be filled by someone who is a deep expert about human behavior and how to construct the best policies, practices and environment to create the most productive and satisfied work force.  We recommend reassigning most traditional HR administrative activities (along with HR specialists who deliver them) into other operational aspects of the business and leaving the CSS and her/his team free to focus on the critical content of engaging people. Allow the CSS to be a unique voice on the executive team who is not burdened with running the trains.  Let this person speak through a social science lens, teach others how to bring this into view, bring solid human behavior data to decision making and guide the organization to a new standard of productivity and engagement.

To give a better sense of what this would look like in reality, consider how a CSS would approach the issue of inadequate management capacity.  Today it is an underground discussion in organizations and HR is not getting much traction.

A social science approach to this challenge would be conducting an in-depth debate with the executive team about the value of good management.  This discussion would draw on the team’s experiences and the best research on management and adult development.  Once grounded in a sense of shared commitment, a CSS would then shed light on the 2-3 most critical skills to cultivate in managers and then co-create a process with the extended leadership group to demonstrate and coach these few requirements.  No more 25 competencies, in-class training at the senior levels and forms and checklists to provide the metrics.  In its place would be a sharply focused, up close and personal approach to developing leaders and managing the work.

Social scientists know that there is limited long-term value in many of the tools currently used to train or develop people.  But they also know what methods are effective in creating growth and success in individuals. In today’s organizations, much of the talent management effort is focused on the high potential employees; this is largely because of the cost of scattershot efforts when they are delivered to the wider employee group.  A CSS would scrap many programs in favor of delivering sharply focused, high-value initiatives across the workforce.

There are plenty of Conference Board reports acknowledging the dire state of employee satisfaction.  We believe that staying on the current course will make those numbers even worse.  Organizations must commit to a fundamental re-framing of their understanding of their people and the structures and resources that support them. Failure to do so will continue the trend toward employee disengagement, and, as the economy revives, create an issue of retention—including that of the most valued workers.

Whether or not our organizations would like it to be so, people are not capital.  (And just when did we begin to call people Human Capital???) They are not a commodity.  If we don’t take a dramatically different approach to how we treat our human resources our organizations will soon be facing Talent War 3.0.

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These are all true stories. Identities have been modified to protect the (not so very) innocent.

When asked what she makes of the fact that her staff hates working for her, a 36-year-old senior leader replied, “I think they’re jealous of how young and cute I am”.


After making a very elaborate, 35-paged Powerpoint presentation about a major process improvement plan that would take a department of 120 people down to 60 the senior executive looked around the table for responses.  Nine executives commented on the thoroughness of the analysis and the well thought out plan.  The CEO was so impressed he asked if the process could be sped up to reap the savings sooner.  Just as the executive team was ready to bless the plan the Communications VP said, “Did you think at all about how the staff will react to this?  Where is your plan for managing the complicated people issues involved in this change?”  Absolutely and genuinely stunned the sponsor said, “Gee, I never even thought about that.”


When approached by another executive about a few specific, highly valued and unique employee situations where the impending lay off would create undue hardship, the COO said, “We’re not running a social service agency here!”


A long-term employee shows up in the office of the VP of HR to protest being fired.  The VP repeats that the issue is his chronic under performance.  When the back and forth exchange doesn’t lead to his desired outcome the employee says, “But everyone really likes me.  They’ll be very upset about my departure”.


Blind spots. To an outside observer these stories sound so nuts. But to the players in these tales, they believed they were perfectly reasonable. That is one giant disconnect. So what do you do when you are the jaw dropper? Just stand there stunned or say something? Is it your job/responsibility/duty to toss a cold splash of reality onto someone?

Let’s play this out. Take the “cute leader” in the first story. Do you say, “You’re not that young and you’re not that cute”? Or do you give your best Seth Meyers/Amy Poehler imitation and say, “Really?! Really?!” Or how about, “It might be valuable to explore other possible explanations for why everyone is so unhappy.” Sure, that last one might actually get a paragraph of conversation going but do you really think it will wind around to the person saying, “I guess I was being defensive. It feels so awful to be so disliked.” Probably not.

When someone has such a whacky explanation for a difficult situation you need to understand that she has created a story she can live with. The problem is not about her. It is about other people’s jealousy. Unless you are this woman’s therapist you will have a hard time breaking down that defense. You might get further by saying, “That may well be the case but you can’t change your age or looks. What else could you do to minimize the negativity?” In other words, stroke her ego but still try to address the problems.

For the large initiative that has all the executives’ commitment even though there has been no thought given to the human factor….If you are a leader on that team you ought to stand on the table with a big sign channeling your inner Norma Rae. Any leadership team that moves forward on major changes without talking about the impact on the people is not just blind but also callous.

When it comes to addressing a handful of people’s needs in the midst of a downsizing activity there is always one important question to ask. When this employee leaves the company do you want him to tell everyone what an uncaring and cold place it is or do you want him to say “at least they tried to help me out”. Your brand is as much about your reputation and how you treat people as it is about your products and services. Be a mensch…even if you cannot make accommodations.

As far as the long term and well liked employee goes it’s still a good idea to be a mensch. But there are a couple other things to do. “Your manager has provided a great deal of feedback to you about your disappointing performance. While it is true that you are a well loved employee here there are expectations that you have not fulfilled. I’m sorry it has come to this.” Those are the kind but firm things you say to the person. But the bigger picture raises concerns about why is this guy shocked. Had he been getting consistent corrective feedback for a period of time? Had he been given the help he needed to improve? Were others on the team being allowed to coast?

In this case the employee might have a blind spot or he might have been blindsided.

Being unaware of the impact of your own actions or your own fabricated stories (“everyone will be so upset if I leave”) is a tough way to go through life. Your better option is to listen to the people around you and take their input seriously. If not, your escapades are likely to end up as hallway fodder…or a surreal greeting card.

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I spend a lot of time advising leaders and consultants. One theme of these discussions is: how do I help this other person get their act together? I hear involved stories of multiple attempts a leader has made to get a direct report to improve their performance or stop being such a jerk. Consultants wonder if I have other tricks in my bag that can help a client change their behavior. Several things are very striking about each saga. For one the positive intent and commitment of the helper is impressive…along with their frustration. And secondly, no matter what fancy approach is tried the recipient just doesn’t improve.

Which leads me to state my constant refrain. “It seems that you care more about this person’s success than s/he does.”

This usually stops the conversation in its tracks while the helper gasps for air. “Holy shit! That’s exactly what is happening.”

Let’s pick this apart. As a manager or consultant one critical responsibility is bringing out the best in those you serve. Noble aim for sure. And the best practitioners are patient, supportive, take the person where they are, listen well, craft plans, follow up, mentor, coach…everything short of doing the damn work themselves. The thinking goes like this: this person has such potential (or is so smart) but she has these flaws that undermine her success. If only she could…(fill in the blanks) then the sky is the limit. So the manager devotes an unusual amount of time trying to be helpful.

But there was a missed step at the beginning of this process. Was there any exploration of this person’s drive, motivation, commitment and capacity to grow? Frequently there has been a cursory conversation where the employee says all the right stuff. “Thank you for investing so much in my future. I will do anything to succeed.” But that’s not how the story actually unfolds. Instead what happens is the manager pushes the rock up hill. And worse, the frustration and disappointment is more resident in the manager than the employee!

So if you have put in the time, tried multiple approaches and still don’t see growth in your direct report or client it may be time to look in the mirror. Do you care more about this person’s success than s/he does?

Here are some things to consider.

  1. Explore the person’s true desires. Rather than starting with “I see great potential in you” ask “Where would you like to get to? What gets you excited to come to work each day?” Those early discussions need to be filled with questions so you have a deeper, more complete view of what makes this person tick. Blind ambition? Minimal ambition to ascend? No desire to manage others? My point is don’t make any assumptions. Let this employee tell you what they do or don’t want to achieve. Which leads to my next thought…
  2. It’s not about you. Just because you excel at spotting raw talent or want to be known as a great developer of people or your own performance review is dependent on getting this person in line…none of these drivers will ignite the flame in someone else. Those are items on your agenda. I’ve yet to meet the adult who willingly changes or grows because someone else needs that to happen. Just ask your significant others!
  3. Growth, development, change must be planned and implemented by the employee, not the manager. The ideas, the game plan, the attempts and the reflection must be initiated by the employee. The manager or consultant is there to enhance all this, be the safe place to rehearse and a constructive adviser. Unless the employee has primary ownership, little change will occur.
  4. Pay attention to your own stuff. I think most of the time a manager is just trying to do the right thing and doesn’t become aware of the stalemate until the play is already in motion. When you find yourself disappointed or frustrated or even angry (“that ungrateful #&!@”) that is your cue that you care more than the employee does. Once you notice this then you can simply stop doing too much and say, “You don’t seem to be quite ready to make any changes. When you are, come and find me.” And if you dig a bit below your own surface you may discover that some piece of your self definition is tied up with helping others. Just be sure that you are helping those that help themselves.
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