What does a coach really do?

The Indian cricket team’s dressing room sports a new head coach: Anil Kumble. The Indian head coach’s job is a prized one. Evidenced, if not by the frenetic minute-by-minute media attention, then by the sheer number of applicants for the top job: 57!

The Kumble coaching appointment saga took me back 10 years. It was 2006-07. John Buchanan was the coach of the Australian cricket team. The undisputed champions then, the team had earned a fearful reputation of clinically decimating opponents. Buchanan was a poster boy of sorts and I followed all what he spoke and wrote, and read all I could about his unconventional methods and the routines that he put the Australian cricket team through. It was another matter though that the team itself was star-studded: Shane Warne, the Waugh brothers, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden among others.

It was a random search fuelled by a liking for cricket, a passion for (and a job in) the people development domain and being a complete sucker for stories of “transformation” and success.  Buchanan and his boys kept reinforcing the stories that the media played out with success stamps from the cricket field. It was fascinating enough for me to decide that it was a success story that I had to get to the bottom of.

I remember reading and talking to other enthusiasts about his unconventional methodologies from pilates to public speaking. From prescribing Duncan Fletcher’s Ashes Regained as a mandatory read to dipping into Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for evolving the strategy he called “Everest”. And of course, the incisive deployment of data and analytics for team strategy. It was fascinating to say the least.

This is an extract from a piece that I wrote for Founding Fuel. Read the full piece here. 

The piece was published on 04 th July, 2016 and appeared in the Mint on the 5th July 16 and sported the above image along with the piece. 




‘U’ turns

“The boss isn’t competent”.

“The job isn’t meaningful”.

“Colleagues / partnerships are insensitive”.

“My health is going downhill and I don’t have the time to work on it”.

“People resort to unfair means to get ahead and I don’t want to do the same”.

“I cant get to work on my passions. The turkdom of daily work is killing my soul”

One of these is bound to come up in conversations beyond that go beyond a brief while. Once the pleasantries are done and the weather is beaten to death so much, that anything said beyond that would get the weatherman come after with an employment letter.

I don the hat of a coach, at times.  Most other times, just being a friend and listening to people, which in any case is a key aspect of being a coach.

The ‘sadness’ that engulfs the conversation is only eclipsed by the seeming helplessness of the situation. “But what can I do? I have a home loan and kids need to go to school” are refrains. Many speak of wanting to throw it all away and pursue their passions. The room lights up by their frissons when they describe these. Darkness returns as they talk of their immediate circumstances.

Sitting there, I don’t do much. For there is nothing for me to do except listen. Only pausing to ask a question here or one there. Hoping it can be a flare in a new moon night. Perhaps showing us a patch that can become a pathway. A clearing that can lead to a path. Whatever.

I have never ceased to be amazed at the depth of what resides in each conversation and in every person. Every time I come back convinced that the world will be a better place if we can sit down and talk to each other. Listening without an agenda.

The other thing that I have learnt to trust in, and am always proven right is this : people have it in them to be better off with their lives. Sometimes all I have to do is to help them become present to the fact that their choices make the difference. Choices that they become aware of when they speak their hearts out. When they are in the flow.

The moment, choices and consequences are very clear to people, new possibilities emerge.  People begin taking the You Turn. First in their minds and then if you help them stick with it, in reality as well.

You don’t need to do much.  Ask a few questions. Listen with all you have got. Perhaps am making it sound a tad easier than it is.

Here is an invitation. Perhaps its a challenge. Can you sit back and listen to one person this week?  It could be your driver. Perhaps the boss. Maybe its a peer in another organisation. Or even your kids. Listening without agenda. Just one person.

It may seem like an exercise in waste. You have no idea what it does to the other person. I didn’t too, for a long while. And then, I experienced an ace coach help people take ‘U’ turns. It gave me a new lens and I have been working on my ears.


Building an “attitude of interest” – Humble Inquiry

My dad used to always tell me that the virtues in keeping things simple, easy and small was so huge, that it gets often missed. His knack for keeping things real simple and constantly seek beyond what seemed obvious or what were ‘mainstream voices’, got him untold riches. Relationships. Ideas. Discoveries. And a wide spectrum of people who wanted to work with him. The essence of it was all about having an abundance of curiosity and an attitude of discovery. More of dad later.

Now about Humble Inquiry.


When Vivek Patwardhan recommends a book, I close my eyes and buy it.  Thats that. When he recommended “Humble Inquiry” by Edgar Schein, it was no different. Having consumed several of Edgar Schein‘s work in the past (and occasionally foisting it on MBA students who I taught), I was mildly surprised that I hadn’t come across this work before.  That it was dated June 2013, was some consolation!

Schein writes at the end of the book, “This book represents a culmination and distillation of my 50 years of work as a social and organisational psychologist“.  That one comment should be suffice to get anyone get started. But there is more. Here is another quote. “The current book Humble Inquiry brings together all of these trends in showing how culture and individual behaviour interact, and what it will take in the way of counterculture behaviour to deal with the changes that are happening in the world“.

In more than one way, the last few posts of mine have been about changes that are occurring in the world and our ways of dealing with them. Be it facilitation, Working Out Loud or even ‘Social’ for that matter.  This book settles that theme remarkably well for me. My own stumbling across such themes is either a fortuitous consequence or perhaps I am viewing everything that I am stumbling across with my current lens.

From very early on, Schein anchors his argument as an alternative to the popular mainstream culture of ‘tell’. “We also live in a structured society in which building relationships is not as important as task accomplishment in which it is appropriate and expected that the subordinate does more asking that telling, while the boss does more telling that asking. Having to ask is a sign of weakness or ignorance, so we avoid it as much as possible”. 

He drops anchor on curiosity, to explore and a willingness to ask questions to which we do not already know the answer.

The book is insightful in more ways than one. It is a read that I would recommend to any leader aspiring to lead large organisations now. And more importantly, in the future. The examples are lucid and pointed. Before you assume that the book is a set of skills about asking questions, let me hasten to add, that it is far from that. In fact, Schein himself states explicitly at several places. “The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity“.

The book has several parts to it, stretching from building a case for it, articulating what it is and what could be possible inhibitors and ideas about developing this attitude. The weaving in of Humble Inquiry through the windows of simple frameworks like Johari Window and the ORJI (Observation – Reaction – Judgement – Intervention ) model helps in making it contextual and practical.

Its an easy, simple read. Devoid of jargon. Its the best Rs.123/- that I have spent in a long time!

This book is a superlative, if you are in the talent development, culture change arena. If you are an executive coach or are in pursuit of perfecting your skills, this could well be the centrepiece of your practice. Of course, this book holds a bundle of benefits for anyone serious about leading teams in our current times!

The scepter of uncertainty envelopes every leader’s ornamental bauble. Knowledge and expertise are far too distributed within and outside the precincts of the firewall.  The ‘attitude’ of ‘Humlbe Inquiry”, when coated with ‘social skills’ adds another rather potent dimension to the modern day leader’s quiver.

And, dad. It was while reading this book that realisation dawned that what endeared him to many was his consummate practicing of ‘Humble Inquiry’. His innate ability to ask a question with warmth, genuine interest and wait for answers used to have many wanting to talk to him. This book reminded me of him. Thats one more reason that this book stays on my mind.