I recently had a text from my son, Jim: Dad, I am worried, I have to have a very difficult conversation with one of my clients!” Later, after the actual conversation took place, he told me that it had gone well. I then asked him: “have you debriefed it?” And his answer was: “sort of.” Unfortunately, many of us fall into this trap of “sort of” holding a debrief meeting, thinking about what we could have done better etc. I have a friend who is a prominent leadership speaker who made the following statement: “Only evaluated lessons learned improve future execution.” What this means to me is that when we simply have self-talk about what we would do differently next time, it rarely changes or impacts improved future performance. This is why a structured debrief meeting that focuses on captured lesson learned improvements is so impactful.
In this case, Jim needed to handle a tricky business challenge: As an external team building consultant, how do you handle a dominant team leader who is negatively impacting team performance? I had a conversation with my son, Jim, on the details of this near disaster with a key client mobilizer, let’s call him Mike. He described to me that in the 6 weeks he has worked with Mike he has observed that anytime he was in the group he has very negative effects: shutting down true ideas, limiting conversation, and engagement by the rest of the team. My son was uncomfortable confronting Mike directly and felt compelled to speak to Mike’s right-hand subordinate with whom he had a strong relationship regarding the impact of his boss. This, of course, went horribly bad when the subordinate told his boss: “Jim says you are the problem!” …. YIKES. Now we are into damage control: phone calls, explanations etc.
As a Dad, I always want to help my son learn from such events so we discussed how he could have handled this situation. I first pointed out that your desire to act as a trusted advisor to have honest conversations about observed problems is admirable and what trusted advisors do. How could he have handled this better? I walked him through how the S.T.E.A.L.T.H. debriefing model, with which he is familiar, is a helpful guide to navigating, mentoring, and coaching conversations.
Let’s see how a debrief meeting works:
S – Set the time. Jim did not think that Mike would have the time or appetite for a conversation about his impact on the team. I told Jim that I have rarely seen a supervisor that when asked if he had a few minutes to “Debrief” his current team observations, turns down a request formatted this way. The term Debrief is very powerful. Setting the time is also about preparation. In preparing for this Debriefing Jim needs to collect the facts to support his observations. The identification of times and places where Mike had a demonstrable impact on team performance is very important. And, you don’t want to make this up as you go, or on the fly! I challenged Jim to recall 3-5 instances that would support his Debriefing. This step has an added benefit of informing Jim of whether or not he is prepared to having a Debrief meeting. Without the facts, a conversation like this is perilous.
T – Tone. Nameless and Rankless; Open and Honest. I reminded Jim that addressing Mike in a way that is positive sets the stage for more discussion and is critical to the success of the Debriefing. “Mike, this is a difficult conversation for me because we are very close in age and I am here working for you. But I realize that sharing some details about your team’s ability to work as a team, communicate and collaborate is critical to the future success of our work.” Thinking through, in advance, what he should say to set up the Debrief meeting is crucial to his success.
E – Execution vs Objective. The Mission Objective and Results. I suggested to Jim that he point Mike toward their shared objective: “I believe your objective is to provide leadership that promotes teamwork, communication, and collaboration so that this project is completed on time and with the desired results and it’s my role to support you in that, is that right Mike?” Now Jim can review his facts and share his observations describing team interactions and subsequent breakdowns in desired results.
A – Analyze Results. Results, Cause and Root Cause. Asking questions can bring clarity to how and why the team veered off-track. “Mike, these examples each showcases where the team left your meetings and were not clear or felt empowered to act.” “How do you think these failures took place?” “Why do you think they took place?” Hopefully, this conversation will lead Mike to the realization that his behavior is creating a stifling effect on the team.
L – Lessons Learned. What are we going to do to fix this problem in the future? At this point, Jim needs to listen for Mike to identify what he wants to do differently. I told Jim that he can simply capture these ideas and maybe add his suggestions to help Mike determine his Lessons Learned.
T – Transfer Lessons Learned. Who else needs to know this and how will we get them the information to them? Jim may not have gotten to this point, but if he does he can suggest that Mike discuss this with his team. Telling the team that he wants his team to feel empowered as they move forward, could be a very powerful step!
H – High Note. End in a positive place. “Mike, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to Debrief with you, I want to be a trusted advisor to you, and I certainly hope that you will feel free and encouraged to have open and honest Debriefings with me too!”
In summary, use the S.T.E.A.L.T.H. process to plan your Debriefing (Coaching or Mentoring). It is a powerful and helpful tool to guide difficult conversations to a positive outcome. The S.T.E.A.L.T.H. model provides a framework to keep the conversation as safe as possible. Most importantly, the S.T.E.A.L.T.H. model ensures that the debrief meeting delivers action that will change and improve the future.
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Charles “Chaz” Campbell is the most senior member of the Afterburner Team. He recently retired from active service having achieved the rank of Brigadier General and accumulating over 30 years of service in the US Air Force and the Florida Air National Guard. During his career, Chaz has commanded at all levels within the Air Force, none more demanding than his last assignment as the Vice Commander of Air Forces North, First Air Force where he lead in the “can’t fail” environment of Air Defense of the entire United States airspace, helping ensure September 11th would not ever happen again. Chaz is a graduate of the US Air Force Fighter Weapons School, after which he was selected as an instructor for the elite Air Force fighter school. He has been combat ready in the F-4, F-16 and the F-15 with over 3,700 hours.