Accompaniment

I got to spend the afternoon cooking with one of my daughters. We were making quinoa latkes, a recipe I highly recommend (even if you’re neither a vegetarian nor making piles of latkes for Hanukkah.) They’re delicious and, except for the bit where you cook them in oil, extremely healthy—they’re made with sweet potatoes, kale, quinoa, ginger, panko and eggs.

My daughter is a great baker and a good cook, so she’s comfortable in the kitchen. That said, even though she wanted to be in charge of making the quinoa latkes, she needed help, from time to time, in the form of accompaniment.

Accompaniment, when done successfully, allows someone to succeed at a new, stretch assignment while feeling supported along the way.

In this case, my daughter understood and could follow and execute the recipe. But there were a few steps that stumped her: How much should the boiling water bubble before turning down the flame on the quinoa? Do you use a peeler and grater on fresh ginger? How soft, exactly, do the sweet potatoes need to be?

Each of these questions was a quick, easy answer, small enough that they required very little from me, but important enough that without them she could have gotten stuck.

While she was cooking, I busied myself with other kitchen tasks: peeling and chopping up a big butternut squash and cutting up a pile of Brussel Sprouts for later. This was a good choice, because it kept me nearby—not pulled into another task—while also reminding me to resist my natural tendency to help a little too much (also known as “taking over”).

The latkes were great, and the lesson on accompaniment is one I’ll take forward into 2020.

When we accompany successfully we inhabit the essential space between giving too much freedom (“here’s what you need to get done, here’s how I’d like to you to do it, let me know if you need anything”) and too much direction (micromanagement). This allows the person you’re supporting to stay in the driver’s seat, even in the face of challenges, and to feel supported in overcoming these challenges without giving up control and agency. At its best, successful accompaniment begets pride in accomplishment, an increase in trust, and more confidence for the next task.

Of course, pulling this off when standing next to a family member, together in the kitchen on a relaxed holiday afternoon, isn’t too hard. Finding this balance—of staying present, available, and quick to help—in the midst of the push and pull of our busy days and jobs is harder.

The two must-haves are staying aware and being highly available and communicative.

  1. Staying aware: find a way to continually track, in a light-touch way, the progress of the person you’re supporting, so you always know whether things are on or off track and can be ready to help.
  2. Being highly available and communicative: it’s your job to demonstrate that the door is wide open and that, even though you’re not involved every step of the way, you are present and available. Being there to jump in quickly to solve a problem, and then pulling back again to give back the reins, is a great way to ensure that someone feels supported and still in control.

One final note: I want to thank all of you for accompanying me throughout 2019. I hope you’ve found this year’s posts useful, and that they’ve supported you in the important work that you do. I wish you all a happy, healthy 2020.

Maybe You Should Focus on This

I notice this all the time with my kids.

I can’t solve problems for them.

Often, as they get older, they don’t even want my help any more.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I can say, “I think focusing on this part will make a big difference.”

And it does.

Because they have the skills. That’s not the problem.

Some of the time I can help them with diagnosis: how to apply their skills to this problem.

But most of the time it’s not even that. They have all the tools, it’s just that it feels uncomfortable–to them, to to anyone–to stick with and prioritize the hard bits.

As bosses and colleagues, as coaches and spouses and friends, we don’t need to have all the answers. Even if we had them, that wouldn’t matter, because they’d be our answers, not someone else’s.

What we do need to do is to listen attentively, to pay close attention, and, occasionally, by reflecting on our own experience, context and perspective, suggest a slightly different focus: a new lens through which to see a situation, a rejiggering of what could be at the very top of the list.

We shouldn’t be in the solutions-giving business. The answers we can provide are rarely just right, and, even if they were, it’s disempowering when an answer comes from someone other than the person facing the challenge.

But helping people channel their energy in the right way—that’s a great way to partner.

The Do It Yourself Tax

Each time you decide that you can and will do something better, there’s a tax.

A tax on the initiative of the person you took the job from.

A tax on their sense of agency.

A tax on confidence.

A tax on learning.

Taxes are important. They are part of how things work. They allow other good things to happen. They are necessary.

But they’re still taxes. They have a cost.

So use them wisely.