Kirk Gilpin

Monday, 10 October 2005 11:12

Backseat driver or best coach ever?

Remember when you were 16 and your dad let you get behind the wheel of his car? At first, he rode with you to see how you would handle yourself under the pressure of the open road.

Once the car was moving into harm’s way, his leadership and mentoring skills came to the proverbial fork in the road, and the actions he took defined how he was remembered in the memory of his starry-eyed student. Was he a backseat driver or the best coach ever?

Lessons from the best coach ever
Things experienced are lessons learned forever.

Most of us learn by doing. We make the simple mistakes that many others have made, but once we’ve made that mistake ourselves, we don’t do it again.

The best coach ever lets his or her pupils make some mistakes but ensures that they don’t make a fatal mistake. Coaches guide and encourage and, of course, critique, and their experience is ever-present but not overbearing.

Driving down the road, your dad may have been squeezing his knee so hard the circulation to his feet was temporarily cut off. But he did his best to keep his commentary to the minimum needed to ensure a safe arrival at your destination. After all, that was the goal; get from point A to point B safely.

In business and in life, the way to learn something is to just do it. When the opportunity arises to give someone a leadership role in your organization, even in a temporary capacity, it is important to remember your goal, and their goal, is to get from point A to point B. If they are moving the project toward the goal, then the interference from you should be minimal. You are giving them a valuable gift — experience.

Lessons from the backseat driver
Lessons not learned must be relearned.

Once on the way down the road, some of us had dads who pointed things out well before they were a factor and gave detailed instructions on every phase of vehicle operation. Those dads are the backseat drivers of the world. No one, not even their own progeny, could live up to their standard of perfection.

People make mistakes. Backseat drivers don’t understand that it is important for true leaders to create opportunities and monitor progress in an environment that fosters learning, one that allows minor mistakes to happen. You will not foster a culture of leadership if you continuously give detailed instructions on every phase of project execution and point things out well before the project leader has a chance to discover and experience it.

It is your duty to make sure that once you place someone in a position of authority that is appropriate for their level of experience, they have enough autonomy to both accomplish the task and learn from it.

The lesson that a student isn’t allowed to learn by doing will eventually be learned when there is much more at risk.

Backseat drivers never need to insist on driving. Whenever they get near the car, the keys will always be delivered to their palms — not because their driving skill and expertise far surpass those of the other passengers but simply because no one can take the continuous stream of instructions that will inevitably ensue. No one wants to be bothered — so they just let the backseat driver have the wheel.

In your organization, are your people asking for the keys to the car? If not, why not? Are you a backseat driver or the best coach ever?

Kirk Gilpin is president of Smartalk Communications Inc., a provider of business communications solutions. He is also a vice president of Fighter Associates LLC (, a provider of leadership training and consulting services. Reach him at

Tuesday, 26 July 2005 13:47

Strong leadership

Leadership has some basic tenets that we all need to be reminded of sometimes. The golden rule, simply put, is that leaders lead. What does that mean? Leaders set objectives and define the direction for their organization. Too often, people in leadership positions simply manage.

They focus on day-to-day tasks and operational efficiency and ignore, or simply don’t recognize, that the people in their organization have the energy and skill to improve operational efficiency on their own. People often just don’t know what direction to take, so they wait and continue to do things the same old way. Set the objective, and you might just be surprised how well your people will respond to clear direction.

How can you avoid the pitfalls of the “management versus leadership” conundrum? Here are the first two steps to follow.

Set objectives
It seems simple, but it is often the first thing that is left out of a manager’s crosscheck. You know, or you should know, what you want your organization to achieve and when you want to reach that goal. This is true whether your organization is a department, division or the whole company.

For example, a company goal may be “profitability for each division of Builder Corp. by the end of the fiscal year, measured quarterly, with a net corporate profit of at least $2.5 million for the fiscal year.” This is a clear goal for the company and for each division of the company.

Say Builder Corp. has two divisions. The more established Commercial Division has more profit potential and less growth potential, while the newer Luxury Home Division is the opposite. When setting divisional goals, consider the challenges each division may have to overcome to meet that goal — they may be dramatically different.

The Luxury Home Division is in its second year, and it recently launched new projects to expand the geographic reach of Builder Corp., requiring substantial investments in marketing, so the profit potential is limited this fiscal year. Taking this into account, the company leadership still expects it to be profitable by the last quarter of the fiscal year. So from this example, the Luxury Home Division head knows that she needs to manage her division to achieve this profitability objective.

Once you have a clear idea of where your organization needs to be, you must communicate that objective and a realistic time frame for reaching it. An objective unbounded by time is simply a suggestion.

The best way to communicate an organizational objective is to do so in writing at a time and place (such as a staff meeting) where key stakeholders have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. As the organizational leader, it gives you an opportunity to see if your people view the objective as clear and realistic. If not, it should be revised and re-communicated.

In today’s communication environment, e-mail is a good avenue for mass distribution and ensures that everyone in the organization has a written copy. This gives people a reference that they can come back to.

These ideas are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to implementing strong leadership practices. But they’re the big tip of the iceberg, and they can effect big changes in your organization. The true power of setting and communicating clear objectives is that they become the point of reference from which decisions are made.

Many decisions become no-brainers when held against the standard of a clear objective. Members of an organization become empowered to make decisions at the lowest level and have confidence that they can build strong arguments to support their decisions.

When you have people in your organization making decisions that support your objectives, you have accelerated the efficiency of your organization.

KIRK GILPIN is president of Smartalk Communications Inc., a provider of business communications solutions. He is also a vice president of Fighter Associates LLC (, a provider of leadership training and consulting services. Reach him at