“Storytime With Managers” are the questions you would ask an expert over a cup of coffee (including the ones you feel scared to ask), packaged up into 20min podcast episodes.
Coaching Towards Autonomy And Dreams with Bavani Kehoe - Transcript
JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast microseries by Cohere.
Hi, I’m Jennifer Tu, and I’m here with Bavani Kehoe to talk about managing in some unique situations. Bavani, can you tell us a little about yourself?
BAVANI: Sure. My name is Bavani Kehoe and I work at Beyond 12, which is a national education technology nonprofit, and it’s a college success organization. So we work toward increasing college persistence and completion in low income minority and first generation college students. And we do that using a hybrid model of human coaches and a variety of technologies. I work specifically on MyCoach, which is our student-facing application, and I’ve held a variety of roles at Beyond 12 or on a variety of hats. But my work has always included managing a team of three to eight student interns and early career professionals.
JENNIFER: Cool. And you had mentioned before the show that you worked part time, and I was wondering what your schedule is like.
BAVANI: That has also varied. I have worked as many as 30 hours a week and as few as 10 to 15. And right now, I’m working 24 hours a week. And I usually do that. I try to get into the office as much as I can. So, that’s usually however many full days I can make it happen as opposed to like half days.
JENNIFER: So that means you’re basically working for three days of the week.
JENNIFER: So what do you do when something comes up on a day that you’re out, like one of your reports is having some trouble. What do you do when they can’t reach you, and that’s a regular occurrence every week.
BAVANI: I wouldn’t say that they can’t reach me. We use Slack at Beyond 12 as our communication method. And they know that they can @ me in Slack so that I get a notification. And I don’t look at every single notification that comes across. But if I see one from somebody on my team, I do take a look at it to see whether they’re stuck in some way.
But I think there’s also a proactive component about setting them up with their network of resources within the organization, because it wouldn’t be great if I was ever the only person who had a specific answer anyway. So what they know is they have themselves as a resource. They have their team channel that they can ask questions out loud. And this is actually something that I provide development with early in people’s internships is when they come to me with questions, I almost always say, “That’s a question that you could ask in the channel,” because then there are more people listening who might be able to answer. And usually, I’m not the only person who could answer a specific question. And then, of course, they know who the other people with more experience or in higher up roles in the organization are. But that’s a little bit more intimidating for them to approach somebody that they don’t work with on a regular basis who they think of as more senior.
One more component is that I do have specific availability for them. So I have my standing one-on-ones with them and I have time set aside as office hours where they know, like the only thing I’m doing is waiting for them to ask me a question.
JENNIFER: Well, I have so many questions. Let’s see where to start. How often do you have one-on-ones with your reports?
BAVANI: I do one 30-minute meeting every two weeks for most of the student interns, and that’s because they work part time. So, I don’t want to take up a huge fraction of their time. Earlier in the summer, with interns who are working full time, I will do them every week until they are kind of up and running and don’t need as much support. I try to keep those one-on-ones as the big picture of how their internship is going. We’ve kind of come up with stuff like, “Oh, I’m having some friction with this person,” or, “I don’t know how to use this specific system.” But I also wanted to include what is your current project that you work on? What is your career goals? What are you hoping to get out of this internship? So that’s the space that I hold for it. And if they start asking me nitty gritty questions, we actually schedule a separate conversation about, like, how do I use JIRA? How do I use SQL. We then invite other interns too, if it’s relevant. We keep the space as really a mentorship moment.
JENNIFER: How about when you hold office hours? One thing I’m wondering about there is when I’m seeing office hours held by managers in the past, myself included, it feels like they either don’t get used or only one person uses them. Have you found the office hours to be effective for yourself?
BAVANI: It varies. And the situations in which it is the most successful are times when I am in the office and visible, and so are they. There was one summer that I had eight interns and they sat – we were working on this coworking space and they sat at this funny desk with arms, like two or three of them [inaudible] of the table and I was kind of in the middle. And I was working on whatever I was working on, but I was right in front of them and they could just say, “Hey, Bavani,” and I would turn around and look at them and ignore whatever else I had been doing. And they knew that that was like a good time to talk to me. At times when we’re not all in the office or when I can’t be in the office, then it’s helpful to say, “Here I am online. Reach out if you need anything right now because I’m available for you.”
JENNIFER: Oh, I really like that. One thing I feel like is really different is that physical proximity, because what I’ve seen office hours in the past, you have to get up and go to some meeting room and take that extra activation energy in order to see the manager. So, I’d like the spin of make office hours happen in person, so that way, they literally have to look at you and that’s it.
JENNIFER: Bavani, one thing that you had mentioned earlier was that you do a lot of work to teach your team how to self actualize and how to find the answers to their problems themselves. And I’m wondering if you have any special tricks that you use to to help people, because I imagine this must be an ongoing process.
BAVANI: I mean, I don’t think that’s specific to student interns. I think we’re all always working on how to get what we need when we need it. Starting at the beginning of their internship, my team does a little training exercise about how to use Microsoft Excel. We use it a bit more powerfully than most of them are used to. So they go through these training modules. It’s just a spreadsheet that they go through with some exercises they should complete. And what I do is I have them go through it in pairs. That was a trick that my predecessor taught me. Because if they did it by themselves, they were less likely to ask somebody a question and they were definitely less likely to ask me a question as their brand new superior. Whereas if they were working with one of their peers and they got stuck on something, they could ask them. And if they were supposed to go over their answers with each other, then they couldn’t just skip stuff. They really had to try to figure it out. And if they both couldn’t figure it out, then they knew it was a valid question. It wasn’t just them. They didn’t have the insecurity of, “This is the only thing. I’m the only person who didn’t figure this part out.” So that’s sort of the first step in like having them work with each other and see each other as a resource and as a person that they can say things too about what they get and what they don’t get. And then after that, it is the reinforcement about where questions should be asked. And the reinforcement that other people, everybody at this organization is a resource.
JENNIFER: How do you reinforce that?
BAVANI: How do I enforce that everybody is a resource?
JENNIFER: Yeah. And how do you reinforce the idea of keep trying to find the answer instead of asking someone else for the answer or asking your manager specifically for the answer?
BAVANI: Basically, every time somebody asks me a question, I say, “This is a question that you could have asked in such and such channel,” or, “Here is where you could go for this kind of answer,” before giving the answer. And sometimes if I’m really in the mood for it, I will have them re-ask the question in the team’s channel because maybe somebody wants to see the answer, maybe somebody has the same question. And we wanted to be there in the record for them to be able to find. So, it’s usually just that. Like when I get asked a question saying where else this question could have been and encouraging them to do that.
JENNIFER: And you said that you both tell them where to go, find the answer and give them the answer on top of that?
BAVANI: It depends on how committed I am in that moment to that type of reinforcement. I think it also depends on what the specific question is, because if I really am the only one with the answer, then I might as well just tell them. But definitely, if they’re asking me a question in a direct message on Slack, I will say, “Can you please ask this question in the team channel?” And then they ask it and I give other people a few minutes to respond before I answer, if I think that’s something that I have to answer.
JENNIFER: Yeah. One thing I’m wondering about is for your reports. Do you find that setting this boundary makes it harder for them to know when to bring something to you that should be brought to you?
BAVANI: I don’t think so. I think that they learn pretty quickly. It’s only the first week or two weeks that I find myself saying you can ask in the channel, because then if they ask in the channel and nobody knows, then they know nobody knows. It’s clear feedback that that’s a question for me. And I get the feedback, too. I’m in the channel. I see the question being asked and other people saying, “I’m wondering the same thing.” And then I know that it’s time for me to schedule development or like jump in with the answer or whatever. I do also, when people are asking questions, I will tag people in Slack who I think might have extra knowledge so they pay attention to that question. And that’s, again, reinforcing that there are resources who aren’t me, even if the team themselves don’t know the answer.
JENNIFER: I imagine with having interns that you have to repeat this process every summer or every semester when your interns come back. And you mentioned that you have some early career reports as well. And I’m wondering if you’ve been able to build a culture where people reinforce this to each other or if you have too much chance to be able to do that.
BAVANI: For the most part, I do have enough retention that the team can reinforce the culture to each other. I think that I’ve had one moment where everybody rolled off before the next batch of people came on. But for the most part, the people who have been around a little longer naturally see it as their responsibility. They’re just talking the way they normally would in the channel, and people see that. I think that that doesn’t prevent people from being shy about speaking up the first time, like sending a message into a channel with 10 people in it who seem like they know what they’re talking about, they have all this jargon, whatever. I think that it’s always going to be necessary for me to redirect some direct messages into the channels. But I definitely think having the team around and people from the team staying around makes that be less work for me.
I don’t know if this is like actually answering the question that you specifically asked, but I think another thing that we talk about at Beyond 12 is the Situational Leadership Model. Are you familiar with this?
JENNIFER: I am not.
BAVANI: I can’t draw a diagram for you on this podcast, but I think you can Google Situational Leadership and learn a lot about it. But I think the two components that are important for me are that, first of all, Situational Leadership is the idea that for every different task that an employee is working on, they might be in a different place developmentally. It doesn’t make sense to think of somebody as new at everything or expert at everything. Because for each type of task they’re doing, they’re going to be somewhere else on the curve. And so, naming that, sort of gives permission for people to say they feel new at some particular thing without saying, “Oh, I feel new at this whole job.”
The other component is that it’s not just new versus old. You’ll see when you Google it, you’ll see this diagram that looks a bit like a bell curve. But the idea is at different stages in their development of a particular task, employees have different needs about whether they need actual instruction or whether they need motivation or both or neither. So, for example, when somebody is new at something, they might be excited to try it, but their skill level is low. And what they need from their manager at that moment is direct instruction about how to do the thing. I can get in the mode to do it, but it’s not my natural tendency to tell people all the details of what they need to do. But I have student interns, that’s what I should do for a lot of the tasks that I’m giving them the first time that I do it. Then they move into this space of, they’ve tried doing this task and maybe it’s a little hard for them. So then they actually need both motivation and like still quite a bit of skill tips, although maybe not as directed as before.
And then they move into this phase of they actually have picked up a lot of the skills, but they still need to be encouraged a bit. And they don’t quite have the confidence that they can do that particular task where they don’t have the buy-in or interest or whatever. And then the last phase along this curve is that you can sort of delegate the tasks to them and they can do it, and they just need a little bit of encouragement here and there.
And so that’s something that we, as an organization, talk about. So that gives us the language to fall back on and say, “I’m feeling really –” it’s called D1 or whatever letter the whatever organization uses. But like phase one, I need some more direct help, some more concrete help with this task.
I think with that, having that framework and I’m not saying this framework is the best framework in the universe, I just think having any framework actually gives people a way to talk about what they need without feeling like they’re saying they’re failing at something or they’re not there yet or they’re not meeting expectations. We have the expectation that they will need each of these types of supports for any task that they’re doing at some point in their work with us.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I really like that. I like how it sounds like Situational Leadership is about acknowledging that you are on a journey or your report is on the journey. And they happen to be not at the end, but someplace along that journey. One question I have for you is what kind of words do you say when someone needs that encouragement?
BAVANI: When someone is in a stage where they need more encouragement?
JENNIFER: Yeah. You’ve mentioned that as they’re going through that journey and they hit those roadblocks, they might need a little bit of encouragement from you. And I’m wondering if you can give some examples of things that you can say to encourage someone who’s in that space.
BAVANI: I think [inaudible] the biggest strategy there is to compare their work now with their work in the past. So saying things like, “This is really a big improvement compared to what you started with,” or noting how fast they did something compared to the first time they did it, like reminding them that they didn’t know where to start before and that they were able to do this much more independently this time. I mean, I don’t think that I use any special words. I think that I still say, “This is great.” “This is a great start.” I point out specific things that show their expertise. Often, the most encouragement that I give, I don’t know whether this is like universal or whether it’s just what motivates me and my team, but saying how something that they have done will be useful to me or to someone else. Like, “I appreciate the way you organize this. This is going to be a great starting point for everybody who has to do this task in the future. I’m definitely going to share it with the team or encourage you to share it with the team,” or that kind of thing.
JENNIFER: So, whenever you are trying to encourage someone, it sounds like what you do is bring perspective to them. So, you bring both the perspective of how you’ve seen them develop while they’ve been working on this project, and you also bring them the perspective of what doing this project, doing this work is going to enable for everyone else. That’s pretty neat.
BAVANI: I think one thing that we haven’t talked too much about is helping early career professionals see themselves as professionals and think about what their futures are. A student internship is often pretty generic. In our internship, when I was first running it, it was like put stuff in a spreadsheet. You write certain spreadsheet formulas. They’re not the easiest formulas, but fine. You proofread some stuff, you upload something. Tasks that were not necessarily specific to any particular discipline. And so, it was really important for me in one-on-ones to figure out what the students wanted to get out of their internships. And sometimes they had to push a little bit because they didn’t think necessarily that they could get what they really wanted out of the internship. But I wanted to know what are their career goals? What are the things that the skills that they would like to develop, what did they want to come away from the internship with? And so, I sort of had a blank slate to work with. And what I ended up saying to each intern was, “We’ve got to come up with a project where you bring what you’re bringing. Everybody’s coming up with a really different skill set. So what are you bringing? And do something that helps our project, MyCoach. So what do we need? And also, that helps you like at the end of the summer, what skill do you want to have or what would you want to have under your belt? Think of it as a portfolio project. What is it that you want in your portfolio?”
So those are the things that I ask them to think about. And then I would tell them some ideas that I had for stuff that we needed. And then they would go back, think about it for a week and come back to me with their ideas and we would either expand on them or talk about why those ideas were a good fit. And so, I was really nervous about this whole process. But I think that it actually helped a lot with us being able to have conversations about who they wanted to be and what they wanted to be and what they wanted to do. It basically required them to think past what is the task that I’m going to do in the next two weeks. The student came and said, “I would really like to do a programming project.” And I said, “Can you program?” And he said, “I can program in C++ and Java.” And I was like, “You are not going to do a C++ or Java project here,” because we didn’t at the time have any engineers on staff or any way of maintaining code written in those languages. And I didn’t have a way of helping him with those things. So I ended up – we started with, I said, “You know what? We have this SQL database that we need to get information out of. Why don’t you start with learning about SQL and trying to pull out certain kinds of data and organize them.” So he started with that, and he got it out pretty quickly. So then I said, “Well, you need a way to manipulate this data a little bit more powerfully. So why don’t you just go and learn enough Python. Bet you can do that in Python.” Literally, I said, “Please learn a different programming language.”
It could have been a different intern. I might have gotten a different response. But this particular intern was really committed. He wanted to have a software project under his belt. And he had learned a couple of other programming languages. So he went and he learned enough Python. I gave him the resources that he needed for that. And so he coded up, like the beginnings of what he wanted to do, which was displaying some information we had in a database in an easier to scan way. Then we started talking about output. And I was like, “Okay. This would be great if you put it in HTML tables in this particular way. So if you want, you can learn just enough HTML to spit these out as tables that people who don’t know how to use a computer program can just run your program and see the output in a way that they understand.”
And so his project, it developed in stages. He didn’t know that he was going to learn HTML until, I think, two weeks before his internship ended. That was his commitment. He wanted like a usable software project, I think, like experience. And so we were able to come up with something where he learned some slightly different programming related skills and built it up as we went along.
JENNIFER: That sounds like an amazing internship experience for him. It reminds me of some of my own. That’s amazing.
BAVANI: Yeah. That particular person, he was really committed to it. And then the cool thing about that was the next summer, we had an internship role available that was like a software development internship, that he was, on paper, not at all qualified for. But I encouraged him to apply for it. I wasn’t his manager, in that case. But I encouraged him to apply. And then I got to vouch for his ability to learn things on the fly, and that kind of thing. And he actually then has since graduated and now has joined our team as a junior engineer.
JENNIFER: Wow. Congrats to him.
BAVANI: Yeah, it’s great. I think other people’s projects, they’ve been a little bit more driving themselves. And some of them have been outward facing and some of them have been inward facing. But they’ve been like, students have made storyboards for promotional videos for MyCoach. They have done infrastructure work, like improve the systems that we use for stuff. One team of people gathered a bunch of animated GIFs that we could include in our content to sort of like liven it up a little bit. I mean, it’s just like whatever they felt like doing that would make our project better and give them some buy-in. But it also gave us natural opportunities to talk about, what do you want to work on?
I have another former intern who said that she was interested in graphic design, which was not at all a part of our internship. But she knew that we were going to be coming out with more visual content, so she said she was interested in graphic design. And again, I have no graphic design experience. But she was not a first semester intern. She was somebody who already had worked for some time at Beyond 12. And I got to design with her like what it would mean for her to have a visual design internship at Beyond 12. Like, we figured out what contractor we could work with to help her come up to speed and how much support she would need for that kind of thing and created a whole new role. That was something that we needed. She saw the need. She said she was interested. She didn’t necessarily have a ton of a training, but we were able to give her enough resources and invest enough in her that she was able to hit the ground running on that role.
JENNIFER: That’s awesome. We’ve only got a couple minutes left. So I want to dig into one last bit during our last few minutes, and that’s the interns who really struggled with figuring out what they wanted to do. I feel like when I’ve managed early career developers, I see something very similar where they know they want to get better at being developers, but they don’t really know what that means or what to possibly reach for. And I’m wondering, for your interns who struggled with finding what they wanted to do for their internship, what did you find that you could do to better support them?
BAVANI: Because this is a relatively general internship, I would start by asking, first of all, why they were interested in Beyond 12 specifically and what attracted them to the role. And then also what they wanted to do in the future.
JENNIFER: I like that. And then there’s kind of parallels with what engineering managers can ask for, like what brought you to programming from the very beginning? What have you been excited by?
BAVANI: Other questions that I ask are who in this organization, whose role are you most interested in? And if they could think of somebody, I would encourage them to set up a coffee with that person so they could learn more about that role and what it really was like and what skills they needed and how they came to have the skill set to have that role.
JENNIFER: Yeah. And then the analog for an engineering early career developer might be who do you follow on Twitter? Who do you like reading about? What talks do you like to attend?
BAVANI: I think I also floated just a bunch of projects to see their reactions to them and see what they thought was interesting and what they thought was boring. I think people have a sense of – I mean, they make their decisions different ways. Some people will say, “That project sounds interesting to me because I will get to build such and such skill.” Whereas other people will say, “That project sounds interesting to me because I really like the idea of it.” Like, I had one intern last summer who created a video series about being on academic probation because she had been on academic probation and felt really connected to the idea of helping other people who had been in that situation.
JENNIFER: Wow, that’s really neat. Yeah, I like this.
BAVANI: So, I think just like tossing a bunch of stuff in the air. And in my case, it’s tossing a bunch of stuff that I need done anyway, because I think we all have more things that we want to get done than we really could get done. So just offering it all up and seeing what flies and what is interesting to people and what they latch on to and then working from there. [Inaudible] with my ideas, then they would come up with their own ideas. And sometimes those we’re not well-scoped for the size of project that we were doing. But I would tell them what I liked about those ideas and then we would both go back and think about how we could use those pieces in a project that was a better fit.
JENNIFER: That sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, this is all the time we have for today. Bavani, if people want to talk with you more about managing part time, managing early career people, what’s a good way for them to reach out?
BAVANI: People can reach out to me on Twitter. My handle is @jenbavani.
JENNIFER: All right. Thanks so much for talking with me today.
BAVANI: Thank you, Jennifer. It’s been great.
JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we’re edited by Bryant from Zinc.
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Storytime With Managers is hosted by Jennifer Tu of Cohere.
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