Fast Company

The Relief Coach for Entry-Level Employees

Setbacks are opportunities to learn.

The Player: Jason Mellein, an electrical test engineer at Cypress Semiconductor in San Jose, California.

The Coach: Dennis Matthies, a lecturer at Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning and a consultant on self-coaching to Cypress, Microsoft, General Motors, and AT&T.

Coach's MO: The anticoach coach. Matthies gives you the tools you need to see your management style clearly and to self-correct your behavior -- even after he's off the company expense account.

"Dennis hasn't taught me anything I didn't know already," says Jason Mellein, who after a year at Cypress is still somewhat dazed to discover he's joined a company that's renowned for its remarkable resemblance to Marine boot camp. "Let's just say he reminded me of what was important."

The Challenge: Mellein concedes -- only with reluctance -- that after joining Cypress he quickly floundered. Matthies helped get him back on track. "No matter how hard I worked on a problem, I couldn't get it solved," he recalls. "I got torn apart when I made presentations, first because I wasn't making progress, and because I wasn't making sense. Dennis helped me get over that."

The Game Plan: On a typical Thursday morning at Cypress, a dozen senior executives meet to discuss the company's latest family of random-access memory chips. They drink bitter coffee and take turns getting grilled by president and CEO T.J. Rodgers, who's notorious for zeroing-in on a presentation's most carefully concealed weakness.

Matthies is here, too. Not as a participant, but as an observer. Sitting quietly in a corner, he takes few notes. He concentrates entirely on understanding the interactions between senior executives. He wants to know what works and what doesn't. It's the kind of knowledge that few managers have the time or opportunity to develop on their own, since they're too wrapped up in the meeting itself to reflect on their own effectiveness.

Soon afterward, Matthies meets with 15 junior managers, people who have little interaction with the senior staff. Using his observations from that morning, he gives them an insider's look at how Cypress's senior executives really work.

Matthies starts by putting up an overhead of a drawing of a stick figure getting decapitated by a large arrow. It's his graphic representation of a manager being skewered by Rodgers.

"You've all been in this situation," Matthies says. "You're doing a presentation and T.J. smells bullshit. He asks a question. If he doesn't like the answer, he'll ask another question, do a little more probing. You start to sweat. It's fight or flight time. But you can do something about it."

The room is silent, rapt, waiting for answers. Everyone realizes that what he's telling them is good stuff. Stuff that will allow them to succeed. No one at Cypress has given them that before.

But Matthies doesn't give them answers. Instead he gives them tools to help them arrive at their own solutions: tips for recognizing when they're getting into trouble; methods for course-correction when they get off track; a flow chart to help identify types of questions asked by senior executives, and types of answers that will succeed. And he wraps up with an important reminder: setbacks are opportunities to learn.

"Let's say you have a meeting and something happens that's very bad," he says. "When you walk away from the meeting, you need to identify your mistakes and articulate those lessons to yourself. If you do that, you gain confidence even in crisis. You'll be a better manager than the people who've never faced the flames."

The Postmortem: Matthies prefers the term "teacher" to "coach." Like any good teacher, his goal is to raise his students' ability to learn on their own. Indeed, he aims to work himself right out of a job -- by teaching corporations how to be self-reflective cultures, where managers can coach themselves.

"The best opportunity to coach yourself? When you're lying face down in the snow in your own blood," exclaims Matthies. "Don't wait for other people to straighten you out. That's your golden opportunity to learn from your own mistakes."

Coordinates: Dennis Matthies, matthies@jes sica.stanford.edu

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