You Can Make Better Leaders and More Engaged Employees Using Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry Helps Make Better Leaders and More Engaged Employees

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, ACTP, ACC. Certified Appreciative Inquiry Coach

Jake sought to better define his role in his company, walking the line between program manager and technical expert, to gain more insight into how working remotely is currently impacting his career. Jake also wishes to develop further strategies to fully utilize his core values of harmony, collaboration, trust, and technical excellence in growing his career and clearly defining his role in the company.

Using Appreciative Inquiry techniques such as focusing on the client’s best experiences, telling stories, relaying his wishes and his team leader’s wishes for him, and defining success in terms of Jake’s core values seemed to be very effective in achieving Jake’s desired outcome for the sessions. Jake initially felt somewhat cynical about the Appreciative Inquiry process and questioning style, but after receiving his feedback from my interview with His manager, Jake’s team leader, Jake felt he had gained more insight into what he wanted his role to be, and how he would apply his core values to continue to make decisions regarding his career. Jake stated that the team leader feedback helped him achieve a level of security about his position, that he was not in a dead-end situation, if he chose to take advantage of opportunities presented to him; however, he also came to the realization, that, while he may have some negative feelings about working remotely, he was satisfied where his career fit into his life. He stated that he was not going to allow his career to drive his life, and that he felt he was doing better on a personal level with his reduced workweek of 32 hours. He also reiterated that he did not want to “stress” over where his career was right now, and that while he could be more aggressive in finding new work and new clients, he did not want to “bite off more than he could chew.” He also was concerned that if he took His manager’s suggestion to “communicate more with other employees in his same situation”, that he could risk being viewed as a “ring leader” of discontented employees (dead-enders). In addition, Jake was particularly appreciative of His manager’s stories about his ability to mentor junior team members and work with challenging employees and clients, offsetting any residual negative impressions of acting as a “ring leader”.


As a leadership and performance coach, I was surprised at the insights Jake had gained through the AI coaching process. I felt that the process of interviewing colleagues and providing feedback helped Jake feel more connected to the company and his team than he had prior to the beginning of the coaching sessions. I also felt gratified that Jake and his manager were on the same page, and through my coaching, Jake could appreciate how much his manager had done on his behalf, causing Jake to feel that since his manager supported him so strongly, he should do more to support her. Apparently, the coaching had created a synergy between Jake and his manager that did not exist before, and through focusing on positive experiences, storytelling and wishes, the messages to and from each other were greatly enhanced.


Although I was surprised by Jake’s positive reaction to the feedback session, I managed to quell the impulse to make mention of it or to comment in any way. I wanted Jake to continue to stay in the moment, and explore his feelings of appreciation, relief, encouragement, and happiness at hearing the results from his manager’s feedback. In this way, as a coach, I could facilitate Jake’s self-discovery, and growth, and his continued belief in himself as a person who is able to make the choices that were appropriate in his life and his career. I felt I was witnessing something far more important than an academic assignment; it was a growth experience for me as a coach in that I gained insight into how people can be reached, challenged, and ultimately experience change at the visceral level, by emphasizing their hopes, dreams, and wishes.

There were several compelling stories that came out of these three sessions. His manager reiterated Jake’s story of working with an employee who consistently melted down when put under any pressure. This person could not handle stressful work situations and hard deadlines. His manager emphasized that Jake was the only other employee she could count on to work with this difficult person and could coax her into assisting in getting a project completed like no other employee could or would do. She also related Jake’s strength in mentoring junior engineers, and teaching them new skills to assist them to excel in their jobs. Some of the feedback that came from these co-workers described Jake as a “warm blanket”, “a calm presence”, and “open and appreciative of other’s ideas”.  His manager also mentioned that Jake’s core values of harmony, collaboration, trust, and technical excellence were clearly demonstrated by Jake’s behavior with his co-workers and his team.

Jake’s compelling story emphasized the difficulty of working with the challenging employee with mental issues, but that he would work around her issues to get the job done right and on time. She would disappear when the job became stressful, but he managed to obtain enough important information from her to complete the work when required. Again, the compelling story was how Jake put his values to work when working in difficult situations with difficult people or a co-worker in need of assistance.

There was a consistent thread in the stories shared by the client and the colleague. Jake stated how his values were key in how he conducted himself at work and throughout his life, and the colleague demonstrated how the Jake’s values manifested themselves in his very desirable behaviors at work. That even though Jake worked remotely, his ability to handle challenging situations with calmness, teamwork, and poise greatly benefited her team and made her job as a team leader much easier; that Jake was her go-to person for any client, co-worker or situation that was not run-of-the-mill. The “warm blanket” metaphor used to describe Jake seemed to summarize the consensus about him; he was emanating overall “good vibrations” just be being true to himself.

The continuous themes and patterns reflected Jake’s ability to stay true to his core value system regardless of the situation. His manager greatly admires Jake for these qualities and perceives him as one of her key team members. His manager did observe that she was unsure of what Jake wanted for long term career goals, and when that feedback was provided to Jake, he commented that he himself was also unsure of what he wanted, since his hours were reduced from 40 to 32 hours per week.

 Both Jake and his manager recognized that the distance caused by Jake’s remote location, were a hindrance to Jake’s ability to communicate within the team. Both acknowledged that finding a solution to keep Jake in closer contact with the two main offices was key to Jake furthering his career, and leading to more increased hours and workload.

His manager expressed that what made Jake an invaluable team member, also could be construed as his greatest weakness. Because Jake was so collaborative, even selfless, he may be perceived as not aggressive enough in his efforts to unearth new work and clients. Jake’s ability to inspire others, while an asset to any manager, did not directly yield him additional work, and that if he could step up his efforts to bring in more work independently, Jake may be able to secure his current position more firmly in the eyes of upper management.

Jake’s dream or vision for himself was to achieve 100% utilization for him and his team. He feels he is close to achieving his goal of managing and oversight of a first rate team, with a strong backlog of work. One of His manager’s three wishes for Jake was for Jake to develop enough work for himself on his current project, that would grow into developing a small satellite staff of junior members locally, which reported to Jake. That wish aligned perfectly with Jake’s dream of his future with the company. His manager also wished for closer geographic proximity for Jake so that he was available instantaneously (to be “beamed” in) for important meetings and discussions. His manager commented that Jake missed out on a lot of hallway and lunchtime casual conversation about work issues, and that did hinder Jake’s ability to be assigned to key projects. Jake did not mention closer proximity to the main offices as one of his dreams, but previously, I had coached with Jake about the distance causing several career related negative issues for him. As a result, Jake decided that he needed to be more present at the main offices, and planned for specific visits on specific dates. His manager also wished that Jake had better means of communicating with the main offices, and that maybe some type of regular conference calls, meetings with others in his situation, Skype meetings, and additional personal visits should be scheduled on a regular basis. When I mentioned this feedback to Jake, he agreed that communication needed to improve, but expressed the same wariness regarding “being a ring leader” among “discontented” employees.


Jake was reassured that there was a shared understanding between his manager and himself, and as mentioned earlier, Jake felt a responsibility to be more supportive of his manager, since he now realizes how supportive she is of him. He also feels that he can help his manager in off-loading the responsibilities of handling junior staff, since she stated that this is one of Jake’s strengths. Jake also realized the importance of scheduling regular client meetings face to face. That the face to face meetings could bring him better visibility with the client, and therefore more work for himself and the team. He realizes that he must be more visible and present in person at the company’s main offices as well, as building relationships is key to success in a large, complex, loosely organized company like his, however, he is concerned that making mandatory phone calls or conducting regular meetings may appear to be artificial. I ventured that this area may be an area he may wish to explore further during future coaching sessions. Jake also expressed several other ideas for keeping himself in the loop; attending conferences, presenting papers, and making personal trips to client locations, as well as one of the two main offices on a reasonable schedule. Again, Jake reaffirmed how he had underestimated the value of personal visits and contacts to build and maintain key relationships impacting his career.


As mentioned earlier, Jake learned that he had inadvertently built walls around himself by not realizing and acknowledging how important personal interactions with clients, colleagues and leadership were. He also learned the importance of clearly stating what it is he wants to accomplish and even related a story of a “meeting coach” who is currently working with his team. The “meeting coach” refuses to make any plans for the meeting until the team clearly articulates the goals and purpose of the meeting. The coach is pushing the team to determine what they want to walk away with when the meeting is over. Jake likened this “meeting coach” process to the coaching experience we’ve shared over the last few months, and saw the merit of making sure his goals are known before he proceeds with any actions. In his case, he knows he needs to be more physically present on the job to build his share of the business and grow his own utilization, and billable hours. He realizes now that there is no “Santa Claus” and that he needs to put in more effort to reach the success he desires.

He’s relied on his personality and projection of his personal values to get him where he is so far, however, he knows that he will need to rev up his running speed to make a higher pole vault jump.

When I asked Jake about blind spots, he reiterated that the only blind spot he noticed was that His manager didn’t know what he wanted. But then he launched into a discussion about he wasn’t sure what he wanted. He seemed to be torn between working harder to achieve more utilization and coming to acceptance about where he was, at 80% utilization. He knew he did not want to let work be a source of stress, or compromise his value system for the sake of work, so a bit more learning on the side of what that might look like for Jake may be worthwhile.

 For Jake, getting out of his own skin through His manager’s eyes was an important awareness. The feedback from His manager provided Jake with a peek inside her thinking about him, and what her perceptions of what he did so well, and where he may be able to improve for better utilization. He had not looked at his situation from her viewpoint, and that enlightened Jake to understand that His manager was really looking out for his best interest. Jake realized that he could offer his assistance to His manager, and offload some of her responsibilities in return. He had not thought of that idea before; he only saw the world from his viewpoint, and had not tried on His manager’s skin. He also began to understand how he could better serve his clients and his co-workers by being more physically present and staying more in touch with his peers, and his client’s management staff. Through these awarenesses, Jake began to also realize that his own utilization would improve if he made these changes, even one at a time.

  The main insight gained from working with this client was that for all of Jake’s positive qualities and his dedication to his personal value system, Jake had not looked beyond his own individual sphere to address his work issues. It’s not as if Jake was not aware that his lack of geographical proximity, lack of regular communication with workmates and his client base were an issue, we had discussed these items in his earlier coaching sessions. What was new for Jake was seeing himself from His manager’s perspective. When he saw himself through her eyes, he realized how much she had supported him over the years, and he now felt not only gratitude for that but also a sense of justified reciprocation for her help. His manager had worked to keep Jake in the loop, but now Jake realized he had to do more of that for himself, as well as take additional burdens from His manager. I believe Jake grew as a person in realizing that he had to do more to take the reins of his own career and destiny and that he could not continue to let another person prop him up.

His manager is one of Jake’s biggest fans. She knows that Jake is between a rock and a hard place and that Jake has witnessed her career move forward, while his has not. His manager was frank about Jake’s lack of personal appearances at the main offices and in front of the clients and offered suggestions for Jake which validated that which he already knew; he had to make personal visits, he had to attend conferences and he had to work on and present papers in order to attract more business and increase his billable hours. Now that Jake has heard candid feedback from His manager, Jake has clear choices; he can choose to spend the time it takes to advance or choose to risk being dropped to lower hours sometime in the future.

 ICF International is a huge corporate entity that “ICF International (NASDAQ:ICFI) provides professional services and technology solutions that deliver beneficial impact in areas critical to the world’s future.” Jake’s division is a loosely organized group of about 100 people who work together in project groups. One team leader can be an individual contributor on someone else’s team. The infrastructure is a classic matrix organization, where one person can be responsible to up to seven or eight people above him or her, making the organization appear fluid and potentially confusing. The looseness of the organization leads to much autonomy but also can lead to individuals being “lost in the shuffle”. Jake has been able to use this looseness to his advantage over the years, but with a lower utilization rate, he now realizes that he needs to design and develop his own hooks and handles to make the climb he wants.

As a coach, I learned the benefits of the appreciative coaching approach and the satisfaction and insight gained by the coachee and the colleague in assisting the growth of the coachee. In this case, the two individuals were closely aligned, however, the coachee gained incredible insight into his team leader’s perception of him and how best he could grow. I liked the dynamic of interviewing the colleague because it added so much to the coaching experience. In a coaching situation where a person is at a career crisis, I found that this type of coaching process adds insight that it may take a coachee months to develop on his own. This process enhanced my coaching abilities, I learned I was very comfortable with it, and that I felt completely at ease managing myself, stepping back, and to use the process to challenge the client’s assumptions about himself or others.


 This process is an invaluable tool to advance a client’s thinking and his willingness to make changes by seeing himself through the eyes of another person in the same context. It also builds a stronger coach/coachee relationship by advancing the competencies of trust and intimacy with the insight provided by a third party. With the candor provided by the colleague, I felt like a new window into Jake was opened, which I could see clearly through. This new perspective

The process of Appreciative Coaching can be used  once an initial coaching relationship has been established if the client is willing to explore more deeply those areas where he needs a new perspective. In fact, in an executive coaching situation, using this process for a modified 360 assessment may be extremely useful in exposing areas of development the client may not have realized or faced in the past. It is useful to assist a client in his awareness of self and others, and to validate a client’s best assets to be utilized more fully. Furthermore, as resistant as some clients may be to expressing dreams or visions, the dreams, wishes or envisioning stages of Appreciative Coaching does move clients forward, as they can see beyond their present issues into the future they want.

Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.