The Art of Coaching
Establishing and maintaining a game plan of excellence within your organization
by Mike Strange

I remember the day I was promoted from account executive to regional sales manager as if it were yesterday. I was proud of my accomplishments and consistently ranked No. 1 in revenue growth during the two-year period before I got the nod. Undoubtedly, many of you reading this can relate to the sense of pride you felt when you were rewarded with a promotion for a job well done.

When I accepted the offer to join the company as an account executive two years prior, I knew my route to success was going to hinge on my ability to prove myself during the grueling six-month training program the company held, while also being compared to the four other reps in my training class. The training program consisted of:

  • Two weeks of intense sales training and full immersion in the company's policies and procedures, with daily role-play scenarios and policy exams.
  • Word-for-word memorization of a four-page, single-spaced sales presentation. If you failed to memorize the pitch within the two weeks of classroom instruction, you were terminated on the spot. Three of my classmates could not memorize the script.
  • Upon successful completion of classroom training, we hit the road for five-and-a-half months of weekly sales assignments throughout North America into store locations and were given a weekly revenue goal. If you failed to hit your revenue goal for several consecutive weeks, you were terminated.

Thankfully, I made it, along with one other member of my class. I emerged from the training program fully prepared to be a successful account executive. Two years later, I received the promotion I had pursued with great intensity—regional sales manager! Overnight, I had five territory managers reporting to me and was responsible for delivering over $225 million in revenue annually.

Initially, the transition from sales to management was difficult; the position exposed me to personnel and team performance challenges I never had to concern myself when I was the "boss of me" as an account executive. Perhaps you have experienced some or all of these behaviors yourself as a department manager: chronic tardiness and absenteeism, excessive gossiping and poor attitude, lack of activity, surfing the internet on company time—the list goes on.

Sound familiar? My greatest source of frustration was that the same behavior issues kept happening despite my requests and eventual demands for them to stop. It did not take very long before I realized that the training I received and the skills I developed as an account executive were not going to serve me well in my new role. The position, and the responsibilities that came with it, required me to develop new skills and dramatically change the way I approached my day and interactions with my team. Fortunately for me, I had a wonderful mentor, Brian O'Donnell, who taught me the following coaching process, which is based on the learning theory of behaviorism.

The learning theory of behaviorism assumes a learner is essentially passive, responding to environmental stimuli. The learner starts off as a clean slate, and behavior is shaped through positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Renowned business coach Ferdinand Fournies originally developed the following coaching process based off this theory. It is the process that changed the course of my career.

10 Steps to Establishing Excellence

Let's be clear—it does not matter if you are a sales manager, billing manager, recur manager or any other department manager. If you are being held responsible for the results of a team and have team members with behavior or performance issues, your ability to establish a standard of excellence and hold people accountable to those standards will determine your team's success or failure. If the same behavior problems keep happening over and over again, you are failing to produce postive results. When you learn how to execute this coaching process properly, your results will improve dramatically and faster than you can imagine.

Step 1: Identify the unsatisfactory performance. Specifically define the behavior that is not meeting your standard. A good example is that an employee has been late to work three times in one week. Note the specificity. A poor example would be determining that an employee is "not motivated." How can you possibly know if an employee is not motivated? This is a subjective determination and will be challenged by the employee. The key is to identify something quantifiable in his or her performance. We are all familiar with the adage, "If you can measure it, you can manage it."

Step 2: Is the behavior or performance issue worth your time and effort to correct? If you decide there is nothing tangible to gain from a coaching session, forget it—don't waste time trying to correct the issue.

Step 3: Does the employee know his or her performance is unsatisfactory? This is an important step. Often times the employee does not know there is a problem and the manager has not given the employee feedback that there is one. If that is the case, provide the coaching feedback necessary and observe the results.

Step 4: Does the employee know what is supposed to be done and when? How many times have you heard, "Oh, I didn't know that's what you wanted." Be sure people understand your expectations: what you want them to do, when to begin, when to end and when finished, what the end product should look like.

Step 5: Are there obstacles beyond the control of the employee? A very important step because a manager cannot blame an employee for poor performance if obstacles exist that prevent them from meeting your standards. Consider the example of the chronically late employee. What if the reason for their lateness has to do with a change in the bus schedule for their child? Always take the time to uncover the true reason of the problem before making a decision.

Step 6: Does the employee know how to do it? Have they been properly trained by you to perform their job up to your standards? If not, teach them how to do it, then observe and measure results.

Step 7: Does a negative consequence follow performance? What does this mean? Understand that all behavior is a function of its consequence. Do you have a star employee that everyone turns to when they don't know how to do something? If so, you risk losing your star. Be sure that workers who do unpleasant tasks well don't end up being assigned all the unpleasant tasks. The core issue here is a proper training program. If only one employee knows how to perform all the tasks required to maintain your standard, then you are either hiring the wrong people or your training program is insufficient. Fix the problem!

Step 8: Does a positive consequence follow non-performance? The inverse also applies. Be sure you don't reward someone for not being able to do their job to your standard. For example, if you have determined that your sales people must engage in outside activities within the community once a month to engender goodwill, do not excuse one employee to not do it if his or her behavior at those functions is unacceptable.

Step 9: Could the subordinate do the task if he or she wanted to? This has always been the toughest part of the job. If the answer is no, then it is time to transfer or terminate because you cannot correct the issue through training. If you answered yes, then you are now ready to proceed to the final step.

Step 10: The One-on-One Coaching Conversation. As you might expect, this is where most managers fail. And this is, without question, the most important skill you need to develop as a coach. These conversations are rarely easy, often unpleasant and require careful planning. Before you meet with your employee to discuss the problem, you should know the outcome you want. Always have this conversation in an area where you will be free from any distractions. Upon bringing the employee into the area where you will have the conversation, make every attempt to sit beside the employee, not across a desk or other obstacle that can promote a sense of confrontation. You want to create a collaborative environment whenever possible. Then utilize the following steps.

Gain agreement that a problem exists: This is the most important step. Do not even bother to go any further if the employee does not agree or acknowledge the problem. Begin the conversation with a simple question:

Coach: Mike, do you know why I wanted to meet?

*Now you may get lucky and they may say something to the effect of what the problem is, but more often than not, the employee will say:

Employee: No, I don't.

Coach: Mike, I called you in because we have a problem.

*Then you must clearly state the specific, quantifiable problem.

Coach: You've been late to work six times in the last two weeks. This is a problem because it's affecting your ability to meet your activity goals, which is preventing our team from meeting quota. Do you understand why this is a problem?

Employee: Yes, I see that it's a problem.

Once you have agreement the problem exists, you can:

  • Mutually discuss potential solutions: Work together to come up with potential solutions to solve the problem. Remember: this should be collaborative. Identify what the employee could do differently. Guide the solutions to be as specific as possible. Write each suggestion down.
  • Mutually agree on the action to take: Agree on which solutions you choose, then define when the action will be taken. (Hint: Now!)
  • Inspect what you expect: This is the second most common reason for failure in this process. Follow-up should be timely and consistent; trust but verify.
  • Reinforce any achievement: The sooner reinforcement occurs after the actual performance achievement, the greater its influence. When in doubt, do it now!

I will forever be grateful to Brian for his wisdom and taking the time to teach me this process. Since then, nothing has been as satisfying as helping individuals on their journies to become the best they can be to reach their goals. Good luck to all in implementing this process!