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Sales Coaching, Dirty Secrets Or Misunderstanding What Coaching Is About?

by David Brock on February 13th, 2011

I was interested in reading the Harvard Business Review post, The Dirty Secret Of Effective Sales Coaching.  It’s an interesting article with many good point and you should read it.

However, I think the authors present a very narrow view of the manager’s job and the goals of effective coaching.  Many of the conclusions are pretty obvious, eliciting almost a “Duhhh” response.  If you think about it, “coaching the middle” has a huge return.  It should be obvious, there are more people in the middle, so every percent of performance improvement you get from this population has a great impact (when taken from a macro view).

However, my problem with the article is that it implies management’s focus on coaching is primarily on producing shorter term results.  They say the performance improvement from the middle may be the difference between hitting or missing this year’s goals.  I’ve no argument with that point—if the job of management was to optimize performance for just this year.

This is too narrow a view of management’s job and the real importance of coaching.  Manager’s are responsible for developing the highest levels of performance in the organization both this year and for future years.  This means we must take a broader view of coaching and performance management.

Coaching the middle can improve performance in the current year, and sustaining this through continued coaching should drive continued performance improvement over the years.

What about coaching the top performers?  The authors would claim the return on this effort is relatively small and suggest reducing time on these top performers.  But that misses the point.  What if we want to move those top performers into bigger contributions?  What if we want to  have them take much more responsibility, step into new roles—maybe moving from a territory manager, to a major account manager, to a global account manager, to a strategic alliance manager?  What  if we wanted to develop some of them to step into stronger leadership and management roles?

I don’t think I’m alone in this view–some of the leading companies in the world take the development of their current and future leaders very seriously–providing rich coaching and developmental opportunities–less focused on the performance of those top performers today, but more focused on preparing them to perform in future roles.

What about coaching the bottom performers?  Clearly we want them to perform, we can’t afford to have them dragging down the organization.  Here coaching may take a different perspective–the key coaching issue might be how we develop them and move them into roles where they can really contribute and perform.  Aren’t we as managers supposed to move our people from jobs in which they are C performers into roles where the can be A performers (or at least B’s).  Sometimes those are roles in our organizations and companies, sometimes it means moving them out of the company.

Coaching is about performance management and improvement.  It is about getting each person to play to their full potential, in roles that maximize their contribution to the organization–now and in the future.

If this were a static world, if our people stayed in the same role forever, if the requirements for performance never changed, then I could buy the recommendations of the authors more easily.  Fortunately, that’s not the way the world works.

I think it’s management’s responsibility to coach everyone in the organization.  We need to get those in the middle to perform better, we need to grow those at the top to take greater responsibility and grow their contributions, we need to do something with our low performers, not just let them linger.

I do agree with the authors, coaching is not democratic.  It’s naive to assume this.  Not everyone needs the same “cookie cutter” approach coaching.  We coach each person with different goals and objectives.  With some we are looking to improve performance in their current roles, with others we are preparing them for future roles.  In some we are preparing them to move into other roles or out of the company.  We invest different amounts of time in coaching each person.  Some need more time, some need less.  What we coach and how we coach will vary by individual.  Coaching will have different time dimensions for each person, perhaps in the middle we are looking for improvements for this year, but we also need to be worried about next year and the future.

So coaching is not a “democracy.”

So who do we coach?  I firmly believe it’s our responsibility to coach everyone.

How do we coach?  We are irresponsible if we focus only on one dimension–for example achieving this year’s goals.  We have to coach for the objectives and goals we establish for each person?

When do we coach?  All the time.

What do you think?  Am I being naive?

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10 Comments
  1. So who do we coach? I firmly believe it’s our responsibility to coach everyone.

    I AGREE. THOSE THAT AREN’T COACHED WONDER “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?” AND (1) PERFORMANCE CAN GO DOWNHILL (2) THEY DO NOT FEEL APPRECIATED AND BEGIN TO LOOK ELSE WHERE.

    How do we coach? We are irresponsible if we focus only on one dimension–for example achieving this year’s goals. We have to coach for the objectives and goals we establish for each person?

    EACH PERSON IS DIFFERENT AND THAT REFLECTS WHETHER IT IS SHORT TERM OR LONG TERM GOALS.

    When do we coach? All the time. YES, YES AND YES. EVERY CONVERSATION IS A COACHING OPPORTUNITY.

    TOP PERFORMERS LEAVE WHEN THEY AREN’T COACHED.. THEY BEGIN THINKING THEY ARE NOT VALUED. THEY ARE YOUR TOP PERFORMERS… MAKE THEM FEEL SPECIAL AND THEY WILL RAISE THE BAR EVEN HIGHER!

    THE MIDDLE: COACHING IS TO ELEVATE THEM TO THE RANKS OF YOUR TOP PERFORMERS. THEY ARE MIDDLE BECAUSE THEY MAY KNOW THE SKILL – AND LACK THE WILL. COACHING TOWARDS THE WILL MAY THE THE KEY.

    BOTTOM: ARE YOU GUILTY OF THE SINK OR SWIM ROUTINE HERE. DID YOU HIRE AND LEAVE. THERE’S A LOT TO LEARN BOTH IN SKILL AND WILL TO YOUR PRODUCTS/SERVICES AND HOW YOU WANT TO GO TO MARKET.
    COACH BY OBSERVING… FIND THE 1 SKILL IF DEVELOPED NOW WOULD MAKE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE. THIS IS THE SHORT TERM GOAL COACHING.

    • Alice: Thanks for your comments and joining the discussion. Clearly, I couldn’t agree more. Hope to see you here again. Regards, Dave

  2. Dave, I think you’re right on this too. Coaching in this sense has to be something of an infrastructure. We don’t spend too much time worrying about who gets what level of telephones, or email programs; the differences in infrastructure service ought to be task- and role-related. In that sense, coaching ought to be part of what we all do, and the particular version of it ought to be customized to the individual.

    An interesting perspective, and one that makes a great deal of sense, thank you.

    • Charlie, thanks for the comment. We have to manage the performance of all our people–coaching is a critical part of that. If we choose who we want to manage and ignore the others, we are being irresponsible. Coaching is not democratic, one size does not fit all, we don’t spend the same amount of time with each person, but we must coach each person.

      Thanks, as always for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

  3. Bernie Hockswener permalink

    Great discussion. But here’s my problem…. The original article concludes, “coaching – even world class coaching – has a marginal effect on the weakest and the strongest.”

    If the coaching has a “marginal” effect, it isn’t “world class” coaching. It’s marginally effective coaching! And to me, the idea of coaching to “thirds” of the sales force is silly. Evaluate individuals and coach them according to their needs. I suspect the real issue is how are people are being assessed as they are hired. If improving contribution from the entire sales force is truly the goal, the firm should be sure they are hiring “coachable” people and then coach them well. Once done overall productivity will improve. MHO

    • Bernie: Thanks for the great insight. I absolutely agree. The authors seem to miss the point of what a manager’s job is and why coach. All they do is use numbers to prove that math works.

      The job of the manager is to manage performance. We don’t get to pick and choose whose performance we manage, but have to manage the performance of everyone in the organization. Coaching is a key tool, to manage that performance. We have to coach everyone if we are going to fulfill our responsibilities both to our organization and to the people we lead. Thanks for joining the discussion. I hope to see you here frequently!

  4. “Coaching is about performance management and improvement. It is about getting each person to play to their full potential, in roles that maximize their contribution to the organization–now and in the future.”

    A narrow focus yields narrow results.

    Great post David.

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