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Coaching In The Middle….

by David Brock on November 21st, 2022

Every few years, we revisit the concept of, “Who do we coach?” I’m starting to see a series of articles re-arguing that managers get the greatest return on their coaching time by “coaching in the middle.” The argument being, when we look at sales performance, we tend to see a normal distribution, or the classic bell curve. We have a small number of very high performers, hopefully, a very small number of low performers, and the bulk of our people are somewhere in the middle.

When you start running math models, you start looking at things like: “If we have the options of 10% of our high performers improving 10%, or 10% of our low performers improving by 10%, or 10% of our middle performers improving 10%, which would you choose?” And the math is pretty clear, a 10% improvement in our middle performers produces far more than getting that same improvement from either end of our bell curve. It makes sense, the math is pretty easy.

Some slightly more sophisticated analysis suggests, great coaching gets a bigger performance improvement out of the middle performers than with either great or poor performers. That also makes sense–getting large increases in performance from high performers is very difficult because their performance is already very high. Low performers offer different challenges, but getting huge increases in performance from this is equally unlikely. So it’s probably better to focus on getting large performance increases from middle performers (perhaps not all, but some). Again, it seems compelling–you can run the math.

The problem with these analyses is they tend to look at performance across large numbers of sellers–let’s say the entire sales organization. And the math always supports focusing coaching on middle performers.

But let’s look at the real world, the average manager has anywhere between 6-11 people on their team So, already, if you look at the analysis done based on large numbers of people, the ideal of a normal distribution across that small number of people is probably not realistic. I’ve seen small teams with a relatively high proportion of high performers (The manager has been very selective in building and developing the team, more of them are high performers than the normal distribution would predict. Alternatively, managers do a terrible job of recruiting the right people an building the team, so the balance is shifted to low performers. While I have not analyzed this deeply, as I look at team quality and performance, they tend to reflect the job the manager has done in building and developing the team–so they tend to have a bimodal distribution (as we look at large organizations, these tend to get washed out–go look at a statistics book and the theory of large numbers.).

But to make this simple, let’s assume that a manager has a team of 10, and there is a normal distribution. There are 2 high performers, 2 low performers, and 6 in the middle. If we concentrate our coaching in the middle, theoretically we maximize performance.

But the manager is responsible for the performance of each individual on the team — all 10 of those people. Those who suggest we focus on coaching in the middle, would suggest we not spend a lot of time on the low performers. But we can’t ignore them! If we can’t get their performance up to reasonable levels, it is our responsibility to move them into other jobs—and hopefully, we do a better job in back filling them.

Likewise, we can’t ignore our top performers–if they begin feeling not included, they will become unhappy and leave. We need to invest time in developing them–anything we can do to get a little more out of short term performance, and preparing them to move into larger responsibilities. Plus, think of what we can learn from them, that we might leverage in coaching the others on the team.

As front line managers, we have to focus on everyone’s performance. If we aren’t, we aren’t doing our jobs (which causes us to be performance challenges to our managers.)

Front line managers must coach everyone on their team, not just those in the middle.

From → Leadership

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