Why Managers Don’t Coach, Part 2

This article is the second in a series that looks into the reasons managers give for not spending more time coaching. In the first post I looked at the over-reliance some place on the role of formalized or corporate training. Today, we look at another common response.

Excuse #2 – “They’re a top performer. They don’t need coaching.”

Managers are often reluctant to coach top performers. Some of the comments I’ve heard related to this excuse include:

“They’re at the top of their game. What could they possible learn?”

“They’ll get upset. I don’t want to lose them because they feel I’m micro-managing.”

“I don’t feel comfortable coaching them. They’re better than I am.”

Lack of coaching amongst top performers typically results from a feeling of discomfort on the part of the manager. They don’t know how to approach a coaching scenario with someone who’s performing well, so they avoid the issue all together. Unfortunately, this can have less than desirable consequences.

Early in my career as a sales manager, I too held the belief that my top producers didn’t need coaching. One day, this perception was shattered by a sales rep named Linda. I was managing a large call center at the time and on this particular day I had been working with a new rep on her outbound telephone skills. We would take turns making calls so she could listen to me model the technique and then I would listen as she made a call so we could discuss the results.

Linda was one of the top producers on my team and I hadn’t spent much time with her beyond reviewing her numbers and thanking her for her efforts. She noticed I was on the floor working with another employee and during a break she asked why I never worked with her. I replied that honestly, I didn’t feel she needed help. Her production was always at the top and my time was better spent with those who need the most help. Linda convinced me to spend a couple of hours coaching her anyway and the experience was rewarding for both of us. I walked away with a new perspective on coaching that has impacted my career ever since. Here are some of the things I learned from Linda regarding coaching top performers.

They want you to coach them. One of the reasons top performers are, well, top performers is that they’re always looking for ways to improve. In fact, if you ignore them too long, you may find yourself involved in what I call scuba-diver management. This occurs when a top performer feels ignored and subconsciously lowers their level of performance so that you begin coaching them. You work them back to top performer status and then dive back down to coach another low performer. Spending time with a top performer keeps them producing at a high level.

Linda’s performance level hadn’t dropped, but I quickly began to see this pattern in another top performer, Michael. Michael would be top dog one month, but fade into the middle of the pack the next. After a couple months of this back and forth, I realized what was going on. Once I began providing him with a more consistent coaching diet, his performance stayed more consistently in the top tier.

Everyone has something to learn. My reluctance to coach Linda stemmed from a fear that I had nothing to offer. I was worried that my attempts to model would fail or that she would ask a question that I couldn’t answer. I was, in fact, intimidated by her record of performance. But I could tell that she sincerely wanted my time, so I dove in.

During the time I spent with Linda, she was able to pick up on a few techniques – phrases I used or questions I would ask – that hadn’t occurred to her before. She was able to relate specific calls where these ideas would have come in handy and helped her secure more sales. As she took notes and practiced what she’d heard, I knew without a doubt that the time had been well spent.

You get more bang for your coaching buck. Spending time with top performers allows you to capitalize on the skill set that already exists. So your time is spent fine-tuning rather than developing. Let’s say you’ve got two employees to coach. One is an average performer who produces 10 widgets per week. The other is a top performer, producing 50 widgets per week. A 10% improvement in the average performer will gain you one additional widget, but a 10% improvement from your top performer gets you 5.

I’m not suggesting that you leave new employees or low performers to fend for themselves. You need to coach everyone. Your best employees need coaching, although the approach may be different. You have to be flexible enough with your time and coaching skills to accommodate employees at all levels.

Coaching keeps them engaged. When I talk about coaching, most managers think I’m talking about a process that identifies specific skill gaps and works with employees to address them. And while this is often true, coaching isn’t always about specific skill development. I believe coaching is a multi-faceted activity. Ultimately, coaching is any activity that helps an employee do their job better. Simply spending time with a member of your team, showing them attention, illustrates their value to you and the organization. Sometimes a little attention is all that’s required to recharge someone’s batteries.

During the couple of hours Linda and I worked together that day, we discussed her feelings about the organization, her views on particular projects outside of her responsibility, and even her career aspirations. As she talked, I could see the passion she had for her job. She truly loved helping people and felt her role allowed her to match customers’ needs with products and services that would make a difference for them. The opportunity to share that with me, her boss, was obviously important to her. She had an extra skip in her step for several days afterward.

You might learn something. If your top performers are really that good, then they probably have a few tricks to share. I’ve never walked away from a coaching session with one of my best employees without a few new ideas. I pick up techniques that will help another employee, or get inspired to improve an existing process after hearing their feedback.

I was apprehensive about coaching Linda. But I’m so glad I did. She learned a lot and so did I. The things I took away from the time we spent together that afternoon have helped me become a better listener, a better coach, and ultimately a better manager. I doubt she knows just how much I benefited from her insistence that I coach her.

So what are you waiting for Coach? Get out there and spend some time with a top performer.

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