Thursday, May 5, 2011

Does Performance Data Get in the Way of Coaching Conversations?

In my work in training sales leaders to coach their sales representatives, I often find that having all of the performance data can sometimes be an impediment to great coaching conversations. Sales leaders have an abundance of data at their fingertips, which highlight performance strengths and weaknesses:
— How is the sales rep doing compared to plan?
— Compared to others in the team?
— Compared to everyone across the country?
— On each product and service line?
— Each day, week or month?

I recently shadowed a high-performing sales leader working with his team members. He worked for a financial services organization that had established very clear goals for each rep regarding the specific products and services s/he was expected to sell each month. Reps received training, shadowing and coaching so that they understood the product lines and how to position them with clients. This sales leader met with each direct report one time each week for “coaching.” Here was a typical conversation:

  • Leader: “Let’s review your progress and see how you are doing and where we can help you improve in your numbers.”
  • Rep: “OK.” (The rep got the same reports on a daily basis so the rep knew exactly where s/he stood on any given day.)
  • Leader: “It looks like you are doing great on product lines X and Y, but not doing so well on A and B.”
  • Rep: “Right. I know that I need to get A and B up.”
  • Leader: “You know, if you just did (a few more calls each day) where you (said a few more of the right things), you will get your numbers to goal.”
  • Rep: “Yeah, I know I need to be doing that.”
  • Leader: “And if you keep that up, you have a chance on going on the Achievement Trip at the end of the year. I know how important that is. Anything else on your mind?”
  • Rep: “Well, I was wondering…” (The rep never got to finish his sentence, as the leader interrupted and took control again.)
  • Leader: “Oh, one other thing: I noticed that we probably also need to…”

While this might sound hard to believe, I am only slightly exaggerating the nature of most of the conversations I observed that day. Because performance data is so available and abundant, focusing on results seems like an obvious place to start in a coaching conversation. However, imagine how the rep must feel during and after conversations like these.

Instead of focusing on the numbers and the results, I suggest that a more powerful coaching conversation would involve the following elements:

  1. Frame the conversation: Ask the sales rep what he/she wants to focus on. Where would s/he like help or support?
  2. Understand the current state from the rep’s point of view: What is working well that can be leveraged? What is s/he struggling with? What are the consequences of not changing? What’s at stake if performance doesn’t improve?
  3. Explore the desired state, again from the rep’s point of view: What would the rep like to see happen? What does success look like? What are multiple ways to get there? (Research shows that if you identify at least three paths to reach the desired outcome, you will ultimately have a better solution to get there.) If the rep cannot identify any paths to achieve success, the leader can certainly add his/her thoughts; however, the rep will typically know what s/he needs to do.
  4. Lay out action steps and follow-up milestones. Ask the rep to identify the next best steps to take, along with timeframes. The timeframes can then drive the next checkpoint for the leader and rep and provide a path for accountability.

The acronym for these elements gives sales leaders FUEL for effective coaching conversations. Representatives will be able to identify what they really need help with, have a forum for discussing their true challenges and be part of the solution moving forward.

Do you think all of the performance data can sometimes be an impediment to great coaching conversations?

For more information, read The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, where my colleague and I share practical tools and tips for turning the typical manager/employee discussion into effective coaching conversations.