Performance Based Coaching

By: Rick Contel | Chief Learning Officer

If you put a good performer up against a bad system, the system will win every time! – Geary Rummler, founding partner of the Performance Design Lab.

Most people come to work intending to do a good job. However, the more employees bang their heads against organizational and process barriers, the more the desire to excel recedes, and the less energy there is to fight the good fight day after day. The resulting ebb in productivity or performance leads the boss to step in to fix problems by coaching employees on how to do a better job.

Research suggests that some 75 percent of the issues that impact individual performance in the workplace are system issues rather than personal issues.

The system is different in every organization and for every job role, and includes organizational and process design, how information and resources are made available and how performance is recognized. A talent manager or coach needs to understand the organizational context and system to appropriately coach employees to higher levels of performance. For instance, an organization or a process design may make accessing information or resources needed to do a job so challenging the performer starts taking shortcuts or avoids doing what is needed, especially if there are no immediate consequences.

Take the hypothetical example of the refinery night watchman who carries a detector that records “sniffs” of toxic gas leaks as he makes his rounds. Whenever the detector buzzes, he is instructed to take the detector across the refinery to the safety office where it is “read” by a machine that records the amount and location of the leak. Since this takes extra time and effort and sets his nightly schedule back, instead he puts the detector in his back pocket and holds his breath when checking a valve site that he knows leaks. This behavior is improper; in this case, the system won since it put a major barrier in the watchman’s way by making it unnecessarily difficult to comply.

This emphasizes the importance of approaching a coaching opportunity with a nonjudgmental mindset to ensure a situation is properly diagnosed. A great coach engages direct reports by changing/reframing the coaching conversation from perceived cause and solution to a solution-neutral, inquiry-based conversational model.

Coaching to Accomplishments

The performance improvement community is coming to understand what many people have known all their lives – that most of what people learn, they learn informally on the job. However, left to chance, informal learning can be counterproductive.

In his book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin repeatedly found that world-class performance was not due to innate talent. He found that high performers identified the areas where they needed to improve and practiced those areas with clear immediate feedback on performance. The emphasis is on practicing the right things.

Coaching models often don’t cover what the right things are, and coaching skills or competencies don’t address them either. Instead, they focus on the way coaching is done rather than what is coached.

Business results come from people producing the right outputs in their jobs. These outputs of value or accomplishments are what employees leave behind when they go home for the day. When properly defined, they filter out the noise in a job – all the things there are to know and do. What’s left are the true value-adding accomplishments the coach wants his or her player to produce.

Defining these outputs is key to developing an effective, performance-based coaching program. Through observations and interviews, the outputs created by the best in any organization can be identified and described.

Once the outputs are defined, the tasks and steps to complete them can be captured and the criteria used to assess the outputs documented. This performance profile, or role excellence profile (REP), becomes the backbone for learning curriculum and the coaching relationship.

Imagine a scenario where a pharmaceutical company, like most companies in that industry, has its field managers do ride-alongs with field sales reps to assess their performance using a field coaching form. Most managers thought this was a report card exercise, as did the sale reps. Consequently, it did not provide the true coaching opportunities that it might have. By revising the sales training curriculum around the REP for the best sales people, the outputs of value and measurement criteria could be built into the field coaching form. The impact would be seen in the feedback from the field. Managers and sales reps would now view the ride-along as a development opportunity and the coaching form as a development tool, changing how both managers and sales reps view the ride-along and coaching relationship.

Making It Stick

Typically, when a learning program is over, practitioners rely on the learners’ good intentions and their manager to facilitate new skill application on the job. Back at work, however, there is little time to devote to new behaviors, and too often, new skills atrophy quickly from lack of use.

Think of the learning environment as a furnace and learners as metal ingots. At the end of the learning experience, the ingots are in a molten state. However, the mold they will be poured into is the environment in their workplace. If this environment is not structured to form them into the new shape, they harden in unpredictable ways. The manager/coach is responsible for setting and maintaining this new mold to ensure the learner can and does set in the new form.

There are several steps learning practitioners can take to ensure that small, frequent practice exercises occur with the appropriate feedback. First, set the process in place and then enable it with persuasive technology.The process has the following components:

There are several steps learning practitioners can take to ensure that small, frequent practice exercises occur with the appropriate feedback. First, set the process in place and then enable it with persuasive technology.The process has the following components:

  1. Learners write down the tasks they plan to do to apply what they have learned and the time frame for execution. The act of writing it down creates a sense of empowerment and suppresses resistance to change.
  2. A coach facilitates periodic conference calls or meetings every few weeks so learners can share the tasks they have created for themselves.
  3. Learners write down what they learn as a consequence of executing their tasks.
  4. In review sessions takeaways are discussed, ideas are shared and new tasks are developed that leverage the takeaways.
  5. This collaboration fuels interest and passion to raise each person’s level of performance so the group travels the road to greatness together.

This is where persuasive technology fills the need. Companies such as Cerebyte have developed a software that captures, tracks and reports all of the aforementioned activity. Learners enter their learning tasks as part of the classroom experience whether it’s face-to-face or remote. The software then reminds them what tasks are due and when. Management reports keep managers apprised of task completion and lessons learned. As learners become performers, they enter what they have learned from executing their tasks so others can read it and reflect on how it may enhance their own performance.

The power in this approach is in its predictability. The discipline and structure persuasive technology can provide ensure that neuroscience can do its thing, and new behavior is cemented through practice and feedback from peers and coaches.

Effective coaching has impact that trumps almost anything that can be accomplished in the classroom, whether it’s face-to-face or virtual. It behooves all of us to focus more attention on strengthening coaching capabilities to facilitate changes in the way work is done and ensure these changes last. Learning leaders should ensure their coaching models incorporate the three pillars of performance-based coaching: the systems view, coaching to accomplishments and making it stick. Doing so creates an environment that can react quickly with predictable results and become a machine of continuous improvement.

About the Author:

Rick Contel is the director of strategic consulting for GP Strategies.

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