“But if they would just do it my way, they would be successful!” As you can imagine, I’ve never heard this from a sales manager before. I trust my sarcasm is translating.
It doesn’t matter where I deliver my management coach training program. Whether it’s in the U.S., or throughout EMEA, there is still some confusion (and even resistance) around when it’s appropriate for the manager to bring their agenda, strategy, solution or opinion to a conversation and when to park them at the door during the conversation and pick them up when you’re done.
I still attest that the most challenging thing for a manager to do (or not to do) when delivering authentic, effective coaching is to detach from the outcome during that conversation and unhook themselves from their own agenda when speaking with someone in order to authentically create a new possibility. While doing this may sound practically impossible to some managers, it is not.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting this is easy. Of course this is challenging to do! And I’ll readily admit that, as an external executive sales coach for any client, it’s much easier to detach from the outcome when I’m coaching executives and salespeople who don’t work for me! After all, you, as the manager have goals and numbers to reach. Your success, as well as your reputation and career, is, in effect, tied directly to the success of your team and how well they do and how they act, especially at the end of every quarter. But this article isn’t about your direct reports. It’s about you and the message you send to your team.
To Bring or Not To Bring Your Agenda To A Conversation
Surrender Absolute Thinking
Here’s where the ‘however’ comes into the equation. It’s not that you NEVER get to bring your agenda to a conversation, nor is it that you ALWAYS have to focus on their agenda. It’s actually both so let’s distinguish between these two types of conversations that you typically have with your direct reports.
Break The Pattern
What makes your team think you’re a bit schizophrenic (no disrespect to anyone with mental health issues) and really more unpredictable at times is because the manager is not being consistent with their approach. That is, sometimes you’re genuinely coaching them but often times not, depending upon the situation, time of day, pressure felt from the top, time constraints or general mood. So you if you as a manager approached your manager knowing that you don’t know what type of reaction to expect, it’s ironic that we’re doing the very thing we don’t want done to us to our own people. Here’s how to distinguish between the two general types of conversations you have and why it’s essential to do so.
1. You have an agenda. That is, there’s something you need your team to do, or change or try. Maybe there’s been a change that’s been sanctioned from the top. Maybe a new policy or new compensation structure is being rolled out. Maybe there’s a need to conduct a specific customer, pipeline or forecast review. It’s also possible for you to want and expect your people to improve upon their skills and execution of your sales methodology and process. Or maybe you’re dealing with an underperformer and, given their responsibilities and the expectations in their position; mediocre performance is not an acceptable option.
Clearly you have an agenda and a defined goal or objective in this type of conversation. And that is okay! But do yourself a favor. Don’t label this type of conversation as a coaching session. Call it anything but a coaching session (performance review, strategy session, win session, meeting, forecast meeting, and so on). This is where the enrollment conversation, an essential four step communication strategy I write about in my book for any manager or leader who needs to continually create alignment and buy in around their ideas every working day. Here’s where you can enroll that individual or your team in your agenda and create deeper buy in, alignment and engagement around what you need them to do so they are now willing to do it. Not because their boss told them they have to do it but because you took the time to create alignment, that is, aligning their personal goals with your objectives. Subsequently, they see what is now in it for them and how they can benefit.
That is, rather than going from “What” they need to do to “How” they need to do it, weave in the “Why.” Now, the conversation sounds like, “Here’s what we need to do, here’s why it’s important to you/what’s in it for you/our team/the company, now lets discuss how we can achieve this together.”
2. You have a scheduled coaching session with one of your direct reports under the premise that it is ‘coaching,’ they drive the agenda and you are there to support them in achieving what matters most to them in their career. This is the time you can also use strategically for skill development or take what you’ve observed during a joint field ride and do a deeper dive around opportunities for improvement. If this is the expectation you have set and then, during that very conversation you say something like, “I know you mentioned that you wanted to use this coaching session to talk about what the next step in your career looks like and how you can get there. However, before we do that, I have a few concerns about your performance and sales numbers that I think we should address first, starting with your biggest account.”
There’s No Such Thing As Prescriptive Coaching
BAM! You just blindsided them. The old ‘bait and switch!’ I can guarantee you this. If you engage in this tactic, it is a surefire strategy to erode the very fabric of trust, as well as the commitment to their job and to the company that each manager is desperately looking to create within their team. Now, during the next coaching session with that person, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to end that coaching conversation feeling that your direct report was simply telling you what they think you want to hear. The trust is gone. Why? Because this is the very thing that tarnishes the experience and definition of coaching. When a manager says they’re coaching, and their doing something else, being directive prescriptive, etc, you dilute the essence of what coaching is all about. You tarnish what is meant to be a positive valuable experience for the person being coached. And this is all a result of the way you positioned coaching, through both your eyes and eyes of your direct reports.
What Managers Struggle With Most
During what has been identified by you and your direct report as a pure coaching session, it is the direct report who drives the agenda. That’s the value of coaching. They get to focus on what they want and what’s important to them, not what you want them to do. Coaching is not meant to be a performance review. That’s a separate conversation, so treat it and schedule it as such. A pure coaching session is meant to be all about them, not about you.
I know the intense pressures managers are faced with every day. But what are we really talking about here? Providing each person on your team a minimum of 1 hour of sacred time that is just for them; each month? Imagine how you would feel if your boss created this type of consistent, safe environment for you?
Unfortunately, if you as a manager don’t receive great coaching from your boss, you don’t now what it feels like. And if you don’t know what it feels like it’s hard to deliver good coaching or see why it’s so effective!
What I’m about to share may come as a shock to some managers, especially in certain cultures across the world both in geographic location as well as in the culture of the organization. Your direct report will exponentially benefit from you providing them with the space as well as the ability to tell you what they want or need, rather than you telling them what they want, need or have to do. And in many instances, when you simply give that gift of your listening and the space for them to think and process, they may even come up with something better!
Does Coaching Ever Stop?
To add to this confusion, even though at times you, as the manager may have a specific agenda that you need to address; whether it’s a deal review, forecast review, compensation change or other changes sanctioned from HR or from the top, or even when speaking with an underperformer, it doesn’t mean you won’t be coaching them. Realize that, at the core, coaching is simply a more powerful way to communicate. This richer form of engagement begins by asking better, well crafted questions that focus not solely on the result but on the process as well. And this can happen during every conversation you have.
Said another way, you’re always coaching. That is, you’re now communicating in a more engaging way. So, while the topics, people, situations, objectives and conversations may change, the foundation; that is, the coaching framework, precision based questions and how you come across stays the same.
Here’s an example to drive this point home. During a training event in London, a director in the U.K. made a powerful observation. He said, “Keith, there are times I have to get other people who don’t report to me directly to work with me or collaborate on a shared goal. These people can be other managers, stakeholders, partners, customers, even my boss. But it’s not like I will actually tell them I’m coaching them. Instead, I’m just going to ask them better, more strategic questions to drive deeper engagement, alignment and buy in. I’m going to get off of my agenda for a moment and take the time to better understand their point of view, respect their point of view and then together, collaborate and enroll them on a new possibility we can both create together that would support our shared goals.” Bingo! That was his ‘aha’ moment and an accurate distinction of world class coaching and leveraging the Art of Enrollment.
Set and Manage Expectations With Precision – A Different Kind of Conversation
Although every conversation presents you with an opportunity to ask better open ended questions, draw a very clear line between a coaching session, a strategy session, a deal review, your agenda or a performance review. If you continue to muddy the waters by poorly defining the boundaries around these distinct types of conversations and what to expect, you are not only eroding trust but you’re leaving it up to people, especially your direct reports, to decipher what your real intentions are. That’s when they’ll start looking at you funny and wondering if you’re schizophrenic or not! (Example: “Is my manager going to coach and support me now, or is this going to turn into a directive, one way conversation where I’m reminded about my quota and that my sales need to improve?”)
If you do not set clear expectations and honor them in every conversation, whether you like it or not, as human beings, our default file is fear. Consequently, through the eyes of your people, if you email, call or walk up to one of your directs’ and ‘ask to ‘speak to them,’ they are thinking, “Did I do something wrong?” “Am I in trouble?” “What is my manager’s hidden agenda here? Why are they asking me these questions?”
Then managers wonder why their people won’t open up to them! And for those managers who feel you can actually split the one hour ‘one on one’ call with each direct into 30 minutes of their agenda and 30 minutes of your agenda, you’re simply diluting the value in that conversation and the trust in the minds of your people when you say, “This is where the coaching portion of the conversation stops and I get to be directive.”
The best managers are very clear about their intentions and expectations in every conversation and realize the collateral damage that can be caused when you continue to change the rules throughout the game. If you want to eliminate the majority of challenges and communication breakdowns that you are faced with throughout each day, while continuing to build the trust you need in every relationship, be mindful of how you approach every conversation, as well as how effectively you are managing the expectations in every conversation. This includes clearly defining the parameters of coaching, what good coaching looks and feels like and the objective of a coaching session, in order to maintain full alignment and trust with your team.
Photo Credit: Terence Mendoza via Shutterstock
Keith, great article. In fact, I believe the toughest thing for any coach is to keep his or her agenda out of a coaching conversation. (I believe it’s why there are so few excellent coaches.)
Of course, it is doubly hard for a manager, who has responsibilities that by definition, extend beyond the best outcome for the individual involved.
Your insights are excellent. In order to be an effective manager AND coach, one must clearly understand and appreciate the different roles, and the most appropriate circumstances for each.
If someone simply can’t be a manager and a coach – then be a manager… and hire a coach.
Thanks for your kind words! Yes, surrendering your agenda inside a conversation is the toughest part of being an effective manager coach. Compound that with the importance of clearly defining the different types of conversations managers need to have, distinct from an authentic coaching conversation. Managers soon realize coaching isn’t as easy as they may have thought! Wishing you continued success and keep the comments coming!
I totally agree with you. The hardest thing for anyone to do is figure out what the manager is thinking. Once the manager breaks the trust, everyone goes on a DTA (don’t trust anyone) mentally and every conversation is hesitant.
While it is hard to keep the conversations separated, managers will find it works out best to do so. It will save time and aggravation in the long run.