What I’m about to share with you may seem to contradict the essence of coaching. While there are certain gauges to determine whether someone is in fact coachable, there’s another scenario that many managers find themselves in that could mistakenly lead them to believe that their coaching is not effective, when in fact there is another issue present.
Often times the real issue is this: The person they are coaching is not coachable. I’m referring to coaching the person who I affectionately refer to as the squeaker. A squeaker is typically someone on your team who is a master of the mundane. The squeaker is often an elusive character to identify, as they do not often make themselves known until it’s too late. The failure to identify the squeaker in your practice or on your team can have serious repercussions. The most detrimental is that they have a tendency to suck the life and the time right out of you. By the time you’ve uncovered their true identity, it’s often too late. Costly resources have already been deployed and exhausted, the most valuable, of course, being your time. Before you know it, you’ve invested way too much time in their story or drama.
The squeaker has the tendency to get you caught up in their drama as a way to manipulate you into believing that they truly can change and, better yet, even want to change. On the surface, coaching a person like this may seem to be in congruency with your responsibility to your team. We’ve all heard the expression, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” The squeaky wheel in this case refers to those squeakers who cause upsets at work. We spend a great deal of time rewarding these squeakers because our time is a reward. What I’m suggesting is this: Do not oil the squeakers.
Here’s one situation a manager experienced that supports this philosophy. Donna was a salesperson who sold for Mango, a pharmaceutical company. Donna had been employed with Mango for seven years. Out of the gate, Donna was a star producer. But then her performance started to slip. Peter, her manager for the last three years, did as much as he felt he could to offer additional support, training, and coaching. While Donna expressed her openness to the additional coaching and support as well as her commitment to turn her performance around, it seemed the more Peter supported Donna, the more pushback he got from her.
On the surface it seemed that Donna was committed to making the turnaround. She regimentally showed up for duty every day at the office and would start engaging in her sales activities for the day. Donna reported to Peter that she was putting in the time to make the cold calls needed to book the necessary number of weekly appointments. It appeared she was honoring her selling process and following the prospecting and follow-up system that Peter put in place.
Peter tried to be as hands-on as possible. As such, he scheduled weekly one-to-one coaching calls with Donna, building in stronger metrics of accountability, measurable objectives, and action steps that Donna needed to consistently engage in if there was ever a chance or her to rise back to the top of her game. During every coaching call, Donna would acknowledge her commitment to herself and to the company to achieve her monthly sales goals again.
Donna also made it very clear to Peter the feelings she had regarding the company, the product, and the marketplace. As the weeks progressed, so did the degree of Donna’s complaints. That is, Peter heard more frequent accounts about how challenging it was to penetrate new accounts, how tapped her territory was, and how much better the competition is at beating them. It seemed as if the opposite was happening. Rather than Donna’s accountability quotient increasing, she seemed to own less of the fact that the root of all her problems was herself.
With all the additional support that Peter provided, it wasn’t manifesting any new, more desirable outcomes. Something was still off and Peter knew it. He sensed it. The more Peter would work with Donna and try to uncover the truth of what was getting in her way, the more excuses Peter heard from Donna defending her performance and situation.
In an attempt to gather some evidence of Donna’s commitment to turn her performance around, Peter logged into Donna’s customer relationship management account to review and confirm the activity that Donna reported on. Was there a clear alignment between Donna’s intentions and her actions? It was during Peter’s review of Donna’s account activity when Peter noticed the glaring disconnect between the activity that Donna was reporting and what she was actually doing.
It seems that Donna was not engaging in the activity that she professed she was. After Peter talked with his executive sales coach regarding how to handle this situation, Peter put a new plan of action in place for the next time he approached Donna. This way he could respond in a more effective way given this newfound intelligence and Donna’s less than noble and forthright reporting.
Peter needed something more tangible and concrete to hold Donna accountable. As such, Peter drafted a document and presented it to Donna. He called it an Agreement of Action. The document was more of an action plan, a memo of understanding between Peter and Donna and the role each of them would play in turning Donna’s performance around. It detailed the specific activity each of them would be responsible for that backed up their commitment to bringing this goal to fruition.
For Donna it listed quantifiable action steps as it related to the number of cold calls, prospecting activities, and follow-up calls she had to make each day to generate the required five weekly appointments with prospects and the process she needed to follow to attain her daily objectives. For Peter it outlined the number of coaching calls they would have each week, the additional support and resources that Peter was willing to provide, as well as the reporting Peter expected to receive each week from Donna.
Peter then explained to Donna that they both were going to sign this memo. This memo was not a conditional contract that was directly tied in to Donna’s employment or performance review. Nor was this memo used to determine whether it made sense for Donna to continue working at Mango (although this document would ultimately achieve this objective). This memo was more a testament to Donna’s commitment to achieving this goal and Peter’s commitment to supporting her in doing so. Consider it an agreement to take the necessary actions that a successful salesperson needs to engage in and for Peter to continue in his capacity as her manager to help drive results.
When Peter presented this agreement of action to Donna, he informed her that she did not have to endorse this action plan at the very moment he presented it to her. Instead he suggested she take this document home, review it, and then endorse it with the power of her full commitment behind it.
Two days later, rather than hand deliver the endorsed agreement to Peter, Donna handed in her letter of resignation. She quit.
When Peter called me to share the news, my first response was, “Congratulations!” Peter seemed to be a bit stunned by my remark and reacted immediately. “Congratulations that I had a salesperson quit on me?” “How is it good news that I lost a salesperson who I now have to go out and replace?”
“Well, you question whether it is good or bad news that you lost a salesperson but the real question for you to consider is, did you lose a top salesperson?”
Peter hesitated for a moment and then responded. “At one time Donna was a top salesperson but no longer. Now, as we’ve discussed, she is positioned more at the bottom of my sales team’s performance rankings.”
“And what did you uncover as a result of the agreement of action that you presented to Donna as a viable solution to turning her performance around?”
Peter thought for a moment, as he looked closer at the truth. “Well, the fact that she didn’t sign the agreement and resigned instead was certainly what brought this to closure regarding which way we were heading rather than treading water endlessly, fighting and pushing her just to stay in survival mode. I guess Donna wasn’t willing to do what it takes and make the commitment of effort and time to improve her situation. In the end, she simply wasn’t willing to commit to the process or take advantage of the additional support that I offered her.”
“You are so right about that. What else is true?” I continued, knowing there was more to the lesson that Peter could walk away with from this experience.
“That I guess I should be more vigilant and sensitive to where I invest my time. More specifically, who I should invest my time in, as it relates to my staff.” Peter paused for a moment, reflecting back upon this experience in an effort to uncover any additional insights that would make him better equipped and more effective the next time he ran into a situation like this. “It’s not about putting all of your time and energy into every person on your team. And it’s certainly not prudent to continually invest your time into the “C” players who are not fully committed to turning themselves around or willing to take the steps that would demonstrate the evidence of their good intentions.”
“Anything else?” I inquired.
“Like what?” Peter asked.
“Well, given how much you care about your company and your people, I know you would love to save everyone. It’s evident how concerned you are about each person on your team and how committed you are to their success and growth. But what about the destructive influence this type of person has on the rest of your team, as well as on your clients and prospects? Is there an inherent cost you experience from keeping someone like Donna on your team?”
After another pensive pause, Peter said, “Gee, and I never even considered the additional consequence this would have on my team. Listen, I certainly get the cost of coaching and investing resources as well as my limited time in the wrong person. Donna was unfortunately the wrong person based on the empirical evidence that supports this fact. How did this affect my team? Wow, I guess not in a positive way. I’m just thinking out loud here for a moment; all the bitter arguments, the issues, the concessions, the low sales numbers, the poisonous gossip that spreads like a virus throughout the company, and the negativity that Donna exuded that every person on my team witnessed on a daily basis. I guess that can’t be good, Keith.”
“You are certainly right about that,” I acknowledged. “Think about how someone like Donna affects the culture, mood, atmosphere, and morale of your team. Donna brought morale down as she spread her poisonous gospel, endlessly pontificating negativity and enlisting others in her crusade with the intent to bring everyone down with her and her sinking career. Now there’s the added cost from this fallout and the collateral damage you experience when dealing with someone like this daily.
I waited a moment for Peter to assimilate my message before continuing. “The greatest expense of having an underperformer on your team who’s not willing to make the necessary changes is this: Every minute you invest in someone like Donna is another minute you have lost and wasted. It’s another minute you have sacrificed that you no longer have available to invest in coaching the people who would clearly benefit from your additional support and attention, the ones who are performing and growing as well as your star producers. The ones who would deeply appreciate, listen to, and absorb every bit of insight and wisdom you can enlighten them with.
“These are the salespeople on your team who cry out for and truly want your coaching and support but can’t get it because your time is absorbed in a lost cause. Think for a moment how your salespeople feel when they continually observe you putting your limited time and energy into an uncommitted underperformer like Donna, when they know it’s time that could have been better invested if you were coaching them instead.”
“Ouch, that certainly stings,” was Peter’s reply. “Looking at it through my salespeople’s eyes, I’d probably be a little upset, even angry if I were them.”
“Before you take out the topical ointment for that sting, there’s one more lesson I need to share with you. Just in case you ever have the desire to salvage someone like this again, think about the lost sales, the lost selling opportunities, and the prospects and clients who Donna blew off, didn’t follow up with, or never called in the first place. Not only does this affect your internal operations but now it’s affecting your year-end sales numbers, as these were clients and prospects that Donna could have possibly sold something to who are currently not buying from you and instead, are buying from someone else.”
Peter jumped in immediately. “OK, Keith, thanks. I really got it this time. I’m feeling the pain and when we conclude our call the first thing I’m going to do is start reevaluating my current management practices to ensure that my radar is turned up to the max so that I can identify a situation like this before it ever turns into another costly lesson.”
You may be familiar with a manager like Peter. In fact you may know this type of manager intimately well. The reality is, managers spend far too much time rewarding the wrong thing, whether it’s rewarding the person or the wrong activity. After all, if you are going to invest your precious and limited time in supporting your salespeople, you are going to want to make certain that your investment pays back huge dividends. Keep in mind, when you provide individual support and coaching, you are actually rewarding your staff because the reward you give them is your time. Therefore, it’s critical that you are rewarding the right people with your time, the people who are worthy, who are deserving, who make you look great, and who are appreciative of this gift.
Just take a look at your schedule and the calendar items you engage in on a daily basis. Notice how much time you spend rewarding the things you want to acknowledge and punishing the things you don’t want. The reality is, it is the antithesis which is true. Conversely, many managers often do just the opposite, rewarding the toxic people and ignoring their top achievers. The situation we portrayed with Peter and Donna certainly supports this level of negligence that managers are often and unknowingly guilty of. They reward the wrong people by giving them their time via coaching and one-to-one attention. They reward the squeaker rather than the talented new hire, veteran superstar, or the promising up-and-comer. Managers invest far too much time trying to salvage an underperformer, the consistent complainer, or the ongoing confrontation creator and problem architect.
While it’s often true the squeaky wheel gets the oil, more of your time should be spent rewarding the people who contribute to you and help your team thrive, the people who consistently reach and exceed performance goals, the people who are going to be around for the long term and who want to grow with you and with the company.
Keith Rosen is an executive sales coach, speaker, and best-selling author of many books, including Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions. He was named one of the five most respected and influential executive coaches in the country by Inc. magazine and Fast Company. He can be contacted at 516-771-1444, firstname.lastname@example.org, or his Web site.