Question number 7: Who do I coach first?

Who do I coach best as manager: the stars or the underperformers?

Now this is a tricky question. First, you need the courage to admit that your team is not perfect while at the same time you need some wisdom so as not to blame yourself for your non-perfect team. Then you have to fight the misapprehension that everybody in business must be a star. This is simply not true: all corporations all over the world are filled with a mix of stars, average people, and slow movers.

Dividing your staff into three categories and then putting a label on each of them is dangerous. Labels tend to become reality and reduce people to the label they have on their foreheads: this may lead to “corporate racism.” Labels describe the intrinsic (lack of) qualities of people. But, they also say something about the one who applies the label. If your company only uses three different labels, then the company itself is rather simplistic in the way it treats its staff.

It is even more complex when you realize that someone can be a slow mover in one area of work while he is average in another. The lowest performing engineer may be good in administrative procedures while your
best salesman is a below-average administrator. To add another level of complexity, you could argue that companies have a responsibility to helping their staff to become better in what they do. This implies that the company (read: you the managers) has the responsibility of managing all staff towards better performance. Limiting labels are no help here.

What does help is to define the requirements you make of your staff in terms that are as detailed and concrete as possible. One can only be called slow if measured against a specific norm. A Ferrari is a fast car when compared to most cars, yet slow when compared to a plane. However, you can go shopping in town with a Ferrari and not with a plane.

Now, this being said, with all levels of complexity added, it still remains true that some are more equal than others. Even if you have distributed tasks optimally, described them well and allocated the resources accordingly, you will still have some staff members who are faster and more efficient than others. In an ideal world, everybody is perfect or at least more then good enough. But perfection is a myth, and managers have to deal with imperfection. The question of who to coach first remains.

So, let’s be practical while keeping the above-mentioned complexity in mind.

As a manager you coach individual employees, and you also coach teams that are made up of a bunch of individuals. In order for a team to be more than the sum of its individuals, they need to act like a cycling team that is competing in a time trial. The team that wins is the team that has the highest average speed combined with a fast leadsman. If the star of the team rides so fast that his slowest team mate comes in too late, they (all) lose.

So, you coach the leadsman to go as fast as is useful for the team, you coach the average cyclists to speed them up a little, and you coach the slowest to go as fast as he can in order to come in on time.

However, there are more people involved. Every cycling team has specialists in it who do not ride a bike. They prepare the bikes, arrange hotel rooms, and coach the sportsmen. During a race, they sit in a trailer, stand on sidewalks, or ride in the car that follows the team. Their sweat only comes from the stress of their commitment!

Make sure to spend time with these experts and show them how important they are, even if they will never cross the finishing line personally.

For the best results, you must coach all of them: the stars, the average,
and the slowest. Who you spend the most effort on depends on the situation. When you need a breakthrough in your team, you coach the person with the highest potential for pushing the limits. However, make sure that you help that person to stay in contact with the rest of the team: they need information about what he/she is doing concerning that breakthrough, so that they can do the groundwork when it’s their turn to work on the results of the breakthrough.

Take the example of a high-potential sales engineer working for a major business-to-business provider of logistic applications. His company really needs that new account that he has been working on for months. Winning this account will have enormous consequences for his team: they will need to develop, test and implement a giant new piece of software according to the specifications of the new client. His manager has supported and coached him when times got rough. At the same time, his manager made sure that the sales engineer constantly reported the progress on this account. The goal of this was two-fold: reporting his progress gave him additional support and ideas from his team members. At the same time, it prepared the team for what they would need to do after the sale was closed. Imagine what would happen if the sales engineer closed that deal with all the help from his manager but without any communication with the team.

Laws of statistics tell us that the most frequent subspecies of humankind is the average man or woman. Coaching them is great since they are average: they do not need too much, nor too little attention. They only need the correct attention. They have areas where they perform better and issues on which they are not so good. Good managers coach the average person on his well-functioning characteristics and support him to do more of what he is already doing well. The less well-functioning aspects of the average person are probably not so bad as to cause serious concern. Good managers coach the average person so that his less well-functioning aspects put no constraints on his contribution to the team or company. They don’t lose time or energy in trying to change the average person into a non-average person: this is idle and preposterous (although politically correct in certain business cultures). The only thing you need to avoid is setting the average as the norm: that will not help you win any business prizes!

Then come the slow movers. You pay attention to the slowest in your team for two main reasons. The first reason is that there always is and always will be someone who is the slowest. When you show your interest in the weakest team member as a manager, this instills a respectful atmosphere for the whole team. Showing interest is, of course, not the same as protecting them, let alone allowing them to lower the team’s performance. Secondly, you want to see if there is a way to speed them up a little so that they contribute to raising the average speed of the team as a whole.

There is of course a limit to the effort you devote to the slowest team members. This limit comes in sight when in spite of your coaching (or even coaxing) efforts, the slowest constantly stays too far behind in all aspects of his work. Then they offer neither added value nor useful contributions. If this is the case, they move into the category of chronic underperformers: they stay too slow on all aspects of their work and there is no betterment in sight. To question where their underperformance comes from, from lack of capability or from lack of motivation is actually irrelevant. The fact is that chronic underperformers have a braking effect on team performance. It is up to you as a team manager, if you want your team to ride a time trial with the brakes on. The intervention with these team mates is either to find them a new spot in the organization where they can perform better or to ship them out respectfully. When they are not able to shape up and you have to ship them out, it comes to firing them. Have a look at the paragraphs on how to fire someone (page 219 of the Solution Tango) for the best way to do this. If you have no time to coach all of them at the same time, you’d better
make time to give everybody a little of your attention and make sure to show respect to all the members of the team (which maybe is the most basic form of coaching).

To conclude:
• Perfection is an illusion.
• A perfect team consists of stars, average, and slow team members.
• Stars need coaching to help prevent overperformance, and thus losing as a team.
• Slow staff are an unavoidable statistical part of the population.
• A little extra coaching for the slow raises the average speed.
• The average performer is the most frequent, but cannot be allowed to become the norm.
• When it comes to chronic underperformers you have to make a choice for the good of the company.
• Success is all in the mix of differences.

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