Transforming Employee Performance One Coaching Conversation at a Time

By Brian Souza

Why is it that so many good people are such bad managers? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Often when I give a keynote, I’ll ask the audience by a show of hands how many people have ever had a lousy boss. Regardless of where I might be in the world, virtually every hand in the room goes up. Then I follow up with “And how many of you still have a lousy boss?” That always gets a good laugh and plenty of uncomfortable shifting in seats from those unfortunate enough to be sitting next to their bosses.

For years I was perplexed by the fact that so many well-intentioned, hard working people could be so ineffective at their jobs. Isn’t it amazing that despite the boatloads of management books available, billions of dollars spent on leadership training, and countless MBA diplomas received that the vast majority of employees are still incredibly dissatisfied with their bosses? Clearly, whatever we’ve been taught – whatever we, as managers, are doing – isn’t working.

To be fair, that’s only half correct. You see, there are basically two sides to management. There’s the process side, which deals with planning, scheduling, controlling, allocating resources, etc. These are the hard skills that most of us learned in school. And frankly, most managers are pretty good at the process-side. The people side? Not so much. And the reason is surprisingly simple: it turns out most managers have never been taught the right approach for how to consistently get the most out of their people.

Having devoted the better part of my career over the past decade to analyzing world-class leaders of highly productive teams, I was shocked to discover the fundamental difference between world-class leaders of highly productive teams and most managers doesn’t necessarily have to do with their IQ, strategic vision, or operational prowess, as one might expect. The fundamental difference came down to one thing: their approach. They didn’t act like a manager; they acted like a coach.

At a very basic level, there are four different types of managers. And each type of manager has a very distinct style or approach, which has a profound impact on the relationship (rapport) he or she has with team members and their level of productivity.

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Nice-Guy Manager: In general, Nice-guy Managers are more concerned with being liked by their team than they are with getting results from them. They’re typically laid back, mellow, hands off – maybe even, at times, a bit disengaged. They avoid conflict and are easy to work for. They have good rapport with their team, but don’t get the most out of them. Under the Nice-guy Management approach, A players flourish because they’re self-directed, while B and C players flounder due to the lack of structure and proper management reinforcement.

Micromanagers cares more about making sure their people do things perfectly than they do about helping them improve their performance. Micromanagers are typically perceived as being perfectionist, controlling, confrontational, and bossy. The micromanager’s approach causes his or her team members to do just enough to get by and fly below the radar. With this approach, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that micromanagers typically have the lowest level of productivity and the worst rapport with their teams.

The Do-It-All Manager doesn’t fully trust the abilities of his team and believes “if you want it done right, you better do it yourself.” As a result, he behaves more like an individual contributor on steroids – often burning out in the process due to his ever-increasing workload. While this approach may allow him to deliver short-term results, in the long run, he ends up failing because he’s the one doing all the work and stealing all the glory. Slackers may thrive under these conditions because it allows them to hide, but A players won’t tolerate this approach and will inevitably leave. (Full disclosure: This was me early in my management career.)

The Coach:
The Coach may not always have the best talent, but she always seem to get the best out of the talent she has. And the reason is surprisingly simple: coaches get the most out of their teams because they consistently put the most into their teams. They believe in their people, want them to succeed, and are committed to coaching and developing them so that they consistently perform to the maximum of their abilities. Thus, the Coach consistently achieves the highest level of productivity, while at the same time earning the highest level of trust and rapport with her team. Everyone thrives in this environment.

Like coaches, world-class leaders understand that the only way to systematically improve individual performance is by giving constructive coaching and developmenta feedback.

Like coaches, world-class leaders understand that the only way to systematically improve individual performance is by giving constructive coaching and developmental feedback. They also understand there is a direct correlation between the quantity and quality of coaching a person receives and his or her level of performance improvement. In other words, a lot of coaching equals a lot of improvement. A little coaching means a little improvement. No coaching equals zero improvement. It’s that simple.

The truth is, relying on quarterly performance reviews is not nearly enough to move the needle on improving individual performance. Relying on someone else to come in once a year and train your team won’t get the job done. Coaching and developing people is not an annual event. It’s not a quarterly event. In fact, it’s not an event at all. It’s a process. It’s an ongoing process that should be inextricably tied to everything you do on a weekly basis.

Think of it this way. If the only way your team can improve their performance is when they receive constructive coaching and developmental feedback and you only give them coaching and feedback once a year, you’re giving them exactly one chance a year to improve their performance. Conversely, if you’re giving your team constructive coaching and developmental feedback once a week, you’re giving your team 50 opportunities to improve their performance!

Coaching and developing people is not an annual even. It’s not a quarterly event…It’s an outgoing process that should be inextricably tied to everything you do on a weekly basis.

In fact, from a cadence perspective, our research indicated that a weekly coaching conversation was the optimal level of engagement required in order to give individuals enough space to do their job while at the same time ensuring they are focused on goal-achieving priorities, accountable for delivering short-term results, and receiving enough constructive coaching and developmental feedback to sustain high-performance.

We have spent the past four years codifying the best practices we studied, analyzed, and observed into a simple to understand, easy to apply, three-step framework designed to help managers get the most out of their teams. While I cover this topic thoroughly in my new book and related training program entitled The Weekly Coaching Conversation, below I’ll provide a cursory overview that will help you get started.



Step 1: Change Your Approach

What we do is controlled by how we think – our mindset. In a very simple sense, our mindset is just a series of beliefs and associations that control how we think and, ultimately, how we behave. For example, let’s say one of your core beliefs is that winners are born, not made. In other words, what if you believed that trying to coach and develop your team in order to improve their performance was a complete waste of time? How might this mindset affect your priorities? You probably wouldn’t invest much time trying to coach your team, would you?

Now just imagine for a moment if a professional football (soccer in the U.S.) manager – like Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manager of Manchester United – had this same belief. What if Sir Alex believed that winners are born – not made. What if Sir Alex believed that after drafting a bunch of young lads and figuring out what position they were good at and giving them their contracts, his job was more or less done? How might this mindset affect his players’ ability to reach their full potential? How might this mindset affect the odds that his team could compete at the highest level and win a championship?

Remember: what you believe affects what they achieve. It all starts with you and your mindset. Change your mindset, and you’ll change your behavior. Change your behavior, and you’ll change their behavior. Change their behavior, and you’ll change their level of productivity. So before you waste all this time and energy trying to change your team’s behavior, take a good long look in the mirror and first focus on changing yourself. As a leader, it all starts with you. You are the catalyst. Nothing changes unless you do.

Before you waste time and energy trying to change your team’s behaviour, take a good long look in the mirror and first focus on changing yourself. As a leader, it all starts with you. You are the catalyst. Nothing changes unless you do.

Once you understand that winners are made, not born, and that individual performance can be improved (as long as you have the right approach) it’s time to focus on another critical belief that you (as a manager) must change in order to take your team’s performance and your career to the next level. It has to do with how you define your job and what you perceive as your role. In short, you must believe that your primary job is to coach, develop, and systematically improve your team’s performance and help them consistently perform to the maximum of their capability. When you assume the role of coach as part of your identity and decide this is not just what you do, but who you are, your behaviors will change automatically and dramatically.

Step 2: Create The Environment

Whether I’m at a speaking event, training session, or cocktail party, invariably one of the first questions people ask is, “How do I motivate my team?” My response is always the same: your job is not to motivate your team. Your job is to create the type of environment in which your team members motivate themselves.

Allow me to explain using a simple metaphor. At their core, all great coaches share a common trait: they’re good teachers. And what do all great teachers do? They create an optimal learning environment for students, don’t they? Think back to one of the best teachers you’ve ever had. What type of environment did she create? Was she engaged or disengaged? Was she approachable or unapproachable? Did she push you to realize your potential or let you slack off? Was she committed to your success? Did she make you feel comfortable coming to her with questions? Did she create an environment where it was okay to make mistakes? Did she believe in you? Did she care?

And how did his approach and the environment he created make you feel? Were you motivated to come to class? Were you excited to learn? Did he make you feel confident, competent, and successful? Did you give her your best?

Whether in education, sports, or business – the underlying principals of improving individual performance are universally the same. Before you can coach, you must first create an environment that is conducive to coaching. You’ve got to create the type of environment in which people feel comfortable coming to you with questions and safe making mistakes. The type of environment in which people feel trusted, valued, and appreciated. The type of environment in which people embrace constructive coaching and developmental feedback. The type of environment in which people are excited to come to work and feel inspired to do their best work.

If you’re like most managers, you may have some work to do in this department. Believe me, you are not alone. We all have blind spots. However, as the team leader (or Coach), it’s incumbent upon you to take the initiative, to identify and remove the hidden friction points in your relationships with team members that may be impairing your relationship and paralyzing their performance. It’s incumbent upon you to pull the weeds before you plant the seeds. It’s incumbent upon you to hit the reset button on your relationship with each team member by being the first to put your cards on the table and ask, “How am I doing? What can I do better? How can I improve in the future?”

Remember: To get your team to become coachable, you must first become coachable. To get your team to open up, you must first open up. To get your team to embrace developmental feedback, you must first embrace developmental feedback. As a coach, you set the standard for your team to follow. And your personal example is the most powerful leadership tool you have.

Step 3: Transform The Conversation

Finally, once you’ve created an environment that’s conducive to coaching, you have to lay the foundation for a weekly coaching conversation. While the book and training session obviously go into a lot more detail, below I’ll provide a few keys points to keep in mind:

Coaching Point #1: Stop focusing so much on the prize that you forget about the process.

Having spent years trying to determine what separates the best from the rest, I discovered one thing pretty quickly: while a lot of employees are working hard, they’re often working on the wrong things. In other words, people come in to work with the best intentions to get a lot done, but at the end of the day, they have very little to show for their efforts.

The primary reason for this is two-fold. First, employees don’t have a system for helping them minimize distractions and maximize their focus on goal-achieving priorities – thus, they fritter away their time reacting instead of acting. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, managers are unknowingly reinforcing the wrong behaviors.

For example, let’s say a sales manager is getting pressure from upper management to grow top-line revenue and expand market share. So the company wants salespeople to do more prospecting. However, when the sales manager sits down with his team to review the sales pipeline, inevitably the first two questions out of his mouth are, “How big is the deal? And when is it closing?” Question: where on the sales funnel does this line of questioning put the salespeople’s focus? On the bottom, right? But where does the sales manager actually want his team to focus? On the top, right? Are you starting to see the problem?

In short, what gets reinforced gets done. Focus controls behavior, and questions control focus. If you are not, as a manager, asking the right questions, you are unknowingly reinforcing the wrong behaviors. Be mindful and purposeful in the questions you ask your team and where you direct their attention. If you shift the focus to improving on the process, the results will inevitably follow.

Coaching Point #2: Celebrate the little victories.

Why is it that when we do something wrong we hear about it immediately, yet when we do something right we rarely hear anything? It’s probably because most people haven’t had the benefit of studying success, sports psychology, and behavior modification to the extent I have and, thus, don’t realize the power of constructive coaching, positive reinforcement, and developmental feedback. While these concepts may seem new and perhaps even revolutionary in the business world, the same fundamental principals have existed for years in the professional sports world. In fact, dozens of studies have proven the fastest way to accelerate individual performance improvement is to set process-oriented (weekly) goals and then positively reinforce small, incremental improvements.

Long-term success requires short-term focus. Help your team set weekly goals, and then positively reinforce small victories. Make them feel successful today.

Whether your team is in an office, on a field, in a classroom, or in your living room, the truth is performance improvement doesn’t happen overnight but rather through a number of small, seemingly insignificant tweaks, changes, and improvements accomplished consistently over time.

Your role as a Coach is absolutely essential to this process. You are the conduit for initiating and sustaining the behavioral changes required in order to improve performance. In fact, the smaller the change in behavior you can observe and positively reinforce, the more rapid performance will improve. One of the great ironies is that while reinforcing small changes may seem slow and perhaps even pedestrian, it’s actually the fastest way to change behavior because positive reinforcement develops self-confidence, builds momentum, and quickly manifests itself in sustained performance improvement.

Remember, long-term success requires short-term focus. Help your team set weekly goals, and then positively reinforce small victories. Make them feel successful today.

Coaching Point #3: Embrace mistakes as coachable moments.

Systematically improving individual performance can only be achieved through the identification and perfection of seemingly small things consistently done right over time. When it comes to success, it’s the little things that are the big things. However, it’s important to note that we learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. So as you’re evaluating your team’s performance and giving them positive reinforcement, it’s also important to take note of their mistakes as well, keeping in mind the objective here is not to criticize; it’s to coach.

What’s the difference between the coach and the critic? In a word: intent. Is your intent to achieve your goals, or is your intent to help your team members achieve their goals? Is your intent to advance your career, or is your intent to help further your team’s career? Is your intent to be just another manager, or is your intent to coach, develop, and help improve your team’s performance so that they achieve their full potential? Intent is more important than words and more powerful than actions. With some sort of strange, enigmatic energy, it communicates on a much deeper level who you really are and exposes your true motives for all to see and judge.

As you set out on your journey to become a world-class Coach and help your team achieve heights they never dreamt possible, always remember: To coach is not merely something that you, as a manager, must do. A Coach is someone that you as a leader must become.

About the Author
Brian Souza
is the author of The Weekly Coaching Conversation and founder of ProductivityDrivers, an innovative corporate training company specializing in improving employee performance and bottom-line results. For more information please visit,




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