How Can You Improve Your Coaching ROI?

As a leader you’re responsible to help your direct reports improve their performance. A big part of that involves coaching. Unfortunately, the term “coaching” has taken on a negative connotation in many organizations. To mention that a person is receiving “coaching and counseling” is, sadly, not a good thing. That’s because “coaching and counseling” is now a euphemism for “disciplinary action”. This post is not about how to discipline.

Did you compete in sports when you were in school? You expected to receive coaching. You wanted to receive coaching. This post is about that kind of coaching, the kind of coaching that actually helps people improve their performance. Coaching requires an investment of time, effort and money. What practices give you the best ROI?

First, in order to improve someone’s performance you have to understand what you have to work with. Begin by learning the answers to these questions: What are that person’s strengths and weaknesses? What are his or her character traits? What do they naturally do well? Here’s a hint when assessing someone’s potential — there’s a difference between room for improvement and potential for improvement.

Counter intuitively, a person’s greatest potential for improvement lies in building on areas of strength. However, way too often coaching focuses on efforts to improve areas of weakness. Asking a person to perform behaviors they simply don’t have in their repertoire actually makes performance worse. Why? Because aptitude matters, that’s why.

For instance, if a person isn’t good at telling jokes, coaching them to tell a joke at the beginning of a speech won’t improve their performance. In all likelihood they’ll tell it poorly, people won’t laugh and it’ll make things worse. If you’re the coach here, you should ask yourself, “To what end do I want this person to tell a joke? What outcome will that accomplish?” Let’s assume the answer is, “To establish rapport with the audience.” A great coach will help the person identify a different way to establish rapport, an approach that involves behaviors they can do naturally. Find ways to work around weaknesses. Find ways to make weaknesses irrelevant.

Great coaches focus on specific recommendations rather than talking in generalities. For instance, instead of saying, “You have to be a better listener,” a great coach might say, “When the prospect is talking, don’t interrupt. Take notes if you can.”

Great coaches invest more time reviewing successful performances rather than reviewing failures. If you want to learn more about failure, study failure. If you want to learn more about success, study success.

Don’t confine your coaching feedback to annual or semi-annual reviews. Give people frequent, candid feedback. Coaching is an ongoing, every day responsibility. Don’t shy away from tough conversations.

Of course there’s much more to coaching than can be addressed in this brief post. But if you follow these five guidelines you’ll improve your coaching ROI.

  1. Understand what you have to work with. Don’t ask people for behaviors they don’t have in their repertoire.
  2. Focus on building strengths rather than eliminating weaknesses.
  3. Review successful performances to learn how to repeat those performances.
  4. Provide specific rather than general recommendations.
  5. Provide frequent, candid feedback in real time.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

11 Surefire Ways To Prevent Learning And Growth

Lately I’m seeing a lot of talk about the importance of developing future leaders. But I’m also seeing a disconnect between what people say and how they behave in the workplace. This post expresses my perspective on this disconnect. Here’s how to prevent learning and growth.

Please note that these items are not in order of importance. They’re merely in the order they occurred to me.

  1. Allow your employees to stay inside their comfort zone. Don’t let them advance too rapidly. Avoid giving them new responsibilities until you’re absolutely sure they will not fail. Go slowly.
  2. Stay inside your own comfort zone. Don’t set goals that require too much stretch. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
  3. Don’t empower employees to exercise initiative to solve a problem or improve your operation. Make sure they have to seek your permission first. You need to know what’s going on, after all. And your judgment is better than theirs.
  4. Make sure things are being done your way. Life is easier that way. If you do let people try things, make it risky for them. Make sure they know that they’ll be held accountable if those new things don’t work out.
  5. Discourage them from challenging the status quo or disagreeing with the opinions of the organization’s leaders (most particularly you). Expressing contrary opinions confuses other employees and undermines alignment.
  6. Don’t involve subordinates in making important decisions. Making those decisions is your job. Involving them just slows things down. Either you’ll have to spend time discussing ill-advised ideas, or even worse, their ideas might be better than yours, in which case why do they need you? Better not to involve them.
  7. Focus on what’s wrong with people rather than what’s right. Everyone has things they should work on. Make people work on their weaknesses. Make sure your coaching focuses on what they’re doing wrong. People need to accept constructive criticism.
  8. Invest most of your coaching time working with your worst performers. Everyone knows that a team is only as strong as its weakest players.
  9. If someone is doing an excellent job, discourage them from seeking a transfer or promotion. You could lose an excellent player, and you’d have to train someone new. It’s best for the business to keep them in that position. And it’s certainly easier for you.
  10. Make sure people know they’re accountable for their own growth and development. Advocate for a “self-development” culture, which relieves you of that responsibility, thus freeing you up to focus on more important aspects of your job.
  11. Make sure people know that if they don’t have a solution, asking for your help does not reflect well on them. You need people who bring you solutions, not problems, right?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. If you’re on the receiving end of these kinds of practices, I’d love to hear how they’ve affected you.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Tell Someone They Didn’t Get The Job?

This question comes up repeatedly, especially with new managers and supervisors. Few people enjoy delivering bad news, so some people try to avoid the conversation altogether, and some go too far in their attempt to soften the blow. Either of these approaches can make the situation worse for the candidate and for your organization.

You have a candidate who’s trying to find a job. This is a very important life goal for this person. The sooner they know you’re not going to make a job offer, the sooner they can focus on other opportunities. You’re not helping them by procrastinating.

There is no way around the fact that this is a disappointing message for this person to receive. There are times when the message is communicated by email or some other electronic means, and there are times when it’s appropriate to do this by phone or in person. No matter the medium, be polite, be respectful, and be professional – but say as little as possible. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t discuss the weather or last night’s game. That extends the suspense and makes it worse.

As I’m writing this, I’m visualizing a phone conversation. It might begin like this: “Hi, this is Larry Sternberg. I’m calling to let you know that we’ve decided to pursue other candidates for the position of X.” Then quit talking. You’re delivering bad news. There’s no way to change that. Most candidates will simply thank you and get off the phone. In fact, most candidates will appreciate that you called them at all. Even if you sent an email, at least you got back to them. Sadly, too many organizations don’t get back to unsuccessful candidates. The fact that you do this at all is good for your brand.

At times, a candidate wants more. He or she might ask why. Don’t respond with specifics. That takes you down the wrong road. You do not owe the candidate an answer to that question. You can simply say, “I’m not prepared to get into specifics. I know this is disappointing. I just wanted to let you know the outcome.”

Some candidates lose sight of the fact that they’re competing with others. On occasions where numerous people have applied, I’ve sometimes said, “When you apply for a job, you’re competing with everyone else who applied. On this occasion, you didn’t win the competition.” That perspective has proved helpful for many candidates.

Of course, you must convey this message in your own words, with your own style. It’s never going to be pleasant. But when you have to do it, don’t procrastinate, and don’t beat around the bush. Be polite, respectful and professional, and avoid getting into the specifics about why. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll minimize the pain for both you and the candidate.

Thanks for reading. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Want Your Company To Be A Great Place To Work?

Once again I had the privilege to attend the Great Places To Work conference. In this post I share some of the most meaningful points from various presentations. Please note that I did not have the opportunity to attend every presentation. These are not exact quotations, so this is my interpretation of what was said.

Peter Harrison, CEO, Snagajob

  • Invest the time and effort to bring in people who resonate with your mission, and then extend yourself to make sure they stay.
  • Referrals are still the most important recruiting source.
  • Don’t over engineer your values statements. Keep them brief and clear – easy to understand and enliven.

Michael C. Bush, CEO, Great Place To Work

  • People want to trust who they work for.
  • They want to be proud of the company they work for.
  • They want to enjoy the people they work with.
  • They want leaders who walk their talk.
  • They want to be treated with respect.
  • They want fairness – no preferential treatment.
  • They want a sense of camaraderie.
  • They want to be proud of the work they do.
  • Here are some things leaders do in companies that have built high trust cultures:
    • Thank people
    • Care about people
    • Speak to people
    • Listen to people
    • Inspire people
    • Trust people
  • People are motivated by the “why” of their work. They want to know the mission and vision.

Meaningful points from an excellent panel discussion

  • Culture must be the core of the company ethos.
  • Leaders must truly live the values.
  • It starts with who is selected. Build company values into the recruiting process.
  • Everybody owns the culture. Make it every employee’s responsibility to build the culture.
  • To reinforce your culture, share stories about instances where someone has enlivened one of the company’s values.
  • When considering promotions, think about whether the internal candidate lives the values.
  • If a person is not enlivening the company’s values, take action.
  • Companies must demonstrate that they have the agility to change when necessary.

Amy Bastuga, Vice President, Human Resources, Radio Flyer

  • One important purpose of orientation is to assimilate people into the culture.
  • There are no shortcuts to selecting the right person.
  • An open position is better than a bad match.
  • Every applicant for Radio Flyer receives a letter from the CEO explaining that one goal of the recruitment process is to ensure that the job with Radio Flyer will be the best job they’ve ever had.

Each presenter said much more than what I’ve shared in these few notes. These were points that resonated with me relative to the theme of this blog.

If you want to build a great place to work, I recommend you consider joining this movement. Check out their Website at

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

If You Can’t Figure Out How To Succeed Without Cheating, Then Choose Failure.

The recent Volkswagen scandal presents us with yet another example of intentional, enduring dishonest behavior by an organization. But it’s only the latest example. And it’s not just for-profit companies. This occurs in government entities, religious organizations, the Olympics, news organizations, sports teams and academic institutions, just to name a few. It’s everywhere. And it’s not going to stop. Root cause analysis won’t provide a solution. Increased regulation won’t provide a solution. More severe penalties won’t provide a sufficient deterrent.

However, we should continue to do those things. We can’t just throw our hands up and do nothing. But we must acknowledge reality. Despite our efforts, dishonest behavior continues with a depressing frequency. So what can we do? And more to the point, what can you, as a leader, do?

You must operate in your main sphere of influence – which is you. You must maintain impeccable integrity. Temptation is everywhere. Don’t try to see what you can get away with. It’s a very slippery slope. You must make how you accomplish your goals even more important than actually accomplishing the goals. If you can’t figure out how to succeed without cheating, then choose failure. If you’re ordered to do something that’s not right, refuse even if you’ll be fired. If everyone around you is engaging in dishonest behavior, leave the organization.

Don’t bend the rules, and don’t tolerate that sort of behavior. If you become aware of unethical behavior, report it. Become a whistle blower. Maintain your integrity, even if it’s unpleasant and costly. Remember the words of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I’m not suggesting this is easy. In many cases, this takes a great deal of courage to operate with integrity. I think it’s worth the struggle.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Will You Please Quit Checking Your Phone Constantly?

These days it’s becoming more and more difficult to be a good listener. We (I include myself) always have our phones out, and we’re always checking briefly for incoming texts, tweets, emails, etc. Recent research suggests that just having your phone visible affects the conversation, and that people experience anxiety when they’re separated from their phones or can’t answer an incoming message. To read the research click here.

Many readers will rationalize this behavior, stating that briefly checking their phones does not detract from listening. But it does, and it impacts your relationship.

Remember, your relationship with another person is shaped by the way you respond to that person. Constant phone checking sends a message about how important (or unimportant) the person or the conversation is to you. Suppose your best customer stops in for a serious conversation. While she’s talking are you checking your phone? No. Suppose your CEO stops in to speak with you. Are you going to check your phone? No. How would you feel if your doctor checked her phone during your examination?

I understand that there’s a difference between casual conversation and other types of conversation that carry more significance. For instance, if you’re just talking about yesterday’s sporting event, it seems acceptable for both of you to check your phones. But if that same person is pouring his heart out about the recent terrible diagnosis of a loved one, please control the urge to check your phone.

My call to action here is to consciously, intentionally practice separating ourselves from our phones so that we don’t experience phone separation stress. When we’re in a meeting, let’s agree not to check our phones. This will free us to be in the moment and create the opportunity to engage in meaningful, human conversation. I think we’ll find that the world does not quit turning on its axis.

Here’s a great example. I have a friend whose social group gets together frequently for dinner parties. At the beginning of the evening they all put their phones in a basket and don’t retrieve them until the event is over. That’s a commitment to be in the moment with their friends. The more we do things like that the easier it gets.

I’m making a commitment to do better at this.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Know What Advice To Take?

This morning I’m thinking about harmony. Not harmony among different people, but the degree of harmony among the statements, decisions and actions of one person. For me, this goes beyond mere consistency, but as always I’m not interested in semantic disputes, so I’ll get to the substance of the topic.

When a leader makes a decision or takes some action, that action is perceived by others against the background of everything else they’ve seen the leader do. And people’s reactions to that behavior are influenced by how well it harmonizes with that background.

For example, years ago we were (appropriately!) excited about the book, “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters. Based on observations of successful managers, Peters described a practice known as “management by walking around”. Many managers changed their behavior by adopting this practice. For some, it harmonized with their management style and really improved their effectiveness. For others, however, it did not harmonize with their character or style. Their visits to people’s work spaces made people uncomfortable and confused.

As part of our quest to grow and improve, we seek advice from a variety of sources, including mentors, teachers, coaches and experts. It’s important to distinguish between two types of advice: 1) individualized advice, and 2) generic, one-size-fits-all advice.

If a coach or mentor has invested the time to get to know you, he or she is much more likely to make recommendations suited to your character and your natural proclivities. Their advice might push you outside your comfort zone, but it will harmonize with your style. Their individualized recommendations make sense for you, but might not make sense for someone else.

You must be more thoughtful about generic advice, such as the advice in this blog. You must decide whether it’s suitable for you. In some cases the answer might be readily apparent. But there will be some cases where the answer is not clear. In those cases I recommend you experiment. You’re in your leadership laboratory every day. If a piece of advice makes sense to you, give it a try. If it works for you keep doing it, and reflect on what you’ve learned. If it doesn’t work for you, quit doing it and reflect on what you’ve learned.

A final thought. One common way we grow involves identifying role models, and doing our best to emulate their behavior. It’s likely you have someone in your life you look up to. You observe their behaviors and you say to yourself, “That’s how a successful person acts, so that’s what I’ll do.” I hope you continue that approach, but don’t mindlessly assume that everything that works for them will work for you. Ask yourself whether a particular behavior harmonizes with your individual style. If you’re not sure, give it a try. Whether it works for you or not, you’re sure to grow.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg