Winning the Talent War #8: Fast Feedback: A Simple Model for Managing Like a Coach
According to study after study, the relationship individual employees have with their immediate manager is the No. 1 factor in productivity, morale, and retention. By far, the best results occur when employees describe their manager as a “coach.”
So what does it mean to “manage like a coach”? Responsive communication, or feedback, is the key to coaching. The person being coached performs, and the coach responds, over and over again.
As much as it is a technique, giving constant feedback is a habit. Every instance of performance gets a response. For most managers, that’s a hard habit to get into. It takes time and energy to stop what you are doing regularly, tune in to each person’s performance, think carefully, and say something to evaluate each person’s work so far, and then keep each person moving in the right direction. But it will transform your relationship with every person you manage.
“Great job on that. This is what you can do better. And here’s exactly what I want you to do next.” That is feedback—the constant banter of coaching.
But feedback is not aimless banter. It is the banter of acute focus, ongoing improvement, and constant accountability. The only thing that matters is what we are doing here today. So that’s what we talk about. And we talk about it all the time. Nobody gets chewed out, but nobody can hide. Everybody gets reminded all the time, so everybody is always on notice. Standards are high. There are no excuses, only performance. If somebody is failing to perform, his or her only choice is to improve or else leave the team: “Good riddance.”
Lopez, a sales leader in an entertainment company, tells a story about one of his sales representatives who was failing to meet her performance goals. After examining the situation, Lopez determined that this sales rep’s activity level was simply not high enough to achieve her numbers—she just wasn’t making enough calls. So he intervened, like a ton of bricks. He recalls, “Initially she was taken aback and felt threatened, thinking this was one step before being kicked out.” Indeed, if she failed to improve, she would be off the team (“good riddance”), but that was the last thing Lopez wanted to see happen.
“I said to her, ‘You should consider this a real honor that we think so much of you that we are going to make sure your performance improves.’”
In the wake of this intervention, Lopez made sure this sales rep’s immediate supervisor met with her every morning and afternoon, coaching her on goals and deadlines until her performance was back on track.
4 Best Practices
Whenever I teach coaching to leaders and managers, regardless of the industry, the company, or their level in the company, I emphasize four best practices. Our research shows that the best coaching-style managers consistently do the following things:
1. They customize their approach with every person because every person is different. This is what I call tuning in to each person’s unique frequency.
2. They choose their words carefully to make sure they get the facts right, balance criticism with praise, and try hard to strike an appropriate tone. This is what I call accuracy.
3. They set concrete goals with clear parameters and deadlines every step of the way. This feature tells you exactly how specific your feedback must be.
4. They make time regularly to give feedback. Effective feedback is timely.
Remember the acronym FAST—frequent, accurate, specific, and timely. If you add this acronym to the core competency of coaching—feedback—you get a simple model that is easy to learn and easy to teach to other managers: FAST Feedback.
Timeliness Pays Off
I’ll bet you are thinking: “This is a great approach. But all I have is demands on my time. I’m sure I can learn the basic techniques. I just don’t think I can make time to do this.” If you think you don’t have time to manage people well, you are fooling yourself.
When you first get started, coaching will take more time because you and the people you are coaching will be easing into it. As you get better at coaching, though, you will find that brevity and simplicity are not only time savers, but also make the coaching process more effective. If you keep people focused on the details of the work at hand, the investment of time will pay great dividends. Timeliness pays off.
What to Say
If you have trouble figuring out what to say during coaching interactions, try this model: “Great job on that. This you can do better. Here’s exactly what I want you to do next.” That’s accurate and specific rolled up into one brief script. Stick to the script. The details will come in each encounter. Just don’t say anything you’re not sure about. And when you are taking corrective action, be sure to focus on only one element of performance at a time, until it is corrected.
Customizing the Approach
How do you customize the approach for each person you are managing? Every person is different. Some people need more feedback. Some people need less. Some people need more feedback on Mondays and less on Thursdays. Often, people need more feedback in the early stages of assuming a new responsibility and less over time. But it really varies. Sometimes people need more feedback when they are feeling depressed and less when they are feeling upbeat, or vice versa. Some people respond better to enthusiastic feedback, others respond to more businesslike feedback.
Tuning in to each person’s unique frequency is by far the subtlest aspect of coaching, the hardest part to learn, and the most daunting to teach. The problem is that asking people how much feedback they need is usually not much help. Sorry. Those who truly know how much feedback they need are likely to be so self-aware they are also probably self-motivated for the most part. That doesn’t mean they don’t need feedback, they surely do, but they are not likely to be the ones leaving you scratching your head either. Those who do leave you scratching your head are likely to be less self-aware, so they won’t be a good source of information at all. For example, most low performers want to be left alone.
The only effective way to tune in to start giving feedback and fine-tune your approach with each person is through trial and error. Experiment. Pay close attention. Experiment some more. Whatever brings out the best performance is the winning frequency.
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website, www.rainmakerthinking.com.