Monday, September 28, 2015
THE CASE FOR COACHING
It’s not about being polite. It’s about being productive.
Just returning from positioning and communications training with many eager, sharp-minded clients in Europe, and we find the topic of coaching—as in providing highly productive direction and motivation—is once again top-of-mind. Not merely because instilling coaching skills remains a centerpiece of all our workshops, but also because a good many marketers tend to misconstrue what coaching is really all about.
Over the years—especially when working outside the U.S.—we have many times heard marketers new to coaching say things like, “Oh, I see, you’re teaching us the American way of commenting to our outside agencies”; or, “Your American approach to responding is so polite; we’re more direct here.” Let’s clear this up right away: there is no American way of commenting or responding or providing direction. There is only a productive way and a non-productive way of commenting or responding or providing direction. And the productive way is called coaching. It’s productive because, when done right, it adds real value and simultaneously motivates everyone to strive for even better results.
Our approach to instilling coaching skills is a real simple one, consisting of four easily remembered steps:
1. Always start with an overview of the entire work—your
“conclusions” about the progress and overall merit of the work;
2. Focus on the work that has potential--and what you like about
it...not on work that is clearly off the mark;
3. Make comments that add value to the work with potential;
4. Summarize the critical action steps, consistent with your
We say that these four steps are easy to remember, though doing them consistently well does not usually come so easy to most of us. That’s why we have to practice them again and again—not just with outside agencies, but with anyone looking to us for a reaction, suggestions and advice, or approval of some work he or she has created. Let’s look a little closer at each of these four steps…to spotlight how each is fosters productivity.
The Overview—There is no more productive way to engender attentive, active listening among those who have presented you with their work than to make the first sentence out of your mouth speak to (a) how far along the work is versus your expectations and (b) whether or not there is something in the work that you want to proceed with. Why? Simple human nature. Regardless of the kind of work under consideration (strategic, creative, tactical), everyone wants to know first and foremost if the work merits going forward. Until this alone is out on the table, everyone’s mind remains in “stressing, guessing, and hoping” mode, rather than in “relax and listen” mode.
On the other hand, nothing is less productive than to delay or omit entirely a conclusion about the overall work in favor of a “faux” overview, which we might call a “Faux-verview,” such as:
--Repeating back, in detail, the work that has been presented. For example, “Well, let me summarize what you have shown in your first idea. Now in your second idea you are showing this and saying that. What I see that you have in the third idea is, as you’ve explained…” and so on. Work that has been well and clearly presented should never need a marketer’s “instant replay.”
--Thinking out loud. Talk about a waste of time! When someone starts her or his initial response to work by saying “Let me think out loud,” you can pretty well bet that everyone else in the room is headed for a long, rambling, and typically totally confusing (non-productive!) time-killer.
--Substituting politesse. When we marketers have no idea what we think of the overall work (and are therefore incapable of providing a sharp overview of the work’s progress and merit), what we most commonly fall back upon is the “Thank you so much for coming and for doing this work” kind of mumbo-jumbo. And while, of course, there is nothing wrong with appreciating someone’s travel efforts or their dedication to working, such politesse leaves everyone thinking, “OK, I know how you feel about us, but I still have no idea how you feel about the work!”
The Focus—The productivity inherent in this step ought to be obvious: why spend (or waste) valuable time and thought on work that you have no intention of taking forward…when there is other work that you do have heart for and want to take forward? It’s akin to, in a football game, a coach wasting valuable clock time by running a myriad of plays that he knows won’t work, when he has two or three that he believes will work.
Might it sometimes happen that you will be asked about some work that you have chosen not to focus on? Sure. And in that case, it would be productive to explain why you do not find that part of the overall work worthy of taking forward. But, barring something like this, choose to be laser-like in your commenting: spend your valuable thoughts on work that you like. (By the way, in speaking about work you like and why you like it, you’re also “setting up” your value-added comments by saying what you want to build upon; you’re also motivating everyone by expressing your genuine appreciation for work that is clever, promising, well-done.)
The Value-Added Commenting—Our longstanding and sure-fire advice when it comes to commenting is two-fold. First, don’t merely make “comments”; provide direction. What's the difference? When we comment we typically express only an intuition, a general sense, or an initial opinion, as in “I wonder how our target customers will react to that concept?” But such utterances are hard to take seriously because they imply no specific action. Providing direction makes a desired action perfectly clear: “While I like the overall concept, in the next round I’d like to see you play out some target-types other than loyal users in these clever testimonials--to maximize the significant switching we’re aiming for.”
Second, and closely linked to this, don’t waste time (and demotivate people) by talking about what’s wrong with the work; instead talk about what you think is missing that you want to see added. In more memorable phrasing, we have always stated this principle in this way: “Don’t talk about what you see that you don’t like; talk about what you don’t see that you would like to see.” Following this rhythmic principle drives so much productivity because it builds upon work that is already, at the very least, a good start and with some promise…rather than tearing down work that, more often than not, the people who have created it will devote a great deal of time and passion defending!
The Action Summary—Most business people are used to ending work sessions with next steps. So, clearly, wrapping up any coaching effort similarly is a good practice. But good coaches don’t simply generate a laundry list of actions big and small for their teams to follow up on. Instead, they listen carefully to all the overviews and value-added direction that have been offered and then they boil everything down to those three to four critical actions that must be addressed before the next work review. They do this orally before the work session ends; and they follow up quickly in writing to make sure everything and everyone is clear—and focused. Productivity is always enhanced when everything and everyone is clear—and focused!
Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney
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