Monday, August 13, 2012
GOING FOR THE GOLD—IN COACHING
With the London Olympics winding down, we’ll soon see the end of all the gold medal presentations, at least for another four years. We’ll also see an end to the many television shots of country team coaches, exhorting their charges to higher performances, changing line-ups at the spur of the moment, and occasionally, showing exasperation (or disagreement) with referee calls or judges’ assessments. We see all of these things; but one thing we never see is an Olympic coach receiving a gold medal…or any medal, for that matter. And this got us to thinking—not so much about Olympic performances, but about Marketing performances: what would constitute a “gold medal” in Marketing Coaching?
Before attempting to answer such an unusual question, we went back to our favorite, “original” definition of a coach: “a vehicle for transporting a group of people to some place they cannot easily reach by themselves.” Clearly, the word vehicle suggests something akin to a carriage-like coach drawn by six horses in olde England, or a stagecoach in the old American West. But if we substitute the word “person” for vehicle, wouldn’t you agree that the definition still holds for all kinds of coaches today—sports coaches, career coaches, life coaches? What we need people-coaches to do for us is to help us reach places we cannot readily attain all by ourselves. In the case of the Olympics, those places are, quite literally, the venue of the Olympics (after all, you have to qualify to actually get there in the first place)…but also, once there, to reach “places” on the medal platforms.
So, what does it take—in Marketing—to transport people (like a Brand Team) to places they cannot easily reach all by themselves? But not just to “transport,” to enable them to achieve gold-medal performances? We think that, as in some of the Olympic sports which have traditionally assigned points for more than one aspect of performance—such as points for both technical merit and artistic interpretation—to earn gold in Marketing coaching requires earning points in a few areas: teaching, directing, motivating, and leading.
Coaching Teaching—A first-rate marketing coach needs to have some fundamental teaching skills, regardless of whether he or she has ever taught in a classroom or business workshop. As John Wooden, perhaps America’s all-time greatest college coach once explained, imparting any skill is an 8-step process: explain, demonstrate, let students emulate, and then practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. But the first couple of steps absolutely demand that the coach be able to do some teaching—to explain and demonstrate the desired skill before anyone else follows. Marketers who aim to coach their teams toward a tight creative brief, for example, absolutely demands that the coach be competent at explaining what a tight brief includes (and excludes), as well as being able to demonstrate by way of example what a legitimate marketing objective or consumer insight looks like.
Imagine a football team at half-time during a game hearing their coach scream out, “We’re behind! You guys have got to score more points! Now just go out there and score some more.” Such a coach has done nothing to teach the team how to better score more points during the second half. The same would be true for a marketing coach urging his team to “write a winning brief,” without explaining or demonstrating any helpful, specific techniques to do so.
Coaching Directing—This is probably the most commonly accepted area of marketing coaching because it refers to a skill that many marketing organizations work on building: the skill of commenting upon business and brand plans, strategies, ideas, and most obviously, communications under development. As you know, some marketing organizations try to build communication-directing skills by having their very junior marketers always comment first—a kind of baptism by fire.
But no matter how marketers learn it, almost everyone agrees that getting really good at it takes a lot of practice and a lot of experience. And we would add that it takes a conscious approach that runs counter to the way most of us have been taught to provide direction. Most of us have learned, from the time we were in grammar school, to evaluate something—to quickly see what’s wrong or “off” and demand a fix. But the “gold medal” approach in marketing coaching is to add-valuate, which starts by seeing what’s good or potentially good and giving specific direction toward making it even better. Sometimes you’ll hear this approach referred to as “seeing the glass half-full and then trying to fill it.”
Coaching Motivating—Actually, marketing coaches who are inherently skilled at add-valuating are typically also skilled at motivating their teams. Think about it. Who doesn’t appreciate (or wouldn’t want to work with) someone who (1) recognizes good work—or even good work-in-progress and (2) is able to deftly provide suggestions for making it even better? Even when the work-to-date is, say, not up to expectations, a “gold medal” marketing coach finds a way to be direct without being destructive to the team’s morale.
A true story: A few years back a very senior marketer was hired as the division’s CMO. In one of his first weeks with the company, he attended a presentation of some potential advertising campaign ideas by the company’s longtime agency partners. At the conclusion of the presentation, even before any of the brand team could comment, he blurted out that the “work is pure crap, not worth commenting upon,” and immediately got up and left the room. A few days later he was fired. As a senior marketer, he most likely had the know-how and experiences to develop effective advertising…but those were of little value when he lacked the coaching-motivating skills to put them to work.
Coaching-Leading—This final aspect of “gold medal” marketing coaching derives in large part from having mastered the foregoing coaching skills. But it also includes something else: leading by example. And this pertains to both personal leadership and thought leadership. Of course, there are books galore about the traits and requirements for any kind of leadership. But nearly all agree that personal and thought leadership are grounded in two basics: integrity and initiative. Practically speaking, for marketing coaches these two mean earning the team’s utmost trust through impeccable honesty (always being truthful, even when the “news” is disappointing; and never withholding something that needs being communicated); it also means consistently having the confidence to express an opinion or to introduce a new idea…regardless of how unpopular such an opinion or idea might be. In the words of one of our favorite past-bosses, marketer-coaches who lead are the ones who are “not embarrassed to undress in Macy’s window.”
Looking back over these four aspects of “gold medal” marketing coaching, the words of John Wooden seem worth repeating—at least those last 5 steps of his imparting-any-skill process: namely, to practice! But isn’t virtually endless practice behind every Olympic athlete’s success?
BOATS & HELICOPTERS
1. Getting better and better at coaching does take practice, but we rarely have sufficient occasions in our presentation-settings alone. So, to get more practice at teaching, directing, motivating and leading, it helps to consciously apply them to situations big and small—like working one-on-one with a colleague or a subordinate.
2. Reading books about coaching can also be helpful. But we can also learn certain coaching techniques from less obvious places. For example, reading about Zen Buddhism can impart key principles. Among these is one we have referred to in previous DISPATCHES—“skillful means”—which is the ability to accomplish challenging tasks, as an individual or a team-leader, without causing damage to relationships in the process.
3. Another really helpful approach to better coaching is to look for people in your own organization who clearly have some of the “gold medal” skills we’ve talked about. Use them as models and try emulate what they do well.
4. One other really important thing: whenever you are about to provide coaching direction, start with an overview of the entire work being shared with you. This not only tells listeners that you have taken a “big picture” perspective, but it also typically gets people to want to listen.
Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney
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