SI Review: August 2011

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Up Your Team’s Game

Bring in a coach for your top performers

By Amy Bingham

Recruiting the best and brightest is just half the battle for today’s staffing owners and executives. It’s providing the daily care and feeding after they’re on board that most of us find tough in today’s world of having more direct reports, higher expectations, and fewer support resources.

Coaching is defined as preparing someone for public examination through private instruction. It’s the “private instruction” — that one-on-one time of coaching employees for success — that’s not happening effectively in most staffing firms today. What was doable with five direct reports isn’t so easy with 10 or more.

How can you bridge the gap in support for those top performers on your front lines that you yourself no longer have the bandwidth to provide? Engaging a third-party coach or teacher may be the answer.

Coaching Top Performers

Corporations have long turned to executive coaches to address gaps in critical leadership competencies. Coaching on the senior-executive level is often used as a “Hail Mary” approach — it’s a last-ditch effort to course-correct leaders on the brink of termination. In this scenario, the coach’s role is remedial.

With that mindset, business leaders might wonder why they would want to apply the principle of coaching to employees who are otherwise succeeding. While engaging a third-party coach to keep your top performers producing at their best today may be the last investment you think you have to make, it could be your best.

Why invest in coaching for those who are performing well in their jobs and sit lower in the org chart?

The answer is simple: because they’re the future leaders of the company, and if you don’t, you risk losing them.

Indeed, even in the sports world, many top athletes engage private coaches to up their game. Why would performers in the business world be any different?

A study conducted by Right Management, the outplacement division of ManpowerGroup Inc., on succession-plan readiness validates the need for coaching: “Executives and business leaders are now openly acknowledging that talent management plans are absolutely essential for sustained performance in today’s organizations, as talent is now seen as one of the only competitive differentiators left.” In fact, the study asserts, “weak bench strength throughout the company can erode employee engagement and reduce overall performance. Managing succession ensures business continuity as well as retention of high-value talent.”

Traditional efforts to enhance talent development were mentoring programs, whereby top performers in the organization were assigned as coaches to others. During recessions, though, these well-intentioned models tend to disintegrate with the first round of layoffs, as employees left standing are given more and more to do with fewer resources with which to do it. In today’s post-recession world of fewer employees and higher expectations, the mentoring model is no longer sustainable. Yet the need to develop talent is more urgent than ever.

The good news is you can solicit help from an outside party to help grow the business and develop your people. Today’s coaching models have evolved beyond just leadership development to focus more on performance. Coaching is available not just for struggling executives, but for high-potential employees at all levels in the organization. Because companies are leaner than ever, it is essential to ensure optimal productivity from everyone who occupies a valuable seat. Enlightened staffing firms get this concept: If the work can’t be handled internally, outsource it.

Enter the “Performance Coach” of today, a third party engaged by the busy operating leader to bridge the gap between himself and his direct reports. In this model, the coach’s primary objective is to help the coachee increase and sustain measurable results. The concept is borrowed from the world of sports, where achieving and sustaining high performance is the sole mission. But while athletes have utilized supplemental coaches like sports psychologists for years, it’s still an emerging practice in the corporate world given the historical view of coaches as interventionists engaged exclusively for those at the top of the org chart who are failing.

Filling the Gaps

Staffing firms are ideal candidates for the application of the performance coaching model. Succeeding in the highly competitive staffing industry is dependent on consistently increasing sales productivity and service excellence. Owners and executives know they must ensure the organization’s customer-facing employees balance both priorities effectively. But for a selling branch manager (SBM) for example, who by definition must manage sales growth and fulfillment, this balance typically proves difficult to achieve.

In my consulting practice, I routinely encounter firms whose SBMs struggle to stay focused on new business development. And very often, their next-level manager struggles equally to provide the training and reinforcements required to help. Too often, today’s owners and executives are pulled in too many directions to hold their producers’ feet to the fire and coach at an individual level. A coach can also fill gaps in learning along the way.

A key reason to engage a performance coach for your people is to drive accountability to expectations. If you present coaching as a gift to help employees continue to perform at their best, they will welcome being held accountable. They will also value the opportunity to sharpen their skills and receive one-on-one support from an independent third party who understands their business and their challenges.

Beyond increasing sales, a good coach is an invaluable resource for helping a staffing firm recruit and retain talent. Search firms specializing in the staffing industry currently report high demand for single- and multi-unit managers in particular. Good front-line operators are proving hard to find and harder to keep. A firm that can boast it invests in coaches for key positions will have a recruiting advantage over firms that don’t. And from a retention standpoint, if you increased performance expectations of those who remained onboard in the wake of layoffs (and what company didn’t?), it’s your job to ensure they’re set up for success after the bar was raised.

Perhaps the most common use of a performance coach in the staffing industry is to shore up the skills of a newly promoted individual who isn’t quite ready for the added responsibility yet — a branch manager promoted from a senior recruiter level, or a multi-unit manager promoted from a single unit management role, for example. In these cases, elevating a tactical thinker to become more strategic is a critical objective in coaching.

Teaching Well

The relationship between the next-level manager and the coach must be one of complete trust and candor in order for the coaching to be successful. Equally important is good chemistry between the coach and coachee.

Second, a good coach (see box below) will have a high “EQ” — emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and a keen ability to adjust his or her context up and down the organizational chart to enlighten others.

Outcomes

The goals of the coaching should be based on a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures selected by all stakeholders involved. A good coach will reward the coachee for progress toward accomplishing high-priority objectives and correct behavior that isn’t paying off. It is important to reward the right behavior and allow adequate time for results to materialize.

Vetting the Trainer

When considering whom to select to coach your key players, experience in the staffing industry — actually doing the job of the coachee and managing producers successfully in the past — is more important than a certificate from a leadership coaching institute.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Staffing industry sales and operating experience
  • A strong history of success producing results through others
  • Direct experience in the role and/or managing the role you’re seeking a coach for
  • Ability to hold the coachee accountable through repeatable and sustainable processes
  • Comfort with candor and tough love, balanced with empathy and emotional intelligence

The key to attracting and retaining high performers is to invest in their success. Surveys show employees who feel invested in are more engaged in the organization, provide more discretionary effort, and stay longer.

So put aside the old notion of a coach being strictly for senior executives in trouble. Those on the front lines are closest to your customer and candidate. Invest in their success today by engaging a performance coach and they just may become your senior executives tomorrow.

Amy Bingham is managing partner of Bingham Consulting Professionals LLC. An industry veteran, she advises staffing firms in the area of sales effectiveness through strategic planning, strategy execution, and performance coaching. She can be reached at abingham@binghamcp.com.

[SIDEBAR]

Teaching Aids

A good performance coach will:

  • Assess the competencies and behaviors required for success
  • Work with the next-level manager to outline measurable performance objectives
  • Gain commitments from the coachee
  • Have routine communication with coachee
  • Schedule routine check-points with the next-level manager
  • Measure progress toward results
  • Coach to bridge gaps
  • Resolve barriers to progress

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