The power of the coach

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Geoffrey Wade knows the power of coaching; he delivers it to his corporate clients for a living. He spoke at the invite-only Connect Collaborative in Brisbane last week, sharing some of the research that informs his practice and some of the lessons he has learned.

Surprising to many in the room, including this little black duck, he shared research showing that coaching more than doubles performance in areas of “complex activity, like sales”. Given the dependency of any business on sales this makes a pretty compelling case.

He also noted that four in five people rate themselves as good to excellent coaches, but measurement shows that less than one in ten actually do even the most basic first step in successful coaching, pay attention to what the person is doing.

Geoff Wade of Onirik
Geoffrey Wade of Onirik

Mr Wade believes that coaching is basically a process of helping people to improve their practice and so it makes sense that you need to watch and measure the existing behaviours as a first step to improving them.

He said the other mistake that is almost universally made is that we manage people by measuring their results. “Telling the best performers that you want to raise their targets might work, because they know what they are doing,” he said, “but that is not going to get you radically different results. The way to really make a difference is to turn around the people who are struggling, they sometimes perform and sometimes do not. They do not know what they are doing wrong and it is your role as coach to help them work that out. No-one wants to be a poor performer, it is simply that they do not know the techniques required to improve.”

As we all nodded sagely at the self-evident logic of what he was saying, in full knowledge that most of us have been making all the mistakes he pointed out, he dropped a bombshell that woke up the room and refocused our attention.

“To get this right,” he said, “You have to follow a simple ratio. Praise everyone five times, for each time you offer them corrective feedback.”

His research indicates that there is no point hammering people for poor performance, you simply crush their morale and cause them to lose interest. The praise, he says, is the sweetener that encourages them to want to perform, the corrective action is the support and advice they need to do so.

“It might help to remember not to criticise a mistake or poor performance the first time you see it.”

Geoffrey excludes safety issues from this general rule, noting that they have to be called out as soon as they are observed. The rest though can be run through the ‘zip your lip’ filter. “The first time is random, the second time is co-incidence and the third time is a pattern.” He finds this equally applicable to parenting, sports coaching and business. “If you say to someone, I have watched you do that twice before and now I see you doing it again, clearly this is something we need to address, they know you are on the ball. They also know that you are not going to tolerate poor performance and that you are not prone to knee jerk reactions. That is a pretty powerful way to earn someone’s respect.”

He said that the absolutely worst technique ever taught to manager and coaches is the “sandwich technique” known at the school I went to as the “shit sandwich technique”. “You are doing a good job, Jim. Your sales numbers are not good enough, but the customers love you and that’s important.”

Not only does burying the corrective advice between two layers of praise confuse the message every time you use it, repeating the pattern undermines your credibility. Everyone soon works out that you are using a formula and it reduces the value of the comment and the respect in which you are held. “If there is one message I want you to take away from this it is to dump that technique. Write it on a paper and burn it, wave rooster feathers over it and tear it in half, whatever ritual you need to use to cleanse your mind, do it. You must never, ever, use the sandwich technique again.

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