Day-to-Day Coaching: The Best Way to Help People Get an A

An effective performance management system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance review.

Most organizations, unfortunately, devote the greatest amount of time to the third part of the performance management system: performance review. This is where manager and direct report sit down and assess the direct report’s performance since the last annual review. Over the years I’ve heard HR leaders boast, “You’ll love our new performance review form.” I always laugh because I think most of those forms could be thrown out. Why? Because they tend to measure things nobody knows how to evaluate, such as initiative, willingness to take responsibility, or promotability. When people don’t understand how to win during a performance review, they focus most of their energy up the hierarchy. After all, if you have a good relationship with your boss, you might have a higher probability of getting a good evaluation. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s certainly not an effective way to manage performance.

Many leaders in organizations do a good job on performance planning and set very clear goals with their people. But then what happens to those goals? Most often, they get filed and no one looks at them until it’s time for their annual performance review. Then everybody runs around, bumping into each other, trying to find the goals.

So which of the three parts of the performance management system do you think managers are least inclined to spend time on? You’re right: day-to-day coaching is the most ignored of the three—yet it is the most significant aspect of managing people’s performance. Why? Because the most important feedback—praising progress and redirecting inappropriate behavior—happens on an ongoing basis.

In our book Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A,” WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge and I discuss in detail how an effective performance management system works.

The book was inspired by my ten-year experience as a college professor. I was always in trouble. What drove the faculty crazy more than anything was how, at the beginning of every course, I gave students the final exam.

When the faculty first found out about it, they came to me and said, “What are you doing?”

I said, “I’m confused.”

They said, “You look it.”

“I thought we were supposed to teach these students.”

“You are, but you don’t give them the final exam ahead of time!”

“Not only will I give them the final exam ahead of time, what do you think I’ll do throughout the semester? I’ll teach them the answers so that when they get to the final exam, they’ll get A’s. Because life is all about getting A’s.”

I tell you this little story because it is a great metaphor for an effective performance management system. Here’s why:

  • Giving the final exam at the beginning of the year is like setting goals during performance planning: it lets people know exactly what’s expected of them.
  • Teaching the answers is what day-to-day coaching is all about. Check in with each person on a regular basis. If you see or hear about someone doing something right, you don’t wait a year to congratulate them during their performance review—you give them a praising on the spot. If they do something wrong, you don’t save your feedback for their review—you redirect them right away to get them back on track toward their goal.
  • Finally, when people get the final exam again at the end of the year—their performance review—they will get an A: a great evaluation.

After learning about this philosophy, Garry Ridge implemented “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” as a major theme in his company. He is so emphatic about this concept that he has been known to fire managers of poor performers rather than the underachievers if he learns the managers did nothing to help the person in question get an A.

When a performance management system is done right, there are no surprises at performance review time. Team members have stayed focused on their goals and know what a good job looks like—because their manager has connected with them throughout the year with day-to-day coaching to ensure they get an A. Now that’s performance management.

Four Steps to High Performance Teams

Most people use the term “team” loosely in business settings. Yet because so much work today is accomplished by teams, it’s important to clearly define what a team is and examine what makes a team most effective. These characteristics apply whether the team is working virtually or in a physical setting.

We define a team as two or more persons who come together for a common purpose and who are mutually accountable for results. This is the difference between a team and a group. Often, work groups are called teams without developing a common purpose and shared accountability. This can lead to disappointing results and a belief that teams do not work well.

A collection of individuals working on the same task are not necessarily a team. They have the potential to become a high-performance team but first, they need to clarify their purpose, strategies, and accountabilities.

The Characteristics That Make a High-Performance Team

Some teams achieve outstanding results, no matter how difficult the objective. They are at the top of their class. What makes these teams different? What sets them apart and makes them capable of outperforming their peers? Below are the characteristics and best practices that are shared by outstanding teams.

Align for Results. High performance teams begin by aligning for results. They work together to clarify the team’s purpose, so that everyone knows what they’re aiming for. Next, the team members define their goals, outline their respective roles, and agree on behavioral norms.

Perform Under Pressure. Another characteristic of a high-performance team is its ability to perform under pressure. When conflicts arise, issues are embraced and discussed. Team members encourage each other to express their views with candor. Because the goal is to achieve the team’s purpose—rather than to protect individual egos—team members listen with curiosity and openness rather than defensiveness.

Develop Team Cohesion. Anyone who’s watched a championship team perform can observe that the team’s members work in harmony, collaborating with one another and doing whatever is necessary for the good of the whole. No matter what a team member’s role, their contributions are respected and appreciated. Team members trust one another and hold each other accountable, which further develops team cohesion.

Sustain High Performance. The final characteristic of a high-performance team is its ability to sustain its impressive results. The team members continue to demonstrate unity by sharing leadership. A high-performance team will adapt to change and accept even greater challenges.

As you read through the characteristics of high-performance teams, it’s probably no surprise that teams like these are effective. I’ll never forget the time I was invited to a Boston Celtics practice during the heyday of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale. Standing on the sidelines with Coach KC Jones, I asked, “How do you lead a group of superstars like this?”

KC smiled and said, “I throw the ball out and every once in a while, shout, ‘Shoot!’”

In observing Jones as a leader, I noticed he didn’t follow any of the stereotypes of a strong leader. During time-outs, the players talked more than KC did. He didn’t run up and down the sidelines yelling things at the players during the game; most of the coaching was done by the team members. They encouraged, supported, and directed each other.

The Celtics of that era exhibited the characteristics of a high-performance team. They were aligned for results, knew how to perform under pressure, had built team cohesion, and had reached a level of sustained high performance that did not rely on the coach for direction to get the job done.

When this low-key leader, KC Jones, retired, all the players essentially said he was the best coach they’d ever had. Why? Because he permitted everyone to lead, and that’s what a team is all about.

Building a highly effective team, like building a great organization, begins with a picture of what you are aiming for—a target.  Let these characteristics be your target. By benchmarking your team in each of these areas, you can identify where you need to improve to become a championship team.

Need Relief from COVID Fatigue? Let’s Revisit the PACT Model

COVID-19 had been around only a few weeks when I wrote a blog post about a life-balance model that was created by my wife, Margie. When she was studying research about peak periods of happiness in people and also the effect of extreme stress on long-term health, she learned researchers had identified a set of almost identical elements for both groups. She created a simple model—PACT—that addresses both life balance and stress reduction. Margie and I have taught these concepts for many years and we find it helps people manage the day-to-day demands of a busy life as well as unexpected stress-inducing situations.

If you missed reading the blog post I’m referring to, I hope you’ll learn all about the PACT model here. And if you did read that blog post, I want to follow up with you. It’s been nine months and you may be in a very different place today, in many areas of your life, from where you were last April. I’d love to show you how to prevent—or continue to prevent—stress from affecting your body and life negatively.

The PACT Model

The acronym P.A.C.T. represents four elements that can create both happiness and stress resistance in our lives: Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone.

P: Perspective

The first element that can create happiness and stress resistance is perspective—a picture of where you’ve been and where you’re going that sets the context for today. When there’s a major shift in our lives—job loss, death of a loved one, etc., our perspective will drop. And now we know COVID is one of those major shifts. Almost everyone’s life has been affected by COVID in one way or another, and we have all experienced our perspective declining, a little or a lot. Over time, many people have found this low period to be an opportunity for personal growth—but others aren’t there yet.

Viktor Frankl, a World War II concentration camp survivor who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, observed during his imprisonment that the people who were able to keep going were the ones who had a purpose they could hang on to—a great love they wanted to return to, work they wanted to finish, a strong spiritual direction, or even a strong desire to help others through their common experience. We can think in terms of personal or professional goals we want to achieve, important projects we don’t need to put off any longer, values we want our lives to reflect, or living each day to the fullest extent possible, even with COVID restrictions.

How about you? Have you regained your perspective or will it take some help? We all went through a lot together in 2020. Perhaps we can accept this difficult situation for what it is while also believing that better times are ahead. And we can step into that reality together, as well.

A: Autonomy

The next element that contributes to high life satisfaction and high resistance to stress is autonomy. Autonomy is a feeling of having control over your own life—a clear sense of your identity, the freedom to make your own choices, seeing your daily activities as moving you toward your long- and short-range goals. I know. Right now this is a long shot, to put it mildly.

Although COVID still has most of us feeling that we are anything but in control of our lives, we always have some autonomy. For instance, we can choose how we react to our current situation.

I’m convinced it’s easier to get through hard times if you also focus on good things that are happening around you. We have the ability to develop our skills—for example, taking a course online or learning how to meditate—to help us control where our thoughts go. And we can choose how to spend our extra time—open a good book, try a new recipe, catch up on movies or a series we haven’t seen, or play a game with the kids.

To me, the most important thing is being intentional about which messages we pay the most attention to. Are you obsessed by news reports that claim things are awful and life will never be the same? Or do you look for the articles that suggest the pandemic is the beginning of a new era of neighbors taking care of one another, parents and children spending more time together than ever before, and people around the globe working together to build a positive future?

How are you doing on autonomy? Are you regularly choosing how you respond to things? Don’t forget the story about the two wolves battling inside you—one evil and one good. Which one wins? The one you feed.

C: Connectedness

The third element is connectedness. People who report high connectedness have positive relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. You can have a highly connected experience taking a walk in nature or watching a sunset because it feels good. You can also feel highly connected having a cup of coffee on a video call with a friend or sitting in bed at night cuddled up to someone you love.

Low connectedness is when you feel like you aren’t an integral part of your environment—whether it be at home, at work, or in your community. Because of COVID, many folks have been physically isolated longer than ever before in their lives. Social get-togethers are rare or nonexistent. Work teams meet virtually. Loved ones living in different locations have to visit each other through Zoom or video calls instead of in person. And I don’t know about you, but I really miss hugging people!

Staying connected doesn’t have to be difficult, though. Maintaining your relationships can enhance the feeling of overall well-being and balance. Keeping in touch with colleagues at work, even through email or text, can improve morale and performance on both sides. Spend the first few minutes of work Zoom meetings taking stock of how everyone is doing—some teams even include regular visits from dogs, cats, kids, or babies! And while spending more time at home with your family at first seemed to be a major work disruption, many have settled into a nice routine and discovered a stronger feeling of family unity than they had before.

How are you doing on Connectedness? If you feel isolated and reaching out to people doesn’t come natural to you, jump out of your comfort zone and just call that friend you haven’t heard from in a while. I do this a lot—and most of the time people are happy to hear from me. You know why? Because they are feeling isolated, too.

T: Tone

The fourth element in the PACT model is tone. This is how you feel about yourself physically. It includes the way you present yourself, your health and energy level, and your sense of fitness—even the way you’re dressed. People with high tone generally have a high energy level, average weight, and good nutrition, and are comfortable with their physical appearance.

For people who have been working from home all these months, it’s pretty easy to stay in pajamas until noon or be careless about how much we eat. Some people who used to go to the gym don’t bother to work out at home. But I also know folks who have made huge improvements in their health because they have been at home.

How about you? How is your tone? Are you the relaxed type who has become a bit of a hermit and rarely wears anything but sweats or ventures outside? Or are you a disciplined kind of person who wakes up at your normal time, showers and combs your hair, and wears stylish work clothes each day because you want to look your best for those Zoom meetings? Maybe you’re in between, like most of us. It’s all okay—but remember, if you clean yourself up a bit, it may help you feel better.

Note: If your perspective, autonomy, and connectedness aren’t as high as you would like these days, focus on your tone. When you take a walk, you can work on perspective. When you make healthy choices, you’ll feel better and realize you are in control of your health. People who feel good about themselves are more likely to reach out to others—and that helps with connectedness. So you see, starting with tone helps the other three stress-reducing elements in the PACT model fall into place.

Following the PACT model during this upside-down season, especially if you personalize the steps to your own preferences, will help you. When you allow perspective, autonomy, connectedness, and tone into your daily life, happiness will show up more often, stress will naturally lose its grip, and you will find yourself enjoying life again. Take care and stay safe! Have an im-PACT-ful day!

2021 Trends: Learning and Development in a COVID World

After a year like the one we had in 2020, wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball to see where things are headed? While no one can accurately predict random events like pandemics, we can study the impact of those events on people’s thinking.

Recently, The Ken Blanchard Companies® surveyed over 1,000 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals to better understand how they are responding to the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and how they plan to move forward in 2021. The results might reflect your own L&D challenges and give you some ideas about the future.

When asked to identify the single largest problem their learning and development team is facing in 2021 due to COVID-19, respondents revealed three main concerns.

Concern #1: Successfully Making the Shift to Virtual and Online Learning

When people gather in a physical classroom to learn, interacting with others plays a big role in learner engagement. People responding to our survey expressed concern about losing this human element and worry about how much people are staying engaged and particpating in the new virtual classroom. Many said that they are coping with feelings of loss from the absence of in-person training.

Others feel pressured by their rapidly evolving roles and the new expectations placed on them. They expressed concerns about skills gaps in design expertise, virtual facilitation, and the skillful leveraging of new tools and platforms.

They also identified ongoing logistical and technical challenges, such as session scheduling, clunky platforms, and connectivity issues. I think we can all relate to that!

Concern #2: Helping a Struggling Workforce

The impact of COVID-19 on the workforce cannot be denied or ignored. People have lost jobs and loved ones. Those fortunate enough to be working remotely have been emotionally impacted as well.

The respondents of our survey identified isolation and a loss of connection as two major concerns, reporting that these have led to increased stress, exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout.

People also expressed concerns about the overriding uncertainty in the current work environment and the sense that too much change is occurring too fast. Many acknowledged feelings of lowered morale and virtual fatigue.

Concern #3: Anxiety about Losing Their L&D Jobs

Budget cuts, layoffs, furloughs, and questions of management support were at the top of our respondents’ minds as they closed out 2020 and looked ahead to 2021.

People shared their concern that 2021 would usher in a difficult period of high expectations for converting to digital and virtual delivery, but without the resources and support necessary to be successful. This was often expressed as “too much to do, not enough resources.”

Having the resources to hold people accountable, addressing quality issues, and improving the digital skills of their trainers were cited as solutions to these problems.

Looking Ahead to 2021

Has COVID spelled the end of face-to-face training? Decidedly not. But the future will be different. A majority of respondents—57 percent—see face-to-face training as having a role, but as a part of a blended learning experience. In looking ahead to the time when face-to-face options become available again, respondents expect to use in-person and virtual instructor-led training equally.

So, when do people think they’ll be able to get back into the classroom? In our survey, July 2021 was the most oft-cited date.

The Upside of 2020

In many ways, 2020 forced us to dig deep into our own resourcefulness and find ways to navigate an uncertain future.  Blanchard senior vice president Jay Campbell put it really well when he said that “COVID-19 created a discontinuity in the normal evolutionary path toward digital and virtual. It has accelerated the shift—possibly by as much as a decade.”

As a college professor, I love the magic that happens in a classroom. Yet there’s no question that both classroom and online training create a smarter, more skilled workforce. In other words, it’s a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” proposition. I’m excited about the future of training and development. As my son, our company president Scott Blanchard, says, “There has never been a more demanding time to be in L&D—but it is also a time of great opportunity for those ready to step into this new future.”

Do This 4-Part Self-Assessment to Refire in 2021

Most people I know are not only relieved about 2020 being over, they’re also looking forward to 2021 with optimism that things will get better. Here’s a way for you to take stock of how you’re doing personally so that you are ready to refire—and step into the New Year with new, achievable goals.

(Note: Even though these concepts are from Refire! Don’t Retire, a book I wrote with my friend Mort Shaevitz, this exercise will work for you no matter what age you are!)

When you consider refiring, think in terms of four basic areas of your life: Emotional, Intellectual, Physical, and Spiritual. As you read, think about whether you would rate yourself high or low, right now, in these four areas.

  • EMOTIONAL is about being playful, friendly, joyful, loving, spontaneous, and enthusiastic. It involves reaching out to others. Our research shows that people who are emotionally close with family, friends, and work colleagues are happier, more loyal, and more productive.
  • INTELLECTUAL is what you are doing to keep your mind active and still learning. Read books, take classes, stretch your mind. Be open to learning every minute of every day! Remember, when you stop learning, you might as well lie down and let them throw the dirt over you!
  • PHYSICAL is about healthy living and includes such things as exercising, eating right, and getting plenty of sleep. It’s been easy to let some of these things lapse during quarantine, especially if you are among the millions of folks who suddenly found themselves working from home. But it’s more important now than ever before to practice self-care by making choices for yourself that will keep you in good physical condition.
  • SPIRITUAL isn’t necessarily about religion. It can also be about getting in touch with something important outside of yourself—looking outward rather than inward. It’s the opposite of material things. It’s about counting your blessings, realizing you’re not the center of the universe, working toward a higher purpose, and focusing on the greater good.

As I’m writing this, I’d rate myself high in the Emotional area—I have lots of people around me that I can reach out to and love. I’m also doing well in the Spiritual area—I am in close contact with my Higher Power (for me, it’s God), and I enter my days slowly with prayer, gratitude, and a positive outlook.

I’m more of a work in progress in the Intellectual and Physical realms, so I’m going to look at improving in those two areas in 2021.

Intellectually, I’m excited about finishing writing a book with my colleague Randy Conley, tentatively titled DUH! Why Isn’t Common Sense Common Practice? I’m also looking forward to working on a book with my son, Scott. Writing really gets my mind going!

Physically, I need to get on my recumbent bike for at least 30 minutes a day and take my dog, Joy, for walks 3 or 4 times a week. In addition, I need to get back to doing my stretching and weight exercises daily. To make these activities happen, as my colleague Art Turock has said for years, I need to ask myself, “Am I just interested in these things, or am I committed?” When you’re merely interested, you sometimes put things off until tomorrow. But when you’re committed, you do what you say you are going to do, no matter what!

So how did you do? If you gave yourself a not-great rating in any of these areas, don’t sweat it! We all had a rough 2020. Just set one reasonable goal at a time—a goal you know you can commit to, and achieve, in 2021. When you accomplish that goal, set another attainable goal in a different area. Before you know it, you will be refiring on all cylinders!

So Happy New Year to you and yours. Refire to make 2021 a great year!