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!

All Good Performance Starts with Clear Goals—and Clear Roles

One of the key directive leadership behaviors for SLII® leaders centers around the leader working closely with each direct report until the person is able to effectively perform the responsibilities required of their individual role. This SLII® micro skill is called Clarifying Roles.

Clear roles go hand in hand with clear goals. You already may know that one of my favorite sayings is “All good performance starts with clear goals.” In effect, that quote could be changed to read “All good performance starts with clear goals and clear roles.” High performers are not only able to clearly describe their goals, they are also committed to learning how to master specific aspects of their role—daily functions that may include upholding standards of communication, recognizing their level of authority, directing the work of others, making decisions, etc. The SLII® leader takes an active part in this process, leading the way in determining the person’s development level in each area and providing the right amount of direction and support to help the person win—achieve their goals.  

Want an example of how a manager might work with a direct report to help them learn and understand their role? Let’s take a look at a clip of a conversation from Leadership and The One Minute Manager, a book I coauthored with my friends Pat Zigarmi and Drea Zigarmi, two of our company’s cofounders.

Here’s the context: An entrepreneur wanted to learn how the One Minute Manager could flex his leadership style for people depending on their needs. So, the One Minute Manager asked the entrepreneur to visit with a few people on his team and get their perspectives. The first person the entrepreneur met with was Larry McKenzie, who recently had been promoted to the role of vice president for people and talent development.

“I’m interested in finding out how the One Minute Manager works with you,” said the entrepreneur. “Would you call him a collaborative manager? I’ve been reading a lot about collaborative leadership.”

“He’s far from being collaborative with me,” said Larry. “In fact, he is very directive with me. People development is his baby. So, my job is essentially to follow his direction.”

“But why doesn’t he just assign you the projects he needs you to do and then just let you figure them out?” asked the entrepreneur. “He must trust you if he put you in this job.”

“I think he trusts that I’ll develop in this role, but he’s the expert,” said Larry. “So, he assigns me projects and then works very closely with me on almost every aspect of them. This role is a big stretch for me. I’m just learning about several of the responsibilities that come with this job.”

“Don’t you resent that?” asked the entrepreneur. “It sounds pretty controlling to me.”

“Not at all,” said Larry. “I was in comp and benefits before I got this position three months ago. I jumped at the opportunity to move into the people and talent group. Working with the One Minute Manager would give me a chance to learn the whole area of talent development from the ground up. He’s considered a real pro when it comes to developing people. So apart from comp and benefits—where he leaves me alone when he works with me—in almost every other area, he’s very clear about what he wants me to do and how he wants me to do it. I always know where I stand because of the frequent meetings we have and the ongoing feedback he gives me.”

“Do you think he will ever let you make any decisions on your own?” asked the entrepreneur.

“As I learn the ropes,” said Larry. “But it’s hard to make good decisions when I don’t know a lot about what it takes to accomplish my goals. Right now I’m glad the One Minute Manager wants to be involved. I’m excited about my job, and as I gain experience, I’m sure I’ll assume more responsibility.”

This passage makes clear that no matter how elevated a direct report’s role, the SLII® leader uses a directive style on the job functions that are new to that person. Note how Larry mentions that the One Minute Manager uses a delegating style on the comp and benefits areas where Larry already has expertise. However, in other areas where Larry has little expertise, the One Minute Manager uses a directing style where he shows and tells Larry exactly how those tasks should be done. As time goes by and Larry learns and improves, the responsibilities of his role become crystal clear. An SLII® leader’s job is to flex their leadership style to meet the direct report’s development level on a given task or goal. Helping each person clarify their role is an important part of that process.

Identifying Priorities

Concerned about someone whose performance is off track? Identifying Priorities, the next SLII® micro skill in our blog series, is a directive leadership behavior that helps learners stay focused on their goals.

If you have someone on your team who doesn’t seem to be performing at the level you expect, it’s possible the cause is not a lack of skill or motivation. Many times the reason people don’t meet performance expectations is because the order in which they prioritize their tasks is much different from the way their manager would have them do it. As a consequence, these individuals often are reprimanded for not doing what they didn’t know they were supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is a misunderstanding that happens all too often between people and their leaders.

Areas of Accountability

One of the biggest obstacles to high performance is the problem of unclear organizational expectations and accountability. If you and the person in question haven’t had a recent conversation about identifying and ranking priorities, give this activity a try.

Take a minute to identify and list the top ten priorities, in descending order of importance, that you hold this person accountable for. List the most important priority as #1, the second as #2, etc.

Now ask the person to make a list of the top ten priorities they feel they are held accountable for, also in descending order of importance. Don’t reveal your list until the other person is finished writing.

Now compare the two lists. How much do the lists match in terms of rank and content? If you are like most companies we work with, you’ll find only about 20% alignment between the two lists.

In many instances, managers are surprised to find they are holding someone accountable for results that are completely different from the priorities the person has on their list. Keep in mind that priorities can change rapidly depending on the person’s role and/or the pace of work in your department or organization.

For a more specific example, let’s take a look at an excerpt from Empowerment Takes More than a Minute, a book I coauthored with Alan Randolph and John P. Carlos.

“Have you ever had your employees list ten things they think you hold them accountable for?” asked Janet.

“Why would I do that?” replied Michael. “We tell them what’s expected of them, and they all get annual performance reviews.”

“You may have just diagnosed one of your biggest problems,” said Janet. “Tell me, when people leave their performance review sessions with you, do they feel validated or surprised?”

Michael reflected on the last three reviews he’d completed. “Come to think of it, they act surprised. Two of my last three reviews involved disagreements. The people said they didn’t know they were responsible for certain areas.”

“Since there is often a difference between what people think they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis and what their leader thinks they should be doing, I recommend that each of them make a list and compare the priority of things on the two lists. Let me give you an example of how [it] works.

“A couple who are friends of mine own a convenience store. They were constantly in a quandary as to why things they thought were important weren’t getting done around the store. So they asked their assistant to list the ten things she thought she was accountable for. This is the list the assistant produced.” She handed Michael a slip of paper.

  1. Shrink (inventory loss)
  2. Cash over or short on the register
  3. Stock shelves
  4. Clean rest rooms
  5. Test gas tanks for water
  6. Fresh coffee at all times
  7. Clean parking lot
  8. Organize back room
  9. Rotate stock
  10. Ordering

“My friends, the owners, made a list of the ten things they held the assistant accountable for. It looked like this.” She gave him another slip of paper.

  1. Sales volume
  2. Profit
  3. Customer perception
  4. Quality of service
  5. Cash management
  6. Overall store appearance
  7. Just-in-time inventory
  8. Training employees
  9. Protecting assets (maintenance)
  10. Merchandise display

“When they compared lists, the problem became obvious. And as they told me about it they said, ‘The fault turned out to be ours as leaders. We tell people we’ll hold them accountable for end results such as sales, service, and so on. But the things we talk to them about day in and day out—the things that stick in their minds—are routine tasks.’ They told me they were sending mixed messages. The [prioritizing activity] really helped them to see what they were doing and to appreciate the pain they were causing their assistant as a result.”

The great news is that this exercise can be the beginning of a mutually beneficial conversation where you work together on identifying the person’s priorities in a way that sets them up for success—and confirms to them that you are there to help them achieve their goals.

An aligned purpose and clear expectations are the foundation of an effective work environment. Make sure that people’s priorities are on track and on target. Connect the dots between individual roles and the goals of the organization. When people see that connection, they will put more energy into their work and get more out of it. They will feel the importance, dignity, and meaning in their job. It’s good for them, for you, and for the organization.

Keep watch here for more SLII® micro skills!