Developing executives – What’s the coaching business case?

A strong coaching business case for a leadership development  project keeps all parties motivated and driving toward success.

Virtually all of my coaching with business leaders is funded by their firms.  There are three parties to the agreement.  The leader has to deliver the effort to fully work on their development.  The stakeholder has to invest the resources to hire the coach and support the leader and their development effort.  The coach has to deliver a coaching process that is effective.

While the firm is investing in the individual, it is also wanting the coaching investment to result in some “return” to the company, reflected in improved business outcomes.

It helps leaders and their stakeholders to align quickly on the coaching goals if they think about the engagement as an investment and use investment language to describe the return.  For an example, if an executive successfully improves employee engagement on his team, research says that team firm will enjoy higher productivity, and up to 20% higher profitability.

I use a four phased “business case” approach to create the development plan.  The client and stakeholder see the outcome in their terms.   In the client’s mind, “I’ll get to know my team better and we’ll all work better together.”  In the stakeholder’s mind, “Sam’s coaching could increase the productivity of his team, maybe by as much as 20%.”

Here’s a description of my approach:

First Base: Name the development goal

Use assessments and stakeholder interviews to yield a list of potential objectives.  Narrow the list to frame a very short list of general development objectives and guesstimate the outcomes.    No more than five candidates should make it this far.  Through discussion, we narrow the list to one or two that have the most compelling outcomes.

I ask the client to “name” each finalist with a short phrase that is meaningful to them.  We discuss projected outcomes of the finalists and choose the one or two which have the most compelling outcomes.

Trap!  Clients typically want to go straight to problem solving.    It’s easier, more concrete, and it’s what everyone is clamoring for at the time.  It’s important to differentiate between helping a client solve a specific problem (you’re a consultant) and helping them develop into the person that can accomplish what is demanded by their role (you’re a coach).  Help them take the time to envision the future, by exploring who they need to be.

Second Base: Discover with the client “who” they will have to become, to achieve the outcomes they are hoping for.  

 What new skills, concepts, values and beliefs will they possess after the coaching engagement?  I help them explore the personal shifts that must occur for them to grow in the direction they’re seeking.

 Third Base:  Envision what behavior changes will be noticeable if the development is successful

Focusing on behaviors sets them up to measure the success of the coaching.  On their own, clients can ask their key relationships, mentors, and teammates what new behaviors they’re noticing.  In my practice, I ask my clients to come to each coaching session prepared to share the behavioral feedback they’re getting from others and noticing on their own.

Bonus!   By encouraging our clients to gather their own accountability data, we’re setting them up to ultimately transition to self-coaching.  They will be able to “pull” the coaching they need from managers and colleagues and measure if they’re making progress.

Home Base:  Ask, “So what?”   Refine the business impact.

If all goes well, what needles move?  How are things different?

The client will probably take a more personal view.  “I’ll be a stronger leader and a better boss, and I’ll be more promotable.”

The stakeholders will more likely focus on business metrics.  “They will be more productive, more profitable, and uncover best practices for the company.”


There’s no magic about where you start!  Just start…  Unlike baseball, you don’t have to run the bases in order, and you’re seldom done until you’ve visited each base a few times.   Desired outcomes can drive the naming of goals.  Goals drive the who’s… and the behaviors… behaviors drive outcomes and milestones…  milestones drive actions and accountability…

What’s important is that you explore all the bases.  Give yourself time to put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.

As you move through the coaching, refresh the business case continuously and validate your investment decision.

 Drop me a note if you’d like a copy of a Microsoft Word template I use to discuss and refine the business case and create an action plan for the next steps of the development plan.

Team Development – Four Questions to Frame Your Plan

Team Development

When I begin a development engagement, I spend time to understand their situation and help them align their growth outcomes.  I’m helping them balance what is personally satisfying to them, with what is high impact for their organization and its mission.

Usually, that begins with an overarching question (How do you want to develop?) to articulate the development goal.  That can be on stakeholder feedback, a recent performance discussion, 360 degree assessments and the like. What I’ve learned about this discussion is to approach the discovery with three additional questions which build the business case for the effort time and resources to achieve the goal.

Here are the the four questions:

What’s your goal for development?

This is the starting point.  They’re getting feedback from somewhere that there’s a benefit from developing some aspect of their world.  Where’s that input coming from?  How much energy are they feeling about the importance of the goal.

How will you change through your investment?

The major premise behind this question:  We achieve success based on who we are as well as what we do.  Performance discussions tend to focus most of their energy on the action part:  hat will we do?  The best coaches focus first on who we are.  Who we are makes what we do possible (or impossible!)

What new skills will you build? What new insights or subject matter expertise will you gain? Will there be any new attitudes or beliefs that occur because of your development investment? With these questions and others like them, we are trying to establish how the client will change and evolve as a person. Development isn’t so much about attaining specific tactical goals as it is about growing as a person in becoming more capable and more motivated to achieve those goals.

What new behaviors will others observe in you?

This question goes to measurement and accountability. Discussion of this question helps the learner clarify the goals in terms of what others will see.  How will current behaviors change as the learner and coach work on the development objective.

What mission outcome will you enable when you accomplish your objective?

This is the “So, what?” question, often stated in terms of the deliverable performance metrics for the organization or business.  Business metrics like revenue, profit, expanding the customer base, new and different service lines, time to market….  Personal metrics like leadership confidence, promotability, employee engagement, and so on.

If you like the Covey habits, it’s “Begin with the end in mind.

Some outcomes are more easily quantified than others. But whether it’s a tangible outcome or intangible outcome, it should be realistic and compelling to all concerned. It nails down the business case for the development project.  As well, it helps the learner and stakeholders choose between several potential learning objectives.  Which one will have the biggest “bang for the buck.”


When goals and outcomes are well aligned, everyone associated with the development project will be more motivated to do what it takes to make the learner succeed in their development project.

We can help!  Ascendent Leadership offers executive coaching for for individuals and teams from high potentials to the C-Suite.

Leaders, Flex to Your Teams

Isoflex_400Shelly was a senior sales executive, with over 30 years of selling experience in the energy segment. She valued her style as an activist leader, and her ability to leverage years of experience to help her teams beat their objectives.

She had recently taken a position as a global vice president of channel sales, responsible for expanding her company’s partner network.  Because her role was new and important, she had been able to recruit a “dream team” of sales and marketing pro’s with strong track records for building new business quickly.

But…  she was beginning to get disturbing feedback.  Her team had begun to quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, go around her, and complain about her overbearing style, and her limiting of their independence.  Six months after being hailed as the sales leader who would take her company to new levels, she was facing almost a complete rebellion from her team.

What was going on?

It’s no secret.  North Americans and Europeans prefer extroverts as their leaders.  While about half the general population have a natural preference for introversion, over 90% of leaders display extroverted behaviors in their leadership style. That implies that a very large proportion of introverted leaders are flexing outside of their natural behavior to meet the cultural bias for an extroverted style.

While the bias for extroverted leadership is clear, research is telling us that extroverted leaders often run into trouble leading teams of proactive and innovative people.

In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David Hoffman discovered that in organizations where the employees tend to be more passive, extroverted managers excelled, generating about 15% higher than average profit.  (Adam M. Grant 2010)  In contrast, in organizations where the employees were more proactive and independent, extroverted managers didn’t fare as well, generating about 15% lower than average profit. 

Net-net, naturally introverted leaders who can flex to a more integrated style are more likely to succeed with highly proactive teams.

Why would that be?

First of all, natural introverts have more practice in being flexible with how they interact with others.  For most of their life, they have had to integrate extroverted behavior into their consulting and leadership style.  (Cain 2012)

Introverts tend to better listeners, and have less personal need to be perceived as the one with the answer.  As a result, they are more likely to accept and act on the ideas and recommendations from their teams.

Introverts tend to be more willing to take a little more time with their decisions, and wait for more information (including input from their team on the best way forward).

“Wait a minute!”, you might be protesting, “You’re saying that it’s always better to be an introverted leader, rather than an extroverted leader?”

No, that’s really not I’m saying.

I’m saying that research on personality type suggests that the most effective leaders are those who are aware of their natural preferences, and who can make an intentional decision to flex to a different behavior set, better suited to the situation in front of them.

A short aside:  There is no such thing as a 100% extrovert or a 100% introvert.  All of us have a mix of preferred behaviors which fall into both camps.  If the mix is more heavily weighted to introverted behaviors, we are called an introvert.  If the opposite is true, we are called an extrovert.  But we are always a mix of our preferences.

In Shelly’s case, her team wanted less direction and teaching (her natural extroverted behaviors), and more thoughtful discussion about their ideas and their recommendations for how they could achieve their goals.

Here are some tips for flexing to what your team wants and needs from you as a leader:

For leaders who are natural introverts:

Take advantage of your natural tendency toward individual dialogue to hear your people fully.

Give yourself enough time to reach a joint assessment of a situation and the optimum path forward.

When appropriate, flex to more assertive behavior when dealing with your senior leadership, sources of resources, and customers who you know expect that from you.

For leaders who are natural extroverts:

Be aware that your preference for independent thinking and directive communication will probably not be well received by independent thinkers.

Develop your effectiveness in having one-to-one conversations.  Ask open ended questions, actively listen to the answers, and provide enough feedback so that your teams have confidence that you understand and agree.

Be willing to make an intentional decision in the moment to flex to a less directive approach with proactive teams.  Give your proactive team members room to assert their ideas and opinions, and engage in a more collegial discussion with them, as compared to a more traditional manager-subordinate discussion.


Leadership success is less about being an extrovert or introvert than it is about being able to adapt to the behavior that is most effective in the situation, time frame, and team that you find yourself acting and leading in.

Success is about being able to flex smoothly to where you need to be.

Thanks for reading!  I’d love to get your help to continue the discussion with your comments.

End Notes:

Adam M. Grant, F. G., David A. Hofmann (2010) The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses. Harvard Business Review

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet:  the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, Crown Publishers.



Coaching the people who are better than you are

Jane was a solid sales professional and leader, but as a coach she was failing her team.

During her ten years of experience as a sales manager, she had been regularly ranked within the top third of her company’s performance ranking system. She had routinely met or surpassed her sales goals, and she was well regarded among her subordinates and her peers.   As a strong sales leader, she was genuinely dedicated to coaching her team to higher performance, but she had two habits that held her back:

  1. When it came to coaching her two highest performers, she avoided it like the plague.  She felt that they were already far more intuitive and effective sellers than she, and she felt she had nothing to offer them.
  2. When coaching her core and low performers, she could not resist the temptation to jump directly to teaching one of her signature selling skills, once she sensed the faintest relevance to the sales reps’ selling challenges.

Jane had equated her value as a coach with her ability to impart some new skill or pearl of wisdom to help a sales rep elevate his game.  As the result of this misunderstanding of her role as coach, she was not able to effectively improve her team’s performance.

Her high performers did not seek her coaching because they (rightly) felt they were already more advanced sellers than Jane and they felt she had little to teach them.

And, her core performers often felt that she was getting too much into their business and offering skills that were admirable but irrelevant to what they felt they needed.

Both Jane and her sales reps were missing a chance to improve their overall sales performance because they did not understand that great coaching is not about teaching techniques or skills.  Tim Gallwey, author of “The Inner Game of Work”, says it this way: “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own potential.  It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

Virtually every top tier sports figure has a coach to help him improve.  About a third of all CEO’s of major corporations have coaches.   The coach’s value to both high and core performers is to help them “see their performance”.  Once they can get around their blind spots and see their performance clearly, most motivated learners intuitively know what to do to improve.  The coach’s role, then, is to be that “video camera” to reflect back thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that exist as barriers between the individual performer and the level of performance he is seeking.

Through advanced coaching training for sales leaders, Jane came to understand that the heart of her value to both high and core performers was first, her ability to help them clarify their own performance improvement goals; and secondly, her ability to help them accurately see the reality of their current mindsets and behaviors.

She found that, once armed with those insights, her team members were  able to see and articulate their own path to new and higher performing behaviors.  Her value moved away from her personal selling skills to her skillfulness as a coach.  Armed with that knowledge, she was able to engage performers at both levels with confidence, and make significant contributions to their respective levels of achievement.


How are you showing up for your people?

woody_allen“80 Percent of Success is Showing Up”    (Woody Allen)

I joined Hewlett-Packard in 1981.  My second level sales manager was a character named Bob Sandefer.  Bob had already been around HP for over 25 years and was a legend with our factories.  Over the next five years, I would be part of Bob’s team, both as a sales rep and later as a first level sales manager.  Over those years, I had plenty of disagreements with Bob on a variety of topics.  He was tough as nails.  As the years passed, and I got a little smarter, two things occurred to me.  First, on virtually all of the areas where we had disagreed, he was right.  Much more importantly I came to really appreciate how dedicated Bob was to “showing up” for his people.

On anything to do with the business, Bob had very strong ideas on how to take care of customers and through doing so, to grow the business.  He would be in your face in a heartbeat if he sensed anything less than total dedication to HP or the customer.  He had high expectations, and enforced them to the last inch.  On the personal side (after five, mind you), he showed a really remarkable ability to get to know everyone on his team (about fifty people), their personal strengths and shortcomings, but also their spouse, kids, and how big the new house had to be…  At 5:01, he would hold court, and the office was usually full until after 7, with one person or another going in for coaching.  We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.  It often involved a minute or two of those  intense “feedback moments” but that didn’t seem to matter.  He was like a candle to a moth.  The interaction didn’t just happen in the office.  If there was a wedding, a funeral, or any other kind of significant life event, he was there.  Period.  It didn’t matter where you were on the list of fifty.  You were one of his people.

As a perspective on coaching, Bob’s strength in building productive coaching relationships was his ability to show up on a variety of levels.  No one could touch his knowledge of our business.  Beyond the business, he put in the time to connect with everyone on a deeply personal level.  He expected you to have a plan and he had the audacity to remember it and ask you how it was going the next time he saw you.  If you fell short of your plan or his expectations for you, you learned accountability in a hurry.  After some of his accountability sessions, you might feel like you had been kicked around the block, but you knew that he knew you and loved you with every kick.  It wasn’t just kicking.  He celebrated with us, cried with us, and was very predictably there for us, 24-7.

A lot of coaching was delivered on that very firm foundation.

Give up the role of expert

professor500The sales effectiveness literature is full of descriptions of the benefits of coaching for sales leaders.  In a study of 2400 sales organizations, the Sales Executive Council found that sales teams that reported three or more effective hours of coaching per month also reported 17% higher quota attainment than teams who reported two hours or less.  Coaching works!  Yet, in the same study, senior sales executives ranked the coaching ability of their sales leaders to ninth in a list of ten key sales management competencies.  One step up from dead last!  What is preventing sales leaders from doing better in this critical skill?

As I work with sales leaders, one of the most common objections to coaching that I hear, is that many of their people are very experienced, maybe in some cases, more experienced and expert than the leader themself.    Both leaders and reps often view “coaching” as knowledge transfer, or skills transfer.  “Teaching”…  Neither of them want to engage in coaching unless both feel that the coach personally has specific knowledge or skills that the coachee doesn’t have.  An opportunity for learning (by all concerned) and better selling is lost.

How do we break this “deadly embrace”?

Here are seven key ideas to make coaching relevant and powerful for both coach and coachee:

1)  Begin by rethinking the definition of coaching.  Tim Gallwey, author of the “Inner Game of Work” says it this way:  “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching.”  There is a time to teach and a time to coach.  They are different tasks.  Use them when and where they fit.

2)  Redefine the core value that the leader-coach brings to the coaching dialogue.  Relieve the leader-coach of the responsibility to always be the subject matter “expert”.   Instead, make them responsible for being the best coach on the planet, executing  the coaching process in an excellent way.  The best athletes in the world have coaches.  Those coaches are hired for their value in terms of unleashing potential, rather than teaching a skill.  (The Gallwey book is an excellent read on this idea.)

3)  Helping the coachee develop “awareness” of the Goal, the rewards for achieving it, and the consequences of missing it.  Along the way, make sure they understand that they are the primary owner of their number.  Even though the sales manager’s attainment of their number depends on the rep attaining their goal, the coaching process should be based on the rep’s 100% ownership of their goal and 100% sense of responsibility for achieving it.  That ownership fuels their “commitment” to achieving the goal.  Coaching provides them a way to figure out how to do that.

4)  Develop a complete understanding of the current Reality, and the factors which create the gap between Goal and Reality.  Resist the temptation to begin strategy definition or action planning until the gap is very clearly defined.  This temptation is the toughest one I see sales coaches succumb to.  They go to action, once they see a connection between gap and their personal experience.  Be aware of the temptation, and hold your tongue!  Ask another question!

5)  Help the coachee create Options, a strategy for how to close the gap.  Help them think through the problem and formulate their own hypothesis for how to solve it.   Do pro’s and con’s.  Explore trade-off’s.  Don’t hand them the answer, even though the expert in you is certain you know what it is.  This is tough to do.  Hang in there!

6)  Help them develop an air-tight definition of next steps.  Be SMART, with Specific definition of task, Measure of success, confidence that the task is Achievable, Resources are clearly defined, and a specific Timeline for when this will occur.  SMART tasks facilitate accountability to the action plan, one of the key values of great coaching.

7)  When the action plan calls for teaching a critical skill that you possess….  Find the best teacher.  Maybe that’s you.  Maybe its not.  If it really is you, the sales leader, then, ok, teach it.  But teach with respect.  Ask permission to teach.  Make them seek the teaching before you force it on them.  Tough assignment:  Give them the safety and freedom to reject your offer to teach, while helping them stay accountable to their Goal.  It’s their problem.  It needs to be their solution.

Finally, as one of my coaching colleagues put it, “Don’t coach people that don’t want to be coached.”  As a manager you still have an obligation to develop your team, but if they they rebuff your help, they have made a business decision.  OK!  They own the results of their plan.  At some point, it’s best to say, “Okay, I’ll coach somewhere else.”  Like any other negotiation, the willingness to walk away always seems to strengthen your hand.  That builds your credibility.

Give up the role of expert, so that you can be free to play the role of coach.


Are we really coin operated?

As a recovering sales manager, I have always laughed at the proposition that “sales people are coin operated”.  Notice that I said I laughed, not that I didn’t agree.

What would you say if I told you that quite a body of research is telling us that “extrinsic motivation” (e.g. bonuses and commissions, carrots and sticks) actually makes performance worse, not better.  On the other hand, “intrinsic motivation” (I work because I love what I do) is the more durable motivator, especially in the 21st century.

I’m reading Dan Pink’s book, Drive, and I recommend it highly. If you’d like a compelling TED video on this same topic, done by Pink in 2009, check out this YouTube video.

Soft skills enable hard edged selling

What are you doing with your sales teams to help them step up to increasing expectations from sophisticated executive buyers?

From my perspective, the worlds of selling, consulting, and coaching are converging in ways that are going to significantly improve the business outcomes we’re achieving and the human relationships on which these results are built.

These enhanced outcomes are enabled by the integration of knowledge and skills which are well known and deeply understood by the coaching community, who know how to use them and teach them.

This four minute video post is part two of a multipart series, “Is Solution Selling Dead?”

Read the Text of the Video:


Solution Selling is Dead! Long Live Solutions Selling…

As a recovering sales executive, I was very interested in this quote from a recent Harvard Business Review article, reviewed in the attached (short!) video. (First in a series of three on this topic.)

“Most reps rely on a customer to coach them through a sale; star reps coach the customer.”  (“The End of Solution Sales”, HBR, August 2012)

Stay tuned for several more posts in this series which will investigate the impact of emotional intelligence, questioning skills, and listening skills, on the performance of what they call the “new sales stars”

Let us hear from you!

  • If you are coaching sales people, are you seeing this trend?
  • What are you doing to help your consultative sales people stay at the top of their game?