Many sales leaders will read that statement in disbelief.
Asking someone to coach feels like trying to balance another log on top of an over-stacked woodpile. Schedules today are punishing. Consider a medical study, which determined that “fatigued workers cost employers $136.4 billion annually in lost productivity time.”
How could anyone afford to devote nearly three quarters of their working hours to coaching?
The answer is in our understanding of what it means to coach. Sales coaching isn’t about clearing the desk and saying, “This is my coaching time.” Instead, coaching happens concurrently with the leader’s daily responsibilities. Therefore, coaching is a communication style. You don’t step in and out of the role because every interaction is a coaching opportunity.
Here, we look at three practices for making everyday conversations coaching conversations.
Understand Your Default
In 2015, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author David Foster Wallace delivered a now famous commencement speech. In it, he suggested that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” This advice is pertinent to leaders who want to coach because it reminds us that many of our thoughts are automatic, instant reactions. These responses represent our factory settings.
For most, the default is to provide directives. Therefore, too many people mistake feedback for coaching.
Effective leaders learn to identify their default. As a result, they exert more control over how these reactions influence their coaching. When leaders avoid delivering directives, they help develop critical thinking among their team. Moreover, the task of overcoming a challenge doesn’t fall entirely on the leader’s shoulders. Instead, team members share the burden, and in doing so, they gain more agency.
This agency, or locus of control, not only sharpens thinking skills — it boosts satisfaction at work. A meta-analysis in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that “internal locus was positively associated with favorable work outcomes, such as positive task and social experiences and greater job motivation.” When leaders allow team members to develop solutions they empower them with self-efficacy. The result is a job in which sales professionals see more of themselves in their work.
Use the Socratic Method
Leaders foster this independent thought by engaging others with questions, or the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is the practice of asking questions to spark critical thought. This exchange is important because an individual is more likely to value insights when they arrive at them on their own. Leaders can use the Socratic Method at any time and therefore can coach at any time. With this approach, coaching happens in the moment when the takeaways are most pertinent and results are most immediate.
Leaders, however, must be careful about the kinds of questions they ask. For example, leading questions give the listener the impression that they’re being asked to provide a specific response. For example, “Do you think this is your best work?” signals that the leader wants the listener to admit they’ve fallen short of a goal. The questions must be sincere. They must reveal the listener’s thoughts. In short: avoid loaded questions.
Questions do more than develop insights — they also offer a template for pursuing selling opportunities. Just as leaders use questions to drive change among team members, those team members can use questions to pursue selling opportunities. One participant in The Manchester Consulting study on coaching remarked that coaching “helped me to walk through political landmines and gain consensus among key stakeholders to go forward with this venture.” Quotes like this illustrate how the value of coaching compounds when participants see direct results.
Coach to the Individual
Coaching should not be abstract. It should be strategic and tactical and therefore personalized. Each team member’s abilities and needs are slightly different. Therefore, each conversation is unique.
Additionally, one-on-one coaching leads to a greater sense of satisfaction for the sales professional and better goal attainment when compared to group coaching. These findings also illustrate why individual coaching is so effective at reducing turnover. Sales professionals appreciate the investment in their career. At the same time, leaders foster a supportive culture that drives business goals.
Finally, the effects of individualized coaching are more enduring because the takeaways are relevant. Salience drives sustainment. People are more effective in recall tests when they’re able to see the connection between the concepts. This outcome is even more apparent when the learner can see how the concepts connect to them personally. Keep coaching individualized to ensure that concepts stick and that change is ongoing. Additionally, sales professionals can apply internal coaching capabilities to external conversations with customers.
Despite the value of coaching, some still dismiss it as an ideal. Detractors believe that coaching doesn’t fit within the frantic pace of work. However, coaching is well worth the time because it serves the bottom line financial goals of any business. In fact, research from the same Manchester Consulting Group cited above shows that “seventy-five percent of the sample [participants and stakeholders] indicated that the value of coaching was ‘considerably greater’ or ‘far greater’ than the money and time invested.” The authors of the study argue that coaching works in three connected parts.
First, coaching drives action from those being coached. Second, these actions have a real impact on the business. Finally, third, they explain that these impacts can be measured, analyzed, and therefore maximized over time. Making this chain work means:
- Understanding and addressing your default coaching style
- Using questions to help team members develop critical thinking skills
- Make coaching specific and individualized to keep takeaways relevant
Leaders can put all three of these concepts into action immediately. There is no need to “pencil in” coaching time. These behaviors can occur at any time during everyday conversations. Coaching is, above all else, a style and means of communication.