Fable Friday: Rudyard Kipling weighs in on team building

In today’s Fable Friday I’ll take you back to late 19th century India and the growth of Mowgli, as told by Rudyard Kipling in “The Jungle Book.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedBut first a few words of background on Kipling.  He was born in 1865 in Bombay in 1865 where his father was principal of an art school.  The family remained in Bombay until 1871 when they returned to England, stayed just six months, then returned to Bombay, leaving the six year old Rudyard and his younger sister to board with a family in Southsea.  During the five years in this foster home he was bullied and physically mistreated, an experience that left him with deep psychological scars and a sense of betrayal.

As a result of these early years and similar unfortunate experiences, he became an avid reader and lover of literature, and much of his later writing contained themes of loyalty, respect, honesty, fairness and kindness.

Kipling married an American woman when he was thirty, and the couple moved to Vermont, living there for seven years.  He was by this time a well-known and successful writer and when the couple started a family, he saw that there wasn’t much in the way of good literature for young people to learn values, so he began to write them.  “Kim” and the two Jungle Books were written during this period.

Back to our story about Mowgli and the wolves in “The Jungle Book.”  Kipling has the animals in the story speak in rhyme, while the humans speak in prose.  The wolves try to teach the young Mowgli the “laws” of the jungle, a metaphor for the way one should lead an honest life.  One of the most famous of these instructions is this beautiful instructive piece from the Law of the Wolves:

Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,

And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
For many years this piece has been quoted by coaches and other team leaders.  Phil Jackson used to read it to his L.A. Lakers to get them to play better as a team.  Here in Texas where I live, the local high school cross-country team uses it to remind themselves that they score better when they run as a pack.

If you are a sales manager, take a look at your own sales team.  Do they always think this way?  For example, do they make an effort to include product partners on calls?  Do they share information and ideas with underwriters and analysts so the best possible service may be delivered to the client? Is there jealousy or envy regarding who gets assigned to what customer groups, or who gets the best projects?  A pack of wolves working together can bring down a foe much larger than itself, and from time to time your team can use an eloquent reminder of what you expect from them.

Here’s my idea for you today.  Have someone read this quote at your next sales meeting, then ask, “What do you think we as a sales team can learn from this?  What is Kipling trying to tell us about how we work and how we should work?”  Then develop the discussion until you come out of the meeting with a commitment to change.

Think Like Your Customer!

Don’t swallow that Oreo cookie coaching idea

Last month I ran a sales management workshop for a client in Seattle, and I gave the group a few easy coaching scenarios to discuss and practice, which included an assortment of performance deficiencies. For example, one problem focused on the employee simply not having enough experience with a new skill, another with an unmotivated employee and so on.

But as the groups prepared to role play their coaching scenarios I listened to one of the managers make an astute observation.

“I think the best way to handle this one is just to get right to the point and tell the guy what he needs to do better. Why insult his intelligence by beating around the bush and telling him how great he is?  Once you do that you have to figure out a way to finesse in the corrective part, and it all sounds so phony.”

1331043005_OreoThe others agreed and one added, “I remember when we used to work for (name). When you went in to talk with him about something you did wrong, he was so afraid to mention it that you’d walk out feeling like you were doing great!”

I was proud of their conclusion, as we had just finished discussing what behaviors the great coaches engage in, one of them being that they get to the teaching point quickly.

This poor coaching approach of trying to soften up the employee has often been labeled the “Oreo Method” in which you begin the conversation by telling the employee something positive about his performance, e.g., “Bill, you’ve been doing this job for eight years and of course you are one of my most experienced and valued employees.  Here are just a few of the areas in which you have distinguished yourself as being one of the tops in the field…”

Then you squeeze in a vague comment or two about an area you would like to see improved.  Get in and out of that fast and don’t dwell on any corrective ideas!

Then finish up with some words of confidence.  “I know that with your loyalty and commitment, you’ll continue to provide the best possible service to all our customers!”

This disingenuous approach has been touted by HR people for as long as I can remember, and it’s bad. I sure hope you aren’t an Oreo coach!

Great coaches believe in their people and that confident belief must force them to always provide honest, direct feedback to help them improve.  Don’t disrespect your team with vague comments about performance, hoping they’ll “get the message.” Make them trust you as an honest leader.

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Situational leadership?  Why not situational coaching!

How does the coach know when it’s a good idea to throw a chair across the basketball court, as Bobby Knight once did, or to sit down with an athlete to discuss and agree on areas to improve?

The effective coach must decide when to say, “You’re not getting the job done. Here’s what I want you to do and if you don’t you’re out of here,” or to use a more Socratic approach as in, “I have some concerns about your recent performance. Let’s talk it through and see what we need to do to get you on the right track again.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedSeems pretty obvious that specific situations call for unique approaches.  How do you know which one to take?  Hersey and Blanchard wrote some time ago about the notion of “situational leadership” in which the manager of an organization must adjust his style to fit the development level of the followers he is trying to influence. The same is true of the coach, but the coach must take into consideration not only the development level of the performer, but also the performer’s level of desire to improve.

Let’s look at two examples:

I was once married to a woman who was a very good golfer, single digit handicap.  She loved the game, played and practiced every chance she could and regularly took lessons to improve.  She was working with the pro at a course that often hosts the U.S. Open, a gifted teacher and coach, and he couldn’t seem to get her to adopt an athletic stance.  “Quit sticking your butt out when you address the ball.  Stand more upright with the weight on the balls of your feet,” he would remind her. And she would do it right for a bit, then go back to her old stance.

One afternoon she came home and told me about her lesson.  After she had taken her stance, the pro walked behind her and delivered a swift kick to her butt.  “I’m not going to tell you again, tuck your butt in.”  After that, she always addressed the ball perfectly.

The lesson worked simply because her desire to improve was stronger than her embarrassment on having her butt kicked.

Now let’s compare this scenario to the one from my newsletter last week, which you can review here.

The coach could have screamed and yelled, pointed out all the mistakes the sales rep made and let him know exactly what she expected to do next time. But if you recall, she simply asked the rep for his own review of the call and what he felt he would need to do differently, allowing him to self-discover the improvement path and commit to it, because the ideas were his.

Remember that your team members are always committed to their ideas, not yours. So while the golfer is so deeply committed to improving her game that she will endure a kick in the butt to play better, your employees on the job are likely to have a different set of goals and values.  Even a metaphorical kick in the butt may lead to a call from your HR department, if not an employee retention issue over time.

So the lesson is this. Carefully evaluate the desire to perform and improve for each of your employees on a situational basis and coach accordingly. Some need a careful dialog; some need a kick in the butt.  Do you know which is which among your team?

Think Like Your Customer!

Want to be a better coach? Do what the great ones do, Part II

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedLast week we discussed some of the best practices that great coaches do, leaving off with gaining the employee’s commitment to improve.  Today we’ll finish up that discussion with a few more.

Mutually discuss solutions. 

Great coaches recognize that they are not the only ones with good ideas, and they make a point to seek the employee’s input.

“What do you think is the best way to ask a customer about what’s important to him?”


Get agreement on an improvement plan on the spot. 

The coach knows that the key to ensuring that the session has meaning is to agree on a plan for the new behavior.

 “Okay, how about this?  Beginning first thing tomorrow, why not get some appointments with high-potential customers and tell them you and I will sit down with them.  Then I can have another chance to observe you doing these new techniques…”

Use frequent, informal positive reinforcement immediately following desired behavior. 

If the coaching discussion is worth conducting, it is worth following up.  Since coaching is a feedback mechanism, it’s important to let employees know when they are performing as desired in order to reinforce the behavior.

 “Jeff, I’ve been listening to the way you use those open probes with confidence.  You have a real professional approach now and people trust you.”

Maintain confidence in the employee’s abilities over time. 

This is different from expressing confidence in the employee.  Without a sustained commitment to the employee, expressions of confidence have little meaning.  The great coach shows that he or she is willing to let employees test their skills through empowerment and trust.

 “Paula, you’ve done so well with upscale customers, I’d like you to start making some calls on business customers as well.  I’ll give you some basics in the kinds of questions to use and then…”

Next post

So far in this series on coaching, we’ve discussed performance analysis, which helps us to know when coaching is the right remedy, and last week and today we’ve looked at a few effective coaching behaviors. Next week we’ll discuss the style differences in approach by effective coaches.

When is it right to facilitate the discussion in a gentle way and allow self-discovery by the performer?  When is it right to kick the performer in the seat of the pants? (And yes, I have a story about that.)  What is meant by “situational leadership”?

My monthly newsletter comes out next Tuesday, so there will be no blog post, but we’ll resume the coaching discussion in two weeks.

Think Like Your Customer!

How to be a better coach? Do what the best coaches do!

Effective coaches use many techniques and approaches to improve performance. Today we’ll look at some of the best practices and examples.  Compare your own coaching practices with those you see below.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 Cropped


The coach is committed to improving the performance of team members but must always be careful to keep them on the team and committed.  The most effective coaches have winning tendencies that you should strive to emulate.

In general great coaches…

Gain agreement that the desired performance is important.

Before any discussion takes place as to the method of improvement, the coach makes sure the team member understands that the right behavior is critical to a positive result.

“Mary, I want to be sure you understand how important it is to the company that all meetings with customers follow our Service Standards.  We have invested a lot in it.”

Gain agreement that the desired behavior is not taking place.

The employee may believe that the behavior is important but may not understand that it is not taking place.

“Jeff, when we talked about this last week, you stated that you were going to incorporate some strong questions into your needs assessments.  I didn’t hear any at all.”

Get to the teaching point quickly.

Good coaches analyze the performance problem to see the exact behavior that should be addressed.  They know whether the issue is related to knowledge, skill or feeling, and they get to that area in the discussion, so the employee knows exactly what needs to be addressed.

 “Let me show you a couple of ways you could have asked that question without sounding too intrusive.”

Deal effectively with excuses. 

The coach gets the employee to focus on how the behavior will be improved and knows that excuses only get in the way.

“I know it gets busy on Fridays and when you see a long line of customers waiting, the temptation is to hurry everybody along.  Let’s work on ways we can make the interactions more meaningful to customers while we have them there so they remember us positively.”

Describe the consequences of performance problems. 

Great coaches have a clear vision of the way things ought to be; they can also visualize what will happen when things aren’t working.  They help the employee visualize this contrast to assist the commitment to change.

“How do you think customers view us when they ask us a question about our checking accounts and we have to refer to our own brochures?”

Express confidence in the employee. 

The coach, through body language or the spoken word, convinces the employee that necessary improvements are well within the employee’s capabilities and communicates a “can-do” attitude throughout the conversation.

 “Jeff, the way you get along with customers, I know you can use this probing method to your advantage.  You’ll have them eating out of your hand.”

Gain the employee’s commitment and willingness to change. 

The coach knows that the employee has to want to engage in the improved behavior, and seeks feedback during the discussion to assess feelings.

 “How do you see these ideas working on a regular basis?  How do you feel customers will respond if you do this?  How does that sound?”

Note the positive tone of each of the spoken examples in italics. Do your coaching conversations sound like this?  If not, work on them.  Remember, employees rarely quit companies. They quit managers. Next week I’ll wrap up this discussion with a few more examples of how to be a more effective coach.

Think Like Your Customer

Diagnose before coaching—A quick quiz for you

Today I’ll give you a short quiz to see how well you remembered last week’s lesson on the importance of diagnosing the performance deficiency before you coach.  In this way you’ll see what can go wrong if you don’t diagnose, or do so incorrectly.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedWe’ll use K, D, F, for Know, Do, Feel.  In each of the scenarios that follow, answer K, D, or F to indicate if the performance issue is caused by information the employee does not KNOW, a skill the employee cannot DO, or an attitudinal issue, how the employee FEELS about the work.

  • One of your sales reps has worked for you for three years. She has recently attended a training program in making referrals in which she performed very well.  Now back in the office, she has not made a single referral to any customer after four weeks. _______
  • The company has introduced a brand new product, which is fairly complex. You held one brief sales meeting to go over the highlights of the product but none of the staff is very familiar with it.  You overheard one of your sales staff give a customer an incorrect explanation of how the product works.  ________
  • Your new customer service rep has been on the job for only six weeks.  She is trying to use a Customer Needs Assessment form but is having some difficulty listening to the customer, recording information on the form and then asking the next question.  It sounds very awkward to you as you listen to her customer conversations.  ________
  • You have conducted several sales meetings in which you have stressed the importance of taking time to understand the customer’s needs before mentioning products or discussing features and benefits. Nevertheless, one of your sales reps launches straight into a presentation of all the company’s products and features the second the customer says, “I would like to speak to someone about opening a new”  _______

Did you get them all right? I’ll give you the correct answers next week right here. But for now, try to predict what can go wrong if you mis-diagnose, and then try to coach.  A poor diagnosis usually leads to a poor intervention.

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“Coaching? We’re already doing that!” Part One: Analyzing the performance deficiency

Some years ago I did consulting work for a guy named Jack, who managed the northern NJ area of a top ten bank. One day he and I got talking about coaching and he said, “You know what my managers think coaching is? It’s telling people what they did wrong.”

I never forgot that, mostly because I see that same approach so often, which makes me skeptical when a client says, “Coaching? We’re doing that. The managers take a training program on how to coach and then coach each of their team at least weekly.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedWhen I wrote last week that I was going to explore concepts like coaching and leadership, I intended to break these down into discrete behaviors so that when someone says “coaching” we can all agree on what effective coaching is.

So today we’ll begin with the first step: analyzing the causes of the performance deficiency. Let’s look at an example we’ve all seen.

You manage a sales rep who isn’t performing as expected. You tell him, “You’re not making enough calls, and of the ones you do make, I’m not seeing much in the way of sales results. I know you can do better, so let’s sit down and talk about it. What’s going on?”

Before the salesperson speaks, the coach’s intent is to explore the three areas of the brain that influence the salesperson’s behavior.

Know: The salesperson has to know a few things to sell effectively. Product knowledge, the sales process of the company, what questions are best to ask, the background of the prospect and several others. This knowledge component falls under what is called the cognitive domain in instructional design. Maybe the salesperson is new. Maybe he hasn’t studied the products. There could be a lot he doesn’t know.

Do: The salesperson has to execute a number of skills, and in this case they are mostly communication skills, e.g., open-ended probes, listening, summarizing, trial closes, dealing with resistance and the like. Perhaps he’s new or hasn’t been trained, or he doesn’t practice what he’s going to do on a call. This is the psychomotor domain of the brain.

Feel: The salesperson’s feelings about the job are a huge influence on performance. Did you ever have a salesperson work for you who was afraid to pick up the phone? I see it all the time. Maybe he just doesn’t like people, or he gets nervous in formal settings. In instructional design we refer to these as affective issues, so we have know, do, feel equating to cognitive, psychomotor and affective.

For the coach to be effective at helping the salesperson, he first has to analyze the reasons for the substandard performance, and you can see there are many, and quite often they are in some combination, e.g., he needs to make more calls so he gets experience (do) but he’s shy around people so he won’t do it (feel).

Sometimes I get an older person in my sales training program, who hates being there after 35 years of experience on the job. He isn’t selling effectively any more. I learn that he has the skill because I see his performance in the class, but the “feel” component is the big obstacle. He’s tired; he’s not running through walls any more. He prefers to sit at his desk rather than go out and call. So they send him to training, which just frustrates him more. See the idea?

In the next post I’ll ask you to solve some K, D, F problems to see how well you analyze before you coach.

By the way, what did you think of the sales manager’s comments at the beginning of the sit-down with the salesperson? What was the best thing he said? What should he have not done?

Think Like Your Customer

Fable Friday: How to make role play work as a training tool

One of my clients negotiates payments between their insurance company customers and the health care providers who send the bills. My client makes its money by taking a cut on what they save the payer.  I help their sales team with calling skills and their telephone negotiators with negotiation skills.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedIn one of our sales team workshops we discussed a tactical approach to a delicate conversation, and one of the learners raised her hand and said, “Let’s role play it.” Because I seldom hear this from a workshop participant, I was surprised and pleased.  What I have learned over the years is that the more committed and engaged the employees, the more willing they are to do anything they can to improve. Not everybody hates role play.

In my last post here I talked about the down side of role play, when it doesn’t work. But because it is such a powerful learning tool, let’s balance the scales today and share some best practices that will make it more effective.  Here are three ideas to consider in using role play to train your sales team:

Keep them short—Practice short, realistic scenarios.  There is less discomfort, greater concentration and greater likelihood of retention.  For example, at a sales meeting you’re discussing how to open the on-site call. After various ideas have been shared, say to your team, “You are making an on-site call to a good prospect.  After the introductions when everyone is seated, what’s the first thing you should say?  (Name), you go first.”

Provide expert, relevant feedback—Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.  This means that whoever is giving the feedback should have some expertise. If you’re the sales manager or the training facilitator, it’s usually you. In the scenario for opening the call above, it’s good to have other team members share their best practices when it’s their turn, but make sure the feedback is on target and provides specific help.  Say, “It helped when you asked the prospect to comment on the agenda you sent. It was a useful way to get him engaged right away.” Don’t say, “You asked a couple of good questions.” See the difference?

For this same reason, short fishbowl role plays, in which each learner practices before the entire group, are preferable to learners working in pairs where the partner may not be competent to provide useful feedback.

Use a structured feedback model to build confidence—My preference is to seek comments from the learner first about what went well, and have others comment specifically on the same topic, to reinforce positive behavior. Only then do I allow the learner to talk about an opportunity for improvement, which allows for self-discovery and commitment and keeps the learner from being daunted by the negative data dump of what he didn’t do well.  “You didn’t ask enough open-ended questions and you forgot to mention the promotion…” Unless I nip this early, there is a tendency for the other team members to overload.  Once the learner acknowledges a key area for her own development, you’re pretty much done with the feedback.

Keep in mind that role play, along with simulation, is the most powerful of all experiential learning tools, so don’t abandon it. Just work harder to use it well.

If you have tips, ideas or practices that work well for you, please feel free to share them in your feedback.  My wife keeps telling me I don’t know everything and of course she is right.

Think Like Your Customer

Fable Friday: Do you really like to play basketball? A sales management tip

At an NBA post-game reception in the early 70’s, a fan approached NY Knicks star Bill Bradley and asked, “Do you really like to play basketball?”  Bradley replied that he liked it more than anything else he had ever done.

The fan went on to explain his question.  He had played the trumpet all through college and was pretty good.  His band toured and made good money, but after college when he had the opportunity to make records and stick with it, he opted instead for law school. His thinking was that the music business would not be a safe, predictable way of life.

Bradley asked him if he liked being a lawyer today and the fan replied, “It’s good, but it’s nothing like playing the trumpet.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedYou can find that story here, but now let’s fast forward to February, 1984.  I took my 11-year old son to Madison Square Garden for a Knicks-Nets game because they were going to retire Bradley’s number 24.  I was a huge fan of the Princeton alum, Rhodes Scholar and at that time U.S. Senator from New Jersey and I wanted to hear his speech.

He didn’t disappoint, as he began by recounting the above story, then added to it with these words I’ll paraphrase from so long ago:  “And now today I’m long retired from basketball and serve instead as a U.S. Senator. I love my job and I’m proud to represent the people of New Jersey.  But no matter how much I love it, I have to tell you tonight that it is nothing like hitting a jump shot from the corner in Madison Square Garden in front of 19,000 screaming fans.”

And of course the place erupted in cheers that lasted for a few minutes.  They raised his uniform shirt to the rafters, and Bradley dedicated it to his sister.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’m sharing this story with you today for an important reason if you are a sales manager.  After years in the consulting business of sales, sales management and training, I have learned that no matter how hard the sales manager works, no matter how good a coach he is, no matter how dedicated or smart she is, there are always going to be people on the sales team who really don’t love to play basketball.  And when you as a sales manager realize this, there is little you can do to motivate them.

Great sales managers protect their teams by helping those who really don’t like to play basketball find some other game they do like to play, and move them off their own basketball team.

I realize this may sound harsh, as I write so often here about coaching, leading, sound management principles and love for your employees, but consider the good you do when you remove a sales team member who just doesn’t like to sell.

Your team will respect you for not keeping someone who won’t produce, and that improves morale.  You can devote your energies to successful people and outcomes, rather than fruitless remedial activities. And best of all, you’ll help the non-player get started to find the game he does love.

Ask yourself if you have a sales team member who really doesn’t like to play basketball.  You probably do.  Now what are you going to do?

Think Like Your Customer

Fable Friday:  Aflac and how to coach performance

In a New York Times interview, Daniel Amos, CEO of Aflac, said that when he used to discuss annual goals with his sales team, he never mentioned how much product he wanted sold.  Instead, he positioned the conversation around the incentive to be earned, like this:  “I want you to make $80,000 in incentives this year.”  As Amos pointed out, “No one ever says ‘Oh, I don’t want to make that much money.’”

This approach is consistent with some of the best practices you saw last week in our quiz on how to coach Fred, the reluctant caller. I mixed up some best practices with some less effective remarks, so there was no one scenario that was perfect, but here are some of the things that worked.

Focus on the positive

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedTry to lead with a discussion of strengths, and keep the conversation at all times positive:  “two areas that have impressed me are your close ratio and that you consistently make goal year over year.”  Avoid starting the conversation as if you’re going to give your team member a scolding.  Here was a poor start:

“Fred, last year you made an average of 12 on-site calls per month, while the rest of the team averaged 18.  And although you just made goal for the year, I’d like to see you do better than that.”

And while we’re thinking positively, get the performer to talk about what he CAN do.  Don’t focus on obstacles, as in this comment:  “What’s getting in the way of your making more calls?” It will get you into a maze of excuses and take his eye off the ball.

Offering thanks and congratulations on successes is a good way to keep the conversation positive. Here was a great intro:  “Fred, before we talk about your plans for next year, let me first congratulate you on last year’s performance, once again meeting your sales quota.  Thank you for your contribution. It makes me feel better to know I have a talented performer like you on my team, someone I can count on.”

Use benefit statements: what’s in it for YOU

You can use many different benefit statements, but the most powerful are the ones that focus on what success means to the individual.  Here’s a good one:

“A breakthrough year not only ensures you’ll surpass your goals, but it would also enhance your professional reputation within the team. You’d be a rock star.  But more importantly, a greater call production combined with your sales skill is guaranteed to put more money in your pocket and I’d love to write you a fat bonus check.”  Sounds like Daniel Amos, doesn’t it?

Your feedback

Jeff Horton and James Carr, two very strong sales managers in the financial services area, made the same excellent suggestion to me about this case, and that was to give Fred a bigger “stretch goal.”  Instead of asking him to make 20 calls, which would be simple to do, why not suggest 30?

In general I agree with them, but keep in mind that if you do this you have to be a very good coach, staying on top of Fred’s call numbers each month so that he stays motivated and doesn’t fall behind and get discouraged.  Thanks Jeff and James.

Think Like Your Customer!