Fable Friday: Coaching rookies for success

Almost 23 years ago I took a job as a consultant for a first-class sales training company, ActionSystems in Dallas, TX. I worked with some very talented people, which made my inexperience even more noticeable by contrast, and I was eager to become better at my job just to avoid the embarrassment of being an awkward rookie around these awesome people.

My immediate boss was Dawn Foster, who ran the entire consulting group, and Dawn’s routine was to sit in the back of the room when one of her consultants was running a training program, and make notes. After the session, she would hand you about six pages of notes from her yellow pad, and this became your reading on the plane going home.

Because I wasn’t any good at my work back then, reading the notes was a painful but helpful exercise. How else would I learn what to do and not do? The consultant in the office next to mine in Dallas, Fran Willis-White, once said to me, “When Dawn gives you those notes, hold on to them. They’re solid gold to you in getting better at the job. She notices everything.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedYou’re wondering what was painful about the notes I imagine. Part of it was that Dawn is a kind person, and didn’t like to directly criticize someone’s performance in a harsh way. So she would point out your shortcomings in a way that didn’t sting as much: “Gregory, after scribing the participants’ contributions on the flip chart, you might consider stepping off to the side so they can see the ideas you posted, and move back to the easel only when you have something else to write.”

Of course I wouldn’t have written it that way. Had I been observing and taking notes, I would have simply said, “How the hell is anybody going to see what’s on the flip chart if you stand right in front of it like a goober?”

What does this story have to do with anything? This week I’m with a client in St. Louis, and I’m watching their trainers conduct a sales management training program. And yes, now I’m the one sitting in the back observing and taking notes that I can give them for constructive feedback when they finish.

And I find myself using the same great euphemisms that Dawn did, because I too want them to develop while not hurting their feelings. “Have you considered the benefits to letting participants work in pairs to solve a problem and then contribute? It often gets you more thoughtful answers than an open group discussion would.”

One of the disadvantages that new employees have is the absence of an experienced observer, who writes down everything that happens and makes recommendations on improved performance. So when I do this I know I’m giving people these “solid gold” notes, like Dawn did. I want them to be thorough, behaviorally-specific (“this is what you said,” rather than “you asked some good questions”) and above all fair and kindly.

As a manager, do you ever have occasion to do this for one of your team members? Maybe you could have others run a sales meeting, or just observe behavior on a joint sales call, and make some great notes for feedback. Your people will tell each other, “Save those notes; they’re solid gold.”

Think Like Your Customer