By Jim Grinnell, Ph.D.
We’ve all heard the bromides about the importance of coaching employees. Unfortunately, when we drill down to the level of practice, coaching runs headlong into a myriad of obstacles. This article focuses on just one objection, that being the “I want to coach, I really do, but I just have too many direct reports and too little time” excuse.
When does a span of control become too large for coaching? Well, let’s assume on average a manager spends a half hour a week per employee coaching. Time is certainly not a constraint at five employees (two and a half hours a week). How about ten employees? Sure, at ten employees coaching is more of a time bandit. So you say try this one on for size– I have twenty direct reports! You’re right, you can’t possibly devote ten hours a week just to that soft and squishy coaching bunk. After all, that’s ten hours away from doing the important management stuff! But, as shall be articulated in the following analysis, the premise that you should devote equal time to all your reports is not only erroneous, it can be outright counterproductive.
For simplicity sake, presume you have three direct reports– Cindy Star, Eddie Steady, and Sammy Struggle. Cindy Star always exceeds her numbers, rarely asks for your help, and often takes initiative on new tasks/projects. Cindy is every manager’s dream. Working along side Cindy is Eddie Steady. Eddie gets the job done, does it competently, but Eddie’s attitude is “a day’s work for a day’s pay.” And for Eddie, that day ends at 5:00 p.m. and he’s heading down the freeway in his Ford Fusion by 5:03. Then there’s poor ole Sammy Struggle. No matter what Sammy does s/he just can’t seem to get things right. There may have been one or two times that Sammy achieved mediocrity, but for the most part Sammy is just not making it. What makes this even more heart breaking is that Sammy is working past 5:00 and taking work home on the weekends just to perform at a sub-par level. Worse yet, Sammy is just a very likable individual (and is supporting a very lovely family).
The question is, if you have only an hour to coach who do you focus on, Cindy, Eddie, or Sammy? Assume for discussion sake that aside from performance Cindy, Eddie, and Sammy are comparatively similar in terms of age, tenure, job functions, etc. This is obviously a contrived scenario intended to facilitate a general set of points. Nevertheless, the conclusions that follow will be generally applicable and will provide guidance on how you allocate your precious coaching time.
Based on the scenario presented above, many if not most managers will (wrongly) suggest that the coaching time should be devoted to Sammy Struggle. The underlying rationale for choosing Sammy is severalfold. For one, many managers are concerned that Sammy’s failure is a poor reflection on themselves. If only I were a better manager, Sammy would become a better contributor. Relatedly, managers are concerned that if Sammy gets terminated, Sammy might complain that s/he didn’t get enough guidance and feedback from the manager. Third, many managers wrongly assume that business is akin to the Army Rangers, whose motto is “No man gets left behind.” While this is a noble intention, there is a huge difference between the Rangers and most businesses– the Rangers are all A-players! Fourth, many managers falsely assume that their team will be that much better if they can get Sammy to at least perform at Eddie’s level. Lastly, because poor performers are often great people, many managers are reticent to give Sammy his/her walking papers.
If most managers default to Sammy, there is a complementary bias against investing coaching time into Eddie. Eddie is the prototypical middle child, the Jan Brady of the team. Managers generally recognize that the Eddies of the world (who probably account for 75% of the workforce) are valuable members of the team. They get the job done, they are typically low maintenance, and they tend to be loyal. Larry Bossidy (co-author along with Ram Charan of Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done) extols the virtues of folks like Eddie by asserting that “B players are crucial. They may get directions from others, but they’re the ones who execute.” Generally, your B players don’t need a lot of direct coaching, but you should not forget them either. Sometimes when you coach Eddie, he can perform on par with Cindy. Conversely, if you neglect Eddie, he may eventually slip down to Sammy territory.
Now lets turn our attention to Cindy Star. From all external indicators Cindy does not need your coaching. She does everything very well, she has initiative, and she never tries to borrow your time. Cindy gets it done because she has the rare combination of skill, drive, and motivation. Because of these qualities, many managers will just assume that Cindy should be left alone and reallocate their attention to Sammy and maybe some to Eddie. Unfortunately, they are wrong. Cindy needs coaching, in fact she may warrant the lion-share of your coaching attention. First, it is a mistaken assumption that Cindy has reached the limits of her potential across all facets of her job. Imagine the yield if you can help her get to an even higher performance level. Second, Cindy may not ask for your attention but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want it. Top performers are typically not wired to ask for recognition, but they often expect that their managers will offer ample praise/support. Third, folks like Cindy are the ones that are most outwardly mobile. If you don’t give her support and attention, she may go elsewhere. Fourth, you will often find that the relationship between Cindy and Eddie will be strained. Stars like Cindy are inclined to be frustrated by what they perceive to be the lack of total commitment by Eddie. You can expect a dust-up or two when Cindy watches Eddie stroll out the door at 5:00 as she is hunkering down for the next leg of her workday. Hence, part of your coaching effort with the Cindy’s on your team will focus on lubricating the relationship between stars and steadies (as well as the strugglings). Lastly, folks like Cindy are always looking for the next challenge and will very likely have an eye on advancement. So, part of your coaching efforts will focus on helping Cindy transition from an individual performer to a leader. And once she makes this migration, you can leverage her to coach Eddie and help him marginally improve.
To return to the initial question, when faced with time constraints who do you invest in, the star, the steady, or the struggling? The answer is all three. The majority of your coaching should be focused on Cindy because that will yield the biggest result. If you don’t have regular one-on-one’s with Cindy, you should. Don’t neglect Eddie or else you run the risk of him devolving over time. But, you probably don’t need to invest the same amount, consistency, or quality of time in Eddie as you do with Cindy. As for Sammy, your coaching should focus on establishing a concrete development plan with clear milestones, finding other resources to provide supplemental support/development (e.g., Human Resources, peer mentoring, external training, etc.), and most importantly documenting your efforts and outcomes. If you need to pull the trigger on Sammy, you will do so and still be able to look in the mirror. As a concluding comment on Sammy, you are making a tremendous mistake if you invest a disproportionate amount of time to him/her and you are headed toward trouble if you let Sammy stick around too long. “A” teams just are not built around “C” players.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management.