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ClearWater Blog

Coaching B-Players

by Dr Tuvia Melamed on May.31, 2010, under Short Blogs

Coaching B-Players

Dr Tuvia Melamed
ClearWater A&D
to download a pdf copy click here

From B to A

 What pragmatic steps can you take to create a powerful Leadership and Personal Development Plan (L-PDP), one that is sufficient in scope to convert a B-player to an A-player and be embraced so totally by the B-player that it works!???

A huge credit for this blog goes to Brad Smart, whose highly influential concepts of Top-grading, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ players, informed thinking behind this paper.

An ‘A-Player’ is a top performer – Someone who is in the top 10% of talent available for the pay. A-player contribute more to business growth and enhanced market share, innovate more, work smarter, earn more trust, show more resourcefulness, take more initiative, develop better strategies, articulate their vision more sharply and passionately, implement change more effectively, demonstrate greater teamwork, and find ways to get the job done faster and at with less cost. If a large proportion of your team is made of A-Players, you are on a route to success. But most teams operate at sub-optimal levels. We hire B-Players and compromise and accept C-Players. . We inherit teams of mixed ability, and we have to work with what we got.

Yet, not all is lost. This blog is about simple and pragmatic tools that turbo-boosts the motivation of someone to improve. In particular, the focus is on B-Players. By definition, B-Player are OK performers, they have strengths, but also clear development areas. The good thing about B-Players is that they can improve and be developed to become better performers and even turn into A-Players. All B-Players have deficiencies in certain areas, but almost all have capabilities in ‘neighbouring’ areas (e.g., intellect, enthusiasm), that can be harnessed, utilised, and realised to address the behavioural challenges the B-Player faces. Otherwise your coaching challenge is probably hopeless.

To appreciate whether you can turn a B-Player into an A-Player, consult the table below for a list of competencies grouped by the ease of changing and developing them.

  Relatively Easy to Change Harder to Change, But Doable Very Difficult to Change
HEAD Leading Edge; Education; Written Communication; Judgement; Strategic Skills Intellect; Analytical Skills; Creativity; Conceptual Ability
HEART Oral Communication; First Impression; Customer Focus; Political Savvy; Coaching and Training; Addressing Underperformance Likeability; Listening; Team Playing; Negotiation Skills; Persuasiveness Integrity; Assertiveness; Inspiring Others; Charisma;
HAND Goal Setting; Risk Taking; Experience; Planning and Organising Skills; Self-Awareness Track Record; Pragmatism; Resourcefulness; Excellence Standards; Independence; Stress Management; Adaptability Energy; Passion; Ambition; Tenacity

 If your B-Player needs to improve specific and concrete competencies, such as product knowledge, technical skills, or even ‘hard’ skills – the likes of such as planning and organising, project management, writing skills, running effective meetings, the coaching approach is pretty obvious. You sit down with B-Player and arrange tutoring, decide on job experiences, and plan on what courses the B-Player should take.

But this article deals with how to coach managers to be much better leaders, and that involves improving some “softer” competencies such as influential communication, inspiring others, change leadership, likability, public speaking, conflict management, and flexibility and adaptability.

Coaching Scenario

Consider the following coaching semi-fictitious scenario. Suppose you have just inherited a new team. Within a couple of weeks it becomes obvious that you have a mixed bag of talent, an A-Player, few B-Players, and also a couple of C-Players. One of the B-Players who caught your eye is John Blake, a bright, energetic, ambitious manager with some clear rough edges. He is seen as a ‘rough diamond’ – a young, smart, enthusiastic, ambitious, committed hard worker, but somewhat immature in his leadership approach; also, regardless of his talent he has fallen a bit short on his business.

Intrigued, you have studied his approach on yesterday’s management meeting. You have written down to yourself the following comments: although pushy, keen and ambitious, and driving himself to deliver results, he tolerates underperformance from his team members, giving people a third and fourth chances to improve, and when they don’t, all he does is complain about them — His enthusiasm and desire to get it right, translate to constant re-calibration and changing of direction. He seems to confuse his people with far too many changes to work processes and approaches to market, dropping initiatives and picking new ones on a regular basis (you have counted four new initiatives he described in the management meeting and after the meeting you have learnt from his colleagues about recent initiatives that were abandoned after first signs of difficulty – His treatment of his team members causes tension and bad morale. When they don’t “get it,” or show some scepticism about his ideas, he loses her cool, leaving his team members licking their wounds. Furthermore, so eager to please you, he takes credit for peers’ accomplishments, and clearly there is tension with those whose support he needs for his success.

John is willing to be coached, and you are hoping that if he embraces a thorough Leadership and Personal Development Plan (L-PDP), he will become an A-Player by exceeding his targets and business objectives and by showing more mature and effective leadership style. However, the notion of coaching B-Players is that this is not an endless process. You would need to see improvements to justify the efforts you invest. Like the infamous example of Jack Welch at GE, if he fails to achieve his agreed-upon business accountabilities, or if he continues to exhibit mediocre interpersonal and leadership behaviours, his performance will not be tolerated and he will have to quit, realising he will not keep his job – So once embarked on the L-PDP, it is Up-Or-Out.

Coaching Steps

There are five distinct steps for coaching B-Players.
Step #1 – A diagnostic Interview: Kick-start the coaching process with a 3-hour diagnostic interview. It is just like a job interview, only longer, far more methodical and systematic, and involves much deeper probing for evidence. Start with his current role, and move gradually to earlier roles and employers throughout John’s career history. For each of these, study his approach to the various role responsibilities. Analyse in details examples of success as well as examples of mediocre or poor performance. Delve into three areas:

  • ‘Head’ – His thinking style, decision making approach, quality of judgement. Search for factors that shape his evaluation and drive him into conclusions. 
  • ‘Heart’ – His interpersonal style, communication, leading people, and managing key relationships. Search for clues how he treat and view people of different personality make-up 
  • ‘Hand’ – His execution, implementation, and delivery style. How he makes things happen. Search for indications of his working style, planning skills, sense of urgency, effectiveness and efficiency, balancing quality with speed 

A worthwhile tip is to complement the diagnostic interview with professional on-line psychometric profiling. There are numerous consultancies that specialise in using psychometric instruments to profile individuals. The on-line profiling tends to take one to two hours, and by the end of it, the consultancy will provide you with a diagnostic report that offers an understanding of the individual, benchmarked assessment of work and leadership competencies, and a very clear indication of the areas you need to probe and be aware of.

By the end of the highly charged 3-hour diagnostic interview, you’ll learn about John’s every success and accomplishment, his failures and mistakes, and as important, you’ll get a clear indication of John’s self-awareness, capacity to recognise areas for improvement, and his ability to take these on board and actually improve.
You find out that John unfortunately has had bosses who left him alone and hardly coached him. Yet, he recognises his shortcomings and does see the need to improve his leadership, and he seems to respect you. So, you are with a good chance of transforming John to an A-Player.

Step #2 – Job Scorecard: Job scorecard is more than a summary of targets. It encompasses a complete job description with a summary of measurable accountabilities. Arrange a Job Scorecard meeting with John, and reach an agreement with John to achieve not only the business accountabilities objectives but also to demonstrate Very Good leadership competencies. More specifically, agree with John that he must achieve his business accountabilities, but also to achieving and maintaining an average score of 3.5 on a 6-point scale on the leadership accountabilities, as measured by an email survey of his team.

Step #3 – 360º Appraisal: Conduct an email survey of John’s team, colleagues, and if appropriate also clients. This will establish baselines for the areas for improvement. John should send an email to subordinates and peers saying,

“I’m working with (new boss – you!) to create a Leadership and Personal Development Plan that I hope will strengthen my leadership skills. We’re creating an anonymous survey I’d like you to complete, and (new boss) will also be scheduling one-on-one talks with each of you; these too are anonymous and confidential. (New boss) will not disclose who said what to him, so please be candid with (new boss). He will ask you four basic questions – 1. What are my strengths, 2. What are my weaker points, 3. What are my career potentials, and 4. What is your best advice for how I can maximize my performance and growth? Thank you!”

Design the email survey. Include about twenty behavioural statements that emerge from your diagnostic interview. Create a balance between areas where you assess john to be strong with areas where he shows some weakness. Ask the respondents to rate john on each of the items, and supplement their ratings with a specific behavioural example that demonstrate the most extreme positive rating and the most extreme negative rating.

I tend to use the item stem – “How would you rate John on… and require participant to give their ratings on a 6-point scale (with no middle point) that ranges from 0 to 5, where 0 equals to ‘Extremely poor’; 1 equals to ‘Weak’; 2 equals to ‘Below Average’ (or ‘Below the Line’); 3 equals to ‘Above Average’ (or ‘Above the Line’); 4 equals ‘Good’; and 5 equals ‘Exceptional’.

The following is a list of typical examples of items: Effective listening, Influential Communication; Patience; Professionalism; Emotional Control; Delegation; Empowerment; public Speaking; Clear Direction; Strategic Capacity; Patience; Team Playing; etc..

Supplement the email survey with confidential 30-minute discussion with each of John’s direct report and few of his peers. Repeat the purpose of the discussion and asked the four questions (as mentioned in John’s original email). Follow up questions so that you can get a real understanding of how John’s leadership strengths and weaker points are manifested in his behaviour.

Step #4 – Review of Findings: Meet with John to review the findings from the 360º appraisal (email and interview). Make this a dialog in which John is fully involved in analysing the results for every item, with the purpose of creating a draft Leadership and Personal Development Plan, a plan that will fortify his strengths and overcome his weaker points. Remind John that the minimum acceptable average rating for all items is 3.5 on the 6-point scale (zero to five).

John should read a sample L-PDP so he understands that the final form should say – What he intends to do, Why, When, and How the results will be measured. (Attached is Pat’s final Individual Development Plan, which you could show your B player as a sample.) Over the next couple of weeks john should finalise his L-PDP, but you must agree with it.

Step #5 – Coaching: The final step is the actual coaching. You need to coach John regularly. As his L-PDP states, you as the new boss will provide instant or daily feedback and coaching when the need is apparent, but also you have scheduled coaching sessions to thoroughly review everything John has done – his successes, any failures, and what if anything should be changed in his L-PDP. The scheduled coaching session should be at the maximum a monthly occurrence and at a minimum a quarterly event.

If John is failing to achieve either his business objectives or improvements in his leadership, you both will recognise it. To use Brad Smart’s analogy, “If someone has to pole vault 17 feet to make the Olympic team and is still at 15 feet AFTER getting a new pole, working with a sports psychologist, taking nutrition lessons, etc., well it’s pretty obvious that the measurable accountabilities aren’t going to be met.“

A fantastic tool that turbo-boast developmental efforts is the ‘Big Brother Camera’ (BBC) – The BBC is a metaphorical camera that tapes John all day, every day on the job and when his accountabilities for improvement are measured, his worst behaviour will be observed and if it’s really bad, it will cost John his job. That “camera” is the promise and knowledge of more 360º appraisals, as often as every 6 months. Here is an example how you can phrase it:

“John, think of yourself as if you are in the Big Brother house. You are constantly filmed and every move of yours is recorded. There is no hiding. Every day think that a camera is on you.  Now, let’s take one of your weaker points – emotional control. It scares the hell out of your people when you lose your temper and yell at them, and as you now know from reading the 360º appraisal report, your people retreat to their office, spend their time managing your emotional tantrums rather than doing their job, avoid you whenever they can, and are much less productive for days and days. And when you yell at them, they are more inclined to blame others, which impede teamwork. In your L-PDP you have agreed that you will achieve a score of 4  on Emotional Control, and here’s how to motivate yourself to stay on your good behaviour, think that the camera is on you, John, every moment of every day . Blow up even once in the next 6 months and everyone in the department will hear about it, and you’ll be rated low in Emotional Control. You can be on your best behaviour 99% of the time and one loud screaming episode will be remembered and your 360º appraisal results will suffer. And this is not all – there is a halo effect. Not only will your Emotional Control be rated low, but you can bet that just because of one time you ripped someone’s head off verbally, many other survey items such as Team Player, Inspiring Others, and Clear Direction will be rated lower.”

Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, and one of the greatest advocates of this approach, took the extra step (how typical!) of saying, “You must make your numbers and exhibit the positive GE leadership values, or you get just one more chance and then you’re fired if you don’t achieve both.” Thank you, Jack!

By putting the threat of losing one’s job if someone fails either to achieve business results or demonstrate very good leadership competencies, managers become strongly motivated to follow through on their L-PDPs and a lot of B players move up to A player status.

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