Recently, I was talking with Carole Mahoney about the art and science of coaching. Carole, by the way, is one of the best sales coaches I know precisely because she uses solid research and data to inform her approach to coaching salespeople. Anyway, we were talking about coaching because I mentioned a recent post from Richard Smith on the topic. It seems that CEB presented research six years ago that said that while coaching is important for salespeople, according to Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon in this 2011 HBR article they said that sales leaders should only bother investing their coaching time with the middle third – “The middle 60%’ (core performers), and is ultimately wasted on the top and bottom thirds.” Six years later, that research is still hotly debated. And, in my opinion, for good reason.
To prepare his post, Richard interviewed sales leaders, coaches, and consultants to get their point of view. I happened to be one of the folks that Richard reached out to. Regardless of CEB’s research, I told Richard I thought that to blatantly ignore two-thirds of your sales team when it came to coaching was not necessarily a good idea.
Why wouldn’t you coach high performers?
In my experience as a manager, your high fliers need and want to be challenged to get better at what they do. Through the right kind of coaching their performance could increase to higher levels. The CEB folks say the research doesn’t support that suggestion. I’ve read other research that has shown that coaching A-players does lead to revenue gains. CEB did acknowledge that coaching top performers would have retention benefits. I happen to agree. If you don’t pay attention to your top performers there is a high likelihood that they will either walk away or be poached away by your competitors.
Should you ignore the bottom third performers?
When it comes to the lower performing sales folks, to automatically assume that coaching won’t help them either seems unfair to me. There could be so many reasons why a person isn’t doing well in their current role. My feeling, again based on my own experience managing and coaching sales teams, is that each person needs to be assessed before determining if coaching makes sense. Some reps may not be faring well because you didn’t onboard them properly, they never got any real sales training before being thrown on the phones, they are confused about what you expect from them (aside from making quota), etc. Making assumptions without digging deeper to get the facts is dangerous. While I do believe there are going to people in that lower performing group who aren’t a fit for the role, I don’t think you can assume that a poor performer can’t improve if given the chance. If someone has the desire to be better and is coachable, they can improve.
Data is just data.
Data is getting thrown around a lot these days. Often without context, and that’s a problem because data is just data. Coaching is one of the most important aspects of a sales managers job these days, and while most managers agree that is true, they also admit that it tends to fall lower on the priority list. So, if research comes out from a group like CEB and shows up in an article in the Harvard Business Review, then it would be easy for managers to justify that they can save themselves some headaches by only focusing on a select few members of their team. That, to me, is not a good thing. When it comes to salespeople and performance, making blanket assumptions simply based on data is dangerous. Research is important, of course. I just worry that if sales leaders make important people decisions simply based on data without deeper context that leaves them vulnerable to problems. Sales is a people business, and when we are talking about people, there are other factors to consider like human behavior and psychology.
What do you think?
Only spend time coaching the middle third? Or, do you elevate all members of your team to determine who wants, needs and has the desire to be coached to higher levels of performance?