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Getting High Performance from the Middle 80% of the Project Team

Even if you haven’t reached official management status, you’ve probably had the opportunity to take the lead and be in charge of others-managing a project or serving as team leader. Looking back, did you find yourself investing 80% of your time with just 20% of the people you were leading? Did you find yourself immersed in micromanaging the bottom 10%-your problem children-while spending the rest of your time catering to the needs (and whims) of the 10% who were your star performers?

It’s tempting to give all of your attention to people at the top and the bottom of your team: But don’t do it. Your success-and the success of your company-depends on developing and motivating the other 80%. You need a tool that helps you engage the “middle 80”-helping them develop their skills while improving team performancecoaching is that tool.

Coaching Focuses on Developing, Not Fixing

Coaching is a fluid relationship that can be initiated by either the person who sees an opportunity to help or by the person looking for help. It can be done at any time and doesn’t require a manager/subordinate relationship to be effective. In a coaching relationship, both parties decide if the relationship should continue. Coaching focuses on developing, not “fixing”, the person being coached-creating individuals with improved skills who can contribute more effectively in a team environment and on their own.

Coaching is much more than just an informal conversation with another staff member. It depends on clear expectations that are communicated well and supported with timely oversight. Regardless of whether you’re a manager coaching a new employee or team member coaching a peer, formalising some of the coaching process is useful. When goals and expectations are clearly defined, employees in the middle 80 are given the tools to perform above their previous potential.

Implementing Coaching

Before effective coaching can take place, a Coaching Development Plan must be established that you and the person you’re coaching co-create. The key term in the previous sentence is co-create. Rather than your writing a plan, both of you need to jointly identify a set of goals and activities. Co-creation ensures that both parties will be invested in the plan’s success (think about how dedicated you’ve been to anything that you’ve helped create). Co-creation also moves you away from the boss/employee relationship and towards the peer-to-peer relationship of coaching.

Your Own Coaching Needs

You may need some coaching on the skills that a coach requires. For example, one of the keys to successful coaching is the ability to foster self-motivation. This requires a coach who understands the elements of motivation and de-motivation and their impact on behaviours. If this is an area where you lack skills then you may want to seek out a coach for yourself.

By moving to a coaching role for the middle 80, you begin developing your next generation of leaders, since individuals who have experienced the benefits of coaching will look for opportunities to assist others in their growth. As successful coaching collaborations grow and thrive, your work becomes more productive and less stressful, knowing that all of your employees are being given the tools and support they need to take the organisation to the next level.

Seven Steps to Building a Coaching Development Plan:

1) Set the tone. If you’re initiating the relationship, establish that coaching isn’t a sign that the other person is lacking in some critical skill or doing something wrong. In fact, coaching means that you see untapped potential in the other person and are invested in that person’s success at work.

2) Establish the goals. You and the other person must set the goals for the relationship. As the coach in the relationship, you have two responsibilities in goal setting. One is to identify the goals you would like to see the other person achieve. The other responsibility is to solicit from the other person what goals they want to work toward. Without your active solicitation, you may end up being the only person setting the goals, which moves you back to the boss/employee relationship.

3) Set responsibilities. The two of you must then decide how you can help each other develop. As a coach, you have an additional responsibility beyond what you agree to in this part of the plan. You must also model the desired behaviours you want to see-you must “walk your talk.” If you don’t model the behaviour you want to help develop, then your credibility and your e”ectiveness as a coach are diminished.

4) Define the process. At a minimum, the two of you must decide when, where and how often you’ll meet to check in with each other. One caveat: coaching isn’t about friendship. You can be friendly, but coaching is about improving performance at work. As part of deciding how you’ll work together, you must also decide how you’ll address conflict (and there will be conflict).

5) Acknowledge what you will get. You’ll probably learn a great deal from the coaching relationship. Make sure that you acknowledge the benefits that you expect to get. For instance, being able to conduct “difficult” conversations (conversations that include criticism) is an invaluable skill. If you intend to develop that skill as part of this coaching relationship, point out that you will be using this opportunity to practice in a safe environment.

6) Establish benchmarks. The plan must include clear “measures of progress” and a schedule of when those measures will be met. Benchmarks provide both of you with markers to determine how well things are going. However, be aware that not reaching the benchmarks isn’t a sign of failure-it just means that a timetable adjustment or course correction may be needed.

7) Review the relationship. When looking at a course correction or the achievement of a major benchmark, take the time to assess if the coaching relationship should continue. If you decide to discontinue the formal coaching relationship, be sure to debrief both the work you did together and how the coaching experience played out for each of you.

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Jean Corson of CorsonWolff Consulting is an organizational behaviour consultant specialising in executive coaching, developing emerging leaders and building high-powered teams by focusing on workplace behaviour, communication and performance. She teaches Learning Tree’s Course 224, “Coaching Employees to Their Potential,” Course 904, “Responding to Conflict,” Course 294, “Influence Skills,” and Course 292, “Communication Skills.” [email protected]. Learning Tree International is a leading global provider of truly effective training to management, business and information technology professionals. Since 1974, over 13,000 public and private organizations have trusted Learning Tree to enhance the professional skills of more than 1.9 million employees. For more information, call 1-800-843-8733 or visit

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