Selling Power Magazine Article

Coaching Ops
Heather Baldwin
Anyone who has read Hugh Lofting’s popular Doctor Doolittle books, a children’s series about a naturalist who can talk to animals, may remember a funny creature called the pushmi-pullyu. Pronounced “push-me, pull-you,” it’s a gazelle-unicorn cross with heads on opposite ends of its body. This means that every time it wants to move, its heads try to go in opposite directions. Working against itself this way, the animal makes little progress.

The conflicting demands between sales manager and coach may leave sales managers feeling much like that pushmi-pullyu, with those two roles, the executive and the coach, causing them to move in opposite directions, resulting in little progress being made either way.

It is this “pushmi-pullyu phenomenon” that makes it so difficult for many managers to coach well – or even coach at all. They know they should be coaching, as it is repeatedly shown to be the single most impactful action they can take to move their team toward performance excellence; however, finding the time to do it, learning to do it right, and achieving a mind-set centered on long-term performance rather than short-term numbers is extremely challenging.

“Sales managers have a tremendous amount of demands on them,” acknowledges Anthony Iannarino, managing director of B2B Sales Coach & Consultancy (, a boutique sales coaching and consulting organization that helps salespeople reach their full potential. “They are asked to serve the organization before they serve the sales team. But coaching flips that on its head and says that the primary goal is developing people and stealing back the time to do that.”

One way to get there is to make coaching part of your everyday conversations with reps. Sure, there is a formal component to coaching that requires creation of a coaching document, a preparatory checklist for the coaching conversation, and scheduled meetings to review progress on commitments, etc. Sometimes, however, progress can be made by seizing everyday opportunities to develop team members.

This requires a complete shift in mind-set from a directive, efficient “management” approach to a developmental “coaching” approach, in which sales managers view every interaction as an opportunity to help their people grow into the best performers they can be. “It is so much easier and faster for me to say, ‘Here’s the solution. Do this.’ It is much harder to help the salesperson think through the challenge and wrestle with it and come up with his or her own solutions,” says Iannarino.

The directive approach is most common – and most tempting – because an interaction can be completed quickly: a salesperson comes in with an issue, the manager tells him or her how to overcome it, and within a few minutes, the rep knows how to solve the problem and the manager can get back to the piles of paper clamoring for attention. A coaching interaction requires a longer time investment and skill in asking effective questions, but it creates higher performing, more confident reps in the long run, ultimately making the manager’s job easier.

Here’s the difference: Say a rep is frustrated because a contract is stuck in the prospect’s legal department. He or she then approaches the sales manager for advice. A directive management response would be to simply say, “Ask your contact for his legal department’s number and call to find out the status.”

A coaching response, on the other hand might start like this:
Manager: What options do you think are available to get that contract out of legal?
Rep: I’m not sure.
Manager: What have other people done? Who else might be able to help you do this?
Rep: Maybe I should call my contact.
Manager: OK, what do you think that conversation should sound like?

As reps work through various ideas, managers must resist the urge to tell them what to do, unless the reps struggle to come up with good answers, says Iannarino. The managers might respond in this way: “Those all sound like good options. Can I share some other ideas that I have seen work well?” When the rep says yes, you have both permission to give and receptivity to your recommendations.

“We tend not to take best advantage of moments when a rep comes to us with a problem,” says Iannarino. “It is hard, especially if you have trained your people to be dependent. But those are great opportunities to coach instead of just pass off information.”

Iannarino remembers working with one sales manager who inherited a team that consistently ranked in the bottom quartile of about 100 sales teams at this manager’s (continued on page 2)
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