One of the most crucial roles of any leader is in coaching their teams. Developing people is at the foundation of great leaders. Nobody can do it alone, and building up the skills and capabilities of one’s team is the only sure way to sustainable success in business.
Coaches must establish with their teams a basis for how coaching will work. Both the coach and the subordinates want something on a human level from this coaching relationship. The subordinate most often wants to improve, to grow, to progress through coaching, to feel the satisfaction of seeing themselves improve.
The coach, however, is a different matter. Again, this is from the human side of things. Of course the coach wants improved performance leading to improved business results. That is obvious, but on a human level? It might be the satisfaction of seeing people grow and knowing you played the key role in their growth. Or it may be to receive adulation and praise from subordinates — to be worshipped, in a sense. These are the two avenues a coach will go down. I call it the “love vs. respect dilemma.”
In short, a coach has to decide: in the relationship with your subordinates, do you seek love or respect?
I was a brand manager and I had an assistant brand manager named Olivia. Early on in her career, I noted a real struggle with the analytical and strategic side of the role. In P&G, which places a premium on analysis and strategic thinking, this is pretty much a warning sign for one’s career.
I never told her how crucial those skills were. After all, not all skills are created equal! I never told her she was in danger of not succeeding due to these issues. I let her believe all was well and she was doing great work. Why? Not because of dishonesty. I did it because I was too soft, and I wanted her to love me. Not in a romantic sense, but in a boss-subordinate relationship sense.
This went on for 10 months. She would struggle on the analysis and strategy, and I would try to coach her but these are tough skills to teach. I would cover for her instead so the work got done. And I would continue along the same line of feedback and coaching.
Finally, my boss, who was closely involved, came to me and said, “Olivia is never going to make it in P&G brand management, and we owe it to her to be direct so she can seek other career opportunities that are a stronger fit with her skill set.”
I agreed. She wasn’t going to make the cut. And we should respect her time as well as ours. Let her get on with finding success somewhere else. In reality, it is not being nice to let someone flounder in a role they have a poor fit with. The humane thing to do is to let them go elsewhere and find their fit. The inhumane thing to do is let them hang around, spinning their wheels and falsely believing they have a future.
So I rehearsed how to handle this delicate separation, and I took Olivia down to the cafeteria at 10 a.m. between breakfast and lunch. I can see now where we were sitting 28 years ago. She was bubbling about her projects and what she was working on. And then I popped the big news: “Olivia, it is not working out here at P&G. It’s not a good fit for your skill set, and hence we believe it may be in your best interests to seek employment outside the company.”
I will never forget what she said to me next.
“You son of a b*tch, where is this coming from?”
For two hours we argued. She kept saying to me, “You always have told me I was doing great,” and I would counter, “But I told you that you need to improve your analytic and strategic skills, and these are paramount at P&G.”
After the two hours she agreed to resign and went up to her office. She made up a flyer for her going-away party and distributed them to every single person on the floor, except me. She had her party. And apparently, at the party, she told numbers of people that P&G and Jim Lafferty weren’t transparent. That on a Friday she was told she had a good performance and the following Monday she got fired.
I had several people come by my office to ask me, “Jim, is this true? You are such a good guy. Did you really not give her facts on her performance?” And after a great deal of soul-searching and looking in the mirror, I came to the conclusion that I deserved all of this grief. I managed her to ensure she loved working for me. And in doing so, I made every mistake in the book.
I didn’t give her the tough truths about her performance. I glossed it over. I sugarcoated it. So she would not be upset or defensive or drive home mad at me. And as a result, she never understood the urgency of the issue and she certainly did not improve. How could she improve when I never made it a priority?
This is what happens when people manage and coach for love. You fail to deliver the strong coaching that may sting but will improve someone. You fail to push people when they need a good kick in the butt because you are worried they will be angry with you or too stressed. You won’t challenge them when they need to be challenged because you worry about the fallout. Basically you manage people for your own ego as opposed to managing them for their own growth.
And the irony is, you don’t get the love, anyways! Olivia ended up hating me. And I deserved it. She wasn’t looking to love her boss. She was looking for coaching and growth and a career. And it wasn’t delivered to her.
Coach from the basis of love, and you get nothing. Not love, and certainly not respect.
So I made this classic mistake. But I swore it would never happen again. From that moment on, I was clear with my people. I gave direct and clear feedback, never sugarcoated, and yet still respectful and objective. When I saw people needed a push, I pushed them. When they needed a good butt-kicking, I would give it. With a degree of gentleness, but a butt-kicking nonetheless. I told my teams they would get fair and honest feedback, no matter how painful. I learned that it all starts with establishing respect first as a principle.
Great coaching starts from a foundation of respect.
It is possible to get both love and respect, but it is very difficult, and these are the truly exceptional leaders that everyone wants to work for. But it starts first with respect. This is the foundation. It has to be.
People deserve the facts, the blunt truth. So they know what improvements they need to make, and they understand the implications on their career. Living in a dream world benefits nobody.
This is the biggest mistake I see young managers make, and it can be quite pronounced sometimes in the Philippines, where saving face plays into the feedback process.
Go for respect and this is the ticket to being a great coach. Learn from the mistakes of others.
If you desire love and you really need it, don’t look for it from your subordinates. I suggest you get a puppy instead.