After the Whistle Blows

After the Whistle Blows

I sat down with a senior executive a number of years back to brainstorm opportunities for his division – and to compare notes on the gaps between strategy and true execution.


Keep in mind we were talking here about a sales division – but the transferability to other disciplines and business segments was obvious.


The dialogue – once we got underway – went something like this:


Senior VP – “Our major problem with this division is our first line leaders.”


“Oh really, tell me more about that.”


Senior VP – “They can’t coach! I review their field reports and they are terrible. I could just as soon send out someone from Triple A to ride in the car all day. A waste of time.”


“Interesting…who coaches these first line leaders?”


Senior VP – “Well our Regional VPs of course – at least they should be.”


“Should be?”


Senior VP – “Look, they have a lot on their platter – and I can’t honestly say they are out there every day “coaching the coaches”…. there is a strategic element to their roles that may compromise that.”


“Like what?”


Senior VP – [Insert long pause here.] “Well, budgeting, forecasting, meetings, brand discussions…. you know, the REAL WORLD.”


“How important are all of those if your salespeople aren’t selling?”


Senior VP – “Hey, I understand that … but the fact remains that our first line leaders HAVE to play their position…or everything else falls apart.”


“So, if the Regional VPs aren’t coaching the first line leaders…”


Senior VP – “Point taken…we probably need to take a closer look at that.”


“Just our of curiosity – who coaches your Regional VPs?”


Senior VP – [Insert longer, more awkward pause here.] “In principle…in principle, mind you – that would be me.”


Let’s stop the video here. You get the picture. Every company that points the finger at the first line employee – or the manager of the first line employee – and complains about the failure to execute has a larger problem:


  • The willingness and the capacity to first assess leadership overall. Now for purposes of our example the question that should be asked isn’t, “Why aren’t our first line leaders coaching?”  The fundamental question – “Why am I NOT COACHING – and why am I not offering an example that filters through the organization?”


  • The answer – “I have more important things to do. Coaching only takes place lower in the organization.”


  • Translation – we are lost.


I work today as an executive coach, consultant, and trainer – and though I can happily accept a fee for a company that laments their lack of first line coaching prowess it would be disingenuous to suggest to my client that any “off the shelf” solution is going to fix what is often a systemic problem.


First line leaders don’t simply choose not to coach. No, there is usually a combination of factors at play…and they can destroy a company culture.


8 of the most compelling include:

  • Culture– heavy lifting (in the form of coaching and developing people) is reserved for the proletariat – not the aristocracy. (For most companies the best coaches are the ones closest to the customer – and the skills drop the higher we go in the organization.)
  • Systems– no checks and balances that assesses beyond the surface and/or fail to take into account work processes that present obstacles to execution rather than streamline it.  I conducted a work analysis sometime back on the issue of line leader coaching.  Three factors overwhelmed – (1) basic training on what great looked like (2) second line leader follow up/role modeling and (3) time management skills overall.  (The latter is a HUGE factor for companies awash in technology but barren when it comes to productive energy investment.)
  • People – we can invest millions in programs (some companies do) but if there isn’t accountability throughout the organization to execute them it is likely money lost. (Example – I endured at least a dozen selling models in my time in the pharmaceutical industry – at a cost that was astronomical. The one that worked best – the one everyone actually understood and everyone followed up on. Amazing, isn’t it?)
  • Skills – what’s the number one reason people fail in their jobs at all levels? They don’t know what it is they are supposed to do. Ask 10 line leaders to describe their basic job responsibilities – and get ready for answers that will cover the gamut. No specificity around what’s most important – confusion takes its place.
  • Structure– again, many companies default to HR or Leadership Development for “fixes” – but if the structure doesn’t align with the programs – wasted investment.
  • Values and Philosophies – want to find the absolutely best company out there as regards people development? Look at the senior leader(s) – and watch how they make the focus on human capital their mandate for all.
  • Vision – best in class organizations invest a disproportionate amount of time on what can be and where we’re going while average companies spend time in managing today’s business. For example,
    • The latter track time in market, number of recaps sent, days-in-the- field – any indices that reflects effort.
    • The former look at the quality of the feedback and the results attained. Translation – effort be damned. It’s outputs that pay the bills.
  • Rewards and recognition – to include helping employees find purpose and meaning in their work. We do those things we receive gratification for and whether that is extrinsic or intrinsic it remains immutable.  The opposite is equally true – if there is no positive consequence to doing what’s right there is a good chance I will stop doing it.


The conversation above happened a long time ago – but I’ve relived it a few times and, truth be told, have been guilty of the same blanket assessment when execution dropped– far too easy to point fingers than to assume accountability myself. The problem is with them, not me – right?




Great coaches don’t just fall out of the sky – and they aren’t found in organizations that don’t identify, nourish, and grow them.


Leadership development – for all of its many advantages – is not the ultimate “fix” though a lot of consultants might contend that is the case.  We can offer the greatest training program in the world but if the organization doesn’t embrace and follow up on it the value is lost in the first 18 months.




A company SERIOUS about coaching does more than roll out the latest model, check the box that it’s completed, and then move on.  Instead they take 4 steps that are rarely considered:

  1. They make certain every level is introduced to the content– embraces its message – and yes, train on the concepts to ensure application throughout the organization. (Does that mean senior executives go through all the training their line leaders do? No – but the very best insist on updates on content, roll-out, and follow up – if you can’t at least speak the language you cannot expect the initiative to take root. I once sat in a crowded room and listened to a senior leader profess absolutely no awareness of one of those selling models I referenced above. NONE. The model was buried two years later but the heart attack happened that day.)
  2. Align systems to marry with the program’s execution.(Example – if it’s coaching then  tie recaps to the model, build the coaching approach into the marketing follow up, make sure content is a part of  Plan of Action meetings, challenge first line leaders to enhance the program, etc.)
  3. Follow up– frequently – to assess uptake. (And the truly great conduct After Action Reviews periodically over the first year to really drill down. AARs – for many companies, is an afterthought. Easier to simply roll out something new.)
  4. Acknowledge and reward execution– but with a premium placed on more than activity. Remember, great organizations balance execution WITH outputs/results. Our goal is not to show we have built a better mousetrap – it’s to capture more rodents than before.


Tomorrow – somewhere – a company will invest thousands (if not millions) of dollars in the latest coaching approach. Five years from now they will invest even more in the one that replaced it.


Somewhere a senior executive will lament why his or her first line leaders can’t coach.


And so on.


Look, I’m a consultant. It’s easy to check a box for you, collect a check, and move on. But I’ve learned that adding value isn’t always consistent with rolling out another program. In fact I would submit we could roll out mediocre content BUT if we align around the 8 points above even an average initiative can produce spectacular results.


The question for every company – especially when it comes to coaching effectiveness – may not be “which one?” Instead it may be “how do we surround it so completely that we make it work?”


Different conversation.


Compelling conversation.







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