Regardless of Your Title, Are You Also a Chief Training Officer?

Quick: think of a high stakes situation in which your direct reports or reports of your direct reports need to perform with excellence.  A high stakes situation is one in which: there are competing interests, the best way forward is not easy; and the outcome—if botched—can have significant adverse consequences.

For my colleagues and me, one of the high stakes situations we need to be great at is when we need to explain to a client that what they expect from a leadership development experience and the time they have allocated to it are not aligned.  We have one opportunity to get it right.  The words and tone we choose in the moment matter.  If we don’t perform, we may end up losing a customer or the opportunity to compete for future projects.

Three Questions

Have your high-stakes situation in mind?  Ok, now ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do you know what great looks from your performers in that situation?
  2. Can you model to your performers what great looks like?

If yes, to the first two questions, you are on track.  Now for the kicker question:

  1. When you assess that performers are not delivering at the level required in the particular situation, do you model to them what great looks like?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all three questions you are in a rare echelon of leader-as-coach.  Many leaders answer ‘no’ to one or more of the above questions.  Later in this post we’ll feature the stories of two clients who are masterful CTOs.

Yes, Candid and Constructive Feedback is Crucial…But More is Needed

Telling a direct report what great looks like is not the same as showing them what great looks like.

Surprisingly, many otherwise competent and confident leaders use a sort of hide-the-ball approach to defining what great looks like in a particular situation.  They’ll provide plenty of candid feedback to their direct report on what they’re doing well and not doing well, but will stop short of demonstrating clearly what great looks like.  When I asked a Marketing VP to consider demonstrating what great looked like in one situation the leadership team was having difficulty grasping, the VP said, “Well no one modelled what great looked like for me in my development.  I figured it out.  They should, too.  It’s not my job to show them how to do their job.”  Really?

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, implemented the 4 laws of learning with his players.  Demonstrate; imitate; adjust (if necessary); repeat.  The first step: demonstrate what great looks like before having the players imitate.

There is a humorous scene in the rom-com movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. .  As a surfing instructor, Paul Rudd’s character is trying (poorly) to teach Jason Siegel’s character how to ‘pop up’ on a surf board. There’s lots of telling and no demonstrating.

forgetting sarah marshall pic

In the not-so-humorous versions of the movie, my colleagues and I have interviewed scores of individual contributors and leaders who express deep frustration with the ‘hide-the-ball’ approach to coaching.  They tell us that coaching from their managers sounds similar to: “Be more assertive with the customer, but don’t damage the relationship!” “You’ve got to use more science in your approach, but don’t drown them with stats—they’re human after all.”   “Hold your direct reports accountable, but don’t be too edgy.”  This type of coaching can be effective when it is coupled with a demonstration of what we’re looking for.

Two Examples of CTOs Getting it Right

Example #1. Of all the leaders I have had the privilege to observe in action, Patrick Reid (Senior Regional Business Director at Novo Nordisk) is one of the best Chief Training Officers. Here is a brief example. 

Prior to a meeting with his first-level sales managers, Patrick identified a couple of high stakes situations in which sales representatives needed to be better based on his direct observation of sales representatives in the field.  One of these situations was what sales reps needed to say when a physician had a mistakenly negative perception of how the company’s product performs.  

On the one hand, a rep can’t be too subtle (that doesn’t get the point across) and other hand, the rep can’t be too blunt (that risks offending the physician and damaging the relationship).  Diplomatically correcting a customer’s understanding—particularly a physician’s—is an art and high stakes.  Oh yeah, and delivering the message all within a 60 second interaction!

Patrick asked his managers, “What is the winning response you would say to the physician in that situation if you were the rep?”  The managers’ responses ranged from ‘ineffective’ to ‘just OK.’ 

Patrick didn’t mince words; he let them know that those responses all fell short of a winning, positive difference-making response—the type of response he believed the region’s sales reps should be delivering on a consistent basis.  He asked one of the managers to play the part of the physician in a real-play dialogue.  Patrick had clearly prepared.  The responses rolled naturally off his tongue.  To demonstrate that there isn’t necessarily one best response, he modeled multiple versions of the winning response—each one conveying the same essence.  It was a terrific example of a second level leader demonstrating what great looks like in a high stakes situation.

Example #2. Innvictis Crop Care, LLC. is a company that helps farmers make smart choices today about their crop production years from now.  Mike Steffeck, the company’s president, needs a management team adept at the discipline of long-term planning and working backwards from unforgiving due dates.

Farmers have a brief window to plant seeds. There are scores of variables and interdependent events which need coordination culminating in the healthiest seeds going into the healthiest soil.  These events begin years in advance of a week in April.  Accurately planning for these events is high stakes; not planning—and not executing—effectively has an extraordinary cost consequence. 

Through direct observation and lots of questions, Mike assessed that the management team was not where they needed to be with this ‘Gantt Chart thinking skill. During a leadership team strategic planning meeting, Mike gave a date and event to begin the exercise: April 11, 2017, Seeds planted.  With a flip chart and marker—and channeling his inner John Wooden—he proceeded to walk chronologically backwards through all the deliverables and dependent events (e.g. before we import certain products to the U.S., we need to need to register that product with the EPA, that process alone can take months, in order to submit application for registration we need to conduct studies and those studies can take months to complete, and so on.)

As I observed the 12 minute exercise, I could see the figurative lightbulbs illuminating above people’s heads.  Mike sprinkled questions to the group: “What needs to happen before event x?  Why is that important?”  This was not about Mike showing off his business acumen or memorization; it was solely about demonstrating the gold standard of where members of the leadership team were expected to operate.

At the close, one of the participants expressed what many were thinking: “You know, Mike, you’ve been using the expression ‘long-term planning’ for the past four months and now I know what you mean.”

Does Your Manager Model What Great Looks Like in High Stakes Situations?

Are you someone who reports to a leader who holds you accountable to demonstrating greatness in high stakes situations but who stops short of demonstrating what great looks and sounds like?  Is there an expectation that you figure it out on your own—like stumbling into water with a dowsing rod?  The next time you hear them giving you candid feedback about how you’re not quite meeting the standard, consider asking them—tactfully and with the humility of Ghandi– “Would you show me what great looks like in the situation? I could benefit from your expertise.” 

Please let me know what happens next.

1 comment

1 Scott Pankoff { 07.29.16 at 6:29 am }

Well written article… that applies to training, coaching (as you pointed out), managing and parenting. Perhaps one of the differences between just managing and being a great leader is this. Thoughts?
Thank you.

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