Coaching and Mentoring : Beyond Trendy: Using a Business Coach to Create a Competitive Edge

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. - Dan is the principal of Syntient and carries a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from the University of Kansas. His consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. He is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations.


Dan's consulting client base is diverse, including industrial, retail, financial and service companies. He uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability. E-mail: delash@syntient.com and visit www.syntient.com


Many small and mid-sized business leaders wouldn’t think of using a business coach. It’s often a question of how to prioritize scarce resources. The practical, hardheaded ones think that it’s too expensive for companies of their size. The cynical ones believe that it’s just another silly management fad. Others feel that no one knows their businesses as well as they do, so they can’t imagine getting the answers they need from an outsider. Of course, over-priced expenditures for touchy-feely exercises should make business leaders cringe. However, a lack of appreciation for how high-impact coaching works also narrows a leader’s options. To dismiss the idea of using a coach, out of hand, can be dangerously provincial. It often costs money not to use a coach, a lot more money, in the long run, than the expense of hiring a coach.

Doing business successfully is really about out-performing the competition. Achieving the best results requires you to solve a complex set of problems. Leading a complex business organization into competition means that you have to think comprehensively. Approaching complicated performance issues with a simplistic, one-dimensional effort seldom works well. Successful competitors anticipate developments. They maintain a taut, company-wide focus on the goals. They out-think, not just out-work, the competition. They consistently deliver peak performances. Is that how you’re competing, day-to-day ? Most companies aren’t using all of the potential that’s available and so, are vulnerable to competition that’s using more of its own. In our current business reality of rapidly changing circumstances, they often operate from old data or obsolete assumptions. As a result, they :-

Miss opportunities

Under-achieve

Fail to collaborate

Perform inconsistently

Lose hard-won customers

Chase talent out of the company

Create burn-out

Leave money on the table

Coaching elevates performance through a complex partnership: Consider any complex endeavor, such as a business, a symphony, a surgery, or a basketball game. Outstanding competitors possess a deep understanding of the context of their performance. The gifted physician understands the physics, the chemistry and the mechanisms of the body, individually and the interaction effects. Highly effective business leaders grasp the dynamics of their business systems. They understand customer expectations and market conditions. They understand the technologies of their products or services. They are keen leaders of complicated human collaborations. They are focused on their purpose and their mission. They understand the fundamentals of executing their plans and gauging their effectiveness as those plans unfold.

Balancing all of these requirements, while dealing with unexpected developments or emerging opportunities, is difficult at best. Human nature is such that we easily slip into routines. We develop ways of looking at things that become ingrained over time. We learn to live with conditions that we don’t know how to change. When these tendencies operate in a business setting, they create situations where opportunities aren’t developed; where fighting fires becomes the default operational mode, where we accept mediocrity; and where the tal ents of the workforce are underemployed. These effects diminish our competitiveness. Given today’s difficult business conditions, companies, especially smaller businesses, simply can’t afford to let potential lay idle.

We can gain insight in considering how coaching creates a real business value by using a model to demonstrate the process. The Boyd Cycle provides a valuable model for considering how thinking together to improve competitive process generates competitive advantage.

Colonel John Boyd was an American fighter pilot and military strategist. He studied aerial combat. looking to unlock the keys to improved performance. What he identified was a simple yet profound process that sustained peak performance. While his thinking was much more complex than this discussion allows, he identified four key components for success in combat, the ultimate competition. He discovered that a pilot observed what was happening, accurately interpreted the data, decided what to do, and then executed his decision. He called this the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act). The victorious pilot was the one who cycled through this loop with the greatest speed and effectiveness. Each cycle through the loop added a little more advantage until the competitive edge became insurmountable.

 

Loosing a round to a business competitor is seldom fatal. However, the company, which works Boyd’s cycle most effectively, gains advantage and eventually pulls away from its competition. Understanding the workings of the OODA loop illustrates why simply focusing on one step to the exclusion of the others seldom creates the desired impact.

 

Think of the business coach as analogous to a flight instructor whose job it is to help pilots become more adept at each of the four steps and to appreciate the synergy that comes from working the entire process well. No one can fly the plane for you, but they can stretch your thinking. The chart below depicts how the OODA loop can be used to frame coaching conversations in a business environment.

 

Fig. 1 Business Coaching and the OODA Loop


OODA Loop Stages

Coaching Partnership

Objectives

Elements Inherent in Each Stage

Questions to Frame the Coaching Conversations

Some Common Problems

 

Observe

Increasing Awareness  

Scanning, making connections across the data, & anticipating implications

What does the data say ? What can be seen ? Are there blind spots ? Are there trends, patterns or connections ?

Inaccurate information, limited perspective, & too much irrelevant information

Orient

Benchmarking observations against your purpose,

Sifting through background noise

What is your purpose ? Recognizing opinions, biases, interpretations, & assumptions for what they are

What’s the point ? How does this information affect your purpose ? Should you be changing your assumptions ?

Self-centeredness, faulty assumptions, faulty interpretations, ambiguous goals, & scattered focus

Decide

Improved thinking skills, enhanced savvy

Analyzing, considering, learning, problem-solving, decision-making, & imagining

How do you think together for best effect ? Can the company shift perspectives ? Can you imagine alternatives ? What do you want to do ? What learning do you take away ? How do you create an advantageous future ?

Under-developed analytical skills, weak or shoddy thinking, too little imagination, & fragmented decision-making authority

Act

Extraordinary execution

Aligning action and purpose, focusing your efforts, & skillful execution

What specific action will you take ? How do you ensure effective action ? How do you tap your potential ?

Complacency, limited ownership for results, chasing individual results at the expense of the whole, & inflexibility

 

The Return On High-Impact Coaching

 

What’s your productivity worth ?

 

  • If high-impact coaching made you only 1% more effective, what would that be worth in terms of revenue, retention of customers or employees, or net income ?
  • What if your company became 1% more effective ?
  • Is there room to improve ?

Specific returns will vary with the circumstances of both the coached leader and the circumstances of the company in which the coaching occurs. Identifying specific, desired outcomes is an important part of coaching’s initial phase.

 

The ultimate goal is to create more value through the more coordinated efforts of the company as a whole. Additionally, some intermediate signs should be identified for both the coach and the leader to use to recognize the presence or absence of progress.

 

Regardless of the specifics of the situation, the outcomes of high-impact coaching should leave business people better at :-

  • Enrolling other’s to your purpose  
  • Anticipating developments
  • Increasing their companies’ IQ’s
  • Achieving by working with and through others
  • Strengthening peoples’ focus on extraordinary execution
  • Realizing presently untapped potential, on both personal and organizational levels

A Story : How Coaching Changes Thinking and Creates Value : The follow section is a story that illustrates how coaching helps a leader navigating through a complex business ecosystem. It is but one example of how changing a mind set leads to the creation of value in unexpected ways. It demonstrates how high-impact coaching works.

 

“A CEO I was coaching received an emergency phone call during one of our sessions. A customer was distraught. His order had just been delivered and it was damaged. He’d ordered half a truckload of frozen tarts for his small grocery store chain. He’d run a seasonal special featuring these tarts. It started tomorrow morning.

 

The tarts had arrived on a refrigerated truck with a broken cooling unit. Due to that, combined with the unseasonably warm weather, the load had defrosted. I heard the customer say, “Bill, you promised me that, once I place an order with you, it’s as good as in my showcase the day I need it. This is a disaster. How can I count on you again ?”

 

The CEO was embarrassed and angry. This was a good long-term customer. The customer was right. He had promised that once an order was placed it would be delivered – on time and 100% accurate.


Bill’s First Instincts

  • Assign blame.
  • Give the entire crew a piece of his mind.
  • Let ‘em know how much they cost the company.
  • Make them feel so bad they’d never make that mistake again.

Bill, the CEO, made it right. He overnighted three quarters of a truckload all the customer’s freezers could hold– the extra quarter for free – directly to the stores. He juggled other orders to do it. He called for an extra run of tarts at the factory, and went out to investigate what happened.

 

Bill took his promises seriously - more so than his people did. He was angry as he toted up for me the cost of this disaster. He was angry that his company’s name and his reputation had been treated so badly. We talked the issues through and decided that the financial cost was a symptom. The deeper problem was that he was making promises that his people didn’t support. Bill decided to share the results of his investigation with the staff of the distribution center in question. Later, he’d take his message to the other four distribution centers of the company. He called a Saturday morning meeting with the entire center staff. He paid them for their time. He told them that he wanted to talk to them about the incident as a critical business problem that had to be solved, and he needed their help to do it. Here’s what Bill said.

 

‘I asked you all to come here on your day off because I believe that we have a problem that could seriously hurt or business over time, if we don’t take decisive action. I want to share the story of what happened and then I want to ask for your ideas about how we, as a company, should act.’

 

Bill didn’t display his anger in his presentation. He realized that venting his anger would simply make the guilty people feel defensive and pass the blame, while those not involved would just feel battered. Probably no one would walk away feeling like assuming more responsibility. He focused on the unhappy customer and only indirectly alluded to the money it cost to fix the problem. He had a bigger point to make.

 

‘I’m worried. I can see the seeds here of real problems that can threaten our business, our jobs, our livelihoods. The implications of the threat are serious enough that I wanted to get your help as soon as possible.’

 

‘Sam Powers, of Powers Groceries, called and was distraught. He’d counted on our, “You can count on us - 100%” promise and we’d let him down.” Bill told the story of the unfrozen tarts, the problems that it caused for Sam with his customers. He described Sam’s distress as he worried about his business because he had trusted their promise.

 

I felt so embarrassed for us. We had hurt a good friend. Sam had stuck with us as his supplier when our competitors made a run at taking his business away. Sam told me that he just didn’t have the same level of trust in those other guys. Our products were good. Their products were good. We’d kept the business because we also delivered peace of mind along with our products. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve shattered his peace of mind. Now we are not different from our competitors.’

Bill’s New Leadership Style

  • Enrolled others in solving the problem – avoid blame.
  • Focused on the right issue- helped them see.
  • Told a story that helped orient everyone see to what was important.
  • Ensured rigorous thinking.
  • Give others the room to solve the problem.

Bill then told the story of his investigation, as if it was a detective story. The order had been taken and processed appropriately. It got to the warehouse floor in plenty of time. The second shift supervisor knew that the truck had a spotty refrigeration unit, but it was scheduled for maintenance the following week and so he decided to take a chance and kept the truck in the queue. The router put the load in question onto the truck first as it was going the farthest. He didn’t realize that this truck had a problem. He filled the rest of the truck with numerous smaller orders for customers along the truck’s route.

It seemed that the loading crew noticed that the truck seemed a little warm but they decided that it wasn’t too bad. They sure didn’t want to unload this truck and start over on another truck, if they could even find another refrigerator truck that was available. By the same token, the driver needed the run if his truck was out of action, he knew there wasn’t another truck for him to drive and he didn’t want to spend the day working in the warehouse.

 

With frequent stops and the time spent with the doors open unloading the other orders the refrigerator unit died. The driver was embarrassed when he arrived at the customer but he unloaded the product and figured that some of it could still work.

 

Bill said, ‘There were at least five people who made decisions not to raise a red flag. As a result of all of these assumptions and individual decisions we broke our promise. No one decided from the company’s point of view. We all missed it, being focused on getting our jobs done. Nevertheless, we broke faith with the customer. The company’s reputation is on the line. It’s my name on the promise but the people in the company just saw their own little piece of the puzzle. I need your help. We can only do this if we are working together. What can we do ?’

 

The audience broke up into teams and discussed the dilemma. There were several recommendations generated, but one stood out. One team recognized the problem from the story. They labored anonymously and really didn’t think about the company if their part went OK. A young woman with a digital camera offered a solution. The warehouse would break up into work teams - from order takers to the drivers - that would work together over time. Using the camera, they’d take digital photos of each of these work teams. The picture of the team that handled the customer’s order would be scanned onto the invoice along with their names and the brand promise as their pledge. In effect, they’d sign their work. Their names would be out there as well. The logistics turned out to be pretty simple and team consistency was helped by the fact that there was little turnover in this company.


They got it. The story helped them to see the issues in its proper perspective and it enabled them to generate a solution for the “right” problem, rather than one of the symptoms of the problem. Accuracy went up. Morale soared, and occasionally, people from the team got to follow up with phone calls to “their” customers to make sure that everything was going well. The idea quickly spread to the other distribution centers as the story made its way across the company.”


In Conclusion

 

The coaching he’d received changed how Bill thought and acted. He didn’t mechanically work the OODA loop, although by this time it was inherent in his thinking. He helped people to recognize important signals. He oriented their priorities back to the main issue, the company’s promises to its customers. He created a situation that led to better thinking. The result of this collaboration was extraordinary execution and unexpected value as a result. That’s how coaching is supposed to work.


© Dan Elash

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