September 27, 2021

The Ultimate Guide to Transforming Managers into Performance Coaches

Do you need your managers to consistently deliver results AND grow their people? 

Are you struggling to find a training experience that will help your managers perform better on the business side AND the people side?  

Do you also have a tight budget, limited learning time available for your managers, and high expectations from your CEO for the program you select?  

If so, then you are like many of the learning & development and HR teams we partner with to develop internal leadership capabilities. 

In this post, we're going to share with you why performance coach training is one of the most effective and efficient ways to upskill your managers. 

In fact, this is how we helped Gainsight and Lever transform their managers into coaches, which translated into higher performing teams AND higher engagement scores. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know:

  • why performance coaching skills are critical for today’s leaders, 
  • how performance coaching works (from a behavioral science perspective),
  • and how to best instill these skills in managers.  

Let’s dive right in. 

What Is Performance Coaching?  

Performance coaching for managers

Performance coaching is a structured dialogue with one primary purpose - to improve one’s abilities to accomplish goals

A performance coaching dialogue is structured as a series of questions that are designed to: 

  • expand one’s perspective on what’s possible, 
  • remove roadblocks, 
  • and establish actionable commitments. 

When managers coach their teammates, they build problem-solving and execution capabilities in their teammates. 

This is a distinctly different management approach than directing. 

With directing, the intention is to solve an immediate problem.

When managers direct their teammates, they tell them how to address a situation - usually based on the manager’ own previous experience or expertise. 

While directing is helpful in certain situations (e.g. solving pressing customer issues), it is less helpful for building real skills or accomplishing ambitious goals.  

Why Do Managers Need Performance Coaching Skills?

Manager looking to become a coach

In today’s complex and fast-moving business environment, leaders can’t (and shouldn't) do all the “blocking and tackling” needed to accomplish team goals. 

Managers need their teammates to:

  • proactively uncover problems, 
  • generate potential solutions, 
  • and act in a decisive and timely manner. 

Leaders also need to intentionally grow and develop their team members.

As we know from Gallup’s research, 87% of millennials rate professional development as very important to them in a job. If they don’t get it from their manager, they will leave. 

Performance coaching skills enable leaders to do both. They turn an ordinary manager into an extraordinary leader who can help teammates accomplish goals AND grow their skill set. 

It’s a win-win-win for everyone. Team members benefit from skilled leadership, managers benefit from expanding their leadership toolkit, and organizations benefit from the increased value of engaged and productive teams. 

How Does Performance Coaching Work? 

Performance coaching is about creating mindset and behavior changes to produce powerful outcomes. 

When done well, performance coaching creates the conditions for teammates to accomplish more than they previously thought was possible. 

To understand how a leader can affect a change in mindset and behaviors, it’s helpful to know some neuroscience basics. 

In its most simplified version, there are two parts to the brain - the emotional brain system and the rational brain system. 

We know from decades of behavioral science research that the emotional brain system is vastly more powerful for affecting change than the rational brain. (If you’d like to read more on this phenomenon, read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman...or the Cliff’s note version here.) 

To understand the magnitude of this influence, we often refer to the metaphor of the rider and the elephant. 

This metaphor, developed by NYU psychologist, Jonathan Haidt (a social psychologist at NYU), uses an elephant to represent the emotional brain system and the rider of an elephant to represent the rational brain system.

When riding on top of an elephant (which we don’t recommend in real life, by the way!), the rider may think that it is in charge of directing the movement of the elephant. 

However, it’s actually the elephant, which is a 6-ton force of nature, that determines whether the change is going to happen. 

Rarely does the elephant do something because the rider alone wants it to move. The elephant needs to feel safe and sufficiently motivated to move forward.  

In the same way, teammates need to feel motivated and psychologically safe enough to try out a new behavior. This is often overlooked by most managers, who will usually provide rational justification alone for requesting a change in behavior. 

In our trainings, we equip leaders with specific coaching techniques for building a strong sense of trust with their teammates.

We teach leaders “how to speak to the elephant” of their teammates so that teammates feel safe enough to experiment and improve their work. 

We also teach leaders how to coach the rider, or logical brain, in order to support the adoption of new behaviors. We train leaders to scaffold learning experiences so that teammates retain and apply what they learn to improve real work. 

Lastly, for the elephant and the rider to move forward, it helps to have a clear, marked path on where to go.

BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University, refers to this concept as a “prompt.”

A prompt can be anything in the external environment that reminds a person to perform a certain task at a certain time. 

All good performance coaching conversations end with a discussion of prompts. We train managers to get comfortable asking questions like, “How would you like me to help you be accountable?” 

Questions like these put the onus of the selection of the prompt on the teammate. The teammate considers which prompt will be most helpful (not the manager). This further reinforces psychological safety and strengthens the coaching relationship. 

For example, a teammate might ask their manager to send them a check-in email on a certain day.

If the teammate succeeded in their commitment, the manager offers acknowledgement and recognition in a way that promotes similar follow-through in the future. If the teammate is struggling in their commitment, the manager coaches the teammate to uncover and remove potential roadblocks and establish a new prompt for the future. 

In sum, performance coaching works because it is based in neuroscience, behavioral science, and social psychology. 

It’s all about:

  • creating safety and desire for change, 
  • ensuring that teammates have the capabilities for change, 
  • and establishing mutual accountability for implementing the change. 

Almost all conversations about change benefit from applying this framework, whether it’s a 1:1 conversation, a team meeting conversation, or a conversation in the flow of everyday work. 

How Do Managers Learn Performance Coaching Skills?

There is only one way to become a skilled manager-coach...and that’s to learn by doing!

Unfortunately, most trainings fail to transform managers into strong performance coaches. 

Rarely does a leader become a skilled coach for their team after watching a 20-minute video, participating in a 2-hr workshop, or sitting through a 2-day, jam-packed session. At best, leaders learn a few “tips and tricks” that they then soon forget. 

Managers don’t become performance coaches by having an external coach of their own either. They might copy a few of the techniques that their external coach uses with them in their sessions, but transference of coaching skills is not usually the primary focus of an external coach engagement. Moreover, teams and organizations rarely see direct benefits from a manager’s 1:1 engagement with an external coach. 

In our experience, for managers to fully transform into performance coaches, they need a program that enables them to: 

  1. learn how to coach themselves to minimize self-sabotaging tendencies that get in the way of coaching others, 
  2. practice coaching skills with peers in a safe and trusting learning environment,
  3. apply coaching skills with teammates on real world work,
  4. debrief about coaching experiences with peers in order to refine one’s approach,
  5. create a coaching culture on their team so that their teammates also regularly coach and support each other.

It takes about three months for managers to master the art and science of performance coaching and apply it to the work of their teams.  

During this time, we create the conditions for managers to experience a true transformation. 

We provide ample opportunities for managers to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and discuss what it looks like to coach well (and not so well). After each live session, managers practice what they learned with their actual teammates on actual work. 

When they come back to the next live session, managers have a chance to debrief and explore what it might look like to coach even better. 

At the end of the three months, performance coaching skills feel comfortable and natural for managers. It becomes a part of their M.O. and defines who they are as leaders moving forward.  

To see a huge lift within your organization, we suggest training managers together as a cohort. There are four reasons for this: 

  1. Behavioral reinforcement: Managers develop a shared language and toolkit that they reinforce with each other as they apply and discuss what they learn. 
  2. Cross-functional collaboration: Managers share challenges in this forum that are often not shared in other settings. As a result, managers experience a greater level of cross-functional empathy for each other that often translates into better ways of working. 
  3. Relation-building: This experience deepens work relationships. We find that managers who take part in our performance coaching sprints form a supportive network that lives on beyond the learning experience 
  4. Engagement lift for the organization: When multiple managers become performance coaches for multiple teams simultaneously, organizations typically see an uptick in engagement scores. 

When managers and their teams experience the benefits of performance coaching, they feel even more connected and committed to the work of the organization. For this reason, we consider performance coaching skills to be an organizational keystone behavior. It’s a behavior that has multiple positive ripple effects across the organization.

What Managers Say: Learning to Be Performance Coaches

“What I appreciate about this program is that I was coached how to be a leader, not told exactly how to be a leader.”

- Jared Allen, Senior Director of Solutions Consulting, Lever

Our performance coaching programs consistently receive high reviews from the leaders who participate. 

From the six cohorts of leaders we’ve trained at Gainsight, for example, over 90% strongly agree that they “would recommend the program to other leaders.”

At Gainsight, 100% of leaders agreed that:  

  • “What I learned is relevant to my job.” 
  • “What I learned is important to my success as a leader.”
  • “I am able to apply what I learned to improve my team’s performance.” 

We also found that the engagement scores of a division where all leaders participated in the program were the highest to date after its leaders had completed the program. Engagement scores jumped by 12 points overall after all the leaders had been trained (as measured through Culture Amp). 

We saw similar results after training multiple leaders at Lever. Trained leaders increased their team engagement scores along key dimensions by an average of 20% (as measured through Culture Amp). As such, this engagement was featured in the book, Leadership Team Coaching in Practice. The title of our case study in the book is called, “Empowering the Next Generation of Team Leaders in Fast Growing Startups.” 

The Head of People at Lever at the time, Mike Bailen, said of the experience: 

“You can’t just say, ‘Here are some frameworks and a couple of tools. Now go use them with your direct reports.’ You need to learn and grow yourself as a leader before you can do this for the team. It’s about identifying your saboteurs, getting comfortable with the communication frameworks, and practicing with peers in a safe environment that’s really critical.” 

Lastly, this is a training experience that both leaders and teams can take together. At Studio Dental, Lowell Caulder, CEO, took the training alongside his peer leaders and direct reports. We captured his thoughts in the video below.

Training Your Leaders and Teams in Performance Coaching

If you’re looking for help in equipping your leaders and teams in performance coaching, we’d love to be of service.

>> Check out our GROW transformation sprints for teams, managers, and business units.  

If you’d like to learn more on the topic, we highly recommend checking out our research featured in the book, Leadership Team Coaching in Practice: Case Studies on Developing High Performing Teams.  

And, of course, please feel free to reach out directly to us for an exploratory conversation on how performance coaching skills might benefit your organization. 

Reach out to start a conversation

We look forward to learning more about you and your organization — and how I can help you achieve your goals!
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Never miss a new article by subscribing to our newsletter!

Subscribe to The TQ Times