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How A Coaching Process Saved My Career, Part One

This Experience Created an Awesome Turning Point And Crystallized My Philosophy

Hand Holding a Compass in the Wilderness
Jaime Street Unsplash: Create Clear Direction with Excellent Coaching

I was failing. We were failing. My team. This talented group I had pulled together into a high performing, diverse group were challenged and under intense pressure. Every Saturday morning the weekly sales reports showed up on my computer at home. And every Saturday morning now arrived with foreboding and nausea. I know it sounds melodramatic.

There was a time I could not wait for the reports to arrive. My fingertips thrilled in anticipation at hitting the keyboard and awaiting the moment the stack rank showed us either on top or in great shape relative to plan. My wife Esther would always ask me, as I exited my first-floor office, how did you do?

She knew the outcome before I answered. She could see the bounce in my step and the toothsome smile on my face. Most of the time. It had been this way for years since I moved to my new company. In the not so distant past, I downloaded the reports and started pouring over them with confidence. Now, things had changed. And I was not so confident.

I was a tenured regional executive at a Fortune 100 company, responsible for millions in revenue, over 100 associates, relationships with over 1,400 distributors, and my territory spanned 20 states. My immediate team consisted of over 50 direct and indirect reports. We worked both B2B and direct to consumer sales — persuading both independent agents and customers to purchase insurance products.

We had been remarkably successful for the first few years after I joined the company in the Summer of 2008. And then the bottom fell out. We struggled. My team was working ridiculously hard, harder in fact than when things were going well. I was working nights, weekends — waiting for the weekly sales numbers to pop up on my computer on Saturday morning via the company reports.

In fact, that practice of waiting for the weekly numbers to pop up became a company obsession. Spouses and family members would famously figure out how their significant other performed the prior week by their mood on Saturdays after the reports published. The report served as a mood enhancer or buster!

Of course, we were not taking this challenge lying down. We doubled our marketing promotions, got more creative with associate deployment, altered our engagement activities, reviewed and adjusted our segmentation strategies. Nothing seemed to work. Our pricing was not great, we knew that. In fact, we had entered a hard pricing cycle — meaning the company aggressively raised rates — in one huge state by over 50% in two years in one line of business.

However, you cannot isolate that variable alone. Many a salesperson has wailed about pricing practices when in fact other variables might be at play. We had to look deeper. And, in fact, we knew that we had been successful before, and we could make it happen again. But, at this point, I was worried, very worried.

We had once been the company pace setter, consistently beating plan and making great bonuses; now, we were missing plan in a big way with no end in sight. I had big states in the Western and Midwestern parts of the country. And the sales were falling off a cliff in virtually every territory. I had multiple states heading for what we technically call a “death spiral”, meaning they were simultaneously losing sales momentum and unprofitable.

Not good. I worried I would be fired, and of course, my mind exaggerated the worse outcomes: I might lose the ability to feed my family, lose my house, lose the respect of my colleagues and family. I was staring at failure and did not know where to go or what to do. The soundtrack in my head amplified the internal struggle. The system and methods that made us successful in the past were no longer working. And now, I had a daughter in HS staring at college tuition and two boys in elementary school. I could not sleep, my personal habits faltered, I gained weight, my mood darkened at home, I flailed wondering what I would do to fix this mess.

Of course, I worried my team would lose confidence and trust in me. I have always prided myself on creating a unique and enduring culture at work. I get that it’s a cliché, but our people remained my number one priority. And, I mean the trust, community, integrity, engagement, development — all those things related to my team dominated my mindset. My teams were simultaneously creative and disciplined. They were engaged and tough. And they operated with an air of optimism.

For years, I had employed elements of positive organizational psychology. I believe deeply in creating an atmosphere focused on healthy and positive behaviors and outcomes. I deployed a system of interconnecting practices to create an open, energetic, optimistic, participatory culture. We honestly shared performance across the entire region. We celebrated successes region wide every week. We confronted challenges head on. We had legendary open brainstorming sessions as part of a regular practice to identify short- and long-term strategies and tactics to confront our challenges. These sessions were designed to harness creativity and cultivate openness and togetherness.

And, I openly looked for novel means to create unique training events — from internal competitions and unique marketing promotions tied to customer appreciation (we were once featured on the company website for an event tied to the release of the movie Twilight where we invited 200 customers to a showing) to a form of customer acquisition and training program we called Callapalooza. Each one of these events combined an element of customer retention, training and novelty.

I was in Graduate School at USC when Pete Carroll was the head coach winning National Championships and was impressed not only by his own seemingly irrational optimism, but how he deployed a system of methods to create a team that would play at a high level.

In one Los Angeles Times article, an interesting phrase he used struck me: he said he wanted the team to perform in the absence of fear. That is exactly what I wanted for my own organizations — to perform at a high level in the absence of fear. Pete attributed that objective to his form of preparation. He said he wanted his teams to practice "better than it had ever been done before."

The practices had to be so intense and difficult that the games, by comparison, would be easy. His practices were famously high energy, physical, fast and focused. And, if you watched the teams during this time period, the 34 home game winning streak (unfortunately, my son Ryan and I attended the game where that streak ended!), the routine blowouts (especially the Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma in 2004) you could see the results of an intended strategy and execution around his core fundamentals: unrelenting competition, intense preparation and practice, performance in the absence of fear.

His focus on preparing to succeed really struck me. Who would not want that for their organization? His focus on intense preparation, a focus on meaningful development both individually and organizationally and a focus on optimistic team dynamics. Pete famously created themed practices to drive the key elements of his philosophy: Tell the Truth Monday, Competition Tuesday, No Turnover Wednesday. He made a competition out of everything. In fact, he would videotape the practices (not uncommon) and then replay the results of the individual competitions in practice in a team wide viewing party. You were motivated to perform at a high level otherwise the results spoke for themselves for everyone to see on a big screen!

The program elements were bigger than just themed practices. Pete took key principles from the Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey and sports psychology. He focused unrelentingly on the team and would say that if they took care of their business, no team could beat them. You could see that he wanted to combine mindset, process and preparation in a way that would create an expectation of predictably high performance.

The lightbulb went off. How could I apply some of the principles appropriate to a football team, an environment where you practice 90% of the time and perform 10% of the time, and apply it to the rigors of business performance where you charitably perform over 90% of the time and practice/prepare less than 10%?

We had already created some of those elements in our teams. I focused every week on communicating updates on our progress, celebrating successes and highlighting areas we need to get better. We had a system in place for rewards and recognition. Not uncommon. My regional meetings were famous for their intensity and creativity. We never allowed a parade of talking heads to give presentations to define our meetings. We scheduled time for that, but never more than 30 minutes at a time and never for long uninterrupted periods.

The real estate in a regional meeting is too valuable. Our meetings were energetic, focused, characterized by team building, finding solutions to short and long terms issues, and intense training. We would have multiple brainstorming sessions and role play training and we would ask people to critique one another openly (Tell the Truth.) On more than one occasion, team members would tell me that they had never been to a more energizing meeting — in fact, they were exhausted at the end, but in a good way.

So, we looked at the total person, not just the output. Don’t get me wrong, I have always understood the motto: don’t confuse effort with results. I have always known and understood that dictum: we are responsible for the results we produce, not just the amount of effort we expend getting there.

That sentiment rings especially true when you think about who you are working for — whether it’s a publicly traded company with thousands of shareholders or a privately held entrepreneurial enterprise — you work for the owners who pay your salary. However, your work life should bring out the best in everyone. And everyone should feel the true sense of ownership of their work — not just feel the lip service of someone saying you should have an owner’s mindset. Its leadership’s job to create an environment where that is true. It does not become true simply by saying it.

My dad had the statement ~ never confuse effort with results ~ emblazoned on a paper weight on his desk at work when I was a child and I never forgot the statement. But I was also an effort guy, an attitude person — from my earliest participation at sports in Little League and Football my father stressed attitude. He once had me pulled off a pitching mound ~at a relatively young age~ in a game we were winning, because my attitude was awful.

When the manager had come to the mound to talk me down after giving up a big hit that narrowed the score, I pouted. I was rude to the manager. My father, like any father, was not happy and saw it as a teachable moment. And, in that moment, I remember my father telling me, in a way that everyone reading this will understand, and likely remember when something similar may have happened to them: always respect your coaches, your attitude must always be of dignity and respect AND your effort must define who you are in both your attitude and practice. For some reason, my mind mashed up the parts about respect and effort.

From that moment on, whenever I participated on a team, I worked my butt off in order to demonstrate effort and attitude no matter what — and, it likely earned me the MVP of my HS Football team at Crespi H.S. (Encino, CA) despite the fact I was not in a glamourous position. In fact, I had no justification for earning that trophy as an offensive lineman. But it is highly likely my attitude made the difference in the minds of the coaches. It likely emanated directly from on field leadership. Now, all those influences seemed like a world away.

My epiphany was not a romantic or sexy moment. I had been thinking about the different formative experiences in my career and life. Coaching to a system or a process was not a revolutionary idea. In fact, I had several bosses that preached adherence to different systems or processes. We were surrounded by process improvement from Reengineering the Corporation (Champy) to the GE Way to Franklin Covey and the Situational Leader.

However, I needed something different. I explained to one of my colleagues what I was after — a predictable path, something that energized the team, put power into their hands, held both leadership (management) and associates accountable. Most importantly, I wanted to use a simple and straightforward model that would tell me over time if we were really working on the right things. So, that is where we started.

Tomorrow, I’ll post some of the very simple methods we put into practice that helped get us out of our challenges. These exact same methods, on a micro scale, form the basis of the system I’ve adapted and created for Sugar High Motivation. Stay Tuned!

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