The Ultimate Coaching Question

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Some years ago I was teaching influencing skills to a group of sales professionals. As you can imagine, there was a diversity of experience, tenure and talent in the room. At one of the breaks, a senior salesperson approached me to let me know why he was less than interested in the subject we were covering. He explained that he was really just trying to make it to retirement. When I asked how many years he had ‘left’ until he retired, he replied ‘five’.

Before I share my response to him, I want to share that beyond knowing that he was a slightly below average performer, I had no specific knowledge of his situation. However, I did not need to. His attitude toward growth and change told me everything I needed to know about what the next 5 years held for him: A slow decline in his sales numbers and increasing frustration with higher expectations of the company.

He looked like a really nice guy. I wanted to help him avoid what I saw looming on the horizon and I knew he couldn’t see it. He was assuming the next 5 years would be just like the last 5. I knew it wasn’t. The pace of change continues to accelerate, and the only antidote to that acceleration is to learn and grow. Coasting into retirement for 5 years in most occupations is just not an option.

I also knew he wasn’t really interested in what I had to say. I had to get his attention.

So I looked him straight in the eye and said: “I don’t think you are going to make it.”

Now I had his attention. He wanted to know what I knew – was he being fired? “Of course not” I replied. That started a coaching interaction that continued over the next few months, and at the end of our time together he thanked me for the wake up call.

I am pretty sure that this salesperson’s manager knew what was happening with him – he just did not know how to engage him in away that would continue him in a pattern of positive growth. And not all individuals are as transparent about their intentions. Some individual’s motivations may be like a mystery to you.

I have heard leaders say that certain employees are just not motivated. That is of course not true. They just are not motivated to do what the leader wants them to do.

As a leader you will typically have 3 types of individuals on your team:

  1. The Engaged: These individuals are always looking to learn and grow. They have a great attitude and work ethic. You know who these people are. They are the ones you want to hire more of. They are ones you worry about losing to another job or opportunity.
  2. The Disengaged: These individuals are not interested in learning or growing. The typically do not have a great work ethic and tend to be a magnet that pulls people down. They are the ones that aren’t always poor performers, however they definitely pull the morale of the team down.
  3. The Uncertain: This tends to be the biggest group on any team. Some days they are engaged, and some days they are not. They seem to be very susceptible to what is happening around them, both to the circumstances they find themselves in, and the people they interact with.

As a general rule, it is the Uncertain that we must win over to being more engaged. They are the biggest group, so moving them to being more engaged is a huge win. Unfortunately, it is always easier to pull people down than lift them up, and therefore the Disengaged can have a lot of influence with this group.

How do you Know who wants to Grow?

Have you ever seen an employee that appeared to lack motivation and had mediocre performance, take off like a rocket when they were transferred, or were assigned to a new boss? Motivation is different for different people, and although it is true that motivation is an inside job, there are times when the work environment or some other issue the employee is dealing with can make them less than motivated.

Unfortunately this leads many managers to ask “Why can’t I find more motivated employees”? It’s a reasonable question, however it is a question that will not lead you to a productive answer.

A better question is “How do I motivate more of my team to be more engaged?”

I asked that question some years back and found what I consider to be the ultimate coaching question. We refer to this question with our clients as the Future Focus Question. Do not be deceived by it’s simplicity. Here it is:

“If we were sitting here 3 years from today, and you were telling me the story of those three years… What would need to happen both personally and professionally for you to be absolutely passionate about that story?”

Let’s take this question a little bit at a time so that we can investigate just how powerful it is:

  1. In order for a person to answer this question there must be some level of trust with the person doing the asking. The question is a window into your personal and professional dreams. You will not share this information with someone that you are not sure you can trust. If they will not answer, you need to step back and build additional trust in the relationship.
  2. It is Future Focused. Too many of us get stuck reliving the past. If your best days are in your past then the future is not something to be excited about. Engaged employees are excited about what is coming next. Often it is our job as a leader to re-engage people in imagining a future they can be passionate about.
  3. It has a time frame fo 3 years. There is something magical about 3 years. It is long enough to be able to dream a little, but not so long to allow idealism. it is long enough to allow is to learn new things that will allow for greater achievements, but not long enough for us to waste time before getting started.
  4. We are asking the employee to imagine that this future has already occurred. Visualization is a powerful technique to start the mind envisioning paths to our goals.
  5. We are asking them to tell us what would make them passionate. Not happy. Not satisfied. Passionate. That is not a word that we use in business a lot. But passion is where all the juice in life is.
  6. We are asking about both sides of their life – both personally and professionally. the truth is that many employees may not see a lot of motivation in the work they do. In many cases their motivation to work is outside work. It may be their outside interests or their kids and spouse. In some cases they may wish to switch jobs. It doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is that you as their boss take an active interest in helping them achieve that future.

I had a leader one time ask me whether this approach might lead to people leaving his team?

The answer of course is that everyone leaves eventually. The question is,  do you want highly motivated employees for a shorter time or do you want disengaged employees for a longer time.

For more information on how to lead effectively and motivate thru mastering the art of leadership, register now for our complimentary webinar: The 7 Deadly Sins of Leadership (& How to Avoid Them)

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