Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Individual or Apprentice?

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

As we have previously discussed, a modern and effective coaching culture is best evidenced by three attributes:

  1. Role clarity and transparent conversations regarding expectations
  2. Practiced ability of supervisors to help individuals discover what gets in the way of people achieving success in their roles
  3. A tangible way to measure and report the levels of success of individuals, teams, and organizations in producing the value expected by the organization

Today we would like to dig deeper into the first attribute:

Role Clarity and Transparent Conversations Regarding Expectations

The notion of coaching in organizations has evolved over the last forty years.  Almost by necessity, coaching has become synonymous with various techniques for holding a conversation between the team leader and a team member.  Two of the most prevalent coaching approaches today are GROW (goal, reality, options, will) and CLEAR (contracting, listening, exploring, action, review).  While these methods have their differences, they fundamentally establish the same structured flow to a coaching conversation.

  • Prepare and clarify
  • Listen/share stories
  • Discuss to form potential joint solutions
  • Define forward-looking actions
  • Follow-up and adjust

Both these models are well structured and provide a powerful foundation.  However, when it comes to content, the trend with these models is for team members to first identify the topics they would like to discuss.  Typically, few guidelines are placed on the creation of the topics, and the subjects tend to gravitate toward the individual’s interest.  This interest, however, does not always relate to the individual’s performance within his or her current role. While pursuing this approach may be worthwhile, it doesn’t usually lead to improved performance within the organization.

This lack of ability to impact business performance stems from the fact that the collective set of conversations for a given role or specific area of the business are not aligned to create a common pursuit.  As an example, let’s consider a retail organization and the relationship between the district manager and store manager.  If 100 district managers are each responsible for coaching ten store managers and each store manager is driving his or her personal agenda, the coaching conversation between district managers and store managers will lead in 1,000 disparate directions.   The conversations will do little to drive a standard of excellence across the district, much less across the store network.  In effect 1,000 different standards of excellence will have been established.

In all likelihood, modern-day coaching has its intent, if not its roots, in the apprenticeship model that has been around for decades.  Skilled masters’ goals were to equip their apprentices to produce in specific roles with the speed and quality that approached their own abilities.   Undoubtedly the best masters were good communicators who were as good at structuring conversations as they were at their craft.  The difference between their coaching conversations and the conversations facilitated by today’s models was that the master drove the content of the conversation.  Their conversations centered on standards of excellence they had developed and internalized over time.

Clearly the apprenticeship model, in its pure form, is not scalable in today’s organizations.  The ten store managers in our example are spread over a wide geographic area, greatly limiting the time the district manager can spend with any one manager.  This is where role-based outcomes enter the picture.  Role-based outcomes are used to capture the mental model of expert and top performing store managers.  These outcomes form the standards of excellence for the store manager role and can be used by all 100 district managers to guide their store managers to consistently perform at the quality level required and expected by the organization.

To see noticeable business benefits from coaching, today’s best coaching organizations are clear on the standards of excellence they want to promulgate and how these standards will help specific roles drive business results.

Identifying the standards (or outcomes) is not enough, however.  Today’s leaders must also develop an uncanny ability to help their team members realize what is getting in the way of producing outcomes consistently and to the standards expected by the organization.  We will cover that aspect of coaching in the next post in this series.


Question to ponder:

  • What are the role-specific standards of excellence that your organization considers and encourages leaders to coach to?


A New View of Coaching


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

The idea of coaching in the workplace has been around for decades, and though it has enjoyed some periods of popularity and respect, overall, it struggles to gain the traction needed to become embedded in corporate cultures in a meaningful way. In a large part, the concept has suffered at the hands of the term itself. The term coaching tends to have different meanings to different people, largely based on individual experiences. These individual interpretations create an unsettled coaching culture, especially as each subsequent leader brings his or her own definition, which then undermines any previous progress and inevitably hits the reset button on that organization’s practice of coaching.

Of course, we cannot write on the topic of coaching without adding our own definition to the fray. Based on our experience, research, and mission to build systematic approaches to improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals, we offer a comprehensive definition of the term.

The main tenet of our definition is that coaching is not a process. Processes may aid the establishment of coaching within a company, but defining a process cannot produce true coaching. Coaching is instead better defined as a culture, “the way things get done around here.” A coaching culture is best evidenced by

  • role clarity and transparent conversations regarding expectations
  • the practiced ability of supervisors to help individuals discover what gets in each person’s way of achieving success in his or her role
  • a tangible way to measure and report levels of success accomplished by individuals, teams, and organizations to produce the value expected by the organization

We will address each of these factors, in order, as we continue the coaching series. Notably absent from this list is any mention of a lack of time to coach. As you will recall from our introductory blog on this topic, a lack of time is the most explicit and common reason given for why coaching does not occur in organizations today. The essentials listed above can profoundly impact the perceived lack of time. Our discussion will include how each of these cultural norms helps to create more time.

Question to ponder:

  • How does your organization currently define coaching?

No Time to Coach



“Our first-line leaders have way too much on their plates to spend time coaching.” This complaint comes from practically every company we work with.

We get this response when we suggest that a critical element in improving team performance is the first-line leader’s ability to provide meaningful direction and feedback to each team member. Success, however, in this endeavor is complicated by three factors:

  1. Many first-line leaders are promoted to their positions because they demonstrated a high degree of competence in their primary role. In other words, they are promoted for being a top performer not because they are necessarily ready to lead other performers.
  2. Most top performers have become “unconsciously competent” at what they do. So though they are proven, consistent performers, they typically are not able to easily describe the essential elements of how they have been able to achieve success.
  3. When there is clear ability to perform and an equally clear challenge in explaining to others how to exceed, the result is the familiar first-line leader response of, “It’s just easier to do it myself.” Doing it yourself is, of course, a time-consuming approach.

These factors combine to create a dissonance that stands in the way of strong, meaningful coaching conversations between first-line leaders and their teams. This dissonance manifests itself through the fundamental problem statement that, “Our first-line leaders have way too much on their plates to spend time coaching.”

When this problem statement is juxtaposed against another common concern, we frequently hear, “Our teams are not performing the way we need them to, and we think we have a major gap in our first-line leader talent pipeline.” This mindset creates one of the most pressing conundrums in business today. Left unsolved, this issue undermines daily operational performance, execution of new or evolving strategies, and the fundamental talent pipeline critical to growth and expansion.

We will present viable options to this challenge in our outcomes-based coaching series.

Question to ponder:

  • How are you or your company currently equipping your front-line leaders to successfully address their responsibility for the overall performance and growth of their teams?


What Do You Do with Outcomes?—Coaching


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

In our previous blogs in this series, we’ve discussed what to do with outcomes. Namely,

  • Train people to produce them with the right skills and knowledge
  • Equip people to produce them by supplying the right tools, processes, and information
  • Hire people either experienced in producing those outcomes or with the perceived potential to do so

In this post, we’ll look at perhaps the most powerful use of outcomes—as a focal point for coaching people to improve their performance.

Any cursory search will yield hundreds, if not thousands, of coaching programs. Most share a few basic tenets:

  • Emphasize the positive
  • Build a relationship
  • Focus on specific areas of improvement

The emphasis of these well-intentioned programs is the same: learning how to coach. In other words, they provide techniques and approaches for coaching well.

But all of them share the same gap. None of them helps you know what to coach on: what the target performance and the specific underlying actions that need to be improved are.

That’s where the outcomes approach can complement any coaching program. Note that we say complement, not replace. Good coaching techniques and approaches are absolutely necessary. But so too are coaching targets.

Consider the four possible combinations of coaching techniques and targets:

  1. Poor techniques with no targets
  2. Good techniques with no targets
  3. Poor techniques with good targets
  4. Good techniques with good targets

Common sense says that number 4 will have the best impact on your organization.

Question to ponder:

  • Which of the four combinations typifies your organization?

What Do You Do with Outcomes?—Hiring

Outcomes hiring

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

In our previous blogs in this series, we’ve discussed what to do with outcomes. Namely,

  • Train people to produce them with the right skills and knowledge
  • Equip people to produce them by providing the right tools, processes, and information

In this post, we’ll address the question of how to use the outcomes determined in a TOPS analysis to hire the right people.

Hiring is one of the most challenging parts of any leader’s job. The process itself is both time consuming and expensive (many organizations use a rule of thumb that the cost of hiring one person is equal to that person’s annual salary). Even more expensive is the cost to the organization of hiring the wrong person.

When hiring people, determining whether you have the right person for the job at hand is generally very difficult. Some factors are reasonably straightforward to determine:

  • Is the person a good cultural fit for the organization?
  • Does the person have the requisite experience to make him or her eligible for the position?
  • Does the person seem to have the desire and motivation to succeed?

But those don’t address the question that should be central to the hiring process: is there any evidence the person will succeed in the proposed role?


In our opinion, that question is so often ignored because the role is rarely understood sufficiently to enable you to draw any conclusions. But the outcomes determined in a TOPS analysis change all that.

With the list of critical outcomes needed to succeed, you can now ask two critical questions:

  • Have you demonstrated an ability to produce each of these outcomes in a previous role?
  • If not, how would you approach producing each of these outcomes?

By having a specific set of outcomes as the basis for the interview, you can now evaluate the candidates on their previous experiences related to each outcome. When candidates have no such previous experience, then probing for how they would set about producing the outcomes allows you to evaluate their potential to succeed. Using the combination of those two critical questions changes the entire candidate selection process from one of hopeful trepidation to one of cautious confidence.


Question to ponder:

  • How confident are you that you are selecting the right people for your critical roles?




What Do You Do with Outcomes?—Equipping


In our last post, we discussed how to leverage outcomes as the focal point for designing and developing training programs. In this post, we will talk about another key way to use outcomes to drive both individual and organizational performance: equipping people to perform.

By equipping people, we mean providing them with the right tools, processes, and information they need to succeed. Many organizations claim their people are their most valuable asset. But there is often little evidence of this in the way they equip their people to do their jobs. In the leadership’s defense, deciding what tools to provide is a very difficult task. There is certainly no shortage of options from which to choose. Let’s look at the available technology choices as an example.

On one recent project, the front-line performers were required to use seventeen IT systems every day. Each of those systems had a different user interface and different controls. Almost half the training classes were directly related to learning how to use those various systems. Simply switching between the systems ate up a significant part of each person’s workday. But when we performed a TOPS analysis for that critical role, we found that the way top performers succeeded bore little resemblance to the design of the systems provided for them to use.

As a result of that TOPS analysis, the organization decided to replace most of those IT systems with a new system specifically designed to help consistently produce the outcomes that matter to success.

That’s the key factor to choosing and designing the right tools with which to equip people in critical roles: focus on the outcomes as identified by the TOPS analysis. In fact, for existing roles, top performers have often developed their own homegrown versions of the tools they need. The advantage of conducting observations as a central data gathering technique is you will see what tools, information, and job aids people use to produce the outcomes that matter.

On another project, eighteen of the top twenty performers in a critical role had each developed his or her own version of a particular tool. Of course, each variant was slightly different, but all performed the same basic functions. The rest of the performers, however, had not taken the time to develop such a tool. That tool, more fully developed and released officially, proved to be one of the key mechanisms that helped the rest of the population improve their performance.


Questions to ponder:

  • How well equipped to succeed are your people? Have you mapped the tools, information, and job aids to the list of outcomes needed for success?



What Do You Do with Outcomes?—Training

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

You’ve made the leap and mapped the outcomes for your critical roles. Now what? In this installment of our mini-series, we discuss the use of outcomes for designing and developing training programs.

Most corporate training programs focus on building large libraries of generic courses designed more for adult education than for improved performance. Those courses build general skills and knowledge and are not intended to help people perform better in their specific roles.

Outcome-based courses, on the other hand, are specifically designed to help someone produce each of the critical outcomes associated with his or her individual role. As an example, let’s say a key outcome for a project manager is to produce a project plan appropriate to manage the project. Applicable courses or modules might include the following:

  • fundamentals of successful project planning
  • how to write a project plan
  • how to implement a project plan

Of course, there may also be a series of courses that help with the foundational skills and knowledge elements behind each of those outcome-based courses. An example might be a technical writing course to help build writing skills. But the bulk of the focus and the real value is in the how-to courses that help people consistently produce the key outcomes to standard.

This may seem to be common sense but, as usual, common sense is anything but common. In one case, a large organization had over three thousand courses in their learning library, but not one of them focused on helping people produce the outcomes gleaned from their top performers. In other words, there was a key outcome that helped people be successful, but the organization did nothing to help people produce that outcome. Thankfully, once that gap was understood, the organization quickly moved to develop and launch courses focused how to consistently produce the key outcomes determined by the TOPS analysis.


Questions to ponder:

  • Are your training courses specific to the needs of your performers? Or are they too generic to make a difference?


So What Do You Do with Outcomes?

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Over the last year, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing outcomes. We’ve talked about what they are, how to map them to a specific role, and what difference focusing on outcomes can make to an organization.

Let’s assume you’ve made the mental leap and are now on board with the value of mapping the outcomes for each critical role. Here’s the next key question: now that you have the list of outcomes, what do you do with them?

We tend to be very practical in our approaches. So at this point in our discussion of outcomes, we want to focus on some very practical applications.

In this series of blog posts, we’ll talk about several specific applications of outcomes:

  • designing, developing, and deploying training
  • equipping people to produce outcomes
  • hiring people most capable of producing outcomes
  • measuring how well the outcomes are produced
  • coaching people to produce outcomes

A significant body of literature is already available for each of these areas, and we will not be trying to duplicate any of that information. For example, an entire industry has been built around coaching, coaching techniques, and so forth. We will focus on how to integrate outcomes into a system of coaching and how doing so makes the coaching better and more effective.

If you have any specific questions or areas you’d like us to discuss as part of this series, please let us know. You can e-mail us at


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