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?


Team Clarity

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG at

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG at

Soccer, at its core, is a very simple game: the players on one team try to kick the ball into a goal while the other team tries to stop them. If you’ve ever had the joyful opportunity to watch little kids play soccer, you understand how maddeningly simple yet frustrating that concept can be. When little kids play soccer, they usually just swarm around the ball, all trying to kick it at the same time. Occasionally the ball will pop out of the throng and the kids will all chase it.

Watching professionals play makes soccer seem like a different game altogether. Same number of people, same two goals and one ball, same simple objective: kick the ball into the other team’s goal. But everything else is different. The players spread out across the field, the ball is passed crisply from player to player, and players are always moving—with or without the ball.

The same comparison can be made of teams in organizations, except age is not the defining characteristic, role clarity is.

In corporate teams, just like in soccer, playing your position on the team makes all the difference. Of course, to play your position, you must know your position. In soccer, there are forwards, midfielders, backs, and goalies. Each position has a unique and critical role to play for the team to win. In organizational teams, knowing what role each member is playing is critical for the team to win.

Unfortunately, too many corporate teams operate just like kids’ soccer teams: swarming around without any clear roles. Make sure each team member has a clearly defined role, knows that role, and understands how to execute that role with excellence.


Question to ponder:

  • Do all your team members know their roles, or are they swarming?

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?


Initiative-Based Outcomes

Initiative-Based Outcomes

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

In a recent post, we talked about how an outcomes-based approach enables companies to rearrange roles by simply shifting outcomes between roles. Reassigning outcomes to different people makes it easy to restructure jobs because of changing conditions such as corporate growth. What we didn’t mention, but is equally valuable, is what we’ll call temporary outcomes.

Assume for a minute that a company decides to launch a short-term initiative, perhaps implementing a new technology or introducing a new product. To realize the desired benefits, those types of initiatives usually require additional work on the part of a few key roles.

Using an outcomes-based approach dramatically simplifies assigning, managing, and keeping track of that additional short-term work. Simply define the new work as a set of outcomes, and then assign those outcomes to the impacted roles. The teams and managers are already familiar with an outcomes-based approach where they consider and track the consistent production of key outcomes, so they will treat the new initiative-based outcomes the same way. Breaking the initiative into very specific outcomes significantly improves the odds of success.


Question to ponder:

  • Are the people in your key roles clear on how they contribute to the success of short-term or strategic initiatives?


Shared Outcomes

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

In our last post, we talked about how reviewing outcomes helps us handle changes to individual roles by making sure all the work is accounted for. At the end of that post, we mentioned the concept of shared outcomes. In our discussions so far, we’ve focused mostly on the idea that individual roles each have unique outcomes. For a large part, that’s true. People in most critical roles do have their own set of unique outcomes. Consistently producing those outcomes with excellence leads to job excellence.

But increasingly there are job situations, such as in sales, where small teams of people filling different roles share responsibility to produce key outcomes. One example might be a client-focused account team with the shared outcome of producing an “aligned and informed client.” Everyone on the team shares the responsibility of consistently producing that outcome.

Some people think that sharing might make the outcomes approach more confusing. But we’ve seen just the opposite. For small teams, this method is clarifying.

The team lead typically owns the outcome, just like he or she is responsible for the overall performance of the team. Each team member, in addition to his or her individual outcomes, also shares the production of that common outcome. In our example, everyone is continually focusing on doing his or her part to improve alignment with the client. Of course, that requires a bit of additional coordination and communication between team members. But that’s exactly what excellent performance demands and what top team leads expect.


Questions to ponder:

  • Do your teams have shared outcomes? Are the team members clear on which outcomes they share and which they own individually?

Job Changes

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

One of the questions we frequently hear is “how do outcomes work when jobs change so frequently?”

It’s a great question. We live in a rapidly changing work world where jobs are constantly changing and evolving. Companies shift responsibilities between roles. Companies change strategies and add or subtract responsibilities from roles. All those factors lead to changes in the basic makeup of each critical role. So how do we handle those changes when using an outcome-based approach?

First let us set up a scenario and see how it works. Assume there are three critical positions, each with a unique set of outcomes—something like this:

Role 1 Role 2 Role 3
Outcome A

Outcome B

Outcome C

Outcome D

Outcome E

Outcome F

Outcome G

Outcome H

Outcome I

Outcome J

Outcome K

Outcome L


For simplicity, we’ve assumed no two roles share any outcomes and each role has exactly four outcomes.

Now the company decides to make a change and eliminate one position—role 3. Here’s the key question: what about the outcomes currently being produced by people in that role? Are those outcomes no longer needed because of some change in the overall strategy? Can they be produced by someone else, or will that overload that other role?

In this case, the company must look at outcomes I, J, K, and L. For each, a specific decision must be made. Perhaps one is no longer needed, one can be added to role 1 and two can be added to role 2. By evaluating the role at the outcome level, a more accurate assessment of the work is possible.

The opposite situation works equally well. Say a change in strategy points to the need for new outcomes and potentially a new role. Once the aspirational outcomes are clear, the following questions should be asked: Will these outcomes require a new role? Can they be picked up by the existing roles? Or can the existing roles share the responsibility to produce the new outcomes? Wait—shared outcomes? That’s a topic for another post.


Question to ponder:

  • When you modify jobs, what process do you use to make sure all the work is accounted for?

What Do You Do with Outcomes?—Examining Your Job Designs

Examining your job designs

Image by Stuart Miles at

Here’s a bonus blog in our mini-series on what companies are doing with outcomes. In the previous blogs in this series, we’ve discussed using outcomes

  • as the focal point for training design
  • as the basis for equipping people with the right tools, processes, and information
  • as the foundation for identifying potential candidates to hire
  • as the target for coaching efforts designed to improve performance

But there is yet another use for outcomes that some companies are employing—as a key indicator of whether the breadth of job responsibilities is too small, too broad, or just about right.

In our experience, top performers in critical roles focus on anywhere from four to seven key outcomes. By extension, each of those key outcomes demands anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of the top performers’ work focus and energy. Interestingly, those top performers have told us that anything that falls below that threshold of focus and energy simply isn’t worth the time and effort. In other words, those things just don’t matter to success on the job.

How does knowing this help with evaluating job scope? Simple. After conducting a TOPS analysis and mapping the key outcomes of a role, leaders should stop and review the list of outcomes. If there are more than about seven key outcomes, chances are pretty good that at least a couple of them are performed so infrequently that they really aren’t critical to success. Having too many outcomes causes people to divide their time and attention too much to concentrate on the few things that really matter.

On the other end of the scale, if there are fewer than about four outcomes, it’s quite possible that the job is not broad enough to command the sustained attention of top performers. People want and deserve interesting jobs with a variety of components.

So when you are evaluating or designing jobs, take a look at the number of outcomes you are expecting from people in your critical roles. If there are four to seven, you’re right in the sweet spot from a job design perspective.


Questions to ponder:


  • Do your top performers think their job scopes are about right? How do you know?




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?




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