I rescued a pup last Fall. His name is Loki and he’s a Pomeranian and something-or-other mix. One thing I didn’t know about a rescue dog is that they’ve often been traumatized (e.g., abusive owners, time on the streets etc.) and it takes a while for their real personalities to become apparent. This was clearly true for Loki. He was subdued to the point of being depressed when I first brought him home, but slowly his perky little personality started to emerge. He’d clearly been well loved by a family because he was house trained, allowed me to groom him and felt at home curling up among the pillows on the bed or couch. I was relieved that he didn’t require much training.
The life of a coach is a life of analogies and patterns. I’m always seeing connections between people and the things we find in our lives — like dogs! So while walking Loki recently and pondering a current client’s dilemma, I was reminded of a direct report I had a long time ago. His name was Mike, and he was my first major employee performance problem. Mike and I got along well. He was bright and self-motivated. He was thoughtful, tended to produce good work and didn’t require a lot of house training. Mike and I slipped into a comfortable working relationship very quickly. I thought all was well.
Similar to Mike joining my team, Loki slipped into my life pretty easily and I didn’t focus as much on training him as on getting to know him and his quirks (and teaching him mine!).
Then, the first neighbor complaint: Loki barks when I’m out of the house.
Of course, my little puppy has separation anxiety leftover from the trauma of wandering the streets for weeks before being rescued. But what can I do? I’m gone when he misbehaves and when he’s around me, Loki is my dream dog.
This reminded me of my reaction the first time my boss approached me about Mike. He said that in the next reorganization the powers that be were planning to let Mike go; he had a reputation for being difficult. I wasn’t really given a choice in Mike’s fate, and I was flummoxed. I didn’t find him difficult. By contrast, I found him very easy to work with. I liked Mike, and to make matters worse for me personally, he liked doing certain reporting analyses that I didn’t have the expertise to do. The things that seemed to bother others about Mike didn’t bother me at all. But I really didn’t want to lose Mike, so I convinced my manager to give me three months to work with him. With the clock ticking, I started devising plans to help him keep his job.
Engagement Is Personal
When I learned about Loki’s bad behavior behind my back I started getting advice from dog experts. Among other things, I learned that training gives dogs a sense of confidence and reduces separation anxiety. I was a little skeptical that this would work with Loki because he seemed hard to train. Without a treat in my hand he preferred doing what dogs do, not what I wanted him to do. No, the dog experts admonished me, it’s you who’s hard to train. It’s your job to learn to train him. After some more effort I affirmed that if I didn’t have a treat in my hand, I couldn’t sustain his attention. “So keep treats handy, the dog experts said. Even though his behavior didn’t bother me, I started finding things to train him on — treats in hand! — to engage him more. I raised my expectations of him, paid attention to what motivated him and took time out of my busy schedule to focus on evolving his behavior to be more acceptable and useful for the place I live.
Turns out he’ll do almost anything for turkey bits.
Mike didn’t have any particular love for turkey, but when I sat him down to tell him he was on probation (a surprise to him too) and that I was going to help him keep his job, he was very grateful and started paying more attention. I talked to other people about what bothered them about Mike. As I talked with others, I learned that I had become lax in certain areas — allowing Mike to bring deadlines down to the wire for instance. When I thought about it I realized that Mike’s last-minute attitude about deadlines was annoying and caused me more stress than I liked, too. So we started to focus on deadlines.
Just like Loki trots alongside me happily now instead of chasing squirrels when I have turkey in my hand, Mike started coming prepared to our weekly meetings. Deadlines were met early when they could be, and when they had to be last minute everyone was informed to reduce stress. With my support Mike became more engaged with his work and attentive to building habits that made him a more reliable team member. By the end of his three month probation, the higher ups agreed Mike was on track and agreed to keep him. Mike was happy he kept his paycheck and I was happy that I didn’t have to hire a new Mike or figure out how to do those reports myself!
Proactive, Positive Support Can Save A Job
I was reminded of Mike again recently when I read an article about how Amazon has started a “Pivot” Career Ambassador program to give low performers on-the-job coaching to help them improve their skills and ability to provide value or help them find a new job. As Mike and Loki both taught me, taking a proactive and positive approach to employee performance can have a good impact on employee performance and save unnecessary turnover.
In the Amazon article there is some debate about the wisdom of investing in performance coaching for low performers. Shouldn’t we invest in high-performers instead?
Here’s my expert opinion as Mike’s boss and as an executive coach: we should invest in coaching everyone.
Just like I had slipped into complacency with Mike and his last minute deadlines, and with Loki’s squirrel chasing, most of us slip into accepting low performance from employees until it’s too late. We write people off as “untrainable and uncoachable” when it’s really we who need to learn how to train and coach. We get into avoidance patterns until someone else makes it impossible for the behavior to continue, and all too often we take out the problem on the employee (or the dog) instead of figuring out what it takes for that person to do well in that job, or help them move on to another job where they can be more successful.
Good employee performance coaching can also help retain employees with the company, if not the job. Sometimes even a trainable and coachable employee is a good fit for the company but not for the job. Sometimes they outgrow the job and need a new challenge. Why waste talent if there’s a better fit in the company? The average private sector tenure is below four years; why lose a good employee who’s outgrown the job they were hired for a few years ago if there’s a better fit in another group? Our careers are more fluid these days and Career Ambassadors can help keep talent in the company by helping them grow into new opportunities.
I think Amazon’s Career Ambassadors are a fabulous idea to help low performers figure out how to succeed or move on, but instead of focusing only on low performers, I’d suggest giving Career Ambassadors (i.e., career and effectiveness coaches) to everyone. If your company won’t let you bring in coaches for your employees, my suggestion is for you, as their manager, to take on that role with everyone on your team and get yourself a coach to help you see your own blind spots and learn to become a coach leader.
So are my neighbors still annoyed at me and my dog? The jury’s still out on whether our new training regime will calm Loki’s separation anxiety, but he is definitely more engaged and I see potential to teach him all kinds of things that will make him a more productive pet.
I managed to save Mike’s job, so I have high hopes I can save Loki too.
Check out the resources in the InPower Coaching EQ at Work and Soft Skills Research Index.