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Coaching and courageous conversations

This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

One of the fundamental challenges that sales leaders face today is managing performance and creating consistent accountability around performance targets. Addressing and coaching people through underperformance requires the willingness to have courageous conversations.

Having conversations about performance and expectations, and then holding people accountable to results, can cause tension. However, those conversations are a critical aspect of cultivating a high-performance culture. Managers who shy away from or ignore those hard conversations inhibit morale and limit the performance potential of the entire sales organization.

Here are four ways sales leaders can approach performance conversations courageously to coach people through performance challenges, create alignment and ultimately raise both accountability and sales performance.

1. Set clear expectations.

Make expectation-setting a conversation. Work with people in collaboration to set goals and achieve buy-in. At the end of an expectation-setting conversation, everyone (the sales manager and the performer) should walk away feeling aligned and positive about the decisions made. Here’s the secret about performance management: If you set clear expectations and get buy-in from the performer ahead of time, it’s easy to have courageous conversations about performance down the road, because everyone’s on the same page. Nothing comes as a surprise.

2. Outline specific performance plans and consequences.

When you set goals and expectations, you should also map out a plan for how the result can be achieved. Sales reps should understand the activity requirements and process, the rewards for meeting goals, and the consequences for falling short. If people aren’t meeting the plan, it should be expected that you’ll address those issues and implement corrective action head-on.

3. Check in with employees often.

Great sales leaders are hands-on coaches. Have regular conversations with employees about their progress, opportunities and obstacles. Be a manager who supports, guides, counsels and mentors. Remove barriers and put your people in a position to be successful. And, if an employee is going in the wrong direction, take corrective action. Have open and honest conversations to remind employees what’s expected of them and how they can get there. Give specific examples by socializing best practices. Over time (and when expectations are clearly communicated upfront), employees will rely upon and even look forward to frequent, informal check-ins about their progress.

4. Get honest with underperforming employees.

Sales performance is black and white: it’s all about the numbers. If someone falls short, be direct and help them understand where they’re going wrong. Sales leaders who don’t have courageous conversations about underperformance are doing their employees a real disservice. We owe it to our people to have honest conversations about performance to help them grow and succeed. And, if the role isn’t a good fit, it doesn’t serve anyone to prolong that situation. If someone is ill-equipped for the job, and consistently fails to meet their numbers, responsible leaders have the courage to confront those situations and make the change.

Consistent, courageous conversations help drive accountability and performance. Top producers thrive in this kind of work environment and welcome the challenge. When expectations are clearly defined and people are supported, they are in a better position to produce their very best result. No one can hide because the expectations are clear, and performance conversations happen consistently. Issues are addressed head-on and people aren’t afraid to ask for help, collaborate with others, and invite support.

Courageous leaders are present with presence. They communicate with both clarity and consistency. They attack issues head-on. They hold everyone accountable. They champion a culture of expectations, accountability and high performance. And they have a whole lot of fun beating the competition and growing the business.

Ryan Estis is a business performance expert who helps companies, leaders and sellers more effectively connect to their two most important audiences: employees and customers. Regarded as one of The Top 100 Keynote Speakers in America, Estis works with category-leading companies to help them achieve the next level of breakthrough performance. Clients include AT&T, Mayo Clinic, CDW, Cabela’s, Giant Eagle, Hewitt, Microsoft, Medtronic, Equifax and BlueCross BlueShield. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube.