Professional racing driver Bill Young once said,

‘Strive for excellence. Ignore success.' 

This is a powerful quotation and accurately describes how performance coaching really works. It is crucial to work towards excellence, not just success. I first read this quote in the book, “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue EXCELLENCE” by Tom Peters and it confirmed my opinion that wisdom comes from understanding more, learning more and then applying that knowledge. It is something that works across all aspects of life and business and is echoed in my mantra, ‘Performance – Feedback – Revision’. Incidentally, Tom Peter’s chose to have the word ‘EXCELLENCE’ in upper case. That is no accident and is helpful when we look further into the power of performance coaching you, will understand the significance, ‘EXCELLENCE, always’.

For all coaches there is an important message to take on board, that not everyone can be the best at what they do, but they can be better than they know. Indeed, they can be the best version of themselves, through performance coaching. This is more challenging than it seems at first sight. How often do we think we know what we want to achieve, only to discover that gaps in willpower and self-discipline hold us back? A better question might be whether we can ever seriously expect to improve the performance of others, if we are unable to improve our own performance?

You may think that performance coaching means coaching of high performers – in other words, people who, for whatever reason, have been identified as star talent. The truth is that performance coaching is about helping all people reach their full potential, in any area of their lives. For the manager as coach, this means working with people to improve their performance at work. Performance coaching may also involve working with other people within an organisation – collaborating with other managers and leaders to make the workplace a high-performance organisation, one that helps everybody to perform at their best.

Performance coaching helps people explore their motivation, and overcome the barriers that hold them back. For coaches, it's all about both support and challenge. The belief that learning from our mistakes is more important than learning from our successes. It’s a belief that suggests that our best successes come out of fixing our weaknesses. The way we are so much better at spotting weaknesses and coaching out problems than identifying and coaching in strengths. The fact that we tend to ask more questions about why things went wrong or why we under-performed, rather than asking about why things went well and how we do this again and again. We have a tendency to focus on the deficits in our work, and in the actions of others, consciously or not, we are assuming all the good stuff can simply look after itself.

I have used performance coaching with clients for:

  • Career and life planning. While some people may prefer not to have a life plan, there's robust evidence that shows that individuals who have clear plans and goals are more likely to be successful in the long term.
  • Navigating change successfully. An example of a change point could be the transition from being primarily seen as a manager to being seen as a leader – someone who offers clear guidance and a true inspiration. Coaching can help people navigate these change points more successfully.
  • Making fundamental changes to performance or behaviour – This involves the breaking bad habits and relearning basic skills the right way. It can deal with mental inertia and how to encourage high performance in other people.
  • Handling major life setbacks – Performance coaching can help people recover from major business or personal setbacks. In particular, it can help people address work-life imbalances, or deal with major episodes of stress.

Leaders often talk about the challenge of motivating and inspiring people in their business, organisation or company.They endlessly discuss performance and how to ‘coach’ people to perform better. However, there is new research highlighting the way ahead for all business leaders. When we receive an authentic compliment, we all experience an inner glow (some people cannot accept compliments, but that is another story). It's a warm, magical feeling that makes us break into a smile. It makes us want to go the extra mile to the person who bestowed that sincere compliment. It is an ability to give praise that is interesting scientists.

You may remember the story of a President Kennedy’s visit to the NASA Space Centre in 1962. Allegedly he noticed a cleaner carrying a broom (seems unlikely, but let’s continue with the metaphor). He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?’ Well, Mr President,' the cleaner quickly responded, ‘I'm helping put a man on the moon.'

I love this story because (even if it's not corrector true) it highlights the true team ethos that was developed by NASA. The cleaner understood the importance of his contribution (his purpose). He actually felt he was a valuable part of something bigger than himself and his attitude created a feeling of self-confidence in his mission. He wasn't merely a cleaner; he was a member of the 1962 NASA Space Team. Certainly, the details are likely apocryphal, but sometime in the 60's at the Space Centre in Houston was a cleaner, or receptionist, a cook, or a purchasing agent who felt as though their small effort was part of the larger team contributing to something phenomenal.

It turns out that great leaders and great coaches, all have use a skill called Appreciative Intelligence.  It is real factor in improving performance in clients. They have the rare ability to see the mighty oak in the tiny acorn. Successful leaders and coaches see more than an acorn that some of us might just step over. They see the possibilities for a strong, healthy tree with future generations of oaks and acorns.

A coach is a person who enables clients to master specific skills, knowledge and improve their attitude. Like counsellors and mentors, coaches offer prescriptive advice, error analysis, expert opinions and how-to guidance. Coaching is one of the keys to successful business execution and in life coaching. If an otherwise skilled employee is struggling with a particular skill or ability, coaching can help them get over the problem, like procrastination. Indeed, this is a great example of how performance coaching can overcome an issue for clients.

After a long delay, neuroscience, and psychology are finally beginning to understand the complexities of procrastination and mental inertia. It is thought that an astonishing 25% of adults around the world are chronic (long-term) procrastinators. There are (apparently) two types of procrastinators out there:

  • those who delay making decisions, 
  • and those who delay taking action.

A long time ago, a man approached J.P. Morgan, held up an envelope, and said, 'Sir, in my hand I hold a guaranteed formula for success, which I will gladly sell you for $25,000.' 'Sir,' J.P. Morgan replied, 'I do not know what is in the envelope; however, if you show it to me, and I like it, I give you my word as a gentleman, that I will pay you what you ask.' The man agreed to the terms and handed over the envelope. J.P. Morgan opened it and extracted a single sheet of paper. He gave it one look, a mere glance then handed the piece of paper back to the gentleman and paid him the agreed upon $25,000. The contents of the note:

  • Every morning, write a list of the things that need to be done that day.
  • Do them.

An example of performance coaching come in dealing with this mental inertia. When you interrupt a task, it can be difficult to pick it up again. Newton's First Law tells us that the velocity of a body remains constant unless the body is acted upon by an external force. Some people are quite content to be potted plants lined up on the windowsill; staying in place without much movement. Others are like hamsters on the training wheel – happily jogging at a steady pace until there's a change in their hamster-haven environment. How many times have clients:

  • Opened books they couldn't wait to read, but never actually finished?
  • Started projects they started that petered to stagnation?
  • Had brilliant ideas that never moved into actual conception?
  • Created new projects, creative ideas, daily tasks, half-written emails?

That resistance to completion of a task can be very powerful and is a huge factor in coaching performance. It can take the form of physical, emotional, conscious or unconscious response. The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of an unusually intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found that some groups procrastinated productively. They used procrastination as a trigger for a significant amount of stress needed to ignite affirmative action.

It’s our brilliant mind that deals with these internal and external conflicting forces. Our brain is an incredibly productive structure and As such, it requires constant, meticulous care. Have your clients ever felt like they were on top of the world? It's that feeling that comes when everything is firing on all cylinders, and they know things are going their way. Then, a problem arises, and one of two things happens. In one version, clients power through the problem, changing and adapting to the new circumstances. They deal with the problem and move forward with renewed vigour, assured and confidence. In the other scenario, the problem hits them like the proverbial tonne of bricks. They can't think straight. It feels like the whole world is crashing down around their ears and nothing they do seems to make a difference. The problem stops them in their tracks, and they can't figure out how to make things right.

Recently, behavioural research into the problem of performance and procrastination has ventured beyond cognition, emotion and personality, into the realm of neuropsychology. Mental inertia is a part of client’s lives, and not just as it relates to the physical laws. It is a constant issue for many clients and I use the following techniques to help them be more successful:

  • ‘Just do it now’ approach. Make a (good) decision and just do it. If not EXCELLENCE, what? If not EXCELLENCE now, when? I encourage clients to dump their mental inertia and take massive action, now. Indeed, making any decision (right or wrong) is usually better than taking none. Performance coaching is about encouraging their confidence in decision making. In taking actions and then reviewing the outcome.  
  • Set clear goals. The majority of people seem to drift through life. A coach encourages a client to set goals and determine the steps to achieve these aims. A great coach goes beyond helping establish life, business or sports goals and also promotes major objectives. They must also always have a deadline – a specific date for the plan to accomplish the major goal by, a realistic date that not only motivates them into action but also ensures progress towards their objective.
  • Being a perfectionist is not an excuse. Clients have to acknowledge that they can’t be perfect and it is better to make a wrong decision than none at all.  This usually is seen in time wasting activities for the client. A good coach knows what the time wasters are and tries to focus the client on the shortcuts, the organisational skills to do the job. This is one area where a coach may use ‘negative’ coaching, because if the client gets comfortable with the time wasters, they may never be able to increase their performance.
  • Using the client’s strengths. This requires seeing reflective practices as legitimising time thinking about what our character and performance strengths are, (e.g. honesty and tactical analysis respectively), how we play to our strengths as much as possible and how we develop new strengths. Individual coaches and clients who know their strengths massively outperform those that don’t.
  • Elevating the positive. This helps us avoid coaching being seen as a process of ‘diagnosis and treatment’. Through the use of positive questions and reflective frameworks, together with practical applications from a range of elite coaches, the case for positive reflective practices is made. A coach gives the client an opportunity to associate with positive, supportive people. When clients are surrounded by negative people who constantly put them and their ideas down, their self-esteem is lowered. On the other hand, when clients are accepted and encouraged, they feel better about themselves in the best possible environment to raise their self-esteem.
  • Life Long Learning.  Many clients get comfortable with their abilities and cease to learn, or more commonly do all of their learning down one narrow subject area, i.e. willing to know more about selling, but don't learn organisational skills. A coach can encourage and also help clients get started to build new frames of references for learning in new areas. Success can lead to a greater willingness to continue life-long learning.

The role of the coach is to help guide clients to higher levels of performance; to be a better version of themselves. However, it is important to remember Gallwey's simple formula:

Performance = Potential – Interference

Here, interference means emotional interference. Clients may understand their real potential, but their performance suffers because their emotions get in the way. Some of the interfering emotions that all coaches will come across are:

  • Fear: The most visible and most inhibiting emotion for clients is fear. While some fear has a basis in reality, many of their fears are unfounded. Their minds play negative tricks on them to keep them safe but also keep them unchallenged and unfulfilled.?It may take the time to deal with a client’s fear of a situation, event, or action, but it's hugely beneficial to do so. Once you identify and discuss client's fears, you weaken the power of those fears to hold back future activity and performance.?Likewise, it can be useful to anticipate some worst-case scenarios – such as losing an important sales contract or even losing their job – because it lets them see what other options are available. Perhaps the sales contract wasn't as profitable as other contracts they could pursue if they had time to spend with new customers. Perhaps losing a job is the first step toward a new career, even within their current organisation. Dealing with self-doubt and fear of failure is one of the most valuable areas to explore with a client.
  • Guilt: This is one of the key emotions driving inappropriate work-life balance for clients. If someone routinely works later than other people, it's often evidence of not being able to say no – which, in turn, is typically based on some form of guilt for not having accomplished what was asked for or wanted.
  • Worry: This is a powerful emotion that gets in the way of good performance. Some clients seem to worry about everything, including the fact that they're worrying. Worry can lead to physical problems for clients, such as poor sleep, bad eating habits, and ultimately, exhaustion. Clients cannot be effective for very long if they have these problems.

Coaches can help their clients see their true potential and eliminate the effect of interfering emotions. Talking about emotions during coaching will help. Think of clients as athletes who want to move to the next level in their game. Half of the coaching job is listening and understanding what drives people, and appreciating what emotions they are feeling. The other half of the job is working with clients to stretch their performance and explore the skills they need to be their very best. Remember that performance coaching can and should be fun. So I look for the specific issues above and help clients imagine what could be possible. This is all part of the process of EXCELLENT performance coaching.

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Performance coaching is all about helping clients to achieve their very best. It's particularly useful for long-range career or life planning, for dealing with career change points, for making changes to performance or behaviour, and for dealing with major life setbacks. Performance coaching conversations usually start with finding out people's starting points - their visions or life ambitions. According to Tom Peters, EXCELLENCE can be obtained if you:

" ... care more 
than others think is wise; risk more than others think is safe; dream more than others think is practical and expect more than others think is possible." 

You can then look at helping the client obtain a balanced set of skills while looking at emotional interferences such as their worries and fears. Overall, performance coaching involves challenging client as well as supporting them, so that they can build their skills and improve their performance in a balanced way.

It really is all about EXCELLENCE, always.


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