Every Tuesday and Wednesday night, I watch the greatest show on television right now. You guessed it: American Idol.
The other night, as I fast-forwarded through Paula Abdul’s comments so that I could hear Simon’s, I came to a realization: most people aren’t concerned with what Paula has to say. Why is that? Most of her comments consist of generic praise (e.g. “All you can do is the best you can do”). The advice she gives the contestants will not make them better. (The same can be said of Randy. He may say that someone’s performance was ‘pitchy,’ but rarely is his advice constructive or helpful.)
Not only do many home viewers tune out Paula, but the contestants seem to wish they had a fast-forward button, too. They stand and nod politely while Paula speaks, but they’re more concerned with what Simon Cowell is about to say. Simon is the one who will give them specific advice that will improve them. His entire goal is to shoot straight with them. The contestants know that if they listen to Simon, and take his advice seriously, they will probably have the best shot of advancing to the next week. His opinion is the one that carries the most weight, and it’s the one that determines their fate in the competition.
If you could only coach like Simon, or only coach like Paula, whom would you choose as your model? I know what you might be thinking. “But Jason, Simon is so mean, and I can’t imagine myself belittling people like that.” I agree that Simon is harsh. His stinging, degrading comments have driven many auditioners and contestants to tears. As a coach, it’s not a good strategy to act like Simon and make people cry. At the same time, you shouldn’t be a “Paula-style” coach who just tells people that they’re doing great, when you know in your heart that they aren’t going to survive the next round of layoffs with their current performance. Your job as a coach is to help people achieve their goals in life, and the only way to do that is to give them advice on how to become better. Now, if Simon’s coaching style is too harsh, and Paula’s style is too gracious, whose style should you model? Neither one. I say, be like Kara.
Kara DioGuardi is the new addition to American Idol’s judging panel. She’s not a perfect coach, but she is a very strong one — one of the strongest I have seen. Even if you are not a fan of American Idol, or a fan of Kara, I challenge you to tune in next week and observe the way she critiques the contestants. Notice how she gives the contestants specific praise, not general praise. Notice how she gives them specific advice on how to improve, and does so without belittling them. More often than not, she is the judge who provides honest, useful criticism without tearing someone down. That is the healthy way to motivate someone, and to build a productive, effective coaching relationship based upon mutual respect.
Strike a Balance Between Grit and Grace
To coach like Kara, you must achieve a balance between the amount of toughness, or grit, that you exhibit, and the amount of grace you give. Coaches with too much grit will tend to coach like Simon. Motivating with fear may work with some salespeople, but it doesn’t lay the foundation for a healthy long-term relationship with your team. On the flip side, if a coach gives too much grace, he or she will end up coaching like Paula. Being everyone’s cheerleader may help you to make friends, but it won’t challenge your team or create consistent results. Successful coaches are the ones who learn to achieve a balance between grit and grace. When you achieve this balance, you will increase the probability that your salespeople:
- Will respect you.
- Will want to listen to you.
- Will have the desire to follow your advice and improve.
On the diagram below, draw an ‘X’ on the blue line to represent your current balance of grit to grace in your coaching style.
Do you have too much grit? Take steps to tone down the toughness of your delivery. Having your salespeople fear you is not the same as having them respect you. Encourage them, and remember to praise them when they get something right.
Do you have too much grace? Embrace your role as a manager, and don’t be afraid to critique your salespeople. If you truly respect your salespeople, you will have their best interests in mind, and you will want to help them do everything it takes to improve and be successful. That includes giving them specific, useful criticism. Remember: giving someone direction doesn’t mean you have to act like a ‘Simon.’
Be Specific, Specific, Specific
To coach like Kara, you must also provide your team with specific, constructive criticism and praise that will lead to their improvement. Think about your coaching tendencies for a moment. Would you say that you’re specific when you correct someone, or would you say that you’re pretty generic with your words? Generic criticism sounds like this: “I don’t know what it was, you just weren’t ‘on’ today.” Specific criticism sounds like this: “I noticed that you froze up when the customer objected to the steep slope on lot #1200 — let’s brainstorm some ways that you could overcome that objection next time.” Likewise, generic praise would sound like, “Keep up the good work,” while specific praise would sound like, “Instead of giving incentives away at the beginning of the conversation, you’ve learned to save them for the end when you can use them as a bargaining tool — I’m really proud of you!” On a scale of 1-10, how specific are you when you deliver criticism and praise to your salespeople? Circle the number below that best describes you.
Each day, you can take the following actions in order to make your criticism more specific and effective:
- For each salesperson, write down the parts of their presentation/areas of their performance, where they need to improve.
- Choose the area that is most important, and then outline specific steps that the salesperson can take to improve in that area.
- In your coaching session, use your notes to help them create a plan for improvement.
- Keep this question at the forefront of your mind: How can I make this person better, and take them one step closer to achieving success with the customers who are walking in the door?
You can also take the following steps to increase the power of your praise:
- Don’t just focus on what’s wrong — be on the lookout for what they’re doing right.
- Take notes of the improvements and victories that you witness.
- If you lean towards having too much grace, remind yourself daily that you do not have to dish out praise all of the time. Only praise people when it is deserved. By doing this, your praise becomes more meaningful and valuable.
When you’re a coach, you don’t have to chose between being a Simon or a Paula — you can be a Kara. Today, commit to balancing grit with grace, and to leading your team with specific, valuable criticism and praise. Above all, you need to remember this: your ultimate goal is to help the people you’re coaching to achieve success. In the end, you want them to be better because of what you’ve said.
Think of a problem that you recently had to address with one of your sales counselors. Now, imagine that the American Idol judges are sales managers, and they are going to offer their advice/critique to the sales counselor.
What would Paula or Randy say?
What would Simon say?
What would Kara say?
What would you say?
This article appeared first in the Shore Select Sales Strategy Journal. Click here to subscribe.