Today’s leaders are under tremendous pressure to keep up with the demands of a rapidly evolving business environment. To meet those demands, managers must give people the flexible leadership style and coaching they need to become high performers as quickly as possible.
On a practical level, this means making sure that you’re not what I call a seagull manager. This is the leader who sets goals and then disappears until someone makes a mistake—at which point they fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everybody, and fly out. In addition to not being very pleasant, this “leave-alone/zap” style of leadership doesn’t get great results. Our studies show that the average organization is 50% as productive as it should be, thanks to less-than-optimal leadership practices like these.
The best leaders build meaningful connections with direct reports, tailor their leadership style to the needs of each individual, and coach them to high performance. Let’s see how this situational/coaching style of leadership—also known as SLII®—might work in the real world.
Leading the Enthusiastic Beginner
Suppose you recently hired a young salesperson. Although she’s had experience in customer service, she’s new to sales. Because she is eager and ready to learn—despite her lack of skills—she is an enthusiastic beginner. In this situation, a directing leadership style is appropriate. You teach your new hire everything about the sales process, from making a sales call to closing the sale. You take her on sales calls with you so that you can show her how the sales process works and what a good job looks like. You provide specific direction and closely supervise her sales performance, planning and prioritizing what she must accomplish to be successful. Teaching and showing her what experienced salespeople do—and letting her practice in low-risk sales situations—is the right approach at this point.
Leading the Disillusioned Learner
Now, suppose that your new hire has a few weeks of sales training under her belt. She understands the basics of selling but is finding it harder to master than she expected. You notice that her step has lost a little of its spring, and sometimes she looks a bit discouraged. While she knows more about sales than she did as a beginner and has flashes of real competence, she’s sometimes overwhelmed and frustrated, which has put a damper on her commitment. A person at this stage is a disillusioned learner. What’s needed now is a coaching leadership style, which is high on direction and support. You continue to direct and closely monitor her sales efforts, but you now engage in more two-way conversations. Ask purposeful questions to draw out her ideas. Summarize what is being said to ensure she understands. Share useful information that is timely and relevant. Be sure to provide a lot of praise and support at this stage, because you want to build her confidence, restore her commitment, and encourage her initiative.
Leading the Capable But Cautious Performer
Fast-forward a couple months. Now your salesperson knows the day-to-day responsibilities of her position and has acquired some good sales skills. While you say she’s competent and knows what she’s doing, she is not so sure. She has a good grasp of the sales process and is working well with clients, but she’s hesitant to be out there on her own, without your help or the support of other colleagues. At this stage, she is a capable but cautious performer whose commitment to selling fluctuates from excitement to insecurity. This is when a supporting leadership style is called for. Since your salesperson has learned her selling skills well, she needs little direction but lots of support to encourage her wavering confidence. Now is the time to stand behind her efforts, listen to her concerns and suggestions, and be there to support her interactions with clients and colleagues. You encourage and praise, but rarely do you direct her efforts. The supporting style is more collaborative; feedback is now a give-and-take process between the two of you. You help her reach her own solutions by asking questions that expand her thinking and encourage risk taking.
Leading the Self-Reliant Achiever
As time passes, your former new salesperson becomes a key player on your team. Not only has she mastered sales tasks and skills, but she’s also taken on challenging clients and has been successful with them. She anticipates problems and is ready with solutions. She is justifiably confident because of her success in managing her own sales area. Not only can she work on her own, but she also inspires others. At this stage, she is a self-reliant achiever. You can count on her to hit her sales goals. For a person at this level of development, a delegating leadership style is best. In this situation, it is appropriate to turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving to her by letting her run her own territory. Your job now is to empower her by allowing and trusting her to act independently. What you must do is acknowledge her excellent performance and provide the appropriate resources she needs to carry out her sales duties. It’s important at this stage to challenge your high performing salesperson to continue to grow in her sales ability and cheer her on to even higher levels.
Learning to tailor your leadership style to the development level of your direct report pays off. A recent study of high-performing sales leaders—who attained an average annual quota of 105% compared to 54% for underperforming sales managers—found that a flexible, coaching style of leadership was a key factor in their effectiveness.
The bottom line? Everyone has peak performance potential—you just need to know where they are coming from, meet them there, and coach them to greatness.