horse on top of the hill, image with vintage look

Taming a Stallion

The 3 C-Pathway for Coaching High Performers

 “Sorry I’m late. I just got done taming a wild honeymoon stallion for you guys.” –Napoleon Dynamite

In his book, The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin describes two ways of breaking a stallion. One is to tie the horse up, sit on it, spur it, you know, show the horse who’s the boss.

The other way is to patiently build a relationship with it by daily petting, feeding, grooming, and speaking softly and gently until the horse gets used to you and begins to trust your intentions.

If you’ve lead and managed people long enough you understand that coaching some high performers can feel like taming a fiercely independent stallion.

A True and Current Story

 (An inspiring manager I work with, and her equally awesome sales rep (not real names), graciously shared the following work story with me. Their inspiring journey provides the backdrop for this article.)

 Sam’s natural managerial instincts follows the path of a horse whisperer – get close to your people, build professional respect and trust, while establishing clear expectations and direction.

Tara is a tenured and accomplished professional sales rep, having proudly won several company top sales awards. Tara’s previous manager did provide sporadic coaching, but as long as her numbers were good he left her alone to run her territory.

There are few tougher job assignments for managers than inheriting a tenured team whose previous managerial style was in contrast to yours. Managers who wade into these cultural waters often find a wild stallion, who actively resists any coaching efforts to be tamed.

How do effective managers develop a strategy for winning over high-performers? It says easy, does hard! Below is a rough map to help you and your high performer forge a working partnership.

The 3 C-Pathway for Coaching High Performers

#1 Concern and Consistency – Effective managers are able to manage the tension of these two dimensions. Concern says, help me understand what’s going on for you; I care about you and your perspective. Consistency says, this is my management style and I’m not going away. Developing a strong partnership with high performers requires managers to be comfortable in their own skin.

Consistency also declares – you can count on me to be highly engaged with your business and professional development. The effective manager, in dialogue with her high performer, will make clear distinctions and agreements on the important distinctions between a good manager and a micromanager.

 Because Tara’s previous manager allowed her high levels of autonomy, she naturally resisted Sam’s more forward, coaching and collaboration approach.

Lacking emotional fortitude, less effective managers will back pedal and second-guess themselves when a high performer bristles and pushes back. Not Sam. Taming the stallion requires patience and persistence.

In Tara’s words, “I had to trust her that she had my best interests at heart.” I asked Tara, did you believe Sam? She replied, “no, not at first.”

Newer managers take note – Sam didn’t wait to “build trust” first with Tara in order to have candid conversations about performance, expectations, and the path they will travel together. Trust gets built incrementally through consistent deeds and actions; it’s not a magical moment somewhere in the future.

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Daniel Pink, Drive

#2 Clarity and Conviction – If you want the stallion to voluntarily go where you want to go, especially when the relationship is fragile, you must provide a compelling business case and meaningful strategy.

Sam’s performance history, and deep understanding of her industry, gives her some credibility with Tara, which she firmly leverages. Sam presses Tara with the need to change, to sharpen her sales skills, and to examine areas where she is disengaged at work. The stallion kicks back.

 It’s difficult to argue with success. Tara’s perspective is legitimate. She’s been a solid performer, and while currently going through some difficult personal and professional times (e.g. passed over for a promotion), her numbers are holding.

Sam’s clarity about business direction and conviction of strategy remains steadfast. Sam continues to provide Tara with specific feedback in areas that must be improved. Sam lays out her non-negotiables. Tara is presented with crystal clear choices, neither presenting an easy path.

“Autonomy Comes With a High Price Tag.”

#3 Courage and Collaboration – Applying carrots and sticks as a way to motivate and punish people, has well known limitations. However, they are management tools that when appropriately leveraged can achieve better outcomes, or at the minimum disrupt a person’s equilibrium.

Despite Sam’s efforts, Tara chose to resist Sam’s coaching and stick to her well-known work routines and habits. Not an acceptable choice. Sam put Tara on an action plan. Action plans, when implemented fairly, provide an employee an opportunity to make course corrections, to succeed, while holding them accountable for past performance.

Tara reflected, “This was a significant professional blow.” As she put it, “As humiliated as I was, it forced me to look at myself.”

A good manager – coach understands that what people want, and what they need, are two different things. Tara, by her own admission, needed to be jolted out of the professional rut she was in.

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.” –James Hollingworth

Sam’s managerial courage to follow through was driven by her sincere intention of helping Tara be successful. Tara didn’t believe her, asking, “Do you want me to leave?” Tara made the difficult choice to give Sam the benefit of the doubt, and “do my part.”

Create Upward, Virtuous Cycles

Sam gave credence to her words by collaborating with Tara on how best to move forward. Tara agreed on her weak areas and became receptive to Sam’s training and coaching.

Tara summed up her own version of courage by implementing her newly developed sales skills and behaviors with her customers. Her customers were clearly more engaged during Tara’s sales visits, causing immediate and newfound excitement for Tara. In turn, Tara’s motivation for receiving more training and coaching from Sam increased. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

 “Sometimes we have to act our ways into new ways to thinking.”

 Trust levels are proportionate to the rigor of the journey together. Sam and Tara are currently working extraordinarily well together and business is strong. Their arduous journey produced deep professional respect and trust for one another. Tara further credits Sam’s endless positivity in influencing her new attitude and engagement at work, claiming, “I was trying to be more like her, and that helped.”

Experienced managers know that there are no silver bullets for managing and coaching high-performers; however, following the 3 C-Pathway might influence the stallions to take the journey with you.

Keep it focused, keep it simple, and keep it inspiring!