I was struck reading the title of this article, “We Shouldn’t Be Coaching Deals, We Should Be Coaching Skills.” Its premise is so far from what I believe, that I had to read it to see if I was missing something.

It was a thoughtful article, I ended up being unconvinced, but it helped reminded me how badly we misunderstand coaching. Consequently, how badly we coach.

I thought I’d riff a little about these misunderstandings, hopefully getting you to think differently about your own coaching or expectations of coaching.

Coaching is and isn’t about the numbers. We have goals and metrics, they are critical to help us understand if we are going in the right direction, that we are doing the things that enable us to achieve our goals. The numbers give us some indicators of our progress. But “coaching the numbers” is meaningless.

Too often, I see managers “coaching the numbers.” It looks like, “You’re 82% of your YTD goals, you need to get back on plan in the next 90 days.” Alternatively, a more sensitive manager might say, “You’re 82% if your YTD goals, what are you doing to get back on plan over the next 90 days?” Somehow those managers in the latter category hear, “coaching isn’t about telling,” so they pose the issue as a question but they still haven’t grasped what coaching is.

Too much bad coaching is focused on the numbers. Whether it’s about your quota attainment, daily/weekly call goals, pipeline or whatever, you can’t coach the numbers. The numbers are an indicator of a possible problem, you have to understand the problem the sales person is having, coaching around those issues.

Coaching is and isn’t about skills development. Here, you might think I’m splitting hairs, but I think it’s a critical issue that impacts our effectiveness as coaching. Well developed and executed training is about skills development. Coaching isn’t training. But coaching and training go hand in hand. Coaching is about the application of skills by an individual in specific situations. As a result, great coaching reinforces great training, personalizing it to the individual and how they are applying the training in specific situations.

Training without ongoing coaching and reinforcement is wasted time and money. It just won’t stick, there’s too much research supporting that. But coaching provides constant reinforcement, specific to the individual and the contexts that are most relevant to them.

That’s why I had the problem with “Don’t coach deals….” Deals are the perfect context to develop and improve skills. How better to get a sales person to improve qualifying than by looking at a specific deal or deals? How better to reinforce the sales process than by looking at how the sales person is leveraging the sales process to develop and execute a winning deal strategy? How better to develop questioning, probing, objection handling, competitive selling, presentation, persuasion, closing, and any number of skills than by using specific deals as the platform for coaching?

Coaching doesn’t exist in the abstract, it is always contextual and specific to the individual and the situation.

We get huge leverage by doing this. We help people develop and execute better deals strategies–not only for the deal they are working on, but as they apply the same thinking to each of their deals. We also help the person improve their likelihood of winning the specific deal we are coaching—if we aren’t doing that, then we aren’t being effective as coaches.

We leverage the things our sales people do every day to improve their skills in contextually relevant and immediately addressable ways. Deal reviews, call reviews, prospecting reviews, account/territory reviews, and many others.

We intersperse training with those reviews to build stronger skills.

Coaching is and isn’t about telling. We know we are most effective using non-directive coaching techniques. (If you don’t know what non-directive coaching is, go to Chapter 12 of the Sales Manager Survival Guide). Non-directive coaching helps the sales person think, learn, figure things out for themselves. Non-directive coaching challenges the sales person to think differently, it forces them to come up with the answers, and helps commit them to the right steps in execution. Non-directive coaching is one of the most powerful ways to develop the capabilities of each individual to perform at their highest possible levels.

But sometimes, the circumstances are such that we just have to tell the person what to do. The risks or consequences of failure may be so high. The urgency around immediate action may be so critical. The situation may be far beyond a person’s abilities to figure it out. The person may not have the ability or willingness to figure it out. Each of these demand “telling.”

As an example, if I am sitting in the passenger seat of a car and you are driving 60 MPH (100 KPH) straight at a concrete wall, I’m not going to ask, “Have you ever considered what might happen if we smash into the wall? Are there different approaches to what you are trying to do? Are there alternative courses of action? What would happen if you changed your point of view or considered doing something different?”

I’m going to scream, “Step on the damn brakes!!!!”

Smart managers are agile in their coaching approaches. They adapt the types of non-directive and directive approaches to the individual and the situation, never sticking strictly to a single coaching approach or method.

When we coach, it’s not just the person being coached that learns, the coach is learning as much or more. Too often, managers in their “coaching” approaches think it’s simply a matter of transferring their knowledge and experience to the sales person. It’s the “I know what’s right and need to show my sales people what’s right.” In reality, great coaching is about collaborative learning.

As managers, we have the opportunity to learn so much as we coach our people. We learn about what they face and the realities of selling and dealing with very complex situations. We learn about customers and our competitiveness. There is so much we can take back into our organizations to improve our offerings and what we do.

We develop our own skills and capabilities, we learn to shift our point of views. We share, with our people the opportunity to discover, innovate, create, and improve. Through most of my career and even the coaching I do now, most of the people are more capable than I. But in our coaching sessions, we each seek to bring the best of each other out, to learn together and to develop and execute better than we each might have done individually.

Coaching is a privilege. The opportunity to coach a sales person, to see that individual perform at their highest levels, to achieve their full potential is what leadership is all about. It in turn challenges each of us to raise our game, to improve and perform at higher levels. We get the opportunity to teach and learn. to co-create and collaborate, to grow and develop.

What could be more exciting!

I’ll stop here, I could go much further, instead, I’ll point you to much richer and extensive discussions in the Sales Manager Survival Guide. (Yes, it’s a shameless plug, but you will learn a lot!)