How to Coach Your Team with Less Effort and More Impact

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”

— Harvey S. Firestone

You cannot scale your firm without scalable structures, including people and the ability to increasingly delegate to them. Yet more frequently than we care to admit, as leaders and managers, we all face this classic dilemma: Should I do it myself or teach someone else to do it?

Here’s the catch: you need to engage top performers or risk losing them. Even so, I regularly see executive teams stretched to the limit, trying to take everything on themselves. To scale, leaders must continually elevate themselves strategically over time. To do this you need to hire well and then actively work to build capability in the next level of leadership within your organization.

This is easier said than done, as Kate’s story illustrates.


Kate’s team was hitting their targets like clockwork. She was promoted to Sales Manager two years ago from her role as a top performing sales representative. A self-proclaimed “people person,” she enjoys wandering the sales floor and helping her team find, shape, and close deals. She shares her experience generously, usually by saying (or implying) “Here’s what you should do next…” Her team likes her because she helps them earn their commissions. Her boss—the firm’s CEO—appreciates the results and views Kate as a key leader on his team.

But beneath the surface, all isn’t well with Kate and her sales team.

Two of her top performing sales reps recently departed, citing “opportunities they couldn’t refuse” as the reason for leaving. As a result, in addition to the work to hire new reps, Kate redoubled her efforts to coach her team and achieve the sales targets the CEO expected. She wondered to herself: “How can we keep growing if I’m already exhausted managing my team? And why did those two reps quit even though I was helping them close business all the time?” Kate was stressed out, losing sleep, and felt like she was the only person at the firm who could reliably close deals on her own even though she was constantly coaching her team. 


Despite her good intentions, Kate coached her team for business results, not for professional growth. By telling them what to do, she inadvertently stunted their learning and turned her team into an extension of herself. It’s likely that the high performing reps who quit departed because they didn’t feel like they were challenged to grow and improve. Rather, it seemed like the expectation was to do what they were told to close deals.

Kate was operating at the bottom right of the Capability Growth Curve (see figure below). She was expending tremendous energy inserting herself into deals and coaching her team for results. Although they were hitting their sales targets, they weren’t learning to become more independent in their work. This can feel like an exhausting, unsustainable trap for managers, with no clear path to escape.

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Coaching for Growth, Not Results

“The key to greatness is to look for people’s potential and spend time developing it.”

– Peter Drucker

The term “coaching” is overused to the point it’s become a synonym for any 1-on-1 meeting between a manager and a subordinate. The meeting’s format isn’t a proxy for being a competent coach! Further, not all “coaching” is effective to build capability in others. In fact, many things well-intentioned managers do when they think they’re coaching actually increase dependency, which isn’t a scalable structure.

Most managers (just like Kate) unknowingly coach for business results rather than for professional growth. This is doing and managing, not coaching! It’s important for managers to master growth-oriented coaching to engage and scale their team.

A results orientation focuses on getting things done, usually by telling someone what to do and/or how to do it. The problem here is that managers feel like it works, because they’re “helping” their team create results. Even worse, these managers also feel useful to their teams because they regularly step in and answer questions from their employees like “what should I do now?” and “how would you handle this?” Over time, rather than building more independent thinkers, this approach reinforces the proverbial “genius with a thousand arms and legs” organizational structure. Although managers may be achieving transactional wins, coaching for results is exhausting and unsustainable in a growing firm.

Coaching for growth on the other hand sustainably builds capability, independence, and scalability. To begin your move to the top left of the Capability Growth Curve, you’ll need to rethink how you provide feedback.

Mastering Feedback

“The best way to develop people is to constantly get them out of their comfort zone.”

— Ziad Abdelnour

Researchers have determined that most feedback isn’t “brain friendly” and doesn’t work. There are two dominant tendencies that miss the mark:

  1. Indirect and Soft Feedback may feel more comfortable to the feedback giver but can be difficult for the receiver to recognize as feedback. This soft approach also often confuses the receiver with watered-down and/or mixed message. In short: it usually doesn’t work!
  2. Feedback that is Too Direct frequently leads to defensiveness. This is an expected outcome according to social scientists because we perceive hard, direct feedback as a social threat which triggers our fight/flight response. Defensiveness is the result, and rarely leads to effective outcomes from the conversation.

Cognitive Psychologist LeeAnn Renniger and her team conducted research that identified “great feedback givers” from numerous organizations and then dissected how they gave feedback. Their findings led to the development of a four-step model for providing highly effective feedback.

  1. Get a Micro Yes. It’s critically important to prime the other person’s brain to expect feedback before starting the process. The micro yes does just that, taking the form of a statement and a simple question that should generate a “yes” response. Here are two examples: (1) “I have a couple of thoughts to share about today’s meeting. Do you have a moment right now?” (2) “I have some ideas about how we can improve things. Can I share them with you?”
  2. Use Datapoints (Facts). Be specific as you relay what you observed and/or heard. If possible, give more than one example of the behavior (three are ideal) to create clarity and establish a pattern. Be careful to avoid non-specific terms that the psychologists call blur words. For example, saying that someone should be “less defensive” or “more proactive” fails to provide useful guidance about the problem behaviors and how to change them. Convert your blur words into specific behaviors and examples to help the other person understand and then act constructively moving forward. For instance, instead of saying “you’re not reliable,” use a specific datapoint like “you said you’d get the client report to me by noon yesterday and I still haven’t received it.”
  3. Show the Impact of the Current Behavior. Describe how the behavior affected you, and perhaps others. This information imparts a sense of purpose to the feedback: this is why it matters to me and why it should matter to you too. Here’s how this can sound: “Our clients rely on us to meet our commitments and when we don’t, we risk losing them to our competition. I promised to send them my recommendations by the end of the day today, which we’re going to miss.”
  4. Ask a Question for Engagement and to Gain Commitment. This final step relays the feedback giver’s expectations, generates dialogue, and helps pivot the conversation to action. To continue the example: “What are your thoughts about this?” or “How do you see it from your perspective?”

The same four-step model applies to positive feedback as well. It’s important to (1) prime the brain for positive feedback, (2) be specific (no blur words!), (3) show the positive impact of the behavior, and (4) encourage even more of it.

You’ll be far better positioned to coach for growth and accelerate your team’s development when you’ve mastered feedback.

How to Coach for Growth

“Good leaders develop ideas. Great leaders develop people. The best leaders develop new leaders.”

– Bobby Umar

Now that you understand LeeAnn Renniger’s feedback process, it’s natural to wonder how to use it in the context of coaching for growth. I’ve worked with leaders who provide lots of feedback using this process, but without materially accelerating the growth of their people. It turns out, you have to pick the right behaviors—patterns of behaviors, actually—to effectively coach for growth. You also need to speak plainly, even if it’s somewhat uncomfortable for you or for the other person.

Coach Behavioral Patterns

Pattern recognition is an evolutionary capacity modern humans developed because we were a prey species for millions of years. Think about the survival advantage of being able to notice a rustle in the distant grass or detect a snapping twig amid the background noise of the day. As a result, we can identify repeating patterns and anomalies to patterns with relative ease, whether visual, auditory, or tactile.

Your job as a leader and as a coach is to identify the behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s growth and development. For example, here are a handful of patterns I’ve observed to be common in the workplace: consistently disorganized, unreliable, late to meetings, prone to argue non-essential points, slow to ask for help, too soft in negotiations, and being more problem than solution focused.

Use the pattern in step two of the feedback process as the lead, and then offer specific examples of the behaviors that establish the pattern. For example, if Kate the sales manager was coaching one of her reps for growth, she might point out that their prospective customers negotiate on price more than they should because the rep has a habit of not asking enough questions earlier in the sales process to establish the value of their offering. Then Kate should describe three specific examples of the rep’s behavior pattern to help them understand. This method is foundational for growth as opposed to the most common alternative, which is to coach for results by helping the rep negotiate more effectively (“do this” and “say this”) to close the deal.

Speak with Radical Candor

Technology executive and author Kim Scott coined the term Radical Candor in her book with the same title. When I first read it, I realized that although I had been coaching with radical candor for years (it’s why this newsletter is called Straight Talk for Leaders!), there was a massive opportunity for my clients to up their game and their effectiveness as leaders.

Radical candor requires two simultaneous actions: caring deeply and telling the brutal truth. Scott’s premise is that we owe our people the truth about how they show up, how they act, and how they come across to others. If not for that, how can a leader have any reasonable expectation for people on their team to improve? Ironically, Scott argues, the ability to tell the brutal truth requires one to care deeply and caring deeply impels us to tell the brutal truth. As long as you’re not a jerk about it, shoot straight with your people by telling them the truth they need to hear and give them the chance to grow and improve.

When combined with Renniger’s feedback process, pattern recognition and radical candor unlock the full potential of coaching for growth.


The consequences of operating at the lower right end of the Capabilities Growth Curve are costly, exhausting, and growth-killing. Start your journey up the curve by looking in the mirror and considering where you coach your people for results and where you might even be doing their jobs for them. You should also ask your team, your colleagues, and perhaps a qualified coach for feedback to guide your thinking. Every meaningful change begins with self-awareness.

From there, find opportunities to practice the four-step feedback model—even if transactionally. You’ll discover it’s a far easier and more effective way to get your points across to others while also motivating them to act on your input. Over time, shift your 1-on-1 interactions to coach for growth: identify behavioral patterns, operate with radical candor, and continue to use the feedback model.

American author, salesman, and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said: “Successful people use their strength by recognizing, developing, and utilizing the talents of others.” Coaching your team for growth does just that.

You’ll expend less energy on higher impact coaching. You’ll retain more top performers who love to learn and grow. And you’ll more sustainably build capability, independence, and scalability within your organization.


Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes: April 18, 2022 and May 4, 2022. Learn more and register!


More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

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