If you ask a first-line sales manager (FLM) what keeps them from spending more time coaching, you’re likely to hear one of two things:
- Most FLMs report that the number one challenge they face when trying to coach is a lack of time. No doubt, there are a lot of demands placed on today’s managers – by their organizations, by their bosses (the “RDs”), and by the people they are hoping to coach (i.e., the reps).
- Managers often say it can be a struggle to get their reps to take an active role in their own development. Many FLMs find themselves in the role of “Problem Solver in Chief” – a title that extends to coaching and professional development.
There is, however, a way to address both of these challenges by making one small change to the way you and/or your managers coach. It involves what we call Actionable Coaching.
Actionable Coaching Defined
Actionable Coaching is one of the six criteria associated with Quality Coaching.
Since 2006, Echelon Performance has reviewed more than 10,000 field coaching reports (FCRs), personal development plans, and individual year-end reviews from the life sciences industry. In that time, we have identified six criteria associated with coaching provided by top-performing FLMs. These criteria – known collectively as “the BASICS” – include coaching that is:
- Balanced – Balanced coaching affirms progress in core skills and competencies while, at the same time, identifying opportunities for the “coachee” to grow.
- Actionable – Actionable coaching occurs when the FLM asks their “coachee” to address identified gaps in performance on their own time. Currently fewer than four in 10 FCRs from the pharma industry contain Actionable Coaching.
- Specific – Specific coaching includes a detailed description of skills, behaviors, and the impact they had on a particular conversation or setting.
- Immediate – Includes feedback and coaching focused primarily on the current field visit or most recent period of review. Coaching to specific observations on a current field visit or review period ensures that the manager avoids what’s known as “the halo effect” and allows FLMs to focus their coaching on timely, top-of-mind examples.
- Continuity – Continuous coaching allows managers to focus on a small number of skills or competencies – ideally, two – and track and coach to progress in each coaching conversation. Continuity allows an FLM to focus on the skills and behaviors that will be most beneficial to the rep and creates momentum in his or her development.
- Supportive – Coaching to near-term development is crucial and should be considered the primary focus of coaching, However, top-performing managers create a connection between what they are coaching to today and a rep’s long-term development goals.
Action Items vs. Actionable Coaching
When it comes to delivering Actionable Coaching, managers need to be clear on two things:
- What skills or behaviors they want their rep to “own,” and
- What resources are available for them to leverage.
The answer to the first question should be based on a manager’s first-hand experience with the rep. They observe, they make notes, they consider the needs of the individual as well as the needs of the business.
Too often, however, FLMs confuse “Action Items” with Actionable Coaching. For example, on many FCRs, we find “Action Items” such as:
- “Send me an update on your top five accounts by the end of the week.”
- “Please share an update on your progress at XYZ Health System with your counterparts.”
These activities, though important, do not qualify as Actionable Coaching because there is no connection to skills and behaviors. Consider these examples of Actionable Coaching:
- “You do a great job promoting our patient programs and in getting providers to agree to offer therapy. Moving forward, add in a timeline…e.g. “If it’s ok with you, I’ll be back next Friday to check on the progress and see if there are any questions I can help address.” This will only help with holding providers accountable for their commitments. Self-assess after every call and provide me with an update on our next 1:1.”
This example is considered Actionable because it a.) focuses on a relevant specific skill or behavior, and b.) it puts the onus of development squarely on the shoulders of coachee.
A Coach’s Not-so-Secret Weapon
The answer to the second question is found in your company’s centralized sales training platforms or portals, which is engineered to help managers and their teams gain access to the training, tools, and resources reps need to extend learning beyond the classroom and drive professional development. But, the challenge often is FLMs’ lack of awareness and understanding of the existing content, tools, and resources.
This gap can be bridged with a three-step approach.
Step 1. Take inventory: Take stock of your tools and resources, and refresh them periodically.
Step 2. Communicate: Provide quarterly or monthly updates to your managers to make them aware of the available resources and tools. Also, include second-line leaders (like RDs) and your senior sales leaders.
Step 3. Cull: Ensure you weed out the old versions and update the latest ones.
Having an employee take ownership of his or her development should be a goal for every manager. Not only does it create a more engaged team but it also helps your managers to deliver more Quality Coaching.