Mary nodded. “Yes, I’m Mary Steena, and I’m the national sales manager for Caribou Creek. We distribute specialty food items through a variety of channels. I’m here because I’m having problems with a couple of my sales reps.
“Actually, I should qualify that. The problems I’m having with two of my salespeople — I’ll just call them Marvin and Pat — are not unique. Every sales manager has trouble getting peak performance from all sales reps all the time. A certain amount of that is part of the psychology of sales. When it’s hot, it’s hot, and when it’s not, it’s not. People are more motivated when things are going well, and less motivated when items aren’t selling.
“But Marvin is a special case, and that’s why this bothers me so much. When he’s on his game, there’s nobody better at selling. But too much of the time he simply doesn’t apply himself. Not only does it affect his own sales, but it affects overall sales, because the rest of the sales staff know how good a salesman he is, and they look up to him.
“I take him aside for a heart-to-heart talk, and he goes back out and beats his quota for a week or two. Then he lets things slide again. Another talk, and he’s setting records again, but it never lasts.
“Pat is another story. He used to be good, almost as good as Marvin, but over the past year or two his performance has gone steadily downhill. Pat’s got the skills and experience to be a top-notch sales rep, but he’s just not performing. I talk with him and his performance improves, but not as much as it should. Then he slips — kind of like Marvin, but a little lower than he was before. We talk again, and he improves again, then he slips again. So it’s the same up-and-down as with Marvin, but with the slips frequently at a slightly lower level than before.
“I went to our VP of sales and marketing and told him I didn’t know what else I could do to stop Pat’s downhill slide, and that Marvin’s ups and downs were affecting the whole sales staff. He sent me here.”
“Thank you, Mary. Well stated. Now let me ask you something. What’s your perception of where the problem lies? Is there something going on with Marvin and Pat that you don’t know about or can’t fix? Or do you think the problem comes from somewhere outside them — something to do with their interaction with the company?”
“I don’t know, Tony. They never complain to me about anything, and when I talk with them about their performance, they don’t blame anybody else — just the market, or the competition, or the pricing. If they’re having trouble at home, I’m not aware of it.”
“Okay,” said Tony. “I know we can’t answer this question up front, and the answer, whatever it might be, may only lead to part of the solution. I brought it up because it’s important to ask questions even when we can’t answer them. This is only one of the questions we need to keep in mind. And sometimes, part of the solution is to refer someone to Human Resources. Or with kids, it may be a clinical situation — they may need professional help.
“But I’ll tell you this. We’ve had a lot of sales managers in this program, at least 200 over the past five years, and our results have been excellent — as you’ll see.
“Let’s hear next from the guy whose business is asking lots of questions — the teacher. Mike, why are you here?”
Mike, who was leaning back in his chair, sat forward quickly. “No fair, I didn’t have my hand up.” This got a laugh.
“Think of this as a pop quiz, Mike,” replied Tony, bringing more laughs. “I think you explained in your letter that you were concerned about some of your brightest students.”
“Yes, that’s true. But I guess I’d have to say I’m concerned about all my students. Even though I teach fifth grade, I try to keep track of them down the line, and I see too many going out into the world not having discovered their full potential, not having the tools and skills and resources to realize it. As an educator, I think that’s a terrible waste of a valuable resource. Oh, and my name’s Mike Gwinn, and I teach here in Chatham.
“Mary told us about Marvin. Well, I sometimes feel like I have a whole classroom full of Marvins. A few of my kids are geniuses, a few are marginal achievers who try as hard as they can to keep up — but most are just average kids who don’t seem to care much about the world outside their immediate circle of friends. They don’t have any idea what they’re capable of, what their untapped talents could mean to them and to the world.
“I went into teaching because I felt it was a good way to help make the world better. Even though I’ve become discouraged at how intractable this problem seems to be, I guess I’m still idealistic enough to want to make a difference. If I can come out of this program with just one good idea, I’ll consider it time well spent.”
Tony said, “Yes, Mike, I think you’ll gain more than one good idea during the time you spend here. And before this exercise ends, we’ll all know what ideas you picked up and how useful they were in your situation because, as we work our way through, we’re going to apply what we learn. I’ll give you some tools to try out, along with some guidelines for applying them. Then, after you’ve had a chance to apply them, we’ll meet once more to hear how well they’ve worked.
“It’s unusual to have a teacher in a group of businesspeople, as you might have guessed, but it’s not our first time. We’ve worked with educators before, and in most cases we’ve been able to raise test scores 5 to 10 percent on average. Not bad, eh?
“Now that we’ve heard Mike’s concerns, let’s take a look at a similar issue from the other side. I believe Lloyd Magnusson is here strictly as a parent, and he’s concerned that his daughter is not doing well in school. Is that right, Lloyd?”
Lloyd nodded. “Lori is a big worry for my wife and me. She does well on achievement tests, and she used to be among the top students in grade school. But now she seems to have lost interest in learning. She gets mostly C’s and D’s, with an occasional A or B. We can’t seem to get her out of her slump. Sometimes we can’t even get her to talk to us. When we do manage to get through to her, her grades usually go up, but before long they’re down again.”
“How old is she?”
“I wonder,” said Tony. “Have you thought this might be normal teenage rebellion? Or do you think it’s something more?”
“I don’t think that’s quite it, although there’s some of that going on. When she shuts herself off from us, it’s more like she’s disappointed in herself for not doing better. Sometimes she really applies herself, and she does seem pleased when she gets good results, like a B on a test or an essay. But then she loses interest, doesn’t study, flunks a test, and gets even more discouraged. And her room gets even messier, which is another issue we’re having with her.”
“Well, Lloyd, I can’t guarantee you can solve this problem overnight, but I can say this: your situation is not unique. We’ve dealt with this before and achieved some pretty good results. It’s tough to see your own kid stumble, but you should know we’ve seen a lot worse and turned the situation around. So don’t be discouraged.
“Tony, I just want Lloyd to know that teenage girls are a mystery deeper than the ocean, and just about as scary. I know, because I was once a teenage girl and I’ve raised two of my own. And I did it the hard way, by instinct and guesswork — which in some cases means simply waiting it out. But from what I’ve heard about it, Lloyd, I think this program will help you understand and deal with it a lot faster than I was able to. And probably better.”
“Thanks, Janet,” said Tony. “And you’re right. You’d be surprised at how many business managers have come up to me after one of these sessions and said, ‘Tony, this is really good stuff, but I wish I’d known it when I was raising my kids!’
“But that’s not what you’re here for today, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” agreed Janet. “I’m Janet Patterson, and I’m here because I’m concerned about my grown-ups. I’m a nursing supervisor at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. We’re a community hospital, and I’m all too familiar with the pressures my people are under — life-and-death situations, bureaucratic foul-ups, too little money, too many patients, understaffing, the works. It can be stressful for all of us. And nurses who are under stress sometimes become poor team players. They stop helping and cooperating with one another. They don’t pass along helpful information to the next shift. Their attitude becomes, ‘My shift’s over, it’s been a bad day, I’m outta here.’
“These are good people. They’re capable of doing wonderful things for their patients, even with the odds stacked against them. But when teamwork lags, that stacks the odds even more. I wish I knew how to get through to them — how to get them to put forth that little bit of extra effort that saves ten times as much work for someone else.
“I can get some of them to be good team players almost all of the time, and I can get all of them to be good team players some of the time. What I want is for all of them to be the best team players they can be, all of the time.”
“Thank you, Janet. I think we’ll soon discover ways to help you bring out the best in your nurses. You used the word ‘teamwork,’ and that’s significant, because we’ve been very successful at improving teamwork in many different situations. And teamwork has a synergistic effect: small improvements in teamwork can create big improvements in overall results.
“Now, Carlos, that leaves you. Will you tell us your story?”
“Certainly,” said Carlos. “I’m Carlos Navarro, and I’m the president of Arbor Paper Products here in Chatham. We produce pressure-sensitive products like mailing labels, product labels, and the stock postage stamps are made from. Chances are pretty good you use a lot of the products we manufacture.
“Our plant produces good results, but it’s still not living up to its potential. Production volume is good, and product quality is good, but the plant has just never operated at its design potential.
“Even though our people believe they’re giving it all they’ve got, I know there’s another 2 to 3 percent productivity available to us, but it seems just out of reach. How do we tap that last bit of potential?
“These are good people. I can’t push them any harder. I have to find ways of pulling them along. A colleague of mine told me this was the place to learn how to pull out that last 2 or 3 percent.”
“Okay, thanks, Carlos. This program has been very successful in raising manufacturing productivity across a broad spectrum of industries. I can almost guarantee you’ll achieve your efficiency goals. But I have to warn you — the bigger the company, the bigger the task.
“Folks, before we go on, does anybody have any questions? Comments?”
“Yes, Tony,” said Mary. “At first I was a bit confused about why we seemed to be such a diverse group. I’ve known Carlos for some time, so his presence didn’t surprise me. And I was talking with Janet before you came in and knew that she was a supervisor, like me. But when I learned that Mike was a teacher and heard Lloyd mention something about his child, I wondered for a moment if this was going to be time well spent. I was concerned about what I perceived as ‘nonbusiness’ issues, like grades or parenting.
“But now I believe I understand what we have in common. Business is not the point. Although we are dealing with children and adults, with students as well as employees, what we share is performance issues — right? Getting someone to perform better or at least differently. It’s all about human behavior. Each of us needs to get someone to behave differently — whether it’s sales, quality, productivity, teamwork, grades, or something else.”
“That’s a good insight, Mary. And it’s the key to understanding the roadblocks you’re all up against. There are more similarities than differences in your situations. For instance, take your sales reps, Marvin and Pat, and Lloyd’s daughter, Lori. Each seems to improve after a heart-to-heart talk, but the improvement never lasts. That’s a commonality, and both of you will walk away from here with a set of tools to resolve that up-down-up-down issue. You’ll probably apply them differently, but the core skill will be the same.
“Same thing for everyone here. The tools that help Carlos get more out of his employees can help Mike get more out of his students. What works for Janet in dealing with teamwork at the hospital may be just the thing to help Carlos improve teamwork in his factory. Or, for that matter, in the youth soccer team he coaches.
“This is not an oversimplification of your issues, nor do I mean to imply that Marvin is a child, or that nurses work under the same conditions as salespeople. As you’ll see, the tools we’re talking about are universal. They work because they focus on changing behavior. If you apply them, they’ll bring out the best in anyone — whether in business, school, community service, or the home. Some of your organizations may have mentoring programs, or perhaps you or someone you know is mentoring a student. The process and tools apply in these situations, too.
“One more thing. As we move along, I’m going to ask each of you to get more specific about exactly what changes you’d like to see. We’ll come to that later, but for now, just start thinking about it.
“In a few minutes I’ll tell you what we’ve learned about the conditions that create high-performing individuals — what makes them tick. We’ll discuss and analyze these conditions and how they can be created for the individuals you’re concerned about.
“By the time we finish today, you’ll have gained enough knowledge to go out and bring forth high performance from people you never thought capable of it. Consistently high performance, over the long term.
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Dr. Connellan is a former research associate and program director at the University of Michigan. A best-selling author, he is a frequent keynote speaker for organizations as diverse as Dell, Neiman-Marcus, GE, Marriott, Sony, and the Air Force Academy.