Star Performer Not Performing? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am the EVP of sales for a global professional services and SAS company. As you can imagine, we are reeling from the pandemic and the economic train wreck that seems to be coming at us. In the midst of this chaos, I have a long-tenured sales professional—let’s call her G—who is running amok. For many years, G has exceeded huge sales goals; therefore, she has a huge base salary. But for the past five years or so, G has fallen way short of goal.

About 18 months ago, her manager worked with G to recalibrate her goals and she agreed to all the points. She has achieved almost none of what was decided. Instead, she has been focusing on customers outside of her regional mandate. She has also put far too much time into developing strategic partnerships that are not useful to the organization. There are other problems I won’t get into.

The executive team agrees that G is a valuable employee and is willing to get her an executive coach. How would you recommend we go about it? We have provided coaching in the past without seeing quite the results we wanted. How can we ensure that the exorbitant expense will be worthwhile?

Need a Fix!


Dear Need a Fix,

I am so glad you asked. We have a lot of experience with this kind of thing. With clients, we call this Turnaround or Targeted coaching—but internally (don’t tell anyone) we call it Problem Child coaching. Even though our business is designed to offer coaching on a large scale, most clients who request this kind of thing want just one person coached. They want to fix someone who has been valuable but who has run into trouble. This used to be the definition of coaching: bringing in an outside professional to fix people. It was usually kicked off with assessments, which in my opinion do have their place in development but can’t be a substitute for a boss who is too spineless to tell it like it is.

Coaching has since evolved to be an invaluable tool for high performers and high potential employees who need to speed up their development. It almost always adds value and delivers exceptional results. We still do turnaround work, but we charge a lot because it is dangerous: it is time consuming and rarely yields the desired result. We really try to avoid selling expensive approaches that may very well not work—because, frankly, it’s bad for business. But when clients insist, we go in with eyes wide open and we are very upfront about the hazards.

At the risk of offending you, we would probably suggest you get a little coaching yourself to see if you can make the needed impact without the expense and potential insult of essentially forcing a coach on G. Ask yourself:

  • What part have I played in this situation? What might I have done differently?
  • How did I let this go on for so long? What kept me from setting proper boundaries and making direct requests?
  • Are there any other situations where I might be doing this right now?
  • How might I nip this kind of thing in the bud in the future?
  • What changed for G—one minute she was a rock star and then she wasn’t? Did the market change? The company processes? Did she have some kind of personal problem she wasn’t able to recover from?
  • Did G lose a key personal motivator? The science of motivation has taught us that we need the right mix in the areas of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Was G suddenly tasked with learning a new software she just couldn’t master? Did she lose her best friend at work? Did she get a new boss who started breathing down her neck and micromanaging in such a way that put her on tilt?
  • Am I willing to have a brutally honest conversation with G in which I just ask the questions and listen deeply to her answers?

In any event, working with a coach yourself will not be wasted time or effort.

Now, back to the problem of G. Why is Turnaround coaching such a rocky road? So many reasons.

Lack of clarity: We are often asked to have the coach give the client—in this case, G—feedback they have never heard before. Managers—in this case you—are often convinced that feedback and requests have been shared and clarified, but that is rarely the case. You may have said things clearly, but you would be surprised at how easy it is for some people to tune out what they don’t want to hear. What you think sounds like a request might have sounded like a suggestion to G. Your observations about unacceptable behaviors might have been mistaken for input rather than clear requests. Many managers are so worried about damaging the relationship that critical requests can easily end up soft-pedaled and unclear. So for the coaching to make a real difference, you must be prepared to give G crystal clear feedback on what she is doing or not doing that is not working, with crystal clear examples of what would be acceptable. Ask G to repeat it all back to you. Then have her put it in writing.

Lack of measurement: Often the boss is unable to identify desired results that are measurable. They claim they “will know success when they see it.” This is a madly waving red warning flag for us! The results we are looking for must be black and white. Either something is done correctly or it’s not. There can’t be any room for subjective opinions. We like to suggest an “always/never” list. Always do this. Never do that. It lends some real grit to the task at hand.

Lack of consequences for noncompliance: Change is hard. Most people need to truly understand the rationale behind the desired change—and even when they do, they need to feel the discomfort or even the pain of not changing. The neuroscience of goal achievement tells us that we are likely to take actions to avoid pain. The negative consequence for G not making the desired changes needs to be real—and dire. Demotion or actual termination is what I am talking about here. And it can’t be just a threat. You must be ready to do it.

Do you hate me yet? I kind of do. Did I say this was hazardous? Yes, I did.

It is hard to change perception: People tend to commit to their opinion of those who annoy them. Even if G does make significant changes, it might be hard for those around her to see and acknowledge the changes. It is very difficult to change stakeholders’ impressions, even in the face of direct evidence. So if you need to see changes in the way G works with others in the organization, she is going to have to discuss her coaching with each person and ask them for help—not only constant feedback when she reverts to old behaviors, but also a chance to shift on the fly. G is going to need to involve others in her quest to improve. This takes an awful lot of courage. She may or may not have it.

Sometimes it’s the fit: There is always a good chance that G is simply in the wrong job or the wrong organization. Maybe there have been so many changes around G that it will never be right. Some clients really should consider that what they need to be successful is a different environment. You need to be prepared for the possibility that the safe environment and soul searching she finds in coaching may result in her choosing to leave the organization. Sometimes this actually the best-case scenario.

Some people are not willing or able to change: There are many potential reasons why G is underperforming. Maybe she is trying to get back at someone. Maybe she has serious personal problems. Speculation is a waste of time, but the truth is that maybe G either isn’t willing to step up and do the work or just can’t. The coach will know within the first three months if G is committed—and G needs to know that the coach will have that conversation with her. Good coaches know when they are being “yessed.” The coach, in all good conscience, should end the coaching if that happens.
Nobody wants to think they need to be fixed: Do you? I sure don’t. So the whole thing needs to be set up carefully and G needs to know you have her best interests and her career success at heart.

Need a Fix, you might want to start by having a bona fide heart-to-heart with G. You may be able to avoid the whole coaching thing this way, especially considering you’ve already tried it. Maybe if G feels safe enough to explore what is true for her, you can reach some kind of resolution. It is worth a try.

Good luck—this is a tough one.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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