Coach high performers to create a competitive advantage
Updated: Mar 4
Organizations are notoriously inept at seeing and acting on problems of great significance (see: Kodak, Blockbuster, Lehman Brothers, Target in Canada, etc). And while there are many explanations for this myopia, I believe this inability to respond can be explained, in part, by company cultures that suppress the whistle-blowers, that hide the canaries in the coal mine, that obscure the proverbial pause buttons.
In today's workplace, we're encouraged to develop a "solutions-oriented mindest," and a high level of "change resiliency." Neither of these is problematic in and of itself.
But when an organization becomes too focused on solutions, it actually narrows its focus on internal and external challenges (see Adam Grant, The Creative Power of Misfits). When an organization focuses too much on change "resilience," it sacrifices some of its ability to ask critical questions, surface unforeseen challenges, and act upon the subtle yet significant problems that accompany any change.
And that's where coaching high performers comes in.
While it's true that high performers can be problem-solvers, they may be equally valuable for their capacity to flag the otherwise ignored weaknesses and threats confronting an organization. It might be said that a true high performer is best deployed not just a problem-solver but as a problem-flagger!
Part of coaching a high performer involves developing a "problems-oriented mindset," and perhaps even a bit of "change skepticism." We ought to hold coaching conversations with high performers in which we analyze and identify the competitive challenges that the rest of the organization chooses not to see. In these discussions, we should seek to put teams and organizations on a path towards sustainability - by surfacing factors undermining longevity.
We should seek to have these conversations with high performers - but we should be judicious and discerning about what constitutes high performance. It's likely that anyone in an organization can articulate a few conspicuous grievances about their peers or their day to day work. But we're not looking for senseless griping about obvious annoyances. Presumably, someone has already thought about these. We're looking for the hidden challenges, we're seeking to understand the imminent problems that are not readily seen by all. That's why these conversations are a perfect fit for your high performing team members: those who know the business, who know how it runs, and who know how to contribute to its success.
In these conversations, workplace leaders can use three familiar tools in slightly novel applications:
The first is the SWOT Analysis, a look into a team or organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Long applied in strategic planning meetings or executive retreats, SWOT Analyses have been the tool of senior leaders and those in the upper echelon of the org chart. But they shouldn't remain there exclusively. High performers should regularly be encouraged to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats confronting their team, with a keen emphasis on weaknesses and threats.
The key to using this tool for competitive advantage lies in using it consistently with high performers, in encouraging them to focus on the "W" and "T," and in naming weaknesses and threats that are not readily apparent to all others within the organization. The key coaching question in these conversations becomes: "What weaknesses and threats are you aware of, that others are not giving enough thought to?"
The second tool is "Five Whys," a technique often deployed to uncover a problem's root cause. With the Five Whys, a coach asks their coachee "why" a problem exists. Upon their answer, they ask "why" again, prompting a deeper level of reflection than we typically apply to workplace challenges.
Five Whys can help high performers evaluate proposed changes to a team or an organization, so as to identify what downstream effects such a change might create.
The third tool is "Value Stream Mapping," a process-mapping activity that identifies all of the steps involved in delivering a product from a business to a customer. Value Stream Mapping identifies redundancies and unnecessary steps that create waste.
Value Stream Mapping can help high performers to identify possible sources of clutter, or sources of clarification. With Value Stream Mapping, a coach encourages high performers to think about what an organization should add to or remove its critical paths in order to protect against competitive threats.
High performers have an aptitude for sensing consequential problems before the rest of the organization. Often, they are sensing these vulnerabilities at the same time our competitors are thinking about them. When we help high performers to identify meaningful problems - and not just to offer solutions - we buffer our organizations against future disruption.
So give your high performers permission to dwell on problems, and to be skeptical about changes. It may just be the competitive advantage you require in order to avoid stay relevant.