Published on: November 17, 2010Content Guy’s Note: Over the past few years, an annual feature here on MNB has been Art Turock’s reports from the University of Southern California’s fantasy camp for over-the-hill-but-still-willing football players, and what he learned there that could be applied to business.
This year, Art is back with a new set of observations...though the scenario is just a little bit different...
The news went from bad to worse, as I prepared this past spring to participate in my fourth year at the USC Trojan Flashback Football Camp, an experience I’ve found to be an opportunity to live out a childhood dream and that also serves as a kind of management seminar in football cleats. By observing the inner workings of a talent development hotbed, I’ve gain leadership lessons to share in my speeches and consulting, as well as in guest columns here on MNB.
But in fairly quick order, the 2010 Camp was cancelled. Then, on the same June day that we would have been on the gridiron, the NCAA announced sanctions against USC Football for rules violations. While this was transpiring, Coach Pete Carroll, who brought phenomenal success to the USC program, was relocating to my home town, preparing for his first year as coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
The USC violations certainly cast a shadow over Coach Carroll’s 96-19 record and a legacy of players prepared for pro careers. Nevertheless, Carroll’s coaching philosophy provides valuable lessons about talent development. And I believe there is even something to learn from the USC missteps.
One facet of Coach Carroll’s leadership that I most admire is his ability to shape a culture based on his “Win Forever” coaching philosophy, which contains unwavering principles such as “Practice is Everything,” and “Always Compete” to galvanize the team’s choices and actions. These principles weren’t just slogans. I observed practices and off-season conditioning sessions, and marveled at the coaching staff’s vigilance in monitoring them.
USC’s transgressions can be traced to another principle, “Protect the Team,” which did not translate into off-the-field accountability. While 24/7 monitoring by a coaching staff is impossible, behaviors like looking the other way, ignoring the elephant in the room, praying that the program won’t get caught - all these constitute a cultural breach that drew NCCA penalties.
These same stick-your-head-in-the sand behaviors occur in business every day. The greatest danger is when they undermine alignment with common cultural principles like “Commitment to continuous improvement” or “Talent development is job 1.” When deviations from cultural principles are deemed undiscussible or too risky to take seriously, then a company’s competitive advantage and capacity to produce results are jeopardized.
Take a supermarket sales floor. Associates manning demos assume tasting a product is sufficient to sell, and don’t see the need for suggestive selling and storytelling skills. Pharmacists fill prescriptions but neglect to cross sell produce items which remedy depletion of vital nutrients caused by drugs. During heavy traffic hours, the store’s managers often stay sequestered in their offices at precisely the moments where their coaching could profoundly impact associates’ sales proficiency.
What’s the outcome? For decades now, the industry defines competent performance as polite, friendly, responsive to direct request, while tolerating deficient selling skills. Imagine the countless “on the bubble sales opportunities” where shoppers ponder a product and eventually talk themselves out of a purchase.
On the supplier side, salespeople deliver boilerplate presentations extolling their brands while failing to customize their message to address unique customer problems. After a major account sales call, the team of presenters takes 10 minutes in cavalier, “How do you think that went?” conversation and then bolt for the airport. Continuous performance improvement is unlikely.
While there are no illegalities in these examples, many leaders fail to address talent development constraints that come to be considered “the nature of the business” so their people never approach full performance capacity.
But let’s look at Coach Carroll’s full body of work where the unwavering principles of the USC culture were rigorously adhered to. In recapitulating my exposure to Coach Carroll’s philosophy, the unquestionable key take away was his statement:
“If I was writing down the keys to our success, I would write one line - we’re going to do things better than they have ever been done before. We are going to teach, practice, recruit, counsel, analyze, and do everything better than it has been done before.”
Unfortunately, “do everything better” is not a philosophy that most business bring to their field of play, the retail sales floor or a customer’s headquarters. Managers notice plateaus in sales performance, find no solutions requiring reasonable effort and risk, and find justification to give up trying to improve with priorities like:
Cost-effectiveness. “In a high turnover industry, there’s no sense investing in developing associates who will leave shortly.”
Efficiency. “Work must get done. There’s not a spare minute for sales training.”
Expediency. “By simplifying job requirements, we can pay lower wages.”
Good as competition. “Our competitors don’t do any better than we do in developing associates’ sales capabilities.”
Compare these priorities with USC’s best-it’s-ever-been-done priorities like meticulous, creative, unreasonable, and competitive superiority. The stark contrast reveals critical differences. Is labor treated as a cost to be managed? Or is talent development treated as core competency to be continuously improved?
Here are three significant steps any business can take to adapt Coach Carroll’s talent development philosophies.
1. Raise performance standards to reflect best-its-ever-been-done selling capabilities. After being fired by two NFL teams, Pete Carroll studied John Wooden and other coaching greats and filled 15 notebooks describing his emerging coaching philosophy. Copy the Coach. Study companies where you marvel at their associates’ selling ability, such as Whole Foods, Container Store, Wegman’s, and Apple Store. Observe your best sales people to identify their effective behaviors. Imagine fresh ways to reconstitute your associates’ sales roles by solving unmet customer needs.
2. Raise managers’ performance standards to include coaching. Whether these reconstituted sales roles become reality hinges on managers being able to coach associates’ skill proficiency in:
Noticing shopper buying signals
Educating customers on health benefits, new products, recipes
Suggestive selling techniques
Sharing captivating stories about suppliers and their products
Eliciting customers’ ideas for improving the shopping experience
Overcoming anxiety around selling.
Don’t just re-write job performance standards and assume your current managers are capable, have time, or even want to coach. Competent managers direct implementation of their company’s operational plans. But elite managers also coach, by orchestrating job-imbedded development opportunities where the sales floor is like a football practice field, where getting work done becomes simultaneously a process of improving skills. They stage teachable moments by modeling selling techniques with customers, and giving feedback after observing associates practice similar skills in their interactions. Do you have competent or elite mangers on your team?
3. Change your cultural conversation. Only when an organization can abandon holding on to being good can it become great. Be a leader who replaces cultural conversations and priorities that constrain competent performance with a new version that screams with audacity for talent development.
And if you don’t believe me, just listen to some of the retail business’s most accomplished practitioners:
“We don’t focus on economies of scale but economies of skill.”
- Kevin Davis, CEO, Bristol Farms
“We will become world famous for how we work and treat customers...”
- John Yokoyama, founder, Pike Place Fish Market
“If we don't show our customers what to do with our products, they won't buy them. It's our knowledge that can help the customer. So the first pump we have to prime is our own people,”
- Danny Wegman, CEO, Wegmans
Sound outrageous? Impossible to achieve?
Getting past such reactions is the first step in adopting a “best it’s ever been done,” standard that can make the difference in your business. You can embrace it, or not.
Art Turock describes himself as “an elite performance provocateur who delivers speeches and extended coaching projects to help food industry suppliers and retailers raise their performance from competent to elite standards.”
Material in this article will appear in Art’s upcoming book, “Competent is Not an Option.”
COMPLIMENTARY OFFER: Art Turock has written a detailed Implementation Plan that accompanies his seminars on this topic, containing actionable ideas to share with senior managers and to execute with your own team. If you would like to be e-mailed a copy of this piece, “Competent is Not an Option,” e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 425-814-3038.
- KC's View: