The Primary Tool of Organizational Excellence

MN Department of Administration Risk Management Alert Newsletter - September 2012
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Excellence can start with great leaders, but it is ultimately accomplished by great followers. Just as in sports, the coach can select the players and set the strategy, but the players ultimately win or lose the game. Coaching is the most effective way a leader can help a follower improve their performance. Without improved performance, excellence is just another item on the organizational wish list. The greatness of leaders and organizations begins when the leaders realize it is not about them, but about the people.

The first problem with getting leaders to coach is usually that they have no formal training in people skills. Most leaders are experts at managing money or machines or technology and have to learn late in the game the importance of the human element. However, in today's age of high tech and global markets, the people part of the formula is where there is the most room to move toward excellence.

The second barrier to coaching is that many leaders have tried and failed. This is due to the fact that many models of performance coaching simply have the wrong starting point. If you walk out on the shop floor and start "evaluating" worker's performance, you are doomed from the start. Such efforts quickly become a matter of the leader's opinion of good performance vs. the worker's opinion of good performance. The most effective way to make coaching work is to start with an agreement on improvement targets. It is critical to not try to correct too much at once. Sometimes it is wise to start with only one issue. Once you agree to try to improve something, feedback and coaching conversations have a context in which they work very well. It is not my opinion vs. your opinion; it is, "Yes, you did it! Good work!" or, "I am concerned. Why did you not do it this time?"

Another key to success is the wording of that last part: "...why did you not do it this time?" It is critical to understand that people often do things for a reason and that, if you don't change the reason, you might not change the behavior. Sub-standard or at-risk behaviors are often influenced by organizational factors leaders don't discover until after poor performance or accidents occur. Good coaching can proactively discover these influences and help align the organizational factors that shape and impact human behavior to positively reinforce excellence.

Great leaders realize that their true greatness is not going to be in their own performance, but in the performance of their team. They quit trying to just be a great leader and start working on leading great people. In other words, they become coaches.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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