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Coaching and Contented Cows

By Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden*

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

How does one organization achieve sustained success while a seemingly identical competitor is struggling? Consider Southwest Airlines, which has flown above the competition with record revenues and growth for 23 years. Or Wal-Mart. What have they done to beat the pants, T-shirts, and housewares off the other mega-retailers? And what medicine does Johnson & Johnson take to consistently bring impressive returns to its stockholders? You can bet it’s no Band-Aid approach to running a business.

Instead, it’s a vital premeditated element of business strategy, and it deals not with products, marketing, or capital spending, but with people. Regardless of the industry, it’s no accident that the organizations consistently identified as winners in their chosen field also happen to be some of the best places on earth to work.

What’s the connection with Coaching? A survey by New York’s Families and Work Institute asked employees in a wide variety of industries and vocations across the country, "What’s important in your job?" The top ranking answer was "Open Communication". Let’s be clear, coaching is an open communication skill. Good coaches are honest and open, sometimes uncomfortably so, as they build relationships that help people achieve their full potential.

We're not pushing any social or humanitarian cause here, but capitalism at its very best. Or as former FedEx COO and current Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale said when describing the people philosophy at FedEx, "Motivated people move faster!"

Pretty simple concept, huh? So simple, in fact, that the folks at Carnation Milk may have put it best years ago when they suggested on their labels that their milk comes "From Contented Cows". (Go pick up a can of Carnation today, and you’ll see the slogan’s still there.)

A study we conducted on twelve high-profile publicly traded companies shows the stark contrast between the earnings performance of six companies known as great places to work and six less distinguished competitors. The first group, which we call the Contented Cows, outearned their Common Cow counterparts by $40 billion in the ten year period 1986-1995! These companies accomplished this while adding on average 79,000 new jobs per employer; the Common Cows, during this same time period, whacked an average of 61,000 jobs each from the payroll.

We were amazed at the benefits that accrued to the Contented Cow companies and were compelled to find out what behaviors separated them from their common counterparts. We learned that in almost every case, Contented Cow companies were led, from top to bottom, by people who communicate more like coaches and facilitators, and less like managers and bosses.

How do Contented Cow coaches do it? By focusing like a laser on three principles:

1.  Contented Cow companies get their people committed. You can’t boss someone into commitment. Bosses get, at best, compliance; coaches get commitment.  Once, a Coaching seminar participant argued that commitment was no better than compliance. "At the end of the day," he said, "if the person gets the job done, I don’t really care if it’s because he was committed, or he felt he had to. What counts is whether or not the job gets done." He went on to say that for him, in fact, compliance was the only way to go. "I don’t have time for commitment," he said.

To us, the difference between commitment and compliance is a little bit like the difference between trying to grow a garden in a desert, and trying the same in a fertile valley. You can get a garden to grow in a desert, but it takes constant effort. You’ll spend a lot of time trying to grow that garden, and if you work at it hard enough, you will get a garden. Growing a garden in a fertile valley, on the other hand, takes much less vigilant effort. To be sure, you have to nurture it, but the environment does so much of your work for you, that you can go about doing other things while the garden grows and flourishes. And besides, no matter how much work you put into growing the desert garden, it will never be as lush, green, or rich as the garden you grow, with less constant effort, in the fertile valley.

No time for commitment? If you’re trying to lead a group of people to performance excellence, I’d argue that you don’t have time for compliance.

2.  Contented Cow employees know that they are cared about. We didn’t say coddled. But people simply perform better for you when they know you care. What does caring have to do with coaching? Coaching is an intensely personal process. So intensely personal that if you don’t care, you won’t have the moral discipline to do it. If you do care, and you want to show it, coach people on the job, and start by telling them the truth. Even when it hurts. The most uncaring thing you can do, if you’re a manager, is not to tell someone they’re doing a lousy job, and then punish them because they’re doing a lousy job.

3.  Contented Cow employees are enabled. Notice we didn’t say "empowered. Employees are empowered already, by virtue of their jobs, if we would just get off their necks long enough to let them do their jobs. Do you think an airline pilot has to be "empowered" to make an emergency landing if a passenger suffers a heart attack halfway between New York and San Francisco? A good coach provides this enablement by giving people at least three things:

A.  Tools.  That means both equipment and systems... especially systems. Do you tell people it’s important to do something, and make it nigh unto impossible for them to do it? We know of a company that was concerned about its salespeople’s expense accounts. So they decreed that, to save the company money, all expensed meals would have to be accompanied by a credit card receipt. No more honor system; no more cash register receipts. Their northeast district experienced a huge jump in travel expenses as a result, not to mention a noticeable drop in the number of calls they were able to make to prospects and customers. Their salespeople had been catching a $2 hot dog between appointments most days when working Manhattan, but now, were forced, by an incredibly dumb system, to have lunch everyday in a sit-down restaurant that takes credit cards…or go hungry, or pay for it themselves. Dumb stuff! Do a careful audit of the operational systems in place in your company. Get rid of all the "dumb" systems encumbering your workers, and do it soon!

B.  Trust.  You’ll get what you expect to get. Coaches expect a lot, because they’re clear about roles, expectations, and performance. If you need a policy manual as thick as the Los Angeles phonebook, you’ve got the wrong people. Get rid of them, and the rulebook. Train them and coach them to make the right decisions. Nordstrom, the Seattle-based department store, has built a legendary reputation for phenomenal customer service. Their "employee handbook" is the size of a postcard. Their managers are coaches.

C.  Training.  And don’t cut training when profits slump. No one ever dug out of an earnings hole by "dumbing down" their workforce. Every good coach knows it’s much better to coach a crack team of experts than to boss a bunch of people who are at best confused, and worse, confounded, about what it is they’re supposed to actually do to gain success in whatever their field happens to be.

Competition these days is tougher than ever. Technology, capital spending, and restructuring alone will not lead to the promised land. The highest return from your investment in people comes from getting them committed, caring about them, and providing what they need to do their best work. Good coaches do these things constantly. If you do them, chances go up that you’ll attract the gems of your industry, and become one of the best, and most profitable, places on earth to work.

* Authors of Contented Cows Give Better Milk: the Plain Truth About Employee Relations and Your Bottom Line. 1998, Saltillo Press, Germantown, TN. ISBN 1-890651-04-4

Contact Matt Starcevich at
Copyright 1999, Center for Coaching & Mentoring, Inc., update: November 26, 2012