Return to Table of Contents

Management by Coaching

Jumpstarting performance one person at a time

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

You've inevitably met them in your career—the high-energy, hyper-efficient, hard-charging, self-motivated individuals who seem to succeed regardless of where they work or whom they work for. Perhaps you are one of them yourself. But if you're responsible for managing others, you've learned that most of us aren't that self-contained. We need a healthy dose of encouragement, challenge, support and accountability to perform at our highest level.

Here are six simple, but powerful coaching questions you can use to help keep your people performing at their best.

1. What's your number one priority? One of the greatest challenges to peak performance is distraction from the real work to be done. People tend to get lost in the sheer volume of "stuff" coming across their desks—e-mails from carriers, renewal paperwork, calls from clients, staff meetings, problems to resolve, requests from co-workers. The job becomes more about managing the volume and less about doing the meaningful work.

The perceived crisis of the moment always seems to take priority. That is because of the way our brains are wired. The more primitive parts of our brain keep us hyper alert to signs of threat—but only immediate threats. At the same time, we're powerfully pulled to immediate gratification, even if it's undermining our own long-term well-being.

In the real world, that's why so many business people are more compelled to start the day by reviewing e-mail rather than tackling the high priority work. Based on how our brain works, e-mail is compelling. E-mail is an early warning system to our primitive brains of where the threats are—the client or co-worker who has an issue, a note from the carrier rejecting that tough account you've been trying to place, a notice from your lead company that they are raising rates 14%. At the same time, e-mail is immediate gratification. In a complex world where it often feels like it takes forever to get things accomplished, quickly processing 30 e-mails is something we can easily finish and tick off the "to do" list.

It's inherent in our human nature to get caught up in the "stuff." We are myopically short-term in our perspective even when it means sabotaging our own success. That's where you come in as a coach. Help your people stay focused by routinely asking what their number one priority is. If their pattern is concentrating on the latest perceived crisis, challenge them to shift their thinking and reconnect to what is really important in their job.

2. What have you accomplished here that you're most proud of? This question works on two levels. First, it helps you surface what really motivates the individual. This is critical because what motivates one person is not necessarily what motivates another. As managers, we're too quick to rely on standbys like money, titles and awards. Knowing what gives an employee a sense of pride and fulfillment is fundamental to helping them perform at their highest level.

Second, the question, "What are you most proud of?" encourages reflection. One of the things I've learned in coaching insurance professionals is that most don't slow down long enough to zero in on what motivates them or to acknowledge their accomplishments. Helping people savor and reflect on what they view as their successes reconnects them to what they love about the job. It also builds confidence and the strength and resilience people need to get through the tough times.

3. What do you need to be doing more of? People usually don't need to be told what they need to do more of— they intuitively know. The key is to get them to slow down, step back and really think about it. You will find the question is well worth the couple of extra minutes it takes. There is infinitely more power in bringing people to their own conclusion about what they need to do than simply telling them.

Once a person acknowledges what they need to do more of in order to improve their effectiveness, support her in the process. Ask her to identify a specific step she will take to make the change happen; then diary a regular "check-in" to see how it's going. When you follow up, you show that you care and that the change the person is trying to make is important.

When someone knows you are paying attention, they are more apt to follow through on their commitment to change.

4. What one new skill or area of expertise would you like to acquire? Recent research conducted by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business looked at the key factors for sustaining individual and organizational performance. One of the two key factors was the learning that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills.

When the work doesn't give a person the opportunity to learn, it's just the same thing over and over again. Continuously challenging individuals to learn is a way to keep them thriving in their job. Think beyond the technical insurance training required to maintain licenses and certifications. Learning a new skill can make a familiar job feel fresh and interesting. Building expertise in a particular industry can give a sales professional a new level of credibility and thus a competitive edge. Exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking gets a person "out of her box" and can provide a different perspective on the best ways to get work done.

Learning something new stimulates the brain and it boosts confidence. It sets a virtuous cycle in motion. A person who is continually developing his or her abilities is likely to believe in the potential for further growth.

5. What's the one thing you need to stop doing? In today's demanding and competitive business environment, the pressure to keep up is relentless. As a result, more and more gets loaded onto our plates. There is a tipping point at which the load becomes a drag on performance. Important things are left undone, details fall through the cracks, the work product becomes mediocre, stress levels build-up, and people skills break down.

As bosses, we're skilled at encouraging people to take on more. If you want to improve performance, help people learn how to "clear their plates" so they have the time and space to focus on what is most important. The question, "What is the one thing you need to stop doing?"­­­ is a great way to get a person to pay attention to how he is squandering valuable time and energy.

6. How can I support you? Once you have a sense of the person's priorities, what motivates him, the areas in which he wants to change or grow, be clear about the supporting role you can play in helping him succeed. Be careful not to assume you know the answer, ask. Like motivation, the right type of support depends on the individual. For one individual, the support may be more mentoring; another individual may need you to trust them enough to let go. The point is everyone you manage needs your support in some way.

It's been said that people don't quit companies, they quit bosses. When it comes to your people's commitment to work and performing at their highest level, you make a difference.

When you know what motivates your people, help them see their value, keep them focused and accountable and create an environment that fosters continued learning, your people and business will thrive.

The author

Kimberly Paterson is a business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (, where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, customer insight and leadership skills to energize people and achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at


Click thumbnail below to launch
story in our Flip Book edition

page page




Return to Table of Contents