The coach approach: Enlightened leadership which is heavy on praise inspires employees to do their best

March 1, 2006

Seat-of-the-pantsers often shake their heads and moan, "Man, I just don't know how to deal with these attitude problems." It's difficult for many managers to realize that it takes more than raw wits or charisma to inspire employees.

Whether they're big-shot execs at a Fortune 500 firm or unpaid interns at a nonprofit, people won't run through walls for you unless you've forged some sort of emotional connection. Never forget the essence of enlightened leadership:

People make decisions emotionally and justify them intellectually.

My dad preached the virtue of empathy for as long as I can recall. His example was poignantly illustrated by Louis Schmidt, my dad's platoon officer in World War II. "When Bill came in as first lieutenant, he was a breath of fresh air because we got somebody who really cared about the guys," Louis said, pausing to compose himself, "more than he cared about himself." Never forget: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Motivation isn't like a baggy sweatshirt -- one size doesn't fit all. Your challenge is to discover what motivates each and every member of your team. For Adam, it may be money. For Erin, recognition. Jim thrives on meaningful work. Shelly's been trying to expand her power base. Ethan loves the thrill of solving a challenge. Nate wants to be in on decisions. Sure, it takes some effort on your part, but you can't melt somebody's butter until you know which burner to fire up.

Seat-of-the-pantsers are typically either Type A (dictator-hard-driving, self-centered, gets results but leaves a trail of human debris) or Type B (doormat-passive, people pleaser, tolerates less productivity). Enlightened leaders --let's call them Type E -- produce uncommon, sustainable results through firm, but caring, leadership coupled with efficient business practices. Type E leaders are ever alert and nurturing. They leverage intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being to deepen connections and inspire achievement.

The good news is, Type E leadership is contagious. The more you act like an enlightened executive, the more likely you are to infect employees with the Type E bug. Symptoms include decisive movements, a sparkle in the eye, a spring in the step. You know you're getting a great return on invested leadership when the weekly one-on-one meetings with your people become shorter and shorter. Their need for hand-holding diminishes as their energy and capabilities expand.


Enlightened executives are at the service of their employees. That means that personnel development ranks up there with locking up the store at night. When people sense you've got their best interests at heart they'll rise to the occasion, if only to justify your confidence in them. Novelist Hermann Hesse illustrated the service-leadership connection in "Journey to the East," in which a humble servant in a mystical organization is revealed to be the group's wise and exalted leader.

The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale University, called leadership "the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style." Allow me to build on that. Enlightened leadership demands the vision that inspires followers, the values that earn their trust, and the vitality to march them to the promised land. With all three in place, a leader is like a lantern that lights the road, beckoning, "Come, follow me."

Who do you manage?

Seat-of-the-pantsers, burn four words into your consciousness: Manage things, coach people. Manage people impersonally and they'll resent being treated like cogs in a machine. Coach them individually and they'll flourish. It's your choice -- your people will either get bitter or better.

What kind of coaching are we talking about? A Lamaze childbirth coach comes to mind. Or a golf or tennis coach. Someone who stays close to the action, offers tips, and patiently corrects technique. Good coaches are incurable optimists. They view people as unique human beings, each capable of greatness. They care about their employees and accept responsibility for their professional development. They ask insightful questions and nudge people to craft their own solutions. Enlightened coaching is the best way to fend off the inertia that's enveloping today's workplace like sleeping gas.

Is the shift from managing to coaching easy? Depends. If you're a kinetic, hard-nosed boss, the kind of guy who's convinced that, dammit, a regular paycheck is all the motivation employees need, then no, it's going to be a grind. And you'll only make things worse if you apply these principles without buying into them. People can smell insincerity a mile away.

With the right attitude, anyone can become a good coach. Soon after Scott McPhee joined us as regional manager, we relocated him to Iowa, our first market outside Minnesota. We had big expansion plans, and a lot was riding on the 12 stores down there. Trouble was, a lot of Iowans were riding on tires purchased somewhere other than Tires Plus. Scott struggled, big time. He had been a hard-driving regional manager elsewhere, but his my-way-or-the-highway style wasn't in sync with our culture. "I was working long hours," Scott recalled, "but things were spiraling out of control."

Scott was a systematic guy, but a poor listener. "I didn't pay much attention to what others thought," he admitted. "I always got results by ordering employees around, but that starts to wear on people pretty quickly. The store managers I was overseeing actually started working against me instead of with me." Moribund sales and high turnover signaled me it was time to pay Scott a call.


A stand-up guy, he admitted he was in over his head. I urged him again to coach rather than manage, to get to know his team and learn what made them tick. Ask more questions, I said. Partner with people instead of laying down the law. Then, Eureka! "I finally got it," Scott said. "I realized I had to transition from preaching to teaching. Instead of telling people what to do I had to inspire them to do it."

Scott went right to work and scheduled a weekly team meeting for his dozen managers, some of whom had to drive halfway across the state to attend. He kicked off the meetings with news and small talk, then coached his managers on coaching each other. "Immediately, everything changed," Scott said, "beginning with the camaraderie. They started helping each other, sharing best practices, and putting their heads together on recruiting and staffing. They got really excited about working as a team, and looked forward to each week's meeting." A few months later, Scott was back on course. Sales shot up. Turnover dropped. Three years later, Scott was promoted to vice president of retail operations.

Good coaches also know that leading is more important than doing. You may be clocking Wall Street hours on your own projects. But if you aren't also coaching your people to maximize their potential, you're perpetuating a seat-of-the-pants culture. Devote more of your time to inspiring and educating the people who report to you. Monitor, recognize and applaud their progress. Otherwise, employees will feel you're oblivious to their hard work. They'll think, "Why should I knock myself out? I'll just do enough to get by. Nobody will notice anyway." That leads to -- you guessed it -- lots more work for you. Worse, you'll have further proof that if you want something done right, you'll have to do it yourself.

I learned this lesson firsthand from observing one of my Shell Oil dealers in Chicago. Roger was one of the smartest guys I knew. He also was the most frenzied. Every time I stopped by, he was working his tail off while his employees pretty much stood around and watched. I remember thinking, "There's a management lesson if ever I saw one." I wasn't surprised a few years later when I heard Roger had gone out of business.

More doing and less leading may work temporarily in a start-up or small business unit. But the problem grows exponentially as more people come on board, particularly if new employees aren't self-starters. The sooner you embrace the coach approach, the sooner your company will be flying on its own.


Go ahead, make their day

There simply wasn't anyone better than Dorie Thrall, my executive assistant at Tires Plus. She was smart, quick and dogged. She knew when I needed help before I even knew I needed help. One morning I called her into my office. "Dorie," I said, "I just wanted to tell you I think you're doing a super job."

For 10 minutes I rambled on about her skills, dedication and cheerfulness. Her efforts meant a great deal to me personally and professionally, and I told her so. The odd thing was that Dorie, with her Minnesota stoicism, just sat there, occasionally nodding her head. All-in-all she looked rather blase about the whole thing, as if I was giving a blow-by-blow account of everything I'd eaten over the weekend.

That's okay, I remember thinking, I just want to make sure she knows how much I appreciate her contributions.

Later, Dorie's teammates told a different story. One stopped me in the hallway. "What did you say to Dorie?" he said. "She's beaming from ear to ear and telling everyone about all the compliments you paid her."

Don't give people your attention just when they're screwing up. Add some drive-by praising into the mix. When you notice what they're doing well, your constructive criticism will then be heard in the spirit in which it's given. They'll think, "My boss is a good guy and he's always fair, so if he's got something to say I wanna hear it."

Praise sticks when it's personal. Extend the life of your compliment by naming who the smooth moves helped, and why you appreciate it so much. Then wrap up the praise package with a heartfelt thank you. Everyone likes to hear "Hey, nice work." But to leave a tattoo-like impression, try, "Wow, heck of a job. That really helped the team and our customers. Thanks for caring enough to make it happen."

If nothing revs an employee's motivational motor like positive strokes, why are bosses so miserly about rationing them out? (A recent Gallup Poll showed that 65% of workers had received zero recognition for good work in the preceding year.) I've rounded up seven of the usual suspects. The seven deadly sins of executive excuses:

1) Not enough time. Baloney. It takes 10 seconds to light someone's afterburners. All you have to do is pay attention to what, and who, is right in front of you.

2) They're just meeting expectations. Seat-of-the-pantsers think, "What, I'm supposed to congratulate people for doing what I pay them to do?" Yes, if you want those results to be repeated, if not eclipsed, and you don't want employees jumping ship. And don't wait till they cross the finish line. If someone graduates from 70% of goal to 78% of goal, hey, that's reason to celebrate. My motto was, "If you're not performing, you better be trending!"


3) Too touchy-feely. The sad truth is that relating to an employee on anything resembling a personal level is foreign to many seat-of-the-pantsers. To give someone a genuine compliment, you've got to connect, one human being to another. No disrespect, but if something's preventing you from doing that, deal with it.

4) I get no reaction. As I found out with Dorie, extolling an employee's virtues may elicit deadpan looks, but the praise still makes a huge impact. Tell a child how wonderful he is and he beams. That joy doesn't fade as we get older; many of us are just too uptight to express it in front of an authority figure.

5) Don't wanna overdo it. Ever hear of somebody overdosing on compliments? Have you ever been fed up with too many? Our appetite for praise is bottomless. The operative word here is "genuine." Don't bother setting a weekly compliment quota; employees will see right through it.

6) Gotta hold onto power. It takes a strong ego to lift up somebody else's. Too many seat-of-the-pantsers play one-upmanship with rules that assume "If I acknowledge how good you are, I mustn't be as good, but if I'm putting you down I feel better about myself." Such zero-sum thinking is both disturbing and destructive.

7) I'll pay for it. Let's get this straight. You think keeping your mouth shut will dissuade people from thinking better of themselves, and thus be less likely to ask for more money? Again, baloney. Motivated people perform better. That leads to a healthier culture, higher morale, and higher profits. The real cost is in not dishing out praise.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom's warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team's relentless focus on customer service, the company's turnover rate ranked among the industry's lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. It can be ordered on the home page.

Gegax can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).
About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.