Serving up the Sandwich Technique: Getting to the meat of the matter helps everyone stay on course

July 1, 2006

Enlightened executives help their people correct course and work through roadblocks. Just be careful to avoid coming off like Judge Judy, CEO. In other words, give feedback that's welcomed rather than dreaded.

Like the time Regional Manager Brad Burley and I drove north a few hours to Duluth, Minn., to inspect a store. It took all of 10 minutes to understand that the store manager was just skating by. I was more than a little disappointed, in both Brad and the manager. "To his credit," Brad recalled, "Tom didn't take it out on the manager -- that was my job. He chose to have the coaching moment with me."

Brad and I walked to a gas station across the street, grabbed something to drink, and planned the next move.

"First," Brad recalled, "Tom looked me in the eye and said, 'You're too good to allow this to happen.' Then, before we covered what I needed to do, he talked through everything I was doing right."

Before leaving, I made sure Brad was in the right frame of mind. "Hey," I said, "you can do better and you will do better because you've shown me you can. Don't let this guy get away with it."

Hammering away at how Brad had screwed up would have left him wallowing in negativity, unable to think clearly and creatively. Instead, a positive spin left him fired up and on top of his game. Today, Brad uses the same M.O. with his managers -- and his family.


"When I'm upset with my kids," said Brad, "the first thing I tell them is how great they are and how much I love them. Then I single out the specific behavior that isn't acceptable. I look them straight in the eye when I'm doing it. I learned that from Tom."

Timely feedback reminds people what's expected of them and redirects them when they stray off course. In this installment of Business Insight, we'll focus on how to deliver corrective criticism and how to conduct regular, one-on-one sessions. Now, mind you, structured feedback doesn't lift your obligation for quick, floor-coaching critiques whenever opportunity knocks -- both on what an employee is doing well and on what I call NTIs (needs-to-improve areas). Don't worry about overkill. Artfully delivered repetition is the backbone of effective coaching. It can take months to change habits, so be that broken record. Human nature demands it.

The Sandwich Technique

As a consultant, I'm often running into leaders who are wildly inconsistent with reprimands. They manage to restrain themselves when someone makes a huge mistake, only to erupt later over a penny-ante infraction. That's when you see employees shaking their heads (or muttering, "What a psycho"). Well, that was me back in my seat-of-the-pants days. I didn't hesitate to light into employees who had messed up and hurt the company. But, I'm embarrassed to say, I blew my fuse over lesser offenses just as often. It was classic "React in haste, regret in leisure" behavior. Why the outbursts? Running a growing company made me feel like I was saddled up on a bucking bronco, holding on for dear life. Patience was a luxury I could ill afford.

In time, thankfully, I got a better grip. Instead of breaking people's spirits, I learned to make them soar. How? By serving up the Sandwich Technique, which slides the meat of the matter between two slices of organic praise. Don't forget that you're in continual coaching mode. That means every matter on the coaching continuum is in play, from job performance to co-worker interactions to the employee's state of mind.


Sandwiching looks like this:

A positive slice. Ask the employee if she's open to hearing a concern. Look her in the eye to establish intimacy and trust. Smile and pay her a bona fide compliment: "Sally, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the care you put into your work."

The meat of the matter. Ask a question or two about the issue at hand to get her take on it. Then, focus on your feelings and what you see rather than her behavior. Telling her she screwed up only backs her into a corner, whereas telling her how you feel about what she did may produce a more cooperative response. People can't help but relate to how you feel; they can't relate to getting smacked upside the head. Remember, egos are fragile. The second you sense a defense mechanism kicking in, clarify that you're talking about something she did, and that you're not evaluating her net human worth: "This has nothing to do with who you are, Sally. You know we value you and care about you very much. This is strictly a performance issue." If you can't resolve the issue on the spot, agree on when she'll get back to you with recommendations.

A positive slice. Sprinkle on a complimentary condiment: "Overall, Sally, you're doing a super job. Thanks for your efforts." Now, if you have a boss and you're concern is with something he did, you need to close with something like, "Thanks for listening, Jim. It's great to be able to talk candidly about these things." This final step can mean the difference between leaving someone elated, deflated, or just plain mad.

Taste tip: Take the bite out of the Sandwich from time to time. If you habitually follow up praise with a helping of corrective criticism, people will develop a Pavlovian response, and wince whenever a compliment escapes your lips. (Oh-oh, here comes the meat of the matter!) That's counterproductive any way you slice it. (I can vouch that the praise-criticism-praise habit is hard to break; it was on my NTI list for years.) Avoid that syndrome by throwing out plenty of standalone high-fives and way-to-go's.


Going one-on-one

"No excuses," I told Ron, a client who runs a Midwestern manufacturing firm. "Meet one-on-one every single week with every employee who reports to you." His eyes bulged and he sputtered, "Where am I going to find that kind of time? I've got a business to run. Besides, I already talk to people dozens of times a day." One of the most common blunders leaders make, I told him, is believing that office drop-ins and hallway encounters are tantamount to regular one-on-ones. To cement my point, I rattled off some face-to-face benefits:

* Clears fog from mission-critical projects and speeds problem solving.

* Shows you value your people by fitting them in your demanding schedule.

* Straightens the paths of misguided workers.

* Deepens connections and loyalty between you and your people.

* Prevents brushfires and saves time and money by nipping mistakes in the bud.

* Produces prepared employees geared toward weekly project check-ins.

* Speeds the idea-to-implementation cycle.

* Reduces interruptions by delaying minor questions until the next meeting.

* Unearths deeper issues through open-ended questions and big-picture thinking.

* Sharpens minds and boosts confidence of employees through focused coaching time.


The meetings can be held weekly or every other week, and last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the employee's responsibilities and performance. The agenda is simple and direct.

Check in. Kick things off by asking how things are in general. Every three or four weeks, also ask how he feels about his job. Keeping tabs on an employee's state of mind yields clues about whether he's ready for a new challenge or position. Tapping into feelings also provides a window into wellness issues that could affect performance.

Review tasks. Next, review the employee's Goals Activity Report. It tracks projects related to the operating plan, plus other tasks added throughout the year. Each goal is listed along with its status and three due dates -- rough draft, final draft, implementation. Career and behavioral goals are also listed (often without due dates) to keep awareness high. The Goals Activity Report -- either as a hard copy or a spreadsheet attachment to an e-mail -- should be available at your request.

The Goals Activity Report is an effective way to track all the moving pieces that propel your business. Wayne Shimer, who headed up a few divisions for us, swore by it. He also at times swore at it. "Everybody was plowing full speed ahead," said Wayne. "We all had 135 things on our plate. Then Tom would go on what we called 'a ride' -- visiting some stores. I don't care what region he rode in, we had to have a meeting when he came back. He'd have a million need-to-do's, all broken out by category. One by one, they'd hit somebody's Goals Activity Report for follow-up, and suddenly we'd all have 175 things to do."

After Tires Plus was sold, Wayne brought the report to his new company. "It absolutely works," said Wayne. "It shows me very quickly what each person needs from me and how they respond to priorities and timelines. Bottom line, it will make them better. They may not know it today, but they'll know it tomorrow."


Keep hot projects moving. For each high-priority project, ask six questions (varying the phrasing to keep them fresh):

1. How do you see yourself proceeding?

2. What roadblocks do you anticipate?

3. How do you plan to hurdle those roadblocks?

4. What do you need from others to be successful?

5. What do you need from me?

6. When do you expect to complete this? (Verify -- and, if necessary, adjust -- the three due dates listed.)

Tackle any project-specific NTIs. Another deadline has come and gone? Zero in: "We've talked about the importance of meeting deadlines on urgent projects, and you've missed the last three due dates. What's happening, Joe? You're generally on time." The gravity of your reaction depends on:

* the project's importance;

* the project's timeframe;

* how close the project is to completion;

* the number of warnings you've given;

* the employee's record for hitting deadlines;

* the employee's level of denial.


With each project, be generous with compliments for progress made. If he's enthusiastic about a particular assignment, encourage his passion. Wrap up this section with a dollop of praise: "It's nice to have someone on the team who's so diligent, Joe. I'm impressed with how you collected and summarized everyone's input on the new campaign."

Throughout the process, avoid yes-no questions. Open-ended questions like "What do you suggest?" give the mind room to roam and nudge him along until he arrives at his own solutions. Answer any monosyllabic responses by digging deeper. For example, if your question, "How do you feel about this project?" is met with, "Good," ask, "Good in what way?"

Feedback. Ask for questions or concerns. If he says nothing comes to mind, prompt him: "What would you do differently if you were in charge?" You may have to resort to prying him open: "C'mon, I know you can give me three things you'd like to see different around here." It's the rare employee who wouldn't enjoy tweaking the status quo.

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.